Sunday, May 30, 2004

Jumbled Thoughts on Truth 

At the moment I am partway through my posts on the subject of Scripture. At this stage I thought that it would be helpful to have a brief excursus on the subject of truth. Within this post I wish to give some scattered and disorganized thoughts on what I believe a Christian understanding of truth should look like.
In my previous posts I argued against an ‘immanentistic’ view of truth and the quest for detached objectivity in interpretation. I have maintained that the aim of Scripture is primarily that of deepening of our relationship with God so that we might know Him and not merely to inform us so that we might know a list of facts about Him. [Of course, we should be wary of creating too much of a distance between these two things.] All of this should challenge us to think more carefully about what Christians mean when they confess the Scriptures to be ‘true’ in their entirety. For this reason, I believe that it is helpful to give some attention to the question of what truth actually is. As some have observed, within modernity history is ‘the unquestioned locus of truth’ and ‘replaces canonical text as the locus of revelation.’1 This leads to a stress upon historicity as the test of truth. As Christians we should never uncritically adopt our society’s view of truth. I can see a number of grounds on which we should begin to question our society’s view of truth from a particularly Christian perspective. Modernity treats history as a ‘given’ and as a final point of reference. By exalting the truth of history in such a manner, the truth of Scripture becomes relativized. Christians, who should treat history as ‘gift’ and not as ‘given’, ‘know’ history in a very different manner to non-Christians. For the Christian Christ is ‘the Truth’. For the Christian, therefore, the Truth is not some abstract epistemological principle existing outside of time, nor is the Truth the bare impersonal facts of history.
To treat anything within the created world as a final point of reference is to deny the being of God. At best such an approach makes God merely another fact within the universe. As Cornelius Van Til observed, many of the traditional forms of apologetics achieve just that. Stanley Hauerwas writes:—
…[N]atural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves. The metaphysical and existential projects to make a “place” for such a god cannot help but “prove” the existence of a god that is not worthy of worship. The Trinity is not a further specification of a more determinative reality called god, because there is no more determinative reality than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.2
If the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob exists then the world which we inhabit is inescapable personal. As Van Til points out, ‘God is man’s ultimate environment.’3 Man’s knowledge of God is logically prior to his knowledge of anything else. ‘…[W]e cannot know ourselves in any true sense unless we know God.’
Because Christ is the Truth, truth can never be impersonal. Truth is known in relationship. Consequently, if we would know the Truth it is essential that we know communion with God in the Church. Those who believe that the truth of Scripture can be properly known outside of the context of the Church’s liturgy are mistaken. Thomas Torrance writes:—

While there is evidently no way through mere logical analysis or logical construction to understand the ordered field of dynamic onto-relations with which we are concerned in Christian theology, we do have access to the set of conditions within which the distinctive order they embody spontaneously manifests itself, and by indwelling that order we can come up with the anticipatory conceptions or basic clues we need in developing our cognition of it. These conditions are found within the church of Jesus Christ, the worshipping community of God’s people. It is there in the midst of the church, its fellowship of love, its meditation upon God’s self-revelation through the Holy Scriptures, its Eucharistic life, and its worship of the Father through the Son and in the Spirit, that we become inwardly so adapted to God’s interaction with us that we learn, as Origen used to say, how to think worthily of God, that is, in a godly way appropriate to God. Just as a child by the age of five has learned an astonishing amount about the physical world to which he has become spontaneously adapted—far more than he could ever understand if he turned out to be the most brilliant of physicists—so we may learn far more than we can ever tell about God within the fellowship of the church, insofar as the church, of course, is genuinely committed to responsible participation in the gospel. It is as within the communion of the Spirit we learn obedience to God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ, and instead of being conformed to the cultural patterns of this world are inwardly transformed through a radical change of our mind, that we are able to discern the will of God and acquire the basic insights we need if we are really to develop our knowledge of him in a clear, articulate way. That is to say, within the interpersonal life of the church as the body of Christ and its actualization of corporate reciprocity with God in the space and time of this world, we find not only that we ourselves are personally assimilated into the onto-relational structures that arise, but that our minds becomes disposed to apprehend God through profoundly intelligible, although non-formalizable (or at least not completely formalizable) relations and structures of thought. We are spiritually and intellectually implicated in patterns of order that are beyond our powers to articulate in explicit terms, but we are aware of being apprehended by divine Truth which steadily presses for increasing realization in our understanding. As far as I can see from the writings of the fathers, that is how classical patristic theology, such as we find coming to expression in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed and the conciliar theology that grew out of it, actually developed as it laid the foundation upon which all subsequent Christian theology rests.

It is, I believe, still within the matrix of the Eucharistic worship and meditation upon the Holy Scriptures, and evangelical experience in the fellowship and mission of the church, that the empirical and theoretical components in our knowledge of God are found fused together, in a kind of stereoscopic coordination of perceptual and auditive images, and thus provide us with the cognitive instruments we need for explicit theological understanding of God’s interaction with us.4

