‘‘The eye cannot say to the ear, “I have no need of you”’: biblical critics and dogmaticians in dialogue
Whilst there certainly remains a place for a full-blown treatment of the topic at hand, the purpose of this brief paper is considerably more modest: to contribute some thoughts to a round-table discussion by a handful of folk concerned with the intercourse between biblical studies and dogmatic theology.
While it has not always been so and, indeed, is a relatively recent phenomenon, the legacy of separation between biblical and dogmatic theology is, sadly, both deep seated and profound. In the right corner, weighing more pounds than I care to guess, many dogmaticians have become suspicious of biblical exegetes, accusing them of a lack of theological grounding. While in the left corner, biblical exegetes, weighing just as many pounds, share a suspicion of dogmaticians and their projects, accusing them of a lack of careful precision in handling sacred texts.
Occasionally, one of these fighters remembers why they are really there and ventures to leave the corner and move closer to the centre of the ring, much to the disdain of most of the crew in both corners. Some, however, cheer on quietly (and I suspect that there is a great cloud of witnesses cheering them on) sensing that what is going on here might be akin to the very reason they joined their team in the first place. But they are usually too nervous to go that way themselves, frightened of being accused not merely of selling out their team, but also of neglecting to take with them some of their teams most valuable weapons. Indeed, some don’t even want to wear the obligatory gloves.
As the clock ticks down, and the inevitable dead end approaches, the two groups decide that it might all be too difficult and bloody to engage one another at this time. So, whilst agreeing that it would be good to ‘get together sometime’, for now the Scriptures can be left to the exegetes domain, whilst the dogmaticians are left to pursue themes more philosophical. In this all too common scenario, both teams loose, and the one body (the Church) that they both exist to serve loses the help that it has every right to expect from both teams.
In the past, that one body was given people who could command both disciplines. I am thinking of scholar-pastors like Luther and Calvin. The latter wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, gave himself to their exposition, and also wrote a little theological work called The Institutes of the Christian Religion so that ‘new Christians’ would have an interpretative lens through which to understand his commentaries.
Whilst both biblical and dogmatic theology share the task of expounding the Church’s Scriptures, and, more specifically the Scripture’s Gospel, for the Church, they do so from different corners of the ring. Nevertheless, the aim of both ‘teams’ ought to be complimentary – to give the best and clearest illumination of the Gospel to which the Scriptures bear witness, returning again and again to the witness of Scripture in light of the subject matter, and of speaking to and with the Church the Bible’s Gospel according to the inner logic of its own content and purpose.
While I concur with something of the spirit of what is being offered, I do not think that the assertion that ‘dogmatic theology begins with the results of biblical theology … [trusting] biblical theology to provide the basic orientation to the true subject matter of scripture’ is good enough. Biblical theologians need to do some work in dogmatics, turning to the theological meta-narrative of the Scripture’s Gospel and to the Church’s Creeds to inform their work, and biblical dogmaticians ought to keep returning to and mining the Scriptures to inform and provide a ‘rule’ for their projects. For dogmaticians to refuse the insights of the biblical critics is to refuse ‘light from heaven. The critics have done wonders not only for particular passages, but for our construction of the whole Bible and its historic atmosphere. They have, in certain respects, made a new book of it, and in a sense have saved it.’ Here I believe Adolf Schlatter and Karl Barth have both provided different models for us worthy of emulation. Not only were they both consciously seeking to serve the Church in its proclamation, but their respective corpora betray page after page of solid exegetical homework. I lament that many (certainly not all) of Barth’s students, and their successors, have not followed in their doktorvater’s footsteps here and have too quickly moved to begin where Barth started, bypassing the work he did to get there. Because of this, I contend, they are of less service to the Church and its preaching than Barth is.
Theology is the study of God, and it is only possible because of God. More specifically it is possible because God has chosen to reveal not merely things about himself, (and about the creation), but because he has revealed himself. God has not chosen to prove or commend himself. Rather, his self-revelation is primarily confrontation, and in that confrontation we are saved. The Scriptures bear witness to this divine activity. They seek neither to prove nor to justify God. They bear witness to his existence and activity. God is always at work, and he cannot reveal himself without revealing his intentions and his telos for the creation. This he does in his Son. We know this because the Scriptures bear witness to this, and because the Scripture’s Author (the Holy Spirit) has ‘read’ the Scriptures to us, and continues to do so.
