If you haven’t seen this yet, Jim West posted an article at The Bible and Interpretation arguing that a-theistic biblical studies are at an end (HT Jim West). Studying the Bible apart from an active faith commitment, which he argues is the dominant approach to biblical studies, leads nowhere. Indeed, with typical West-ian pointedness, he summarizes where this approach has taken us.
So where has this approach gotten us? It has gotten us a population utterly ignorant of the contents and meaning of the Bible. It has gotten us a generation of young people who can’t tell the difference between an Epistle and an Apostle. And it has gotten us learned societies which produce journals which propagate and promulgate a-theism to the exclusion of theism.
And, he contends that there are two very good reasons that Scripture cannot be studied a-theistically. First, the Bible is the church’s book. It was written by the church and for the church. Non-christians can observe the text, but they will never participate in it like believers do. Indeed, “Atheists are to biblical studies what television commentators are to a sporting event.” And correspondingly, Scripture itself claims to be “insider literature” – i.e. literature for the people of the Spirit (1 Cor 2).
So, wrapping it all up, West contends:
Authentic biblical studies will more and more be found among the people of faith who value the bible and who understand it because they are endowed by the Spirit with the gift of understanding. Farewell, a-theism. You were amusing, for a while, but now you’re time is over and your discipline so completely fragmented that, like Humpty Dumpty, you can never be put back together again.
This doesn’t mean that West rejects any role for non-Christian scholarship on the Bible. But it is a necessary limited and superficial role because they will always be “outsiders” with respect to the text – outside the community and outside the Spirit.
What do you think? I’m sure this is an issue that you’ve worked through in your own understanding of how hermeneutics works. Is there a difference between a really well-done commentary produced by a non-believer and one produced by a believer? If so, what exactly is the difference?
- Brian LePort has begun blogging his way through John Levison’s Filled with the Spirit.
- The discussion about unity and diversity in the early church has continued with posts by Mike Bird and James McGrath.
- In an ironic move, Katherine Jefferts Shori is accusing the Anglican communion for being “colonial” in its efforts to seek greater unity among its churches. The irony here, of course, lies in a western church leader complaining about “colonial” pressures coming largely from African church leaders.
- Peter Leithart offers an interesting comment on Dostoyevsky’s idea of a Christian Dionysian and the celebration of a kind of anthropology that resists the common pressure to emphasize the divine so much that the significance of the human is lost.
- And, if you have nothing better to do today, here’s an article on what someone went through to reverse engineer a McDonald’s french fry so he could learn how to make authentic McDonald’s fries at home. (HT Lifehacker)
- Matt Edwards has begun a 9-part review of Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. This significant (i.e. long) work has received considerable attention lately for its argument that the traditional understanding of justification is wrong and that Romans 1-4 is actually Paul’s summary of false teaching that he then refutes in Romans 5ff. Beverly Gaventa has a good shorter review here (HT Euangelion).
- In keeping with our recent discussion of Hunter’s To Change the World, here’s a post from InternetMonk on why he is abstaining from the culture wars.
- This month’s free audio book from Christianaudio.com is Francis Chan’s Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit.
- The lectures from last week’s NEXT conference are now available, including lectures by most of the usual Sovereign Grace crew: Joshua Harris, Mark Dever, Kevin DeYoung, C.J. Mahaney, D.A. Carson, and Jeff Purswell. (HT Justin Taylor)
- Allen Yeh offers some thoughts on the Edinburgh 2010 Conference that begins today in honor of the 1910 World Missionary Conference, providing an interesting summary of some key differences between the two conferences.
- And, apparently James Cameron is among our best hopes for fixing the oil spill in the Gulf. That can’t be good.
Rowan Williams, Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, and David Ford recently spoke at the Holy Spirit in the World Today conference. And, they have now uploaded the audio files for most of those lectures. (HT Per Crucem ad Lucem). Here they are:
- Homily — Archbishop Rowan Williams
- Whispers of God at Work, in Cyberspace, in the Media and among the Young — Ken Costa
- Interview with Professor Jürgen Moltmann
- The Church in the Power of the Spirit — Professor Jürgen Moltmann
- Q&A with Professor Jürgen Moltmann and Archbishop Rowan Williams
- Key Issues in Pneumatology — Professor David Ford
- One Spirit, Many Tongues: Globalization, Faith Traditions, and Human Flourishing — Professor Miroslav Volf
- Filled with the Spirit — Revd Sandy Millar
- Bible Reading — Dr Jane Williams
- In the Spirit: Learning Wisdom, Giving Signs — Professor David Ford
- Q&A with Professors Miroslav Volf and David Ford — COMING SOON!