It is within the Church that the Truth forces itself upon us as we are retuned to the wavelength of reality.
If we are to follow a ‘personal’ understanding of truth we will soon observe a number of divergences from the manner in which the world generally conceives of truth and knowledge.5 We will notice that when the locus of truth shifts from depersonalized brute facts to the personal Christ, truth becomes far more than bare facticity. For Christ to be ‘true’ is for Him to be reliable and trustworthy. If truth is ultimately personal, then the promises of God become identified with truth in a very special way.6 Truth is also orientated towards the future. Christ is the Truth because in Him all of the promises of God are ‘Yea and Amen’. He is the reality of God’s future come into our present.
If truth is ultimately personal, ‘knowledge of the truth’ can never be mere cerebral apprehension of objects of knowledge. If we are to ‘know’ the Truth we must ‘do the truth’. Our relationship with the Truth is a living personal reality because the truth is ultimately a personal life. John Zizioulas observes that truth can never be primarily a matter of ‘epistemology’, as it is connected with life and not with being alone. For the Christian, life is not a quality added to some substratum of being — life is something that we are, not something that we have. Zizioulas writes:—
Christ is the truth not because he is an epistemological principle which explains the universe, but because he is life and the universe of beings finds its meaning in its incorruptible existence in Christ, who takes up into Himself … the whole of creation and history. Being is inconceivable outside of life, and because of this the ontological nature of truth resides in the idea of life.
By bringing together life and being, truth is seen to be both historical and ontological — both praxis and ‘being for ever’.
Any practical / theoretical division is impermissible. This division, enshrined in many seminaries and forms of theological education, separates ‘timeless truths’ about the being of God and other such things from the facts of history. Peter Leithart writes:—
[T]heology is often conceived as a theoretical science, which can, at some secondary moment, be “applied” to practical life. Theology is theory, and the process of “application” serves as a bridge to connect it to the practical lives of Christians and the Church. Heidegger better captured the flavor of Christian teaching when he wrote that “every theological statement and concept addresses itself in its very content to the faith-full existence of the individual in the community.” When I teach that the persons of the Trinity live in eternal perichoretic unity, I am not merely making an ontological, first-order claim about the nature of reality—though I am doing that. I am not teaching a “timeless truth” that has to be “applied” to the ever shifting realities of an historical community. Rather, I teach about the Trinity as a way of regulating the language and practice of the Church, especially her language and practice in worship. Properly, all teaching is application.7
How then can we know? It should be apparent by now that knowledge is ultimately found in communion. As N.T. Wright has observed, love is the supreme manifestation of knowledge. Knowledge, although it apprehends ‘something other than the knower’, is ‘never itself independent of the knower.’8 There is no such thing as a neutral, objective or detached knower. In the act of knowing God — or rather, being known by God — the knower himself is transformed. This should be recognized as a challenge to the subject / object distinction. With such a distinction, knowledge must always precede love and truth must always precede communion.9 The subject / object way of understanding truth separates thought and action, theoretical and practical. It also, as Zizioulas observes, sunders person from nature. By making created existence into an ultimate point of reference, one refuses to make being dependent upon communion. The ‘truth of being’ — treated as ‘given’ rather than as ‘gift’ — is granted priority over the ‘truth of communion’. The ultimacy of particularity is, Zizioulas argues, a consequence of the Fall, as following the Fall communion is no longer constitutive of being. The ‘ultimate content of truth’ becomes the substance or nature of things, without reference to anything beyond itself. Things are now treated as true in themselves and not in their relationship to God. A person is a being in communion and is a revelation of truth as a ‘mode of existence’. The person is both particular and in communion. In Greek thought personhood was something added to prior being. In Christian thought personhood is constitutive of being. ‘The mystery of being a person lies in the fact that here otherness and communion are not in contradiction but coincide.’10 True personhood can only exist when being is restored as communion. Christ is a person whose two natures are not divided but co-exist in communion without denying their ‘otherness’ to each other. As the Christian finds his life hidden with Christ in God, personhood is restored as constitutive of being.11 In the light of Christology and the restoration of our personhood in Him, the question of truth is no longer one concerned with the abstract individual and impersonal ‘nature’, but is always a personal question. How can we know the Truth? We know the Truth through the communion of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ. As we are brought into a participatory relationship with Christ, who is the Truth, we come to ‘know’ the Truth.
Because Christ is the Truth, truth can never be disembodied. Truth has been and is incarnated. History has meaning only because it is taken up in Christ. In creation man is constituted as a living being by the loving, creating will of God. Zizioulas argues that it is the ‘ultimate will of God’s love which unifies beings and points to the meaning of being’ and not ‘being as such’.12 It is the incarnate Christ who can be identified with the ultimate will of God’s love. The ‘personification’ of God’s loving will is Jesus Christ. Once this is recognized, we should appreciate that God’s loving will is seen in His creation of humanity and it is this loving will that will be consummated when all things are gathered together in Christ. Creation was always designed to be consummated in Christ. The consummation of creation is seen as all things are brought together in the incarnated Son.13 The Church is called to live out of the life of the incarnate Son. It is His true humanity that makes possible our true humanity. The manner in which we live our lives must always be held in relationship with the life of Christ. To live a ‘true’ life is not to accord to neutral principles of ethics that all men of common sense agree upon; rather the ‘true’ life is the life lived out of the live of the incarnate Son. Ethics can never be separated from their root in Christ.
Scripture is a revelation of Christ Himself and not merely a revelation of truths about Christ. From what has already been said about the priority of man’s knowledge of God, I believe that Scripture must be in some sense self-authenticating. Man can certainly know Christ truly in the Word. However, it is impossible for man to know the Word comprehensively because it is impossible for Him to know God comprehensively. The Truth will always retain its character as a mystery. Nevertheless, this is not a mystery that denies us true knowledge. Rather, it is a mystery that is compatible with true knowledge, although this knowledge is suffused with apparent contradiction throughout and is always incomplete. Even as God reveals Himself He remains mysterious and hidden. The Bible can never be treated as a closed revelation that can be ruled over by human logic. As it is the personal Christ — the Truth Himself — who is revealed in the Word, human logic will never be able to circumscribe or comprehend the truth of Scripture. Grammatical-historical exegesis, although it has its place (more on this in a future post, God-willing), will always have to recognize the fact that Scripture is not a closed system. As it is the transcendent God who reveals Himself in Scripture, all logic ultimately has to bow before the mystery. As Christians we should reject the false either-or of full certainty or radical skepticism. Man is created in the image of God and is, consequently, able to have true, albeit ‘analogical’ knowledge of God.
When we speak of God’s Word being ‘true’ we should beware of classifying Scripture according to some preconceived notion of what truth actually looks like. We need to pay attention to the fact that truth for the Christian is understood in relationship to the personal God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and not in terms of the brute facts of history and the universe. Ultimately the Truth of God’s Word is seen in the fact that God is faithful and will not betray us. We can live by the words that proceed from His mouth and build our whole existence upon His promises. Indeed, this is essentially what faith is — faith is finding our true living being in the reality-filled promises of God, which are, in their full reality, nothing other than Christ Himself. As I intimated earlier, truth for the Christian is seen to be rooted in the promises and Word of God. The Word of God must, therefore, provide the final reference point and authority when we are seeking to determine truth. For the Christian there can be nothing more determinative than the voice of God in the Church. I am well aware of some of the problems that attach themselves to the doctrine of sola scriptura when it is approached in the individualistic manner of most evangelicals. However, I am convinced of the absolute necessity of at least some form of this doctrine. All of the words of man, insofar as they are true, point away from themselves to the Word of God Himself. Even the great creeds, confessions and catechisms of the Christian Church are not the Truth in themselves but are confessions of the One who is the Truth. Our words are not the Truth, Christ is. Torrance observes:—
Just as the gracious self-giving of God calls in question all forms of moral self-justification on our part, so it calls in question all forms of epistemic self-verification on our part. By the very act of putting us freely in the Right and Truth of God, justification tells us that we are in untruth. To seek verification on any other ground than that which God has freely provided for us is to falsify the gospel at its very basis, no less than to seek moral justification on any other ground than that which he has freely provided in the Righteousness of Christ. Hence justification or verification by the Grace of God’s Truth alone brings us with all our preconceptions and prior knowledge radically into question. By being put in the truth with God we are told that Jesus Christ is our Truth, that we have to look away from ourselves, our concepts and formulations, to him alone, and that therefore we dare not boast of a truth of our own. This applies, however, not only to all prior knowledge, for at every point in our ongoing theological thinking and speaking we have to let our knowledge, our theology, our doctrinal formulations, be called into question by the very Christ toward whom they point, for he alone is their proper Truth.14
The very act of being known by and knowing the Truth is one that transforms us. The transformation of the knower is essential if we are truly to know the Truth of God. Apart from the Spirit of God man cannot know the Truth, because the Truth is spiritually discerned. Individuals certainly know the working of the Holy Spirit. However, the Holy Spirit has been given to the Church as a whole to bring us as a body to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. If we would know the Truth it is essential that we belong to the Church. This is not to say that the voice of the Church is as authoritative as the voice of Scripture. Certainly not! Rather, it is to maintain that the Church is the place in which God chiefly transforms us into people who know Him. Much more could be said. However, these scattered thoughts will have to suffice for the present. Endnotes

1 John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Volume One — Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003) p.859. (return)

2 Stanley Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2001) p.15. (return)

3 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1967) p.42. (return)

4 T.F. Torrance, Reality & Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999) pp.48-49 (return)

5 Aaron Stewart made some helpful comments on this subject a while back. (return)

6 Being As Communion, p.68 (return)

7 Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003) p.44 (return)

8 N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992) p.35 (return)

9 Being As Communion, p.104 (return)

10 Ibid, p.106 (return)

11 Notice that personhood is restored as constitutive of being. Were covenant subsequent to creation, as many Reformed theologians argue, the relationship between personhood and being would be ruptured. This issue may appear to be minor to many, but it is perhaps one of the most important questions facing the Reformed churches today. The answer given to this question will have a determinative effect for the whole of the rest of our theology. It does not surprise me that many strongly oppose the idea that creation never exists apart from covenant as the denial of this idea is hardwired into many Reformed theological methodologies. (return)

12 Being As Communion, p.97 (return)

13 See my recent comments on Barth’s doctrine of election. (return)

14 Reality & Evangelical Theology, p.148 (return)

...and the Pontificator posted a link to this yesterday:
Interview with Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England

