Canonical Hermeneutics and Systemic Injustices

I watched the #PhilandoCastile dash cam video about an hour ago and am still horrified. This case appears to me to be a miscarriage of justice on every level, from the 50ish stops in 14 years to which Castile was subjected, to the actions of the officer, to the acquittal of the officer by the jury.

What is also puzzling to me is the continued insistence by some that Christians ought to concern themselves only with preaching the gospel and not with issues of systemic injustice in our societies. There are various reasons why I think some deny either that policing is a systemic issue to be addressed or that, more broadly, Christians should be engaged in confronting systemic injustice. Here I only want to briefly suggest that one of the reasons for this is a truncated canon.

My training is in biblical theology, and specifically in canonical criticism. I have been taught and have subsequently tried to teach others to read the Bible as a whole, as one book. And yet, evangelicalism continues to be what I would consider a mostly Pauline stream of Christianity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Paul – I love Paul! I love the five solas of the Reformation, I love the explanation of the gospel of Christ followed by the ethical exhortations (indicative –> imperative), I love the rich imagery that Paul uses for God’s salvation of his people. Paul’s writings are just as inerrant and inspired as the rest of Scripture, and therefore just as important. But when we shrink our Bibles down to Paul, and specifically down to Romans and Galatians, we miss out on a lot of what the Bible has to say about justice.

The Mosaic Law, Israel’s prophets, and the wisdom literature all address justice in ancient Israel. And that material repeatedly connects justice with social issues, and particularly with the treatment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Often (though, of course, not always), the marginalized are in that position for some ethnic reason, whether it is Israel being mistreated by a foreign nation or Israel mistreating foreigners and strangers in their midst.

When we come to the Gospels, Jesus also repeatedly speaks about how his followers ought to treat the same groups of people: the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized. And again, we see that “marginalized” has ethnic overtones. The same concern for the social implications of the gospel are found in Paul, albeit more so in Philemon than in Romans or Galatians. Still, his commands about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, and other such social relationships would have been radical compared to societal norms in his day. James is concerned that Christians treat the poor, orphans, and widows with the love they are due as God’s image bearers. And the book most avoided by expository preachers, Revelation, stands at the end of the canon with a hard word for the church. If Christians participate in or support the unjust systems of this world, they ride the Beast along with the Harlot.

The Bible shows that God confronts systemic injustice through his Word. Of course, the necessary caveat here is that what the Bible says is just for society is not always what society believes is just. With this caveat in mind, though, the point still stands: God cares about justice, and about the systemic injustices that occur in our societies. Perhaps if we moved beyond our (selective) Pauline canon within a canon we would see this a bit more clearly.

The Pattern of Sound Words: Some Brief Thoughts on the Semantics of Orthodoxy

One of the reasons why I believe the consensual tradition of Christian orthodoxy deserves so much deference is that its theological language has been time-tested. It has been tested in the laboratory of Christian history and Christian experience. It has passed through the crucible of ecclesiastical conflict and has been vindicated by lay Christian consensus across time and space. The challenges of translation and contextualization still remain, but the semantic categories passed down to us have survived for a reason.

Calvin once mused about a scenario in which no extra-biblical language would be needed in order to communicate what Scripture clearly teaches about the nature and works of the Triune God. But, as Calvin rightly conceded, Christian theologians must employ extra-biblical terminology, not because the language of Scripture is insufficient, but because it is so often distorted.

This is also why I am so wary of newer categories that have little to no precedent in the Christian tradition. The historical categories of Trinitarian orthodoxy–hypostasis and ousia, procession and mission, inseparable operations and appropriation–have been tested and tried–biblically, theologically, philosophically, and pastorally.  They have, as a result, a kind of sturdiness and reliability that can’t be found in the newer categories of so many recent evangelical treatments of the Trinity–like the granite walls of Yosemite compared to loose shale. The newer terms–relationship, role, functional subordination, eternal relations of authority and submission–are, at best provisional, and must undergo a significant probationary period in order to test their biblical and theological utility. In some cases, their incommensurabilty and inconsistency with the traditional ways Christians have interpreted Scripture and the Triune mystery at its heart are more than apparent.