Returning to the image of the boxing ring, I assert that both teams are called to read the Scriptures with their Author, and with their Author’s intention in mind, in a perichoretic movement of giving and receiving, with a common call of aiding the Church to proclaim the Bible’s message to itself and to the world and to apply the Bible’s message to the issues of contemporary life in accordance with the canon of faith. That’s why the image of the boxing ring may be a particularly unhelpful one. In reality, what we are called to be engaged in is being something more akin to a football team, where defenders, midfielders and attackers all bring their own unique skills to the game, as well as rely on the skills of their team mates to play well, and hopefully win the game – as a team. The skills required are different. The questions and ways of thinking are different. But the aim ought to be a common one – to play well as a team and, hopefully, win the game, i.e. fulfill the task that God has given these gifts to the Church to fulfill. In this hermeneutical spiral, that is, as the ball is passed around the field, not least by the other team as well, the Church hears afresh the words of God and is given confidence to proclaim that word with boldness. Of course, part of the difficulty is that defenders and attackers are playing by different rules and, too often, playing entirely different games. Sometimes the midfielders, respecting both sets of their teammates, try to hold it together, with various levels of success.
Recently, Frank Thielman has reminded us of the difference between the NT theologian and the secular historian:
Whereas both the New Testament theologian and the secular historian are interested in the history to which the canonical text give access, they differ on the importance that they grant to the perspectives of the texts themselves. Historians who stand outside the church employ every means at their disposal to render the perspectives of the canonical texts inoperative in their thinking. The texts then provide the raw data with which the secular historian attempts to reconstruct the story of early Christianity according to another perspective. The New Testament theologians, however, through the basic insight of faith, want to embrace the perspectives of the texts on the events that provoked their composition. The perspectives of the texts on the history of early Christianity are not husks to be peeled away so that the historian might see more clearly. They are not merely historical data that provide information about early Christian religion. For New Testament theologians who regard the texts as authoritative, the perspectives of the texts speak of their true significance. They are, in other words, objects of faith.
Peter Taylor Forsyth gives even stronger voice to this theme:
It is the gospel that must save the Church and its beliefs – yea, even the Bible. It is not these that save the gospel. The historic Cross is saving us from much in the historic Church. The historic gospel saved everything at the Reformation. It saved the Church from itself, and it must go on doing so. We must not come to the gospel with the permission of the critics, but tocriticism in the power of the Gospel. Faith does not wait upon criticism, but it is an essential condition of it. The complete critic is not a mere inquirer, but a believer. It was to believers, and not to critics, I repeat, that the things appealed which are criticised most, likethe Resurrection. Critical energy is only just and true in the hands of a Church whose heartis full of evangelical faith. The passion of an apostolic missionary faith is an essential condition to a scientific criticism both sound and safe. By sound I do not mean sound to the confessions, but to the mind. And by safe I do not mean safe for the Church, but safe for the soul. I mean that faith in the gospel, evangelical faith, is essential for that view of the whole case upon which sound results are based. It is essential in order to be fair to all the phenomena. It must enter in not to decide whether we accept proved results, but to decide the results we are to count proved. Faith is not only an asset which criticism must include in its audit; it is an organ that criticism must use. The eye cannot say to the ear, ‘I have no need of thee’.
The dogmatician wishes to assert that, as the past quality and the present power of the Revelation which enables us to discern between truth and falsehood, faith is essential to sound criticism. And that faith gives rise to theology. Faith is neither the same as theology, nor does it depend on theology. Rather, both faith and theology are dependent on one thing, the same thing, God. But faith’s speaking, confession and communication, demands theology. Faith wants to express itself, it wants to worship, confess and witness. It wants to be heard. Dogmatics desires that the faith mined by biblical critics in the passages of the Bible be verbalised meaningfully, intelligibility, and faithfully to the Church, and through the Church to the world. Again, Forsyth offers us a warning here:
There are too many people working on problems for the number that are concerned about the soul and its task, whether in a man or an age. It might be well that people were less occupied with the problems of the text if they were more with the problem of themselves and their kind. What we need most is not intellectual certainty but evangelical, not scientific history but history impressive, creative, teleological. And that is why one turns away for a time, however gratefully, from the scholars to the theologians, from the critics, work upon the New Testament to the believers work upon the Gospel.