Thanks to Jim West for this link.
Tom Wright — The spirit of the age

Saturday, May 29, 2004

John Colwell on Barth's Doctrine of Election 

Karl Barth has frequently been accused of holding a particular form of universalism. In “The Contemporaneity of the Divine Decision: Reflections on Barth’s Denial of ‘Universalism’” [Nigel M. de S. Cameron (ed.), Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1992) pp.139-160] John Colwell seeks to defend Barth from this charge. According to Colwell,
…for Barth, the doctrine of election is that which determines the theological definition of all men and women. Human existence is not some autonomous state determined by a man or woman’s own being and actions, it is rather determined by God’s gracious decision of election. Jesus Christ himself is both the electing God and the elected man. He himself has borne God’s rejection on behalf of all men and women and he himself is the elect of God: all who are elect are so exclusively in him and, since all men and women are defined ontologically as elect in him, there can be no other authentic definition of humanity…. For Barth, the true object of the doctrine of election is not some abstract concept of humanity in general, nor the totality of the human race, nor particular individuals; the true and sole object of election is Jesus Christ himself… [145]
Colwell maintains that, for Barth, the person who rejects God’s gracious election has chosen that possibility which God has, in Christ, determined to be impossible. How can this be maintained without going on to assert universalism? Colwell argues that ‘Barth’s concern is with a definition of being rather than with any assumption regarding the actual being of particular individuals, a concern for the ontological rather than for the ontic [147-8].’ Humanity has been declared elect in the ‘royal’ human — Jesus Christ. In the life of Christ the realization of God’s ordination for humanity occurred. Corresponding to God’s choice of mankind for Himself, was Christ’s choice of Himself for God. True humanity in us is realized on the basis of its prior realization in Christ. As we live in faith and obedience true humanity is actualized. [John Webster (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000) p.107]. Those who choose against God’s ordination in Christ are falsifying the true meaning of their being and existence. They are choosing the ‘impossible possibility’. Although all men and women are ontologically defined as elect in Christ, this does not imply universalism. The actual election of men and women only occurs through the continuing activity of God. Colwell quotes Barth:—
It is always the concern of God to decide what is the world and the human totality for which the man Jesus Christ is elected, and which is itself elected in and with Him. It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which continually decides this. For the fact that Jesus Christ is the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards the whole world and every man is an enduring event which is continually fulfilled in new encounters and transactions, in which God the Father lives and works through the Son, in which the Son of God Himself, and the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, lives and works at this or that place or time, in which He rouses and finds faith in this or that men, in which He is recognized and apprehended by this and that man in the promise and in their election — by one here and one there, and therefore by many men.
Seemingly for Barth, election is not some past completed decision in ‘eternity past’. Rather election is something that is continually being actualized by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Colwell seeks to demonstrate how Barth’s view of election ties in with his understanding of God’s eternity. For Barth, God’s eternity is not ‘absolute otherness to time’. God’s eternity is rather His ‘freely chosen time’. God’s eternity is ‘pure simultaneity’; past, present and future are all equally and simultaneously present to God, without denying their distinctions. There is some analogy to be observed between God’s eternity and God’s omnipresence; just as God’s omnipresence does not negate space, so God’s eternity does not negate time. In the incarnation God takes our time to Himself, ‘permitting created time to become and be the form of His eternity.’ He becomes ‘present for us in the form of our own existence and our own world.’ God, however, is not trapped in the succession of time that we experience. God is not ruled over by time, but possesses time freely. Once we have understood Barth’s understanding of God’s eternity, his doctrine of election starts to take clearer shape. For Barth, God’s decision of election is a continual dynamic decision rather than a static decision of the past. God can never be trapped within His ‘primal decision’, because His decision is ‘authentically temporal’ and includes within it past, present and future. When Barth’s doctrine of election is considered in its relationship with his understanding of God’s eternity ‘the divine decision to elect is seen to be contemporaneous with the human history of those elected.’ Does this mean that election ceases to be a truly ‘divine’ decision? If all men are elect in Christ is the only thing that determines the actual inclusion or exclusion of individuals in this election a mere human decision? Barth has been accused of understanding the human act of faith primarily in noetic terms. Faith for Barth is the human act that identifies men and women as Christians. Barth argues that it is not creative but cognitive in character. Colwell argues that it is important to appreciate that, for Barth, ‘knowledge’ can never be the mere ‘acquisition of neutral information.’ In the process of biblical knowledge ‘that which is known confronts and totally transforms the knower.’ The human act of faith may only have a cognitive rather than a creative character, but it occurs as a result of the creative event of the Holy Spirit which transforms the being of the Christian. That which distinguishes the elect is the Holy Spirit’s effectual call. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that that which is already an actuality in the person of Jesus Christ is made actual in man. By the Holy Spirit, the ontological connection between Jesus Christ and men and women is made an existential reality. Consequently election is truly a divine decision. Those who have not been effectually called are not to be looked upon as unelect, but rather as only apparently rejected. This is, of course, not to deny the possibility of the ‘impossible possibility’ of final rejection.
Putting the pieces together. The doctrine of election ontologically defines all human beings. The whole human race is loved by God in Christ. The definition of humanity is determined by God’s love in Christ. To be truly human is to be elect in Christ. Those who reject this definition choose an ‘impossible possibility’ and deny the true meaning of their existence and being. This, however, is not the same as universalism. Humanity’s election in Christ is an ontological definition and not an ontic actualization. Human rejection of God’s electing love towards the whole humanity in Christ is a possibility, albeit an ‘impossible’ possibility. That it is an ‘impossible possibility’ is merely to say that it is made under the ‘non-willing’ of God. God’s will has not graced this choice with any validity. That which God does not positively will, however, is under the threat of His ‘unwillingness’ and wrath, which is nothing other than the jealousy of His love. The possibility of reprobation is therefore not denied but rather affirmed by the reality of the universality of God’s love. The ‘ontic actualization’ of the election that is already an actuality in Christ in individuals is achieved by the free work of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is that which distinguishes the elect from the apparently reprobate. The result of the work of the Holy Spirit is faith. Faith itself, however, has no creative character. For Barth election is a dynamic decision contemporaneous with human history. This is due to the fact that God’s eternity is understood as authentic temporality — His freely chosen time. Election is not a decision of ‘eternity past’, rather it includes within it past, present and future. This electing decision is decidedly Trinitarian. Colwell writes:
The work of the Holy Spirit is no more an addendum to the completed work of the Son than the work of the Son is an addendum to the eternal decision of the Father.
The incarnated, crucified and resurrected Christ becomes the linchpin of the doctrine of election. In Him humanity is declared to be elect. Through the continued work of the Holy Spirit the electing decision in the Man Christ Jesus is made actual in the lives of men and women.
Whilst I still need to give a lot more consideration to Barth’s doctrine of election, I can certainly appreciate the appeal of this understanding. In my estimation, it has a number of key points in its favour. I. Election is far more rooted in the Triune God. The relationships that exist between the different Persons of the Trinity play a far more central role. The Spirit is not marginalized as He is in some forms of the doctrine of election. II. It seems to me that Barth’s doctrine of election is one that can be essentially constructed from the materials provided by Christology. Its Christocentric character (although perhaps occasionally at risk of the excesses of Christomonism) protects it from a depersonalized determinism. God’s election is always personal. The content of this decree has been revealed in the incarnate Christ in whom election is actualized and so the doctrine need not threaten us. Rather the doctrine of election directs our attention to Christ Himself. It is through a personal relationship with the Elect One by the Spirit that we can know our own election as a reality. III. Barth’s understanding of eternity can help to relieve some of the problems that attach themselves to the concept of election in ‘eternity past’. If God’s decree is an abstract decree in ‘eternity past’ determining all that will come to pass, one cannot help but feel threatened by it. Whether we are elect or not, it does seem to depersonalize us. Within such a decree human decision not only seems to be denied any ultimacy (which is a good thing), it also seems to be virtually negated altogether (which is not, in my opinion, a good thing). If everything has been predetermined in ‘eternity past’ does not history risk becoming a meaningless charade? I believe that Barth’s approach is suggestive of ways in which we can maintain the authenticity of human decisions, while still maintaining the absolute sovereignty of God. No longer does a prior decision of the Father in ‘eternity past’ make election appear to be a fait accompli to be ‘outworked’ within history. More weight can be placed on the reality of God’s sovereignty in history. The sovereign freedom of God’s work in the present can be maintained. God is not ‘imprisoned’ to merely acting out His prior decree. I believe that the very concept of ‘eternity past’ can risk threatening the freedom of God by suggesting that He is in some sense unfree in the succession of past, present and future. He would become bound by time just as we are. If God’s electing decision is dynamic and contemporaneous the reality of human freedom can be preserved without a denial of the absolute sovereignty of God. The human being that God elects is not an abstract conception in God’s own mind, but is a real concrete living person ‘other’ to God Himself. The man is certainly not autonomous, but this does not mean that he is a tabula rasa. Those elected by God in Christ are men who were created to bear His image. They are men in concrete situations and men who live in concrete relationships. They are not Cartesian individuals. The importance of the Church and the means of grace will not be threatened by such an understanding of election. The importance of the historical aspect of election can now be seen without condemning the doctrine to merely exist in history. Election never becomes a mere historical decision, nor does it become a decision pre-existing and determining history from afar: God’s elects in His ‘authentic temporality’. Redemptive history and eschatology can play a far more prominent role in such understanding of election. It is interesting that, in Scripture, election is related to eschatology in a manner that the traditional Reformed doctrine never seems to be entirely capable of adequately doing justice to, even in its more nuanced forms. IV. Barth’s doctrine explains how the universal offer of the gospel can be grounded in a universal love of God without subscribing to the doctrine of universalism. V. Barth seems to provide a far more compelling account of anthropology. Barth’s doctrine of election relates anthropology and Christology in a far more satisfying manner than the traditional doctrine. God is saving a ‘human totality’ and a ‘world’, not just individuals. This, however, does not demand universalism. By claiming that election in Christ ontologically defines all men and women as elect in Christ, Barth provides us with the materials by which we can relate the old humanity to the new humanity without confusing them. As Tim Gallant recently observed on his blog Adam was, in some sense, created ‘in the Son’. True ‘anthropology’ is determinatively revealed in the incarnate Son. As John Zizioulas observes, the ‘substratum of existence is not being but love’ — one might also say ‘not bare creation, but covenant — creation as covenant.’ Mankind was created by the loving will of God ‘in the Son’. All things were made with Christ in mind. God’s loving will is identifiable with the final consummation of creation in communion with God ‘in Christ’ (the incarnate Son). The incarnate Son is the personification of God’s loving will. The understanding of anthropology that this leads us to is beautifully Christological, ecclesiological and eschatological. The true being of humanity is with Christ in God. This true being is yet future but this future invades the present in the reality-filled anticipation of this future that is the Church as the Body of Christ — the gift of the future in the present. Exegesis of Colossians 3:1-11 should bear out most of these points beautifully. Much more could be said, but I will stop here. I was surprised to notice how much my own thoughts had converged with those of Barth on this issue, even prior to my reading him on the subject. If I have time in the next few months I might try to give more attention to the issue.
Tomorrow is Tax Freedom Day. However, if you take public borrowing into account, you will have to wait until June 11. Americans had their Tax Freedom Day on April 11.
Some interesting comments on regeneration in John 3. Thoughts?