- Life in the Spirit: Identity, Vocation and the Cross — Revd Dr Graham Tomlin
I’ve been interested in the debate that Wright and Piper have been engaging in over the “New Perspective” (or at least Wright’s version of it). After reading Piper’s book, The Future of Justification, I thought it was only fair to read Wright’s response called Justification. In this book Wright reminded me of Mike Tyson in the infamous Evander Holyfield fight with that whole “ear incident.” What has been one of the most highly charged polemical books I have read in a long time, Wright simply comes out swinging. Not because he thinks he is losing, but because for nine rounds he feels as if he has been misunderstood, mischaracterized, misquoted, and misrepresented. I cannot blame him for coming out and defending his name, and more importantly, his orthodoxy and love for the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the only source of saving faith sinful humanity has to go to find redemption. The book is well written, and I would contend, the clearest presentation of what Wright has been trying to say. That being said, I still find his argumentation unconvincing.
He begins by typecasting himself as the loyal friend who is attempting to explain to another that the sun does not revolve around the earth. He likens adherents of the “old perspective” to those that would rather cling to tradition that to undertake a “fresh” reading of Paul that might jostle the cart of Pauline theological assumptions that have been held since the reformation. He asserts that those who are attacking him are simply not listening to what he, or for that matter Paul, are saying. He also likens himself to Luther and Calvin who, against the ecclesiological norm of their day, bucked the system in order to render a right reading of Scripture. He is surprised to find so many in the reformed tradition taking him to task for the doing the very thing that their heroes did five-hundred years ago. He goes on to say that the theological framework in which Paul has been interpreted is simply not sufficient. There is too much emphasis placed on individual redemption and not the redemption of the world. There is almost no talk of the Spirit’s role in many present concept of justification. Most importantly for Wright, theologians and pastors are not reading Paul correctly because of a bias that will not fit with their preconceived notions of the law, justification, and Judaism. He argues that if we silence what Paul actually said so that we can feel better about our theological conclusions, we are silencing Scripture and missing out on the beauty of God’s word.
He goes on to defend several of his assertions. First, Wright corrects a misunderstanding of Judaism and the law. He claims that the law was never the means by which people got saved. For Wright, the Jews were never asking this question. The more important question in the Jewish community was, “How do we know who is part of the covenant community of Abraham?” The law provided certain boundary markers to tell who was in the covenant community. This means that we have mischaracterized the Judaism of Paul’s day. He also speaks of justification, as the “status” given that one is right standing with God, and a member of God’s covenant family. Here Wright speaks of the law-court setting in which the declaration of the Judge in favor of the plaintiff only gives a status, not the actual substance of righteousness. There is no change in the moral character of the one who is justified by God. This is one of the main points in Wright’s argument for which he attempts to defend exegetically in the second part of his book. The question that Wright never answers, however, is whether or not believers ever actually get righteousness, or just a status? If we do actually get righteousness, where does it come from? His silence may be his answer. However, Wright never addresses this in his book, but simply says that imputation is not to be found anywhere in Paul. Something I think he drastically overstates. I found some of his exegesis here; especially with 2 Cor. 5:21 to be lacking. He places 5:21 inside of the larger framework of Paul defending his authority as an apostle, and as 5:19-21 as Paul’s explanation of what he is preaching with the authority of an apostle. This however, does not necessitate the exegetical gymnastics he does to make verse 21 speak of Paul as “embodying God’s covenant faithfulness.” The change is unnecessary, and is stretching. Wright also begins to unpack the role of works inside of Pauline theology. It is at this point that I feel Wright did some of his best work. Up until I read chapter eight it appeared that, for all his counter claims that he was not trying to “sneak works in the back door,” that that was in fact what he was doing. In chapter eight he unpacked all of the passages where Paul joins “works” to the eschatological judgment and asks the question, “How do you explain these verses?” He appeals to the necessity of the Spirit in the life of the believer, as well as the believer’s responsibility to live a life in the power the Spirit provides. At this point, I’m not sure that Wright is saying anything much different from the reformation, but as trying to elevate the role of Spirit-empowered works to its proper seat. This was an area in which I was most critical of Wright, but which I feel he defended well. I’m not completely satisfied as of yet, but have shifted.
