Defending Brevard Childs

August 15, 2014


I hesitate to make any comments on the field of biblical studies. I am pretty sure that I’ve embarrassed myself in the past, but that is common enough for most who step outside of their special area of interest. Having said that, I really enjoy Brevard Childs and his chief proponent today, Christopher Seitz.

Given the luminaries on the banner of this blog, that is not surprising. And one of the most common criticisms of Childs is that his work lacks a certain scientific objectivity in favor of dogmatic commitments (James Barr) or that it lacks a certain contextual sensitivity in favor of dogmatic commitments (W. Brueggemann). According to Seitz, these and the many other criticisms are failures in grasping the category of “canonical” and what it implies, as if it flattens or runs roughshod over the historical layers which have been the focus of critics for two centuries. Rather, for Seitz, the final canonical process is itself integral to the historical process, as well as the divine appropriation of said process.

Seitz’s The Character of Christian Scripture (Baker, 2011) is a passionate response to Childs’ critics. I am far from capable of understanding the deeper intricacies in these debates or many of the qualifications that Seitz clarifies, much less could I rally a defense in my own terms. But I am learning a lot as I read Seitz’s volume, and I heartily commend it to all.

To give you one excerpt, here is Seitz (using Timothy Ward) on the “historical purveyors” on both the left and right who dismiss the canonical method:

In the context of a different discussion of this issue, Ward has also issued a challenge that might catch the allegedly “historical” purveyors of interpretation off guard. A canonical method, he suggests, does not value the later hands because of some moral superiority — or lack of it, in Collins’s view — they possess. Rather, the later hands have a greater historical perspective, due to the sheer range of their awareness of the past, which is still unfolding at the time of early tradition-levels. History lies out in front of “the original words of the prophets” because of what God is doing with them, under his providential guidance. It is a legacy of romantic theories of “inspiration” and “origins” that has set much historical-critical work off on the wrong foot, and it cannot be emphasized enough that this wrong footing has tripped up both conservative interpreters and their putative opposites. This results in maximalist or minimalist accounts of what can be secured for the “original, inspired author/prophet/source/tradition,” starting from the same quest for an authoritative base independent of the canon’s own final-form presentation.

[pp. 52-53.]

He cites Timothy Ward’s Word and Supplement (Oxford, 2002), p. 249. Here is another excerpt:

There is an inspired and coherent Word of God to Israel and to the world, which arises from the historical speech of Amos and Hosea, in the canonical form of the Twelve, but which entails a “history” they saw only partially (and which God over time was revealing in his history). The canonical approach seeks to describe that process, and “success” is less in getting every diachronic detail right (that would be a wrong tack and would end in an “eclipse of biblical narrative”—to use Frei’s language) and more in accounting for the present structure and presentation of the Book of the Twelve, to choose but one example, as it now sits before us (or in front of us). The historical dimension of God’s real speech with real men and women is not eliminated. Amos preached a message to the northern kingdom and to Amaziah the priest at Bethel, and he likely did this before Hosea and probably certainly before Joel. A canonical approach wishes to understand this inspired speech in all its historical and human particularity. Those who shape the books associated with them and the collection of books within which they now reside did not treat them like “plucked instruments” or like the girl (was it a girl?) on the swing whose sweet (but fortuitous) singing converted Augustine. At the same time, they did seek to hear in their words the abiding and accomplishing Word of God, and so human authorship was always tied up with divine authorship and with the providentiality of the Holy Spirit’s knowledge and work.

[p. 81]

You can read and download both the introduction and the first chapter of Seitz’s book at the Westminster Bookstore.

Later in the volume, Seitz deals with the changing norms for sexual behavior in his Anglican context. Alastair Roberts has a good review of this portion of the book. Alastair also has a helpful response, in the comments, to the ever-vexing issue of OT warfare.



Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Mike Licona (Houston Baptist University) has written a response to the “new fundamentalists” — Norman Geisler and friends — who have been vilifying prominent evangelical scholars at Wheaton, Trinity Evangelical, Asbury, Denver, even DTS, and other places heretofore not exactly reputed for their liberal bias.