Friday, May 28, 2004

The Paul Page Bulletin Board

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

A small world Over the last few weeks I have had at least four or five strange 'real life' connections come to my attention through the blogosphere or vice versa. It is amazing how many mutual friends and acquaintances one can share with people on the other side of the globe. These mutual friends and acquaintances aren't always the ones that you would expect either. I have discovered a number of surprising connections with Christians on the other side of the world who I know through the blogosphere. I have also made a few 'real life' friends through activity online. It seems to me that online communities are not as divorced from concrete communities as one might expect, particularly in the case of Christian communities. I have a theory that I could connect every single person on my blog list to any other person on the list in three or four steps or less. In almost every case there would be a number of possible routes. It would be a colossal waste of time to try to prove this, but I'm sure that it could be done.
I find it hard to feel that sorry about the destruction of some of these works of 'art'.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Reformed Catholicism

Update on news... Things are slowly starting to get back to normal here. All of my essays and my dissertation are out of the way. I have no more speaking engagements in the immediate future. The last few weeks have been extremely hectic, not least due to all of the things going on for the various wedding celebrations. I managed to get quite a bit of work done, but feel exhausted at the end of it all. Following a number of years of illness in the past my health has not always been up to coping with such an intense schedule, but I seem to have managed this time. I now hope to get out of the habit of 3a.m. bedtimes. Yesterday I finally got to see the physiotherapist about my ankle, which I injured about three months ago. I have been given a number of exercises. Hopefully I will be able to run on it again by the end of the summer. Today I updated my links, a number of which were out of date. I now hope to be able to get into my Greek revision and catch up on some of my posting. I will probably take things a bit easier for the next day or so though.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Brad Pitt's a Nick Drake fan — you learn something new every day!

One of the country’s oldest denominations, which counts the founder of the world wide web as an adherent, is in terminal decline and will be extinct within decades, one of its senior ministers has said.

The Unitarian movement, a dissenting church that grew out of the Reformation and denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, has fewer than 6,000 members in Britain; half of whom are aged over 65. Many of its chapels are struggling financially.

Senior figures in the organisation believe that, in terms of organisation and structure, the movement could disappear within a generation....

There are more than 180 Unitarian congregations in Britain. Unitarian ministers conduct naming ceremonies and most will perform same-sex blessings. They hold Sunday services with hymns and “worship of the divine”.

I am not about to shed any tears about this news. Unfortunately the reason behind the decline of the Unitarian Church is, ironically, its success. The article goes on to say:

As a proponent of rational, scientific inquiry combined with belief in God, Unitarianism was a natural home for post-Enlightenment scientists, writers and philosophers who rejected the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

But now that it is no longer illegal to embrace a non-Trinitarian belief, and many churches turn a blind eye to “believers” who have liberal views on traditional doctrines, there is not the demand for the Unitarian movement that there was.

The doctrine of the Trinity has been so mauled by liberal and feminist theologians that we no longer need the Unitarians to do it for us. The Trinity in many evangelical churches has been sidelined in worship that is, to all intents and purposes, unitarian. Our worship is no longer entirely shaped by the Trinity but is often directed at a far vaguer conception of God. The Trinity is little more than a 'doctrine', an excuse for not being JWs or Mormons. We should not be surprised at the loss of assurance and the individualism that results when the Trinity loses its centrality. The more that I think about it, the more I am persuaded that many of the recent debates in Reformed circles over such 'movements' as Auburn Avenue and even the New Perspective, are essentially debates about the way that the Trinity functions in theology. Soteriology has often been detched from theology proper and it should not surprise us that our understanding of soteriology needs careful reworking as we begin to recapture the importance of the Trinity. A great place to start is with the work of Ralph Smith.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

I have just finished listening to this debate on paedocommunion between Tim Gallant and Steve Schlissel. I will readily admit that I found Tim's argument by far the most persuasive (for some more of Tim's thoughts on this subject see his website, listen to this talk or, best of all, read his book). One thing that Schlissel brought up in the course of the debate was the fact that the Last Supper was celebrated with men only. He argues from this that women and children do not need to participate in the Supper. I find this utterly unpersuasive. Underlying this argument is a principle which one regularly comes across in Reformed arguments for such practices as paedobaptism. The principle is that the headship of the father of the family functions in exactly the same way in the new covenant as it does in the old. I have commented on this in the past and have argued that any argument for paedobaptism must pay careful attention to the fact that the Church reinvents the family. The biological family loses its exclusivity once it is brought into the Church. Just as the authority of the state does not exist in the same way in the Church (as the Church is the new nation), nor does the authority of the family (as the Church is the new family). What I am saying here is not the same as some of the arguments from 'sphere sovereignty' that some present. My argument is based on the Church as the eschatological society. This means that we should not place it on the same plane as other institutions of 'this age'; the Church is the order of 'the age to come'. The family will not exist in the same way in heaven, but the Church as the fulfilment of the family will. The Church is a reality-filled anticipation of this future (most especially in the Lord's Supper) and so our celebration of the Lord's Supper must demonstrate the manner in which the Church transcends the old family order as the family is fulfilled in Christ and the Church (cf. Matthew 12:48-50). I get frustrated by the familialism and patriarchalism that exists in some Reformed circles. I am happily single and do not want to be looked upon as a second-class citizen. Hey, in the Church even eunuchs have a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters (Isaiah 56) — give us singletons a break! In the Last Supper we see the heads of the new household and nation of the Church — the Twelve Apostles (Ephesians 2:19-20). Only they could have represented all the women and children in the Church in the manner that Schlissel's argument would seem to demand. The important thing is not that they were men or even husbands, but that they were members of the Twelve.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Thoughts on Scripture II 