The book is a great read. There are still questions that I wish Wright would attempt to answer. Although the water still isn’t as clear as I would like, some of the silt appears to be settling. If you have read Piper’s book, this should be the next one you pick up.
I’d be curious to hear what anyone did to celebrate Pentecost today. As with many churches in the baptistic traditions, my church made no mention of Pentecost at all, though I think the word “spirit” did get used in one or two of the songs. So, we had that going for us. What about you? Did your church do any better?
Near Emmaus recently directed my attention to a discussion at New Leaven about a book by C. Michael Patton arguing for a cessationist position on spiritual gifts. (You can download a free .pdf of the book here.) New Leaven has had a number of posts on the continuationist/cessationist argument that are worth reading. And, if you’re interested in pursuing the subject some more, Brian has posted his own thoughts on why he is a continuationist here.
But, my primary interest here is not about the cessationist debate itself. (I actually didn’t think there still was one.) My interest is in the use of historical authorities in theological argumentation. At one point in his argument, Patton cites Augustine in support of his position. The point of the post at New Leaven was to suggest that Patton was being selective by quoting Augustine, who is amil, when Patton himself is premil. Now, this criticism could have been unpacked a bit more, since there’s nothing necessarily wrong with favorably citing one part of a person’s theology even if you disagree with other parts. So, I offered the following comment to make the concern a bit more apparent:
…the implicit rhetorical thrust of appealing to a theologian of Augustine’s stature is to show that he’s on Patton’s side. And, that’s where the problem comes in. Since a theological claim like this is nested within the broader fabric of a person’s theology, we shouldn’t simply pull out one strand like this and wield it selectively. And, since Patton and Augustine are operating with quite different theological frameworks, he needs to exercise due diligence to make sure that he is handling Augustine’s theology carefully. Just using the same words does not entail theological agreement.
What I found fascinating about this were the comments that came after I posted this comment. The majority of the comments criticized the post (and apparently my comment) because they thought we were saying that you had to agree with everything a person believes before you could refer favorably to anything they’ve written. They seemed to think that this implied some form of “guilty by association” – i.e. you believe A, and A is wrong, therefore I can’t use anything you’ve said.
But, that misses the point of the argument entirely. This has nothing to do with whether you can use the ideas of people you don’t agree with. (I do this all the time.) So, I tried (probably unsuccessfully) to clear things up a bit more with a later comment:
….If Patton is using this as a theological argument (i.e. Augustine’s on my side), then T.C. is right to ask about whether he’s doing justice to the theological framework within which Augustine makes the claim. The point isn’t that you can’t agree with one part of a person’s theology and disagree with some other part, we do that all the time. The point is that before you do this, you need to make sure that you’ve understood both issues within the person’s overall theology. Only then can you be sure that you’ve understood either claim adequately enough to agree/disagree with it or use it in a theological argument.
The point is that we need to be very careful about assuming that we know what a person means when he says X. And, we need to realize that X does not stand alone. It is nested within an entire theological system that provides the context within which X makes sense as a theological assertion. You can’t simply pull X out of that framework and say, “Look, he agrees with me.” Maybe he does. But that cannot be assumed. The simple fact that you and he may be using the same words does not mean that you are necessarily in agreement. This is what people refer to as “historical proof texting.” You need to do the extra work to make sure that you’ve understood the statement as the author intended it, which means (at least) understanding it within the context of their whole theology, before you think you understand it well enough to use it in a theological argument.
This is what makes historical theology such an important discipline. When historical theology is done well, it forces us to understand people and ideas within the historical, social, ecclesial, and cultural contexts that provide the only framework within which we can understand their theological assertions. It’s hard work. But it’s well worth doing. And, unless we’re willing to do it, we should probably refrain from citing (or critiquing) these theological giants.
For those of you coming from more charismatic/Pentecostal backgrounds, or those interested in pneumatology and related areas, you might be interested to know that the Society of Vineyard Scholars will be holding their second annual conference in Seattle next February. The theme will be “By The Renewal Of Your Mind: Imagining, Describing, and Enacting the Kingdom of God” and the keynote speaker will be James K. A. Smith. It’s encouraging to see the growth of scholarly work from charismatic and Pentecostal perspectives.
HT: Fors Clavigera