“On Chicago’s Muddy Waters”

Licona highlights J. I. Packer and B. B. Warfield as insufficiently orthodox, if we were to apply Geisler’s absurd delimitation of inerrancy. You can even sign a petition at the Defending Inerrancy website, which is surely one of the most ludicrous things I have ever seen in my life as an evangelical. (Though, this takes the cake.) Daniel Wallace at DTS has written a response as well, reviewing a recent book.

On a related note, another Old Testament professor has been forced to resign at a Reformed seminary, WTS:

“What Did the OT Writers Know? Another Controversy Erupts at WTS”

Professor Green teaches that the “authorial intent” of the OT writers need not include an explicit christology. The divine intent, partially veiled in earlier redemptive history, was discerned by the NT writers in their (inspired) appropriation of the OT. Call me naive, but I thought this is what everyone believed.

I tell ya, this peculiarly anxious brand of Calvinism is hellbent on making itself look ridiculous to all observers, not just those on the outside — but on the inside as well. The gospel is foolishness. This is just silly.

Among the many, many reviews of Noah, Brian Mattson has the most fascinating:

“Sympathy for the Devil”

He identifies a number of overtly Gnostic themes in the film, rather well-executed under the guise of a biblical story. If I can get around to seeing the film, I will be interested to see how much of Mattson’s interpretation holds. I have had a longstanding interest in Gnosticism since my undergraduate days of religious theory and Simone Weil. I am both sympathetic and hostile, as my ambiguous love for Weil testifies.

Also, Wesley Hill reads the film from the perspective of a Pauline exegete.


John Webster (St. Andrews) published The Domain of the Word a little over a year ago, and it has recently been released in paperback for the financially disadvantaged among us. It is the exciting culmination of Webster’s labor within the doctrine of Scripture, with prior installments including Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch and Word and Church.

Paul Dafydd Jones (Virginia) has written a review for the most recent issue of Modern Theology (30:1), and I thought it was worth posting here. Presumably I am not allowed to post the entire review, but here is a good size excerpt:

It is the virtue of studiousness, above all else, that The Domain of the Word seeks to commend. The cumulative effect of the assembled essays is akin to an instructional performance: a protracted attempt to remind scholars, and the church at large, that God provides a distinctive “space” in which scripture should be read and explored, and the rational capacities of the Christian can be put to work. This provision of space is, of course, an act of grace. To play on Webster’s own combination of figures: the Word’s domain is a divine address, spoken by the risen Christ and distributed by his Spirit, that activates and guides the response of those whom it locates and encloses; a temporal iteration of God’s own immensity, such that the historical body of Christ becomes a vocal witness to God’s creative, reconciliatory, and redemptive work. Negatively, the scholar qua exegete is hereby afforded the opportunity to move past an anti-theological naturalism that,Webster believes, frequently compromises the field of biblical studies. Positively, the scholar qua exegete is enabled to do what she should have been doing all along: offering a faithful response to the scriptural witness that honors God through the exercise of redeemed intelligence. Given the “unified saving action and presence of Word and Spirit, reason’s vocation is retrieved from the ruins: its sterile attempt at self-direction is set aside; its dynamism annexed to God’s self-manifesting presence; it regains its function in the ordered friendship between God and creatures” (p. 122).

The essays that comprise part one of this collection consider scripture’s role in the divine economy. Two treat of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance, and give ample evidence of Webster’s renowned interpretative skills. The others are impressively programmatic. In “The domain of the Word,” Webster traces the shape of the Triune God’s self-communicative acts, identifying the canonical texts as discursive media that Christ commissions to speak on his behalf—the goal being a bibliology that integrates claims about providence, inspiration, and sanctification, and makes clear why and how scripture functions as “an instrument in the fellowship between the revelatory Word and its addressees” (p. 24). With “Resurrection and Scripture” and “Illumination,” Webster adds more detail. The Bible’s authoritative status is a function of it being the “creaturely auxiliary” (p. 38) that the risen Christ employs to make himself and his saving work known. Indeed, precisely because Christ is risen, all times and places are present to and for him, and all times and places are poised to receive the saving light that Christ communicates through the creaturely prism of scripture. The result, if God so wills, is the event of illumination: persons and communities who are corrected, re-formed, and “lit up” to enjoy ordered fellowship with God.