This is a continuation of my previous comments on Scripture. Within this post I will hopefully be expanding on some of my previous comments and exploring some of the implications for how we are to engage with the Scriptures. There will probably be at least one more post after this, which will deal more closely with the place of tradition. Please forgive the rough and disorganized nature of these notes. So far I have particularly attacked the idea of Scripture’s authority residing in the truth of its witness to primary events. I have suggested that there is a difference between reading and hearing the Bible, something I will open up a bit more in this post. I have pointed to Wright’s illustration of Scripture as an authoritative story and have questioned an approach to inerrancy that operates with a preconceived notion of what truth actually looks like.
For many evangelicals, the meaning of the Bible is only understood insofar as we understand what the text meant when it was first given. This leads to an over-reliance on a ‘scientific’ model of understanding the truth of Scripture. The grammatical-historical method seeks to uncover the original meaning of the text by paying close attention to the original context in which its words were written. The meaning of the text is established as we establish what the text meant when it was first written. As valuable as the grammatical-historical approach to exegesis can be, it falls far short of the sort of engagement that I believe that we ought to be having with Scripture. There are a number of problems with those who interpret the Bible using this method alone. An idolatrous quest for objectivity. Many evangelicals today believe that we should all strive to become objective, detached exegetes. Our treatment of Scripture should be scientific and we should refuse to allow anything as subjective as intuition to play a role. Once we have objectively established the true meaning of Scripture we can apply it to our current situations. The Bible, however, is the covenant document. Its purpose is not primarily that of conveying cold, hard facts. The objective exegete is as ill-suited for grasping the full meaning of Scripture as he would be for establishing the full meaning of a love letter. Were the purpose of the Bible merely that of conveying a list of detached facts, the objective exegete might be the man for the task. However, the Bible is all about God’s relationship with His people. The purpose of the language of Scripture is frequently not that of conveying bare information, but is that of deepening relationship. An immanentistic notion of truth. Many, believing that the authority of the text lies purely in its true account of historical or soteriological facts, fail to appreciate the significance of the transcendent and ‘continually arriving’ source of Scripture. The Bible, as the Word of God, should not be subjected to a ‘fetishization’ of the ‘lost original’. Such a view betrays a denial of the temporal nature of God’s revelation and of our situation: God does not reveal His truth in time in order to then abstract that truth from time in a spatialization of truth in some detached system. God reveals His truth in time so that, through the living Word and our continued engagement with it, we may be transformed into His image. The Word was not made flesh in order to be spatialized in some sterile and undying text. Rather, the Bible is to function as the living voice of Christ in His Church. The Bible is God’s self-revelation. It is not so much the revelation of truths about God as it is the unveiling of God Himself; God is really present in His revelation. What we come to know in Scripture are not mere facts about God; what we come to know in Scripture is the Triune God Himself in His personal presence. We must appreciate the open nature of God’s revelation. God’s self-revelation is not some closed event in the past, but is a living reality in the present. As we engage with the Scripture Christ reveals Himself within it.
Peter Enns, in his thought-provoking article ‘Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture’, observes that biblical interpretation is more like ‘a path to walk than a fortress to be defended.’ I couldn’t agree more. The Bible isn’t a mere reservoir of facts — whether historical or soteriological — but is the voice of the Bridegroom to His Bride. By this voice the Bridegroom leads His Bride out of the world, purifying her, perfecting her, granting her to exercise authority and protecting her. Scripture is the living and powerful creative Word that forms the Church. Scripture is the vocation of the Church. As the Church listens to and engages in conversation with Scripture, she is led in her pilgrimage.
The Bible isn’t merely a record of what God said in the past. Rather, the Bible is God’s living Word to us today. The Bible is the voice of God in the continuing conversation between heaven and earth. This conversation takes place primarily in the corporate worship of the people of God. If we are not participants in the dialogue of worship, we are ill-equipped to be interpreters of the Word. The more embedded we are in the continuing conversation between Christ and His Church, the more we will be able to interpret Scripture. The Bible isn’t merely some attempt to recapture the ‘original (immanent) source’. The Bible, rather, is that by which we are continually held open to the ‘continually arriving’ transcendent source, hearing God Himself continually speaking directly to us. We have no right to circumscribe the origin of the Word and rule it out as a continued conversation partner. As the origin of the Word is transcendent, it is impossible to circumscribe.
By using the language of hearing Scripture, rather than that of reading Scripture, we can to some degree guard ourselves against the danger of ‘fetishizing’ origins. Many, obsessed with the ‘lost original’, believe that Scripture is the undying ‘spatialization’ of this ‘lost original’ and fail to appreciate the fact that Scripture is a new and different performance in itself. Scripture is a dynamic conversation partner and, when we speak of ‘hearing’ Scripture rather than ‘reading’ Scripture I believe that we have a better sense of this. One of the practices that bugs me — not least because, to my shame, it is a habit that I myself have to get out of — is that of reading along in my Bible when the Word of God is being read aloud by the pastor. This practice puts us in a questionable relationship to the Word in a number of respects. Peter Leithart writes:—
Both seeing and hearing are associated with authority, though in different ways. Scripturally, the eye is the organ of judgment; to look and see is to stand in authority over something. (It’s no accident that modern man gives priority to sight, “seeing is believing” is the credo of scientific man.) There are occasions when human beings are called to “see” and “judge,” even to “see” that the Lord is good. When the Lord speaks though, we should be in a posture of those under judgment. Scripturally, the ear is the organ of submission; when we “listen,” “give ear,” or “hear,” we are yielding authority to the speaker. Reading along with the eye while the Scripture is being read puts us in the wrong stance in relation to the Word. It is over us; we are not over it.
We must also recognize that reading (not reading aloud) is a very private practice. However, the Bible is addressing us as the Body of Christ and not merely as a collection of isolated individuals. Furthermore, sound and speech, as many people have observed, is something peculiar to living beings. You may be able to see, touch, taste and smell a dead animal. However, generally it is only a living animal that makes any sound. By focusing upon looking at the Word on the page, rather than hearing it proclaimed, we become more inclined to be judges over the Word. The corpus of Scripture is not to be dissected by the detached exegete, for Scripture is the living voice of God that dissects us, ‘piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow,’ being ‘a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’ One dissects a corpse, one must respond in an utterly different manner to the living voice of the God who created you. The preached Word renders us naked and open in God’s sight, rather than presenting the Word naked and open in our sight. The Word always retains its power, vitality and mystery and can never be comprehended and spatialized as a detached collection of objects of knowledge by us. Herein lies part of my concern about images of Christ: images of Christ can all too easily eclipse the dynamism of the speaking voice. The Christ of many icons is ‘passive’, lying in His mother’s arms as an infant or dead body, or hanging upon the cross. The image or icon of Christ always has a strong tendency to idolatry (whether this tendency is followed or not). The idol is a ‘spatialization’ of God that enables us to exert control over Him. Rather than appreciating the transcendence of God, the image can be an attempt to render Him a manipulable object within our world, just as the ‘fetishization’ of the ‘lost original’ fails to recognize the continuous arriving of the transcendent source. I believe that this is related to the manner in which many evangelicals have made an idol out of the printed Scripture. The voice of the preached Word, however, is never lifeless. It is this voice which serves to animate us, by the breath of the Spirit. It is the Word of Christ that ‘dwells in us richly’. The living voice is far harder to depersonalize. The living voice always compels, confronts and quickens us. It is the living voice that cuts us up and presents us as lifeless in God’s presence. It is the living voice that brings bone together with bone, clothes us with sinews, flesh and skin and raises us to new life by the inbreathing of the Spirit. A further danger of ‘reading along’ with the pastor is that it gives the false impression that we are all engaged in the same act. However, the pastor stands as the symbol of Christ in His Church. Christ is the Man of the Spirit whose voice brings life. When we hear the pastor proclaiming Scripture we are to listen to His voice as that of Christ Himself. The pastor is the real symbol of Christ’s authority over His Church. If we confuse the pastor’s proclamation of the Word with our act of reading along we will gradually fall into an egalitarian form of ecclesiology, which fails to recognize the differentiated ministries within the Church. This, of course, leads to the feminization of the pulpit and many of the other errors that now afflict the evangelical churches.
Any group that proclaims the individual ‘quiet time’ as a sufficient substitute for coming under the preaching of the Word by the ordained representative of Christ in the Church is in grave error. We should never confuse the significance of the Word preached with the significance of the written Word privately read off the page. I am convinced that the written Word privately read off the page has a place in the Church. However, it can never be the primary place. Where it does have the primary place, one soon discovers that the self-styled ‘Bereans’ are not standing under the authority of Scripture at all, but are exalting their own private judgment as the final authority. Even from what we have observed so far, this should come as no surprise. The rotten fruit of this view of Scripture is clear to see throughout evangelicalism. Our chief contact with the Word of God should always take the form of the preaching of the ordained representative and symbol of Jesus Christ (the representative must be a masculine man — only such a person can be a ‘symbol’ of Christ) in the assembly of the people of God.
Every other form of contact that we have with the Word of God is secondary to that which we have in the context of the worship of the Church. This is where the speaking Christ reveals Himself most clearly. We must always remember that the conversation with Scripture only ordinarily takes place within the borders of the Church. To be brought into the Church is to be brought into the conversation that has been ongoing since Mount Sinai. We should not interpret the Bible as autonomous, objective exegetes, but as members of a conversation that has been going on between God and His people for millennia. If we want to discover the meaning of the voice of Scripture we will discover it as we immerse ourselves more and more into this conversation. The Church is the conversation partner and the place where the conversation talks place (i.e. in worship). Anyone who believes that he can understand the Scriptures whilst ignoring the Church is sorely mistaken. The Church gave us the canon as the Scriptures are a personal message addressed to the Church and the Church hears and recognizes the voice of her Master and Beloved. The word of the Church is not the final word; it is the voice of Scripture that started the conversation and it must always have the final Word.
The Church is the interpretation of Scripture and so must always be open to be challenged by the living voice of Scripture. The truth of Scripture must never be relegated merely to the cerebral quarters of man’s anatomy; rather, the Word is recreating us as a new people in Christ. In worship the Word addresses us in a differentiated manner — as audible, visible, edible, drinkable, tangible — drawing the whole of our beings into the encounter. We are washed with the Word in the ritual of Baptism. We eat and drink the Word in the ritual of the Supper. We hear the Word in preaching. We sing the Word in the Psalms. We confess the Word in creeds. We are not under the authority of the Word until we are within the Church, for it is only within the Church that we are brought under the authority of the Word in every aspect of our being. [We must also remember that man as a person is inescapably a ‘being in communion’. The Church is a restoration of man as a being in communion, both with God and with his neighbour and is consequently essential to salvation.] In worship we are called to subordinate every part of ourselves to the Word. We are made members of one another by our engagement with the eschatological Word encountered in the Supper. Our various languages are reorientated by the Pentecostal language of worship. Our various histories are reintegrated into God’s history by the call to worship and subsequent absolution. As Peter Leithart observes, our physical bodies are subordinated to the Word through the choreography of liturgy — kneeling to confess, standing to hear, sitting to eat and drink, etc. The Church is also a memorializing community. For the Church memory is far more than the ‘repeated glance’ at a ‘spatialized’ truth of Christ’s death. In the Supper memory is inseparable from anticipation and does not negate time, but fulfills it as it transcends it. The Church memorializes Christ Himself, not just Christ’s death. As a number of liturgies reveal, this memorializing includes His future coming. Each successive memorial of Christ — the One who is the same yesterday, today and forever — is a new and different performance in itself, an enacted prayer, carrying a different force in different settings. Christ’s death in the past is fruitfully ‘present’ every time that we celebrate the Supper. The events that we memorialize are not dead and ‘closed’ events in the past but are open and living realities that we are brought into (e.g. we are baptized into Christ’s death). Nevertheless, eschatological tensions are never dissolved into an atemporal ‘spatialization’. When we confess the history of God’s dealings in salvation we do not refer to past events that are ‘spatialized’ and abstract, but to events that are continually fruitful and pregnant with promise (God’s deeds in the past are ‘reality-filled promises’ for the future). Furthermore, each of our personal stories is retold by the story of the Word. The events that we memorialize are events that are powerfully present. As the story of God is told within the Church, it becomes our story.1 This is not our achievement, but is the achievement of the Word Himself.
Ecclesiology can never be laid to one side when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures. The form of our Church communities will determine how we will engage with Scripture; much of modern fundamentalist evangelicalism is singularly unequipped to do so. Stories have been replaced by slogans, the sacraments are devalued and the centrality of the preached Word is increasingly denied. The authority of the Word is replaced by the authority of the individual interpreter. By placing our authority to interpret the Word over that of the Word to ‘reinterpret’ us, we have become Pelagian in many ways. If the Word is not powerfully present in preaching and the sacraments to ‘renarrate’ our lives by grace — forgiving our sins, calling us dearly beloved children, addressing us those who have been chosen in love and for whom Christ has died and inviting us to eat at the Table — we will have to try to ‘renarrate’ our lives ourselves. The importance of the Word extra nos should never be denied.
The Bible is no more a mere commentary on the truths of Christianity than a love letter is a mere commentary on the truths of the relationship between the lover and the beloved. The Bible’s design is the deepening of relationship, not the mere conveying of objective facts. The Bible isn’t primarily a means by which God tells us the truths about salvation; it is primarily a means by which God accomplishes His salvation. The Bible isn’t a lifeless and closed record of past revelation; rather it is God’s means of continually revealing Himself to His people. The biblical text 'returns our gaze'. Biblical interpretation is not primarily an effort in trying to discover, return to, and limit ourselves to, the ‘original meaning’ of the text. Rather, the voice of Scripture is the voice of God calling to His people. Biblical interpretation is the response to this call and takes the form of discipleship. We are made part of the act of biblical interpretation by Baptism and we are maintained in it by feeding on the flesh and blood of the Word. The Church is the interpretative act. By the Spirit the Church is the exegesis of the Word. The Church is the living organ of the Scriptures. The Bible is not merely a record of a past dialogue but as members of the Church we engage with it as a living voice in the conversation of worship. The active presence of the story of the Word in the Church is graciously ‘translating’ and ‘interpreting’ us into the story of Christ. Endnotes