As important as ‘systematic’ theology is, too often the score is set by non-apostolic musicians, and so even if the jazz-theologians wish to move away from the score and improvise on the theme, it is the theme itself that really sets the tone. And as vital as biblical criticism is for the service of the Church, its very methodology often seems to deal out any sustained engagement with supra-historical questions, or to even raise the question of the significance of its own findings in the broader canonical and extra-canonical sphere. This has led to the futile error of trying to reconstruct lives of the historical Jesus. Has biblical criticism forgotten why it exists – to witness to faith’s historicity, and ‘to help the Church to hear in all clarity the contingent reality of the early Church’s witness to the kerygmatic Christ’? Yeago is right to assert that ‘historical research is propaedeutic to the real theological-exegetical task … and it will not fare well if it is not pursued by the means proper to theological reflection.’
Biblical exegetes perform an invaluable function. They help us to ‘disengage the kernel from the husk, to save the time so often lost in the defence of outposts, and to discard obsolete weapons and superfluous baggage’. However,
The critical treatment of the Bible must have its place. Let us not make fools of ourselves by denying it. We shall be fighting against God and resisting the spirit. It arises out of the sound principle of interpreting the Bible by itself … But its place is secondary, ancillary. It has little place in a pulpit. Criticism is the handmaid of the gospel – downstairs. The critical study of Scripture is at its best, and the higher criticism is at its highest, when it passes from being analytic and becomes synthetic. And the synthetic principle in the Bible is the gospel.
Here Forsyth gives voice to the essential truth that the highest standard of criticism that we must apply to the Bible is not that of higher criticism, but of the Gospel itself. As Hunter put it, ‘What we have in the Bible is sacramental history, history with a drift – the drift of God’s ongoing purpose of grace, prefigured in the Old Testament, and consummated in the New.’
So how does the Gospel read the Bible? How did Christ use his Bible? On this, a lengthy quote from Forsyth may serve us well:
For we cannot be wrong if we use ours in the same central way. He used it as a means of grace, not as a manual of Hebrew or other history . His business was not to revise the story of the past or disentangle origins, but to reveal and effect the historic grace of God. He used his Bible as an organ of revelation, not of information, for religion and not science – not even for scientific religion. He found in it the long purpose and deep scope of God’s salvation, his many words and deeds of redemption in the experience of the chosen race. He cared nothing for the Bible as the expression of men’s ideas of God. He prized it wholly as the revelation of God’s gracious dealings with men. He cared for events only as they yielded his Father’s grace. He belonged to a race which was not made like other races by an idea of God, but by God’s revelations and rescues. ‘I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’ He did not teach us ideas of God. He was not a sententious sage, full of wise saws or modern instances. He did not move about dropping apophthegms as he made them. He does not even tell us ‘God is love.’ It is an apostle that does that. But he loves the love of God into us. He reveals in act and fact a loving God … He saw the loving God in nature and in history; and within history it was not in what men thought but in what God had done. What he saw was the whole movement of the Old Testament rather than its pragmatic detail. He dwelt lovingly indeed on many a gracious passage, but he found himself in the total witness of Israel’s history as shaped by grace. He cared little for what our scholars expound-the religion of Israel. His work is unaffected by any theories about the Levitical sacrifices. What he lived on was God’s action in his seers, God’s redemption in his mighty deeds, as it rises through the religion of Israel, yea, breaks through it, shakes itself clear even of its better forms, and translates it always to a higher plane. What he found was not the prophets’ thoughts of God, but God’s action in Israel by prophet, priest, or king, God’s invasion of them and their race by words and deeds of gracious power. It was the reality of God’s action on the soul, and in the soul, and for the soul. Above all, it was the exercise and the growth of God’s messianic purpose with the people, and through them on the whole race. It was in a messianic God that he found himself, and found himself God’s Messiah-Son. Abraham! ‘Before Abraham was I am.’ If Abraham ceased would he? And he grasped what his whole age was blind to, the Old Testament witness, deep in its spirit, to a Messiah of the cross. In a word, the torch he carried through the Old Testament was the gospel of grace. He read his Bible not critically, but religiously. He read it with the eyes of faith, not of science; and he found in it not the making of history by men, but the saving of history by God. That is to say he read his Bible as a whole. For he was its whole. And he lived on its gospel as a whole.