So for my part, its better to tread the old paths of orthodox terminology, with all of their careful and intricate beauty and rationality, than to begin afresh with newer and less tried alternatives.

Typology

Southern Seminary recently came out with their latest issue of their journal, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and for this issue all of the essays are centred around typology. I think one of the strengths of SBJT is that the essays typically have a particular focus or a uniting theme. It is a bonus to see my friend Matt Emerson as one of the co-contributors in his and Peter Link’s essay “Searching for the Second Adam: Typological Connections between Adam, Joseph, Mordecai, and Daniel.” With five girls, I don’t know how he does it.

With an issue like typology, there is much disagreement. Stephen Wellum’s opening editorial essay helpfully notes that Christians do read the Scriptures typologically, but that they disagree about how it should be done. Not every essay in the journal approaches a typological reading in the same way, but Wellum tries to describe the broad contours in which the contributors work.

First, Wellum defines typology as “the study of the relationship between Old Testament revealed truths of persons, events, institutions which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure their intensified ‘anti-typical’ fulfilment in Christ and his people” (p. 6). And second, he argues that typology is rooted in history and text, prophetic and predictive, escalates, and progresses covenantally.

Wellum’s description raises a question for me on whether there is a difference between the typological reading that Wellum proposes and what I call narrative patterning, where an author or authors pattern narrative plots and characters after previous plots and characters as a way to provide implicit commentary. Because they seem very similar. For example, Adonijah’s attempt at assuming the throne during David’s waning years is explicitly shaped after Absalom’s attempt at taking the throne from David (cf. 1 Kgs 1:5–6, 9 with 2 Sam 14:25; 15:1; 17:17). It is difficult to imagine this as being prophetic or escalating. It seems to be a way to implicitly comment on Adonijah’s actions.

So is typology then an explicitly Christological reading? And therefore, a kind of a narrative patterning that is Christological in focus but also must be understood as prophetic and predictive, escalate, and progress covenantally?

A Book Review on Eugene Merrill’s 1–2 Chronicles Commentary

I’m a bit late in posting this (actually very late). But I thought some might be interested in reading my recent book review of Eugene Merrill’s commentary on 1–2 Chronicles that was published in the latest Themelios journal. Especially helpful are discussions on three theological themes in a redemptive-historical framework that are central to the Chronicler’s theology and purpose: David’s historical and eschatological reign, the renewal of an everlasting covenant, and the restored temple as a symbol of a renewed people (pp. 57–68).

Merrill’s work has been a great benefit to students of the Old Testament for many years. And his work on Chronicles can help remedy one of the most neglected books in the Bible.

You can read my full review here.

David Foster Wallace on Turgidity

I was encouraged and exhorted yesterday by Fred Sander’s post on writing tips. Last night I also read a few essays in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, including his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” pp. 51-58 in CtL). The review is scathing, to say, the least, and full of detailed critiques of Updike’s writing that I don’t need to repeat here. But toward the end of the essay, Wallace gives a summary what he calls the “turgidity” of Updike’s prose (p. 57-58), a summary which I believe is applicable to any writer in any genre.

  1. “so many modifiers” – Wallace first critiques Updike for constantly modifying nouns and verbs. I see many younger writers (including myself) give in to this particular temptation by loading up sentences with adjectives and adverbs that we’d probably never use in real life. And I’d guess that many times we overload readers on Twitter or in articles and books to make what we’re saying sound more profound than it really is.
  2. “so much subordination” – Wallace’s point here is that Updike constantly subordinates clauses in the middle of sentences. Again, I see (and do) this frequently. Sentences don’t always have to be short, but they should be clearly follow-able. Subordinating clauses decreases the reader’s ability to follow the grain of a sentence.
  3. “so much alliteration” – According to Wallace, Updike gets too cute by half with alliteration. But trying to make all your modifiers start with the letter “p” or some such isn’t the only way we try to doll up our sentences: using weird sentence structures or formatting (as if we’re trying to be the next e e cummings), giving the reader a heavy dose of modifiers (see #1), using words that everyone knows we found in a thesaurus or a GRE Study Guide and not in our own vocabulary, and the like are all ways that writers (including me) try to make their sentences and paragraphs look better than they actually are. As we say in the Deep South, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

