adoration-of-the-baby-gerrit-van-honthorst

Now it is time for some theological heavy-lifting, sort of. Trust me, this is fun stuff!

The “incarnational analogy” for Scripture is when the incarnation of the Son, in the hypostatic union of true man and true God, is used as a model for understanding the ontology of Scripture. Basically it goes like this: the humanity of Jesus is capable of union with the divine Word, therefore the humanity of the biblical texts is capable of union with the divine Word, and in neither case is the humanity’s constitutional integrity compromised. If the biblical texts were to be understood as something other than fully human, then you could be accused of being a “monophysite” in regard to the what-ness of the Bible.

This analogy sounds good at first, but I have my doubts. It is interesting to observe the contrary ways in which this analogy can be put to use. For example, we can look at Al Mohler and Peter Enns. In his contribution to Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013), Al Mohler uses this model:

The incarnational model of Scripture is, of course, genuinely helpful; it rightly recognizes the Bible to be both divine and a human book. But the truth of this model does not lead to the conclusion that Enns would have us draw. The incarnate Christ was fully God and fully human, but his humanity was without sin. Just as theologians have for centuries argued over whether Jesus could not sin or merely did not sin, theologians may argue whether the Bible cannot err or merely does not err. But the end result is the same in any event — Jesus did not sin and the Bible is without error. [p. 126]

You see how that works? Mohler slipped from “sin” to “error” without signaling a shift. For this to work, Mohler would have to argue that the humanity of Christ was without error, not just without sin. This is a scholastic-style debate, whether Christ could err during his earthly sojourn. Could Jesus get a math problem wrong? Mohler would seemingly have to say no. Otherwise, the analogical use of Christ’s humanity would fail when applied to Scripture, for those like Mohler who want to uphold that all error is precluded by the text’s divine nature.

By contrast, Peter Enns believes that the humanity of Christ was capable of error, which includes a wide range of matters, such as cosmology and cultural traditions and presumably math problems. Thus, following the analogy, the humanity of Scripture is likewise capable of error. For Mohler, we must uphold an exhaustively inerrant humanity for Christ, so that the analogy can support an inerrant Scripture. He believes that the perfection of Christ’s humanity as sinless is a basis for arguing for the perfection of the Bible’s humanity as without error. But, once again, this only works if “Jesus did not sin” is the same as “Jesus did not err.” That has to be proven first, in order for Mohler’s use of the analogy to work. Likewise for Enns, “Jesus did not sin” but “Jesus did err” has to be demonstrated first, before turning to its analogical use for Scripture.

In other words, the analogical use of the Incarnation for the nature(s) of Scripture is dependent upon and determined by one’s prior christology, as we would expect. For Mohler, a sinless Jesus needs to be an errorless Jesus in all respects, given Mohler’s commitment to an inerrancy that makes no allowances for “accidental” (non-essential) errors. For Enns, a sinless Jesus does not need to be an errorless Jesus in all respects.

As I see it, to err is not necessarily to sin. All sin is error, but not all error is sin. There may be another basis upon which we must claim that Jesus was errorless in all respects, so I will recuse myself from answering this question for now. But, prima facie, it should be evident that the incarnational analogy is not as helpful as may first appear, especially when figures as diverse as Mohler and Enns can use it for their purposes. But we should question fundamentally the legitimacy itself of using this analogy in respect to the Incarnation of the Son. Michael Bird, following John Webster, says it well:

…I categorically reject Enns’ proposal of an “incarnational model” for explaining Scripture as a divine-human book. I am aware that such a model is merely a starting point for explaining how the Bible is both a divine and human work. However, this incarnational model is, as John Webster calls it, “Christologically disastrous.” It’s disastrous because it threatens the uniqueness of the Christ event, since it assumes that hypostatic union is a general characteristic of divine self-disclosure in, through, or by a creaturely agent. Furthermore, it results in a divinizing of the Bible by claiming that divine ontological equality exists between God’s being and his communicative action. [Ibid., 131-132, quoting Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, 22]

Thus, the doctrinal implications of the analogy are suspect, if you accept Webster’s argument. It is worth pondering.