From where I sit, biblical and systematic scholarship, often seduced by academia, has largely become a discipline, an academic quest, whose agenda is set by the academy and so is increasingly removed from the practical conditions that pastors and the Church face. In so far as it has allowed this to happen, it has moved itself away from the Scripture’s view of its own function. The NT was written by apostles and pastors who were daily at the coalface with people in their doubt, grief, death, guilt and repentance. No NT writer was condemned to the ‘mere scholars cloistered life’. Their theology was hammered out not from articles and commentaries but on the anvil of existential need. They sought, at every turn, to bring every situation under the scrutiny and grace, not of Scripture, but of Jesus Christ, mindful of the fact that Jesus did not come to preach the Gospel (or the Bible) so much as he came to make a Gospel to preach. As the Apostolic band stood in Jesus Christ in the world’s midst, they were reminded again and again that the Gospel was mighty to deal with any and every issue. They fought and wrote out of this conviction and as people empassioned to make this good news known to the ends of the earth. They did not labour to defend or expound the Scriptures so much as they laboured to defend and expound the Gospel that the Scriptures bear witness to, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. O that exegetes and dogmaticians may do likewise!
Forsyth offers us a list of twenty brief points on the authority over (or source of) the Bible that may serve us well as he gives voice to the truth that the task of biblical exegesis is to serve theology whose task is proclamation of the Gospel which is authoritative for both disciplines.
1. There is something authoritative for the Bible itself.
2. It is not something which comes up to it from without like the scientific methods of the Higher Criticism. To make that supreme would be rationalism.
3. It is something which is in the Bible itself, provided by it, and provided nowhere else. We must go back to the Bible with modern scholarship to find what the Bible goes back to.
4. It is not truths extracted from the Bible and guaranteed by prophecy and miracle. That is the antiquated supernaturalism with its doctrinaire orthodoxy.
5. In a word, that is over the Bible which is over the Church and the Creeds. It is the Gospel of Grace, which produced Bible, Creed, and Church alike. And by the Gospel is meant primarily God’s act of pure Grace for men, and only secondarily the act of men witnessing it for God in a Bible or a Church.
6. The Gospel was an experienced fact, a free, living, preached Word long before it was a fixed and written Word – as was the case also with the prophets.
7. It is not enough to say the authority in the Bible is Christ unless you are clear whether you mean the character of Christ or His Gospel. All admit Christ’s character to be a product of God’s action; is the same true of Christ’s Gospel?
8. To apply the Gospel of Grace as the standard of the Bible is to go higher than the Higher Criticism. It is the highest. The Gospel is not merely the final test of the Bible, but its supreme source; and the Bible is its humble vassal to be treated in any way that best obeys and serves it. The security of the Gospel gives us our critical freedom.
9. The Bible is not merely a record of the revelation. It is part of it. It is more true that God’s great Word contains the Bible than that the Bible contains the Word. The Word in Christ needed exposition by the Bible. The Gospels find their only central interpretation in the Epistles.
10. The Bible is not so much a document as a sacrament. It is not primarily a voucher for the historian but a preacher for the soul. The Christ of the Gospels even is not a biographical Christ, so much as a preached Christ. The Bible is not so much a record of Christ as a record and a part of the preaching about Christ, which was the work of the Spirit and the apostles. There is no real collision between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Epistles. The apostles, and especially Paul, moved by the heavenly Christ, form an essential part of Christ’s revelation of God’s grace.
11. It was a theological Gospel, though not authoritative as dogma but as living, personal revelation. The Christian experience must cast itself more or less in the forms of its historic origin, and not merely in those of human relations and affections. E.g., Christian sonship is not natural, or even spiritual, but evangelical; it is the sonship of adoption. So conversely with the Fatherhood of God.
12. This subordination of the Bible to the Gospel was the relation felt by Jesus Himself. He used His Bible for its Gospel, not for its information – as a means of grace, and not as a manual of Hebrew history. That is, He read His Bible as a whole. He commits us not to the whole Bible but to the Bible as a whole. The Bible is not a compendium of facts, historic or theological, but the channel of redeeming grace. Faith is something more than the historic sense dealing with documents. It is the moral and spiritual sense dealing with revelation as Redemption.