These were helpful to me to consider. Maybe they’ll benefit some of you as well.

Combating Creedal Amputations of the Descent Clause

Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, that liminal temporal space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For many evangelicals, Holy Saturday has lost all meaning, while for others it is associated with Catholic and Orthodox notions of the Harrowing of Hell. Because of this latter association, where Christ goes into Hades (Hell) and brings out either virtuous Jews and pagans (Roman Catholic) or all humanity (Orthodox), some evangelical theologians have even argued that we should cut the line referencing it from the Apostles’ Creed (“he was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose…”).

Aside from the methodological problem that is one individual attempting to surgically dismember an ecumenical creedal clause, I want to suggest here four reasons why we should avoid cutting the descent clause from the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.

1. It is historically important.

While I agree with evangelical theologians that a Roman Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the descent clause should be rejected, this has not been what the clause has always meant. The “Harrowing of Hell” view arose toward the middle of the Medieval period, but before that the early church simply affirmed ubiquitously that Christ descended to the dead – that is, in his human nature he experienced death as all humans do, his body in the grave and his soul in the place of the (righteous dead), and in doing so by virtue of the hypostatic union the God-man conquered death. He also announced (“preached”) his victory to all the dead – good news for the righteous, bad news for the unrighteous. In other words, Jesus in his humanity experiences human death, and by virtue of his divine nature he conquers it. He also lets all the dead know he’s the conqueror.

2. It is biblically important.

Of course, as a Protestant the key to affirming any doctrine is not ultimately its historicity, no matter how ancient, but its foundation in Scripture. And the understanding of the descent outlined above is thoroughly biblical (as the ancient Christians also understood it to be). Jesus is said to have experienced human death in both body and soul in e.g. Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24; Rom. 10:7, and, I’d say, Eph. 4:9-11. He also conquers death through this experience in Rev. 1:18, and I’d also say 1 Pet. 3:18-22 teaches the same thing. I realize Grudem’s exegesis of that latter passage is influential, as is Augustine’s, but as Augustine recognized, the doctrine of the descent does not rise or fall with the interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-22 (see on this Justin Bass, The Battle for the Keys, who presents the most compelling biblical and historical case for the descent from an evangelical in print).

3. It is theologically important.

The descent is not a minor doctrine. For the early church, it was one of the most important ones, in fact. This is because much hinges on it – our nature as human beings and Christ’s full redemption of it; the beginning of Christ’s exaltation as the Lord over all things, even the last enemy, Death; the communion of saints; and the nature of Paradise as dwelling in the presence of God in Christ. It impacts our understanding of doctrines like soul sleep (and whether its even a viable possibility), the Sabbath and Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope, ownership of the Promised Land, the millennium, and the extent of the atonement.

4. It is pastorally important.

My Aunt Jane passed away last month. At her funeral, my most comforting thought was that, because she trusted in Christ’s atoning work for forgiveness, I know that Christ is with and for her, and in more ways than one. First, yes, our deceased Christian loved ones are now in the presence of the risen Christ, and yes that is comforting. We should acknowledge that this soul-ish life in the presence of Christ is due in part to Christ’s own soul-ish descent, a descent that, while the end point of his suffering, is also the beginning of his exaltation in his resurrection and ascension. This is a pastoral implication of the descent, to be sure.