1 Stanley Hauerwas, The Hauerwas Reader (London: Duke University Press, 2001) pp.138ff. (return)

Friday, May 21, 2004

Thoughts on Scripture I 

This post is, among other things, an experiment in using footnotes (I am using them somewhat gratuitously for this reason). I would appreciate your comments on whether they work or not. I would also appreciate your comments on these thoughts. They are tentative and provisional as usual and they are quite probably in error on more than a couple of points. I have many, many more notes on this subject, particularly concerned with the exploration of the theological task, integrating my observations into ecclesiology and theology proper and the establishing of new models for reading Scripture. If I have time I might post some of them. For the time being, however, this is all that I have time to post. Unfortunately, it is quite incomplete as it stands, many of the points requiring closer study, much of which I have given elsewhere.
Should Christians really be ‘reading’ the Bible? The word ‘reading’ strikes me as quite insufficient — if not utterly inadequate — to describe the complex relationship that we should have with Scripture as the people of God. As Christians we ought to sing Scripture, tell Scripture, perform Scripture, converse with Scripture, listen to Scripture, wrestle with Scripture and be renarrated and remoulded by Scripture.1
There is always a danger that we see Scripture as merely a record of past events or ‘true commentary on Christianity.’2 As N.T. Wright observes, this leads to a displacement of authority — no longer is authority rooted in Scripture, but becomes rooted in primary events or something else.3
We should always be aware of the difference between the printed Word and the preached Word. The manner in which the Word engages with us and we engage with the Word is very important as it is quite possible to engage with the Word in the wrong way. An encounter with the printed Word is a very individual experience; an encounter with the preached Word is far more of a corporate experience. In the case of the preached Word, the Word clearly comes to us from outside. The printed Word has a tendency to lead us away from the idea of encountering the Word in the context of the corporate gathering of the people of God and lead us to believe that our primary engagement with the Word is in the context of the private study of Scripture. Coming into contact with the truth of God is gradually privatized. This can be seen in many churches where the ‘personal quiet time’ is prized more highly than the corporate worship of the people of God.
Catherine Pickstock, in her book After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy discusses the dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates and critiques Derrida. 4 Within this discussion she seeks to expose a certain way of viewing the written word that ‘fetishizes’ static presence or pure origin. Often an emphasis upon the printed word can be the result of an obsession with origins. This approach to the written word seeks to
circumvent temporality and contingency and to spatialize time by gathering up the present moment with a view to offering it to an anonymous posterity, not for the sake of interpersonal benefit through time, but as a means to ensure lasting reputation, a reflexive “gift” which does not freely inhabit time, but seeks to reclaim identically the anterior moment of donation, thus transposing time into a spatial domain.5
The printed or written word is conceived of as inert and spatial and can often be employed as a means by which to permanently possess the lost ‘original event’ that it records. When the event is recorded on the page the original event is rescued from time and placed within an ‘undying space’. However, the written or printed word needs to confess that it is ‘a new and different performance in itself’ and not an ‘identical reproduction’ that ‘stems the flow of time’. Associated to this view of the printed word and the fetishization of origins is a desire for ‘discrete, unchanging, and circumscribable facts’. This desire leads to the practice of demythologization in order to uncover the truth that underlies all of our narratives. Most modern readers are inclined to assume ‘that an historical account is true only to the extent that it describes “what actually happened”.’6 We must determine exactly how each story is rooted in fact before we put any weight on it. Such a view of truth is all too often immanentistic, preoccupied with circumscribable empirical facts, and fails to recognize the presence of mystery and the incomprehensible. That which is known is not permitted to remain open, transcendent and mysterious. Such a form of knowing treats everything as given and not as gift. No longer is that which is known ‘regarded as derived from a transcendent and constantly arriving source’;7 it is now treated as closed and sterile. Such truth is discrete truth that can be ‘contained’ as an object within a spatialized system of knowledge. On the printed page we have access to the ‘original event’ and that is paramount. Rather than recognizing the fecundity of the event in each of the repeated performances of the written text (that represents the initial offspring of the event), writing becomes an exercise in taxidermy.
‘Memory’ in these two schemes is very different. In the ‘fetishizing’ manner of treating the written word, memory is transformed into the retrieval of the sterile objects of knowledge by the ‘repeated glance’. The “given” resource of information is static, barren, will know no development and is abstracted from time. On the other hand, if we regard that through which we know as “gift”, memory takes on a far richer character. Memory is not a mere repeated glance at a sterile object of knowledge, but is rooted in a tradition of remembering that recognizes the presence of a continually arriving transcendent source. Consequently, we do not think merely in terms of a closed original ‘immanent’ source for the text but tell the story of the continual arrival of the transcendent source through the repeated performances of the text. The ‘meaning’ of the text is bound up with the story of its interpretative community.
What does all of this mean for our treatment of Scripture? Authority. We should recognize that all too often we fall into the trap of thinking that the authority of Scripture is one wholly derived from the facticity of the ‘primary events’ that it records. Wright challenges this view by asking whether, if we found Pilate’s court records and they gave a fair record of Jesus’ trial, they would be authoritative in any of the senses in which we consider Scripture to be authoritative.8 The Bible is an authoritative document in its own right, in a sense that exceeds a mere faithful historical account. The Bible is an authoritative story. Wright writes—

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.