The essays in part two fall under the heading of “theological reason.” Generally, they show Webster’s longstanding interest in moral ontology—that is, an expansive account of the way that human beings can act, before God, in obedience and freedom— connecting with his more recent studies of scripture. In “Biblical reasoning,” Webster argues that exegesis succeeds insofar as it locates itself and scripture within God’s reconciling economy; in “Principles of systematic theology,” theological reflection is conceived as the reproduction of God’s antecedent self-knowing, mediated through God’s hallowing of creaturely media and sustained, despite the ongoing fact of sin, by God’s regenerative grace. In “Theology and the peace of the church” and “Regina artium: Theology and the humanities,” Webster develops his insights with reference to the church and modern university. In terms of the church,Webster insists that theological discourse make manifest the peace that God has established between sinners and himself. Precisely because “peace is the metaphysically basic and enduring condition of the church of Jesus Christ” (p. 159), theology should view conflict in general and intellectual dispute in particular as unseemly; only when there is a well-formed “passion for gospel truth” (p. 167) may controversy be joined. In terms of the university, Webster protests the tendency to construe theology as one more humanistic field of study. This amounts to a defection of reason—a perverse reluctance, on the part of Christian scholars, to inhabit and participate in the divine economy. Webster advances an alternative perspective by way of Bonaventure and Augustine: one that perceives “the encompassing context” (p. 191) of all intellectual labor, refuses an overdrawn distinction of “sacred” and “secular,” and affirms the theologian’s Spirit-led capacity to draw selectively on “the disarray of the arts of intelligence” (p. 190).

I have no hesitation in declaring The Domain of the Word an important, insightful, and often brilliant work. Of especial value is Webster’s willingness to articulate a consistently positive theological perspective—that is, his determination to promote a style of reflection that engages the complexities of a late modern context only occasionally, given the more urgent task of describing scripture’s role in the divine economy and, complementarily, providing an account of God’s invigoration of human intelligence. This does not mean that Webster’s ad hoc appraisals of the modern period as largely inimical to sound thinking about scripture and exegesis ought to go unquestioned. I myself favor a more mixed judgment—one that balances critique with an acclamation of the benefits that accompany an expansion of learning, democratic processes of inquiry, and a criticism of certain “traditional” mores. Yet the point still holds. Webster’s account of God’s gracious activity is such that one need not (and ought not) spend time bemoaning the temper of the times. One can simply get on with the more interesting business of doing theology.

“Doing theology”—but in conversation with whom? The Domain of the Word is particularly interesting on this front. Webster’s fascination with the work of Eberhard Jüngel, prominent in the early part of his career, is now in firmly in abeyance. His interest in Karl Barth continues, but is overarched by a strong commitment to “patristic and medieval authors and . . . their heirs in post-Reformation scholastic theology” (p. ix). What does this shift in conversation-partners portend? Webster’s critical asides about the modern condition notwithstanding, there is little point in framing an answer in terms of the binary of modernity = bad/pre-modernity = good. For once that is in play, sound judgments are hard to come by: sweeping historiographical claims bulk so large that dogmatic arguments easily become peripheral. More important here is Webster’s prefatory admission that an account of “God’s infinitely deep, fully realized life” (p. ix), developed in conversation with patristic, medieval, and scholastic authors, has become fundamental to his thinking. …

Jones continues with some modest criticisms/questions about whether the limitations of the finite and sinful creature are lost in Webster’s account, which would obviously be a question hailing from the biblical studies crowd as well. As you can see, it is an excellent review. I especially like his recognition of Webster’s current dialog partners in the church’s history. A fine example of his scholastic ressourcement can be found in his “Trinity and Creation” article from IJST 12:1 (Jan 2010), which pertains in part to the proper ordering of Trinity and incarnation, a heated debate in systematics for over a decade now.