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Image: “Adoration of the Child,” by Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst (1590-1656)

The paradoxical Jesus

October 8, 2014

Douthat-Bad-Religion

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012) is a really good book. I actually was not expecting it to be as marvelous as it is. I have read Douthat’s NYT articles and have generally enjoyed them, but he really shines in this book. He is given the space to develop his ideas and ground his claims in the historical phenomena, far more than he can accomplish in an op-ed. He is fair to Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth, whom he extols, while being justifiably critical of Harvey Cox and all of the other fashionable progressives who happily rode the optimistic wave of secularism, calmly and confidently assuring us of its ultimate compatibility with the iconoclasm of the Jewish and Christian faith. Oh my, how things never change.

While Douthat is a self-identified political conservative, he is rather severe in his criticisms of the religious right, whether under Reagan or Bush. This doesn’t mean that he occupies some idealist middle ground without any commitments one way or another — obviously not on life and family issues — but he recognizes the allure of political opportunism and the convenience of theological compromise under the stage lights. In this regard, he strives to be a genuine representative of the Catholic who discerns the good and the bad in all ideologies, while abjuring their utopian promises.

There is a lot that I would like to quote from the book, but I will just offer the following description of Christianity, perfectly stated:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peace makers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still — a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.

The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus. For the Marcionites in the second century, this meant a merciful Jesus with no connection to the vengeful Hebrew God; for their rivals the Ebionites, it meant a Jesus whose Judaism required would-be followers to become observant Jews themselves. For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology.

[Bad Religion, pp. 153-154]

Indeed, nothing has changed.

Bad Calvin

September 29, 2014

john-calvin-need-not-apply

I don’t think Calvin could get a job at Westminster Philly:

Hebrews 2:7. Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels. A new difficulty now emerges in the exposition of these words. I have already shown that the passage is properly to be expounded as referring to the Son of God, but the apostle now seems to use the words in a different sense from that in which David understood them. The phrase ‘a little’ (βραχύ τι) seems to refer to time, as meaning for a little while, and denotes the humiliation when Christ emptied Himself, and restricts His glory to the day of resurrection, whereas David extends it in general to the whole life of man. I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle to give an accurate exposition of the words. There is nothing improper if he looks for allusions in the words to embellish the case he is presenting, as Paul does in Rom. 10.6 when he cites evidence from Moses — ‘Who shall ascend into heaven’, etc. — adding the words about heaven and hell not as an explanation but as an embellishment. David’s meaning is this: Lord Thou hast raised man to such dignity that he is very little distant from divine or angelic honour, since he is given authority over the whole world. The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.

[John Calvin, Hebrews and I & II Peter, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, p. 22-23]

According to Westminster Theological Seminary, if the NT author is not “expounding what David meant,” then you can find yourself a new job. Sorry, Calvin. You’ll have to go to Fuller. By the way, Herman Bavinck could not get a job at Westminster either, as Wyatt Houtz has provided for us. If Calvin and Bavinck are too loosey-goosey for your Reformed seminary, then you might want to reevaluate your doctrine of Scripture.

I am referring to the fiasco surrounding the forced retirement of Professor Douglas Green from WTS. Professor Bill Evans (Erskine College) has given the most thoughtful responses. I mentioned the controversy briefly back in June:

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.

["Chicago's Muddy Waters"]

It seems to me that the administration is benefiting, for their purposes, from the example of Peter Enns, who was similarly dismissed a few years ago. With Enns proving to be far more controversial, culminating in the rejection of Israel’s portrait of God in the conquest narratives, WTS can feel rather vindicated in dismissing him. Now with Green, they can likewise weather the criticism and point to the example of Enns. The problem, however, is that Green has not ventured along Enn’s path, not to any significant extent that I have seen. And if Bill Evans’ theological evaluation is sound, as I believe it is, then WTS is tragically isolating themselves — not in some brave contra mundum stance, but against the best of their own tradition.

An androgynous Adam?

September 3, 2014

Eve_by_irinush

It is sometimes heard, within feminist and liberationist circles, that the original creation of אָדָם‎ (Adam) was androgynous, not differentiated into the gender binary of male and female. אָדָם‎ only becomes male and female in Gen 2:21-23, which is interpreted as the splitting of the original אָדָם‎ into two distinct and gendered beings (with צְלָעֹת translated as “side” and understood conceptually as “half”). Phyllis Trible is best known for popularizing this view.