Consider the result. The first four acts, existing as they did, would be the undoubted 'authority' for the task in hand. That is, anyone could Bible, be properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that this or that character was now behaving inconsistently, or that this or that sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution. This 'authority' of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier pans of the play over and over again. It would consist in the fact of an as yet unfinished drama, which contained its own impetus, its own forward movement, which demanded to be concluded in the proper manner but which required of the actors a responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together, and then to put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.9

This, I believe, provides us with a helpful model for reading Scripture as an authoritative book. Were the Bible a mere true record of past events it would be hard to imagine the Bible acting as an authoritative book. In this model, however, the Church itself is the interpretative task. Inerrancy. I believe that it should caution us in the manner in which we relate the account of Scripture to ‘what actually happened’. Inerrancy is a doctrine that should be ‘fluid’ enough to permit the Scripture to challenge our preconceived notions of what truth looks like. Peter Enns writes:—
The purpose of speaking of an inerrant Scripture is not to generate an abstract comment about the church’s sacred book, but to reflect on our doctrine of God, that is, that God does not err. But such a confession does not determine the manner in which the notion of an inerrant Scripture is articulated. It may very well be that the very in which God “does not err” is by participating in the cultural conventions of the time, in this case, first-century Palestine. The Bible is not inerrant because it conforms to some notion of how we think something worthy of the name “Scripture” should behave.
The ‘truth’ of an account can exceed its historicity in a number of ways. Perhaps certain accounts in Scripture are not the historical accounts that we first took them to be (e.g. Job or Jonah).10 Does this mean that we should take up a radically skeptical attitude with regard to Scripture? Certainly not! The Bible is true, whether we understand exactly what it means for it to be ‘true’ or not. The reaction of the person who rejects the truth of Scripture just because he has doubts about the historical veracity of the first few chapters of Genesis or some other portion may be an indication of the fact that Scripture was never his authority in the first place, but the facts that underlie it. I have found that preoccupation with the historical events to which a scriptural narrative refers is often one of the best ways to become distracted from the true meaning of the narrative.11 If, in our interpretation, we concentrate primarily on looking behind the text of Scripture to discover what really happened, or in trying to harmonize what really happened with what the Scripture says happened, we can easily miss the point of the Scripture itself. This is not to say that the relationship between the Scripture and the history that it records is immaterial; quite the opposite, it is of great importance, particularly for those of us who affirm the absolute reliability and truthfulness of Scripture. Nevertheless, it is essential that we pay greatest attention to the text itself and not get waylaid by the question of what may or may not lie behind it. The text itself is authoritative and so it should be primarily its portrayal of the world that concerns us and not so much what lies behind this portrayal. We need to learn to be open to the world that the Bible portrays and not get lost trying to find another. Those who are most concerned with establishing the historicity of the every event mentioned by Scripture are generally not involved in the task that Scripture sets us as the Church. The text doesn’t confront us in order for us to try to discover the pre-text. Many (most?) of the questions asked by those who follow such an approach are not the questions that Scripture presents us with, nor are they questions that the Scripture answers; rather the text, by its very nature, conceals the answers.12 As John Goldingay observes, the object of study for these people is not the text but the pre-text. As a result we miss the burden of the text itself and misfocus the interpretative task; establishing the events underlying the story does not establish the meaning of the story itself. Furthermore, as historical results are tentative, they are ultimately incapable of vindicating the text.
Perhaps the biggest problem with an absorption with the historicity of a text is that it all too often represents the ‘fetishizing’ tendency that Pickstock warns us of. Rather than seeing God’s continual self-revelation in the text, the text is merely the barren account of a revelation in the past. An absorption with the historicity of the text can also be an attempt to deny the fact that we are creatures of time. If we view the Scripture as a ‘spatialization’ of time — capturing the original event and preserving it against the flow of time by representing in a timeless text — we will become suspicious of any development in the meaning of the text, always wanting to return to ‘what it meant at the time.’ Some very concrete examples: I do not believe that we are right to think that the ‘original meaning’ of the Song of Solomon was a reference to Christ and the Church. Nor was Hosea 11:1 originally a reference to Christ being brought out of Egypt. I do not believe that the development of biblical revelation should be understood merely as the addition of new propositions over the course of redemptive history. Were we to view the Bible as a spatialization of truth, this is the sort of understanding that we would be most inclined to adopt. Biblical revelation, however, is like a growing plant, organically unfolding that which is latent in its seed form.13 Against the backdrop of God’s revelation in Christ, Song of Solomon means much more than it did when it was first written, as does every other book in Scripture. Endnotes

1 http://www.chiefrabbi.org/articles/credo/june2002.html (return)

2 Wright points out, with reference to Warfield’s doctrine of Scripture, that it always risked turning Scripture into a mere true commentary on Christianity. (return)

3 Ibid. (return)

4 Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Balckwell Publishers, 1998) pp.3ff. (return)

5 Ibid. p.9 (return)

6 Peter Enns, ‘Apostolic Hermeneutics and an Evangelical Doctrine of Scripture: Moving Beyond a Modernist Impasse’ (return)

7 After Writing, p.53 (return)

8 N.T. Wright, ‘How Can the Bible be Authoritative?’ (return)

9 Ibid. (return)

10 Although I would be cautious about denying the historicity of the events recorded in these books, I am certainly open to questioning whether they are intended to be read in the manner in which they are generally read. I do not believe that this needs to be seen as an assault on the truth of Scripture; it is just a recognition that what I deem to be ‘truth’ might not be what the Scripture regards as truth. I am still open to be challenged on this issue. (return)

11 However, I would readily acknowledge that there are many gifted biblical scholars who have done careful study on the factuality of certain scriptural accounts without losing sight of the importance of the narrative. See, for example, James Jordan’s Creation in Six Days: A Defense of the Traditional Reading of Genesis One (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999). (return)

12 John Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995) pp.20-21. (return)

13 This analogy comes from Geerhardus Vos’ fantastic essay ‘The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline’ in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980). (return)

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Thanks to Danny for this:— Britain For Americans
Hear Auburn Avenue sermons online.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Just wondering... Why is the pattern of Nehemiah 13:25 generally ignored when people treat the subject of Church discipline?
French 35-hour working week is declared to be 'a disaster' by the government. Now why doesn't this surprise me?