You can also read Ashish Varma’s review of Domain from the Wheaton bloggers.

Jesus’ deep joy

March 4, 2014


George Buttrick never fails to inspire, without any of the trite sentimentality associated with that word. Here is one of his reflections from The Parables of Jesus:

“Like a wedding” is a description of the Christian life which in our persistent glumness we have refused to allow. Yet Jesus used it frequently. Old Testament prophets had said with daring, “For thy Maker is thy husband” [Isa 54.4-10, Hos 2.19]; and John the Baptist had claimed as his sufficient honor that he was the friend of the Bridegroom, his joy being to hear the Bridegroom’s voice [John 3.29]. The dominant note of the new religion was deep joy.

The scribes and Pharisees might fast. Religion to them was not joyous; it bound on them burdens grievous to be borne. By its dreary routine of rules and shibboleths men might gain merit, but not a song. Jesus came to lead them from that slavery into a new land of promise. They would still be under the law — God’s decrees welling up within the enfranchised soul — but it was a law whose service was perfect freedom. “The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” [John 4.14].

The disciples of John the Baptist might fast. Religion to them was not joyous. It was a warning of impending doom, a fleeing from the wrath to come. To feel the holiness of God as a fan winnowing the grain from the chaff, or as an axe of retribution laid at the root of the tree, was life compared with the mechanical righteousness of the Pharisees; but it was not jubilant life. Jesus drove the Arch-Fear from the sky and revealed instead a Face of infinite pity, a Holiness inseparable from Compassion. The rainbow was set against the storm. The abounding sin was swallowed up in more abounding grace.

…Jesus replaced the weariness which hangs upon the soul’s quest for its own righteousness with the “large delight” of serving another’s need. Joy is not in defiance of pain, or in pain’s respite. It is through pain, — that pain borne for others by which the world is saved. He, “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the Cross” [Heb 12.2], had entered into joy’s deep secret. Therefore He could say with utter truth, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” [John 15.11]. It was joy like a wedding — the marriage of earth and heaven!

[George Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 4-5. Reprint of the original edition from Harper & Brothers, 1928. The parable is from Luke 5.33-35 and synoptic parallels.]

In particular, the joy through pain of Christ and his disciples is much appreciated. This is not self-imposed for one’s own sake but only insofar as it is for another’s sake. And here is one more wonderful moment later in the book:

There are pulpits quick to indulge in orgies of denunciation but tardy to preach the positive tidings of life abundant. There are ministers’ associations and reform organizations more eager to expel disintegrating forces than to engage in the less spectacular task of constructive goodwill. So ready to banish the demon — so loath to welcome Jesus! Yet, if we would but know, when He comes to rule the demon flees of himself!

[p. 76]

Why choose Christ?

February 3, 2014

George A. Buttrick

As you would expect, a Presbyterian will turn this question around. I love the way Buttrick, professor at Harvard University during the 1950’s and 60’s, does this:

Bible history is focused history. The forwardness climbs to a lighted hilltop, and all history beyond that point is in that light, moving on to the fulfillment of the light. The focal point is Christ; and the lighted hilltop, though the light is darkness, is Calvary. …The Bible makes no apology for this faith: it proclaims it with boldness and remorse and rapture. When our modern mind asks, “But why choose Christ?” the Bible answers, “Men did not choose Christ. Rather they have hurried him to some new Cross in every generation. He chose them, as in every contrite pondering of Him He chooses us.” When our modern mind asks, “But why take one event long ago and far away as the clue to history?” the Bible answers, “Why not, if it finds us? Why assume that truth is in a logical syllogism, scientific formula, general law, or philosophical abstraction?”

And he continues with his usual rhetorical energy:

This fact compounds the daringness of the Bible. How could anyone find it dull? Our dreary factualisms are dull. Our so-called “universal laws” are dull, cancelling the vividness of the event in favor of a deadly sameness. Our political conventions are dull, filled with windbag clichés. Our divorce is dull, and our industrialism with its chimney smoke smudges out both landscape and life. But the Bible is not dull. It may be incredible, a wild dream, a madness, and an ecstasy, but it is not tedious: a flash of light, rather, and a spurt of blood — blood of God in our human flesh! …

We cannot analyze Calvary. It is too late, for it has pierced us. That, at least, is the outright avowal of Bible history. Redemption through a person accents the Biblical conviction that history as a whole must be construed through persons, not through “movements” or “patterns.”