But another often overlooked pastoral implication is that Christ, too, experienced death as we do on Holy Saturday. His body lay in the grave, beginning to rot. He experienced the ultimate sting of death, the body’s failure and the soul’s departure from it. He experienced the liminal space between death and resurrection pro nobis – for us. We can thus tell those who have lost Christian loved ones not only that there is light at the end of the tunnel in the resurrection of the dead, and not only that they experience Christ’s presence now – both supremely comforting, to be sure! – but also that Christ himself experienced what they experienced now and conquered it. And they, too, will be conquerors one day with all of us who live by faith in the died-yet-risen Son of God.

A Biblical Theology of Resurrection in an early Christian Burial

My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.

One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.

A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.

The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.

On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.

Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.

If you were a Greek preposition, which one would you be?

Here is announcement that on 30 June-1 July 2017, Tyndale House in Cambridge is hosting a workshop on Greek prepositions. This workshop follows the highly successful conference on the Greek verb which resulted in an impressive volume from Lexham Press. The workshop will in particular be drawing from the resources of cognitive linguistic approaches to lexicography. There is a host of great presenters from within biblical studies and general linguistics. So if you’re interested in more information check out my friend Will Ross’s announcement or if you need no other convincing sign up here.

Presenters include:

Dirk Geeraerts
Linguistics, University of Leuven

Richard A. Rhodes
Linguistics, U.C. Berkeley

Jonathan A. Pennington
New Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Patrick James
Classics, University of Cambridge

Steven Runge
Logos Bible Software

Randall Buth
Biblical Language Center

 

Craig Bartholomew and the Kuyperian Tradition

IVP Academic will soon (April 24th) publish a new volume on retrieving the Kuyperian tradition by Craig Bartholomew, H. Evan Professor of Philosophy and Religion & Theology at Redeemer University College. Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction aims to identify “the key themes and ideas that define this tradition, including worldview, sphere sovereignty, creation and redemption, the public square, and mission. He also goes beyond Kuyper to show how later thinkers developed these ideas,” including Bavinck, Dooyewerd, and Berkouwer (from the back cover).

Bruce Ashford, Provost, Dean of the Faculty, and Professor of Theology and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has interviewed Bartholomew about this book at his blog.

I’d encourage you to take a look at both the interview and Bartholomew’s forthcoming book, available for pre-order now on Amazon and at IVP’s website.

Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

My doctoral supervisor, David Hogg, was once asked in my Theological Method PhD seminar what his method is. I still love his response: “I look for patterns and weird stuff.” That is, his approach to reading Scripture consists largely of paying attention to what is repeated and what stands out as extraordinary, either in terms of actual events or their description or both. This interpretive method produces readings that sometimes (many times) vexes those who hold to the historical-critical method and its evangelical cousins.

What, then, are the *theological* rationales that give an interpreter the hermeneutical warrant to link certain biblical texts together in a typological chain? To put a finer historical point on it, why does Irenaeus, in his On the Apostolic Preaching, feel justified in linking the Virgin Birth to the untilled ground out of which Adam is made, or Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to the Church’s birth out of Christ’s pierced side? I want to suggest that there are least three theological reasons that readers feel justified in these types of patterned readings.

  1. Spirit-Inspired and Christ-Centered: Of course, a canonical method, however clearly or vaguely defined, finds its ultimate ground in confessing that Scripture is one Spirit-inspired book with one Christological point. Because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to his people, its ultimate source is the Triune God. Its inspiration and purpose are therefore related to God’s economic activity of redemption, and specifically to his work of revealing himself to his people. Because God ultimately makes himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, we should expect that the Scriptures’ primary point is to show its readers the incarnate Son. This is bolstered by the fact that the Spirit who inspired the biblical text is a Son-centered Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s job is to testify to the Son, because the Son demonstrates to us the Father. For these pneumatological and Christological reasons, we should not find it strange when Christian interpreters insist that Scripture’s ultimate referent is the incarnate Christ.
  2. God’s Providence: Patterned readings – readