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The Humpty Dumpty of a-theistic bibilcal scholarship

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?

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.

Review: The Gospel-Driven Life

Continuing with our series on recent books about the Gospel (you can read earlier reviews here, here, and here), today we’re looking at Michael Horton’s The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World (Baker 2009).

Horton divides the book into two sections. The first half deals with how Horton understands the Gospel, and the second addresses how the Gospel informs what it means to be a Christian community. Right away, then, we see that Horton sees Gospel and community as inseparable. As he says, “It is not merely that there is a gospel and then a community made up of people who believe it; the gospel creates the kind of community that is even now an imperfect preview of the kingdom’s marriage feast that awaits us.” (11)

Without a doubt, one of the best things about the book was Horton’s emphasis on the Gospel has as “a dramatic narrative that replots our identity” (12). It isn’t simply a set of beliefs that we must affirm, but it is the historical unfolding of God’s faithfulness that culminates the crossas the fulfillment of “his promise that he made to Israel and to the world by sending his Son for the forgiveness of sins and the inauguration of his new creation” (89-90). And, it’s a narrative that fundamentally shapes and reshapes who we are as human persons. Although most would agree with this, Horton is one of the few who actually takes some time to unpack the narrative as he explains the Gospel. And, for Horton, getting this story right is central to understanding the Gospel. Without the narrative, you will misconstrue the good news.

I also appreciated the way that this emphasis on the Gospel as dramatic narrative led to his use of “news” as a central motif in the book, much of which is structured around sections in a newspaper. Seeing the Gospel as news shapes how we view the Gospel in two ways. First, it makes us realize that the Gospel is something that has already been done, not something that we do.

The heart of Christianity is Good News. It comes not as a task for us to fulfill, a mission for us to accomplish, a game plan for us to follow with the help of life coaches, but as a report that someone else has already fulfilled, accomplished, followed, and achieved everything for us. (20)

This leads to a consistent resistance to understanding the Gospel as something that we accomplish or contribute to. Indeed, he deals with a number of misconceptions about the Gospel, most of which have something to do with shifting the focus of the Gospel from God to ourselves. Rather than finding the good news in God’s faithfulness and glory, we want to make our own transformation . And, in this way, we make the Gospel merely a means to an end – improving ourselves. Instead, we need to see that the “big story” is about God.

But, this doesn’t mean that Horton doesn’t think the Gospel has anything to do with personal transformation. He also contends that if the Gospel is news then it also means that it is potentially surprising, unsettling, and transformative.

If the ‘Good News’ that we proclaim is determined by what we already know—or think we know—and experience, it isn’t really news….It can never throw us off balance or cause us to reevaluate our priorities and interpretations of reality. (20)

So, the Gospel transforms us as we allow the truth of the narrative to sink in, reshape our understanding of everything, and respond appropriately. That’s how Horton explains sanctification (77).

And, I also appreciate Horton’s strong emphasis on the Church as integral to understanding the Gospel. Unlike many books on the Gospel, Horton’s perspective is not limited to or even particularly focused on the salvation of the individual. He absolutely talks about the salvation of individuals, but he presents the good news of the Gospel as being more about the restoration of God’s people to their proper place and role in the world. It’s a vision that is bigger than me, though it does include me. And, his chapter on how the Gospel creates a “cross-cultural community” was particularly engaging.

However, the book does have a few significant drawbacks. First, given Horton’s strong emphasis on the importance of understanding the dramatic narrative, I was startled by how little time he spent discussing the creation narratives and the status of God’s plans and his people prior to the Fall. He does talk about creation, of course, but it plays a relatively insignificant role in his overall account. That’s unfortunate. The dramatic narrative that reshapes my identify must include the plans and purposes that God had from the beginning.

Second, like most of the other books that we’ve reviewed so far, unfortunately little is said about the role of the Spirit in this dramatic narrative. Even when Horton moves on to discuss the transformation that results from the Gospel, he explains it in largely cognitive terms – letting the truth sink in – and says very little about the transforming work of the Spirit. Fortunately, Horton doesn’t make the mistake of allowing this pneumatological lack to devolve into a “just do it” response to the Gospel. That is antithetical to the message Horton wants to get across, and he’s careful to argue that the Christian life flows from the transformative nature of the Gospel. We don’t do it ourselves. But, his presentation would have been significantly improved with greater attention to the work of the Spirit here. And this lack was particularly disappointing given his emphasis on the community as it relates to the Gospel. This, at least, would have been a great place to introduce the work of the spirit in empowering the people of God to be kingdom witnesses in the world.

And, finally, I would have liked to see a more extended discussion of what it looks like for the church to live as heralds of the kingdom in the world. He claims that the church is now a “new political order” (186) in the world, but says very little about what this means, placing most of his emphasis on declaring the truth of the gospel and saying very little about whether heralding the new kingdom might mean more than that.

But, all things considered, this is a very good book and well worth reading if you’d like to understand the Gospel and it’s significance for life and ministry.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/6)

Greek fathers roundup

Here’s a roundup of all the papers and abstracts that we have posted over the last several weeks in our series on the Greek Fathers.

And, here is the Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography. Thanks everyone for submitting your papers and making them available here.

Lectures on the Holy Spirit

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:

Wright Comes out Swinging!

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.

Pentecost slipped peacefully by…again

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?

He supports me, he supports me not

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.

Academic conference for Vineyard scholars in Seattle

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