[George A. Buttrick, Christ and History, pp. 25-26.]

Buttrick was a Presbyterian pastor in NYC for 28 years before his appointment at Harvard in 1955. In addition to his books and lectures, he edited the influential multi-volume set, The Interpreter’s Bible.


In a previous post, I looked at how the inerrancy debate within evangelicalism has resulted in a number of options for positioning oneself vis–à–vis the historicity of the biblical texts (total inerrancy, limited inerrancy, total falliblity). None of these options are satisfactory, not for the dogmatic theologian at least, and surely not for anyone who has serious misgivings with the apologetic and rationalist orientation of post-fundamentalist evangelicalism that emerged after WW2. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in particular, has held some significant influence within the movement, even referenced by ETS for prospective members.

The Chicago Statement has a number of praiseworthy qualifications, related to genre analysis for example, but it is hopelessly inadequate as a guide for theological engagement with Scripture. As should be obvious, the apostolic use of the Old Testament would fail miserably if tested by the Chicago strictures. Moreover, the patristic reading of Scripture, from Irenaeus to Origen to Augustine and adopted throughout the Middles Ages, is not exactly compliant with the historical-grammatical hermeneutic of contemporary evangelicalism. Yet, this dogmatic, typological, and often allegorical hermeneutic among the early fathers is what underwrote the development of trinitarian and christological orthodoxy. (If this were not a blog and if I had more time on my hands, I might try to demonstrate this, but I’m running with it for now!)

The ressourcement movement in Roman Catholic scholarship of the 20th century is one place where evangelical Protestants might take some cues, without buying the “sacramental tapestry” wholesale. Henri de Lubac’s multi-volume study of medieval exegesis, for example, is a rigorous and thorough apologetic for the patristic-medieval hermeneutic. Kyle Anderson, in his review on Amazon, says it well:

Lubac’s work is satisfying on three fronts: 1) for those convinced of the benefits of allegory–it provides a historical basis for such practice, 2) for those opposed–it provides a background for understanding your perceived opponent. And “perceived” is significant. Nowhere does Lubac discount the historical. In fact, he argues that the historical provides the foundation for the allegorical. This emerges directly out of Lubac’s sacramental ontology of the materialist world, and 3) for those seeking an intellectually honest alternative to the historical-critical methodology of the 20th century. Lubac offers a possible reading of Scripture that is historically honest and grounded but seeks to read Scripture in a broader context that is made alive through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

So, yes, historicity is vital, and Chicago/ETS is rightly concerned about reducing canonical authority to the subjective criteria that dominated liberal Protestantism (and a fair amount of neo-orthodoxy as well). Yet, historicity is made impossible when founded upon the “authorial intention” of the human author, not the least because such intentions are frequently elusive and imprecise. In a dogmatic framing for exegesis, by contrast, the “authorial intent” is primarily that of the divine author — the God who superintended over the entire canonical process. As such, historicity should be articulated as a dogmatic determinant, with theological ratiocination — an internal “theo-logic” if you will, which guides us in discerning the parameters of Eden’s historicity.

There is my positive statement, which I will surely work and re-work over the years to come. As I look on the evangelical horizon, there are some signs of hope among those wanting to push the boundaries of “inerrancy” — Kevin Vanhoozer most notably, for which he has been criticized by guardians of Chicago (Norman Geisler, for example, in his most recent book, Defending Inerrancy). One of Vanhoozer’s doctoral students, Timothy Ward, has written an excellent and very accessible defense of a more theological approach to biblical inspiration: Words of Life. Also, John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch is a refreshing and heartening introduction to the dogmatic framework in which the Bible exists for the church.