13. The appeal of the Bible is not to the faith of the individual but to that of the whole Church, which is the other great product of the Gospel. My dullness or disbelief does not affect the witness of the saints, classic or common, in every Church and age.
14. In the Church the Bible becomes more than a product of the Word. It is a producer of it in turn. It generates the faith that generated it. As the greatest of preachers it produces preachers. And it is at home only in a Church whose first duty to men is to preach.
15. The detachment of faith from the Bible and from its daily use marks both Romanism and the religiosity of the modern mind.
16. The disuse of the Bible by Christians is due to a vague sense of insecurity rising from critical work on it, and to the extravagant claims made for it which criticism prunes.
17. The Christian creed has really but one article, great with all the rest. It is the Gospel of God’s redeeming Grace in Christ. The charter of the Church is not the Bible, but Redemption. Those words of Christ are prime revelation to us, and of first obligation, which carry home to us the redeeming grace incarnate in His person and mission.
18. The Higher Criticism has been a great blessing, but it has gone too far alone, i.e., without final reference to the highest, the synthetic standard of the Bible – the Gospel of Grace. What we need, to give us the real historic contents of the Bible, is not a history of the Religion of Israel, but of Redemption – with all the light the Higher Criticism can shed on it, and much more that it cannot.
19. Christianity will not stand or fall by its attitude to its documents, but by its attitude to its Gospel and to the soul.
20. The Free Churches have yet to face the spiritual problem created for them by the collapse of an inerrant Bible and the failure of an authoritative Church. And the only key lies in the authority of that grace which called them into being as the true heirs of the Reformation, the trustees of the Evangelical tradition, and the chief witnesses of the Holy Spirit of our Redemption.
Forsyth contends that the Bible bears witness to the truth that its own authority is the Gospel itself. The Gospel is the interpretative lens through which scripture is to be read and understood. That Gospel is neither sociological nor historical at core, but rather theological. That’s why the biblical exegete must be informed by dogmatics.
An example. The people of God are endlessly being called upon to discern the mind/will of God on all number of issues. Sometimes these issues are clear cut, as in whether we should pray or evangelise. But the discerning process is rarely so clear, as in the case of infant baptism or nuclear energy or euthanasia, or the plethora of questions regarding church authority, even the nature of the Bible itself, or even why and how we should pray or evangelise. This is at least partly why denominationalism arose. More recently, many denominations have been engaged in a process of re-discerning the Church’s thinking on sexuality. What is obvious in all of these examples is that neither thorough biblical exegesis nor historical reviews are able to take us to where our minds and hearts need to go, and this in spite of the insistence in some camps that if the Bible has a text on it, then the matter is settled. What is clear to me is that even the very best exegesis on the relevant passages only takes us some of the way. The discussion, for example on sexuality, also needs to be informed by historical, pastoral, and medical considerations, although each of these voices ought be played with differing levels of volume in the Church’s discussion. The key hermeneutical question is the theological. It is primarily not a question of ‘how’ or ‘why’ but of ‘who’. The starting question for all Christian theology is ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ And this question can not be answered by biblical exegesis alone. It requires the Church to engage with thousands of years of exegesis – of the scriptural witness and of its experience – harnessing Scripture, reason, experience and tradition.
A final thought. Both biblical critics and exegetes perform an indispensable function for the Church. Harnessing all the tools and insights that critical scholarship can muster, exegetes and dogmaticians both require a new centre of orientation. What can I do that this new centre might be made both more attractive and crowded? How can both ends of the field play well as a team, play the same game, communicate in the same language, and, hopefully, win the game, that is, serve the Church in her proclamation of the good news? Is this even desirable? Is this even possible, given the resistance to it in even those of the same theological camp? Granted some camps like playing together more than others. What do we do when some of the players want to play on a different team? Or even play an entirely different game? Should we encourage this diverse game playing? Why? Why not? Is Yeago’s suggestion the best way forward?
In such a situation, subversion is perhaps a more hopeful strategy than frontal attack. That is to say, the future of theological exegesis may depend on those who quietly go about learning how to do theological exegesis from the tradition and the clearest-headed contemporary sources, and then actually let the void of the texts be heard in their preaching and theologizing. And this may simply mean that we are forced back into a posture which is itself biblically normative! modeled for the Church in the self-presentation of the Apostle Paul.
My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:4).