This androgynous reading of Adam as merely a neuter “earthling” has come under criticism and not just from the usual suspects (evangelicals like me). Jerome Gellman, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, has a hard-hitting article in Theology & Sexuality 12:3 (2006), “Gender and Sexuality in the Garden of Eden,” which takes this feminist reading to task for trying, in his opinion, to smooth over the obvious misogyny of the text. So, basically, he argues that Trible’s reading is not only bad exegesis, but it is also a disservice to feminism. And Robert Kawashima, NYU and now University of Florida, has an article in Vetus Testamentum 56:1 (2006), “A Revisionist Reading Revisited: On the Creation of Adam and then Eve,” wherein he takes the feminists to task for their faulty reader-oriented epistemology.

What might a dogmatician have to say? As someone who is concerned about the gnosticism that underwrites our current gender theorizing, I highly appreciate Emil Brunner’s rejection of this androgynous reading of אָדָם‎ in the second volume of his Dogmatics. Brunner is discussing the imago Dei, using the familiar Brunnerian lense of relationality within differentiation. He notes a “special satisfaction” that Barth uses an analogia relationis in CD III.1 (citing p. 219 in the German KD).

Below is the relevant excerpt, namely the second paragraph and following. This is among my favorite material in Brunner’s works:

Hence from the outset man has not been created as an isolated being, but as a “twofold” being; and not simply as two human beings, but as two beings who necessarily belong to one another, who have been created for this purpose, and whose whole nature is ordered in this direction, that is, as two beings who cannot be, apart from each other. In the older version of the Creation story (J) this is explicitly stated: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The Creation of Man is not finished until the partner is there. In the later version (Gen. 1) the twofold Creation is presupposed from the outset, and follows immediately on the definition of man as made in the Image of God. Because God is Love, because in God’s very Nature there is community, man must be able to love: thus “man” has to be created as a pair of human beings. He cannot realize his nature without the “Other”; his destiny is fellowship in love.

This twofold character of man in the Creation Story is in contrast to the world-wide myth of androgyny. The latter is necessarily connected with rational thinking, for which the ultimate and supreme truth is Unity, just as the fact of the two sexes is necessarily connected with the God who wills community. Either community or unity is the final supreme truth. The God of the Biblical revelation is the God of community; the God of rational philosophy is the God of unity. It is no accident that Plato’s Symposium accepts the myth of androgyny. Androgyny belongs to the thought of Platonism, and sexual polarity to Christian thought. [fn., It is therefore no accident that the gnostic thinker, Berdyaev, accepts the androgynous principle, and conceives the fact of the two sexes as the result of the Fall. Die Philosophie der Freiheit des Geistes, p. 238]

Androgyny is the ontological basis of narcisissm. Within the sphere of speculative thought love is always, in the last resort, self-love, because the final end sought is unity. Within the sphere of Biblical thought love is never narcissism or self-love, because love is always self-communication, the will to community. Agape presupposes the “I” and the “Thou” over against each other; narcissism, androgyny, presupposes thought which aims at unity; it presupposes the elimination of anything opposite; it presupposes the identity of object and subject. …

Sexual polarity, however, as such, is not itself the “I” and the “Thou.” It is only a picture of the purpose of Creation, and the natural basis of the true “I” and “Thou.” Sexual polarity is therefore not intended for eternity [Matt. 22:30] whereas the “I” and the “Thou,” the communion and the fellowship of the Kingdom of God, is certainly intended for eternity. Hence sexual polarity is not itself the Imago Dei; it is, as it were, a secondary Imago, a reflection of the Divine purpose, and at the same time the natural basis of true community. …

[The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, trans. Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952, pp. 64-65]

The point about narcissism is especially astute.