Image: “Saint Augustine” by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) [wikipedia commons]


June 4, 2013

It took long enough to have a translation of the Bible in my own tongue:

New Bible app

Seriously, this is a great idea! The South has rightly corrected the English language to include a you-plural contraction. If the Yanks were so smart, they would have done this long ago!

This calls for some celebration:


Church Of Scotland

The Scots Confession of 1560 has several advantages actually, but one definite advantage is the location of its doctrine of scripture. Unlike the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), which begins with the authority and inspiration of scripture, the Scots Confession does not attend to this doctrine until chapters 18 and 19! The Scots Confession rightly begins with the doctrine of God, proceeding with a redemptive-historical outline of God’s covenant work, only after which the Protestant claims for scripture are given.

This seems to be an important ordering of the material. The WCF locates the doctrine of scripture at the very beginning. This has resulted in an unfortunate apologetic strategy where the authority of scripture is defended before the gospel of Christ and the triune economy is espoused. That is precisely backwards, it seems to me. I do not believe in Christ because I first believed in the authority of scripture; rather, I believe in the authority of scripture because I first believed in Christ. This is not materially denied by the WCF, of course. Yet, the formal ordering is important for contextualizing the doctrine of scripture, locating it within the doctrine of God — a good rule of thumb for all theological categories.

The WCF replaced the Scots Confession in 1647 as the subordinate standard for the Church of Scotland and her Presbyterian missions. Baptist confessions would model themselves on the WCF, from the London confession to the Philadelphia confession to the Southern Baptist Faith & Message. Nothing is more natural to evangelicals today than to conceive of the Bible as an apologetic foundation for an enumerated list of (normally rather disconnected) doctrines and morals. The most popular systematic theology today, based upon sales figures, has been Wayne Grudem’s ST. Not surprisingly, it begins with the authority and infallibility of scripture. In its crudest form, read this ridiculous article in The Christian Post.

If you want a good example of properly locating the norming of scripture as an auxiliary claim of our christology (and soteriology), I encourage you to read these two posts on P. T. Forsyth:

The Canon: A Protestant Account

The Canon: A Protestant Account, pt. 2


For a nice bound set of the Reformed Confessions, I highly recommend James Dennison’s multi-volume project: Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English TranslationSo far, three volumes are published.

Hearing Her Voice

February 9, 2013

Hearing Her Voice

In my Gender and Theology series, I presented Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s case for the ordained ministry of women on grounds that preserve the ordering of the sexes (yes, subordination for woman). In her argument, she makes the point that, in contrast to the ἐκκλησία of the apostles, the voice of women has been utterly silenced in the assembly since that time. The formalization of ordained ministry and the order of the liturgy has reduced proclamation to the lone male voice from the pulpit.

John Dickson, in a recent series from Zondervan (Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry), makes the case that the gift and role of “teaching” has a fairly precise and technical meaning for Paul, related to the authority of maintaining the oral deposit of faith. It is a role distinct from exhortation and prophecy — the former of which is more closely related to what we conceive of as “sermons.” The role of women evangelizing and prophesying is well-known — approved and praised by Paul. By contrast, teaching is restricted to men. Dickson, an evangelical Anglican, agrees that “teaching” should be restricted to men, but this pertains to matters of authority in the first century that do not easily transpose to our current situation, much less to our practice of giving sermons. So, Dickson’s thesis is modest — he is merely arguing for the inclusion of women in the giving of sermons. It is a persuasive argument.

I also appreciated Dickson’s point that we do actually have a description of prophecy in the NT communities: “But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort” (1 Cor 14:3). Paul is contrasting prophesy with tongues, emphasizing the public character of the former. Once again, here we know that women were given a voice — not in the precise parameters of “teaching” but in significant ways that come rather close to the practice of homiletics that developed in church history.

This is an intra-complementarian debate. For those of us who are basically complementarian but open to forms of ordained women’s ministry, Dickson’s thesis is a significant aid to our arguments, even though Dickson limits his discussion to the giving of sermons and not to the broader issue of ordination. Michael Bird, in his volume in the same series, apparently gets into the larger issue — arguing for the ordination of women but proscribing positions as senior ministers.


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