Perseverance and Assurance 

James Jordan on the Nature of True Faith
In his stimulating article Thoughts on Sovereign Grace and Regeneration, James Jordan questions the validity of the distinction between ‘temporary’ faith and ‘persevering’ faith. If we are speaking in terms of a diachronic distinction then it is true by definition. However, historically most Reformed people have sought to maintain a synchronic distinction between ‘temporary’ and ‘persevering’ faith (e.g. Canons of Dort: Canon 5, Rejection of Errors 7). Temporary faith is maintained to be qualitatively different to persevering faith. Jordan argues that this is going too far in trying to read the hearts of men. He looks at the Parable of the Sower, a parable that has often been brought up to prove this point. Jordan observes: (a) that the parable is not intended to give us a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’; (b) even assuming that it is a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’, the seed springs up on two types of the soil, implying that the faith was indeed real, albeit temporary; (c) the gift given (the seed) in each case is the same; the only difference lies in the soil; (d) the parable says nothing about the sower changing the soil before casting the seed on it; pressing the imagery of the parable to provide a ‘taxonomy of types of conversions’ might lead us to unwarranted theological conclusions. Jordan argues in favour of seeing the four types of soil as four types of behaviour instead. He also, following N.T. Wright, favours a more redemptive historical reading of the soils; the soil is Israel and the seed is the ‘faithful word-bearing Remnant’. This seed was totally rejected in the period leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. When the Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple the ‘Israel-Soil received the Remnant-Seed with joy’, but then fell away. During the Greek period the Remnant seed was choked out. ‘But in the New Creation, the New Soil will receive the True Remnant (Jesus Himself) and will flourish.’ Jordan goes on to reaffirm the applicability of the parable to the ‘different aspects and qualities of faith’ seen in the Church. However, he cautions against using the parable to teach four (or two) kinds of human nature as this is unwarranted by the text. I believe that what Jordan is saying makes a lot of sense. However, the frequent objection that I hear is that this destroys any foundation for assurance. This may initially sound counter-intuitive, but I believe that a belief in the reality of apostasy from true saving blessings is, in some sense at least, essential for true assurance. The problem, as I see it, is that such an understanding of the synchronic distinction between true faith and temporary faith has crippled the assurance of many Protestants.
The Problem of Apostasy
We all know people who have turned their back on the faith. One of the most zealous Christians I ever encountered became a Satanist. I was greatly blessed by this man when I was a young teenager on a Christian camp. He encouraged and deeply challenged me in my Christian walk. I remember praying at length with him and being struck by his fervency and love. When he fell away it hit me like a ton of bricks. How do you react to an apostasy as absolute as that? The answer given by most Calvinists is that what he fell away from was not really salvation. Closely related to this (although in my opinion to be carefully distinguished from it) is the claim, made by Calvin himself (see Institutes III.xxiv.6f.), that the person’s faith was never true faith. Most Calvinists seem to link these two answers far more closely together than Calvin does. For many, the person who does not have true faith does not have salvation in just about any sense of the word. Essentially no one really falls away, because those who do fall away don’t fall away from anything. Anyone who has read Calvin on Hebrews 6 will know that his position is more balanced than this. He also writes in his Sermons on Timothy and Titus (p.817):—
For we ought to have a zeal to have the Church of God enlarged, and increase rather than diminish. We ought to have a care also of our brethren, and to be sorry to see them perish: for it is no small matter to have the souls perish which were bought by the blood of Christ.
The belief that even the apostate was in some sense bought with the blood of Christ is present in a number of different places in the writings of Calvin. Calvin also writes regarding the special call, in Institutes III.xxiv.8, that God
...deigns for the most part to give to the believers alone, while by the inward illumination of His Spirit He causes the preached Word to dwell in their hearts. Yet sometimes He also causes those whom He illumines only for a time to partake of it; then He justly forsakes them on account of their ingratitude and strikes them with even greater blindness. [emphasis added]
Clearly, for Calvin, the apostate really falls away from something. However, even for Calvin’s position, due to its positing of a synchronic qualitative distinction between temporary and persevering faith, the question of how to distinguish between the two in practice rears its ugly head. As the difference is situated in the quality of the faith itself and not in the duration of the faith, we must be able to separate between the two somehow.
Faith in Faith
If you ever want to extinguish your assurance, read someone like John Owen on Hebrews 6. Great pains are taken to distinguish ‘sanctifying light and knowledge’ from mere ‘spiritual illumination’, ‘tasting’ from ‘spiritual eating and drinking’. Owen is replete with observations such as the following:—
There is a goodness and excellency in this heavenly gift, which may be tasted or experienced in some measure by such as never receive them, in their life, power, and efficacy. They may taste,— (1.) Of the word in its truth, not its power; (2.) Of the worship of the church in its outward order, not its inward beauty; (3.) Of the gifts of the church, not its graces.
One begins to feel sorry for the believer who feels that he must examine every aspect of his faith with a magnifying glass and fine toothcomb before he can be sure that it is real. My fear is that such an approach leads to our putting faith in faith itself, rather than in Christ. Our assurance of salvation becomes founded upon the ‘infused’ quality of faith rather than upon Christ Himself. I believe that every Protestant should be readily able to identify the danger of such a position. This danger is further magnified by those who obscure the objectivity of God’s grace in the Word and sacraments and gradually make the reality of God’s grace dependent upon either the presence of faith (whether true or temporary) in our hearts or upon our eternal election. In both cases we are pressed into looking for assurance where none is to be found, or into seeing faith as some sort of leap in the dark. Ultimately, for all too many Protestants, their faith rests, to some degree at least, upon a highly suspect concept of the infusion of grace in the form of faith itself. Our faith grasps wildly at fleeting dispositions and inner feelings of hope because we no longer are entirely sure whether the grace presented in the Word and sacraments is not illusory in our case. We distrust the Word outside of us that we hear, eat, drink and are washed with and so seek to establish assurance on the ground of our internal affections, emotions and impressions — the Spirit’s inner whisperings. This leads to faith becoming a work and assurance is annihilated. One notices that, for many, the definitions of faith itself become so precise and detailed as to almost be legalistic. So much rests upon determining the reality of faith and its not having the quality of temporary faith. Groping in the Stygian pitch of our sinful hearts, we should not be surprised if we find only cause for despair. As the object of faith becomes increasingly intangible and internal and as the reality of the sacraments as objective means of grace is questioned, people begin to continually doubt whether they are saved and seek to work it out by studying their own faith to see if it differs from ‘temporary’ faith. Faith becomes solipsistic and preoccupied with itself. Losing themselves in morbid introspectionism and doubt, people fail to see that faith itself always struggles with unbelief and is often weak and can only gain strength from elsewhere. Faith soon becomes aware of its own nakedness when it loses its extrospective focus and becomes curved in on itself. The doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’ (which, as I am sure that we are all aware, is not Reformed) tempts us to place our faith in the reality of our own conversions rather than in Christ. Those who believe this doctrine all too easily rely upon a past ‘conversion experience’ for assurance. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, coupled with this understanding of the distinction between true and temporary faith, can fall into the danger of looking for assurance to the quality of faith itself. ‘Once saved, always saved’ can lead to an error like the error of Israel. Israel trusted in the gift of circumcision, the Torah and the Temple and relied on these rather than upon the God who gave them. However, like an adulterous wife rattling the jewelry given to her by her husband, Israel only succeeded in provoking God to jealousy. How do we believe that we will escape the same fate? The qualitative distinction between true and temporary faith, alongside the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, can all too easily present us with our own faithfulness as the foundation for assurance, making us morbidly self-conscious and causing us to despair as soon as our lives fail to manifest the fullness of the fruit of the Spirit. Whilst generally preserving us from the presumption that is all too often caused by the doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’, this doctrine leads us to doubt instead. My belief is that James Jordan’s questioning of the validity of the synchronic qualitative distinction between ‘temporary’ and ‘persevering’ faith is extremely helpful to alleviate the problem that I have just outlined. Jordan’s doctrine presents us clearly with Christ Himself brought near to us in the Word and the sacraments as the object of faith and not our eternal election, the reality of our faith or the reality of our conversion experiences.
But, you may object, surely we are called to examine ourselves? Yes we are, but biblical self-examination takes a very different shape to the self-examination encouraged by the synchronic distinction between temporary and true, persevering faith. The self-examination encouraged by the endless distinctions between different types of faith is a self-examination that all too easily concentrates on the intrinsic qualities of faith itself (whether it is a fruitful faith, etc.), rather than upon faith in its relationship to Christ. As our salvation is found in Christ and not in faith abstracted from Christ we will always be faced with despair if we take the wrong approach to assurance. The infinite fine distinctions between different types of faith can cause us to succumb to a perfectionist view of faith. This, in turn, leads to an inability to speak truthfully and deal ruthlessly with the presence of unbelief in our hearts. If your assurance begins to rest upon the intrinsic quality of faith itself, you will either be plagued with doubt or you will train yourself in self-deception. It is my contention that the Christian should always be extremely suspicious of the deceitfulness of his own heart and should not trust it for a moment. Only an approach to self-examination that does not rest assurance upon the intrinsic quality of faith but challenges us to continually look to Christ will be properly equipped to address unbelief effectively. Many Christians, by seeking to trust their own hearts, become either deluded or despairing. We must remember that unbelief doesn’t happen overnight. Unbelief creeps up on us gradually, over a period of time. Asserting the possibility that people can truly fall away from salvation and renounce true faith should not lead us to continual doubt or despair regarding salvation, but should challenge us to distrust our hearts and trust Christ, being increasingly aware of the deceitfulness of sin and our own hearts. Our assurance is found in our continued relationship to Jesus Christ, and as we begin to look away from Christ our assurance falls away and is replaced by presumption or doubt. However, even the most feeble faith can be freed from any doubt as it continues to look to Christ. Of course, it is worth asking ourselves what ‘faith’ really is. Too many people have been deceived into thinking of faith as some sort of impersonal ‘stuff’. The manner in which we talk about faith does tempt us to conceive of it in such a manner and this conception has served to aggravate the problem I am speaking of, if not to create it in the first place. Is faith some substance? I do not believe that the Bible gives us any reason to think of ‘faith’ as a substance any more than ‘grace’ is to be thought of as a substance. Peter Leithart writes:—
“Faith” is spoken of as if it were an object, when in fact it is the thoroughly personal response of trust to the thoroughly personal revelation of God. Because faith describes a certain kind of personal relationship, it has all the variations and complexities and ups-and-downs of any personal relationship. Scripture confirms this, by speaking in terms of “weak” faith, “little” faith, temporary faith. (65)
There are too many people who, conceiving of faith as an impersonal substance, believe that they can apostatize and sin willfully and the substance of ‘faith’ will still lurk somewhere in the recesses of their hearts, guaranteeing them final salvation. We could also question the tacit definition of ‘salvation’ employed by many. Some think of salvation as an object that we may or may not be able to mislay. Others think of salvation as some sort of abstract category that God puts us in so that we can get to heaven when we die. Others think of salvation as an internal reconfiguring of abstract individuals in an event called regeneration. Surely we must respond to all such notions, that the biblical understanding of salvation is that of a relationship established between us and Christ, rooted in the Church. Against ChristianityAs Leithart observes in Against Christianity, salvation is not a substance that can be either infused into people or an object given to them directly by God. Salvation, like grace or righteousness should be understood in terms of relationship, rather than in terms of substance. Theologically, ‘salvation’ functions as an adjective to refer to restored individuals, communities and relationships. A salvation that is purely individual is an incomplete salvation. It fails to save the man that actually exists, as no man is an autonomous individual. If individuals are to be saved, salvation must take a social form. Individuals are saved as part of the new community of the Church. Salvation brings us outside of ourselves and into communion. In conclusion some may question whether the claim that true believers can fall away overturns the sovereignty of God’s grace. I don’t believe that it does, for God is most certainly sovereign throughout, even when someone apostatizes. It only highlights the greatness of God’s grace in His persevering with us despite our unworthiness and should cause us to rely upon Him even more. All of those who God wills to receive the resurrection of life on the last day will undoubtedly receive it. Nevertheless, we are not called to pry into the hidden will of God concerning us (Deuteronomy 29:29) when the reality of His love for us has been made entirely clear to us in the Christ who meets us in the Gospel, speaking to us in His Word, cleansing and forgiving us in Baptism and feeding us on Himself in the Supper. Instead let exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of us be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of faith and consider Him, lest we become discouraged in our souls.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?