_______________

Image: “Eve” by Irina from Romania

Brueghel Jan__de_Oude_en_Peter_Paul_Rubens - Adam and Eve

During the height of the biblical theology movement in the middle of the last century, it was common to make a rather sharp distinction between the primeval period of Gen. 1-11 and the Abrahamic patriarchal period of Gen. 12-50. On this view, the primeval history is heavily mythical in its construction of ancient realities, replete with numerous etiologies (e.g., the tower of Babel as the origin of diverse languages), whereas the ancestral history is the beginning of history proper, more or less, focused as it is on Israel’s lineage from Abraham. Or to put it another way, the former is universal and therefore prone to mythical media of interpretation; the latter is particular and therefore historically contingent and “real” as we think of history, though not without “embellishments.”

This view was popularized by OT scholars like John Bright, and others at Union Seminary in Richmond, and Bernhard Anderson at Drew and Princeton, both of whom wrote OT surveys that were widely used at seminaries across the country. To this, we could add the “biblical archaeology” movement of William F. Albright and George Ernest Wright. For a nice summary statement, we can quote the old Metzger-edited New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV):

The primeval history reflects a “prehistorical” or mythical view of the movement from creation to the return of chaos in a catastrophic flood and the new beginning afterwards, while the ancestral history can be read, at least to some degree, in the context of the history of the Near East in the latter part of the second millennium (1500-1200 B.C.). The primary purpose of the book, however, is not to present straightforward history but to tell the dramatic story of God’s dealings with the world and, in particular, to interpret Israel’s special role in God’s purpose.

However, this consensus (and it did basically form a consensus in the mainline, as far as that was once possible) would eventually come under significant criticism. Evangelicals had long been critical of the divide between non-historical and historical, splitting the book of Genesis where the text gives no such indication of a shift to real history. The primeval history presents itself as just as historical as the Abrahamic history, especially indicated by the genealogies (albeit stylized in some way) in the primeval history. From the opposite vantage point, criticism came from within the mainline Protestant guild and elsewhere. The archaeological data became more contested, just as postmodern exegesis emerged to uncover the (alleged) ideologies and agendas that shaped the purported history(ies) of Israel. By the time we get to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament, first published in 2003, things are rather different. Brueggemann never tires of reminding the reader that we have no knowledge of what really happened (e.g., exodus, conquest, temple, monarchy, etc.). It is all imaginative reconstructions, but that’s alright in Brueggemann’s account because we are called now to recapture the same imagination that inspired their confidence in God.

As for myself, I am not clear on how to precisely answer the question of historicity in the primeval chapters of Genesis or even the rest of the Pentateuch and historical books, though obviously the stakes are higher when speaking of Israel’s history. Brueggemann is a bridge too far, to say the least, and it appears that Peter Enns (like Kenton Sparks) is following the same path. The evangelical criticism itself would have to be modified today in the light of John Walton, Kevin Vanhoozer, and others’ (“progressive inerrantists”) recognition that ancient historiography may not follow the same conventions as modern historiography, which would bring them closer to the old biblical theology guys mentioned above, albeit with a sharper interest in preserving historicity where that appears to be the unambiguous affirmation of the text, not merely incidental. My inclinations are with the progressive inerrantists, as well as the biblical theology movement, though with some significant reservations with how the latter legitimates historicity.

I was inspired to write this post after browsing through Alice Linsley’s blog, Just Genesis. Linsley is a “biblical anthropologist,” that is, an anthropologist who brings her research to the text of Scripture for illumination of the context, especially the kinship ties. I can hardly render a judgment on the quality of her work, but it is fascinating. She argues for a “meta-historical” reading of Gen. 1-3, but she sees a shift to history proper, by and large, soon thereafter — thanks to anthropology and other research into ancient ethnic groups. So, for example, you should see her posts, “Are Adam and Eve Real?” and “Adam and Eve as Archetypal Ancestors.” Also, a good overview is “Objections to the Fundamentalist Reading of Genesis.” Her most recent index is very helpful. By the way, she is a former Episcopal minister and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy revert to Anglicanism.

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Image: “The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. They collaborated on this work at Rubens’ studio in Antwerp, (Spanish) Netherlands, now Belgium, in the 1610’s.

Defending Brevard Childs

August 15, 2014

Seitz-Character

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.

domain-of-the-word

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

buttrick-george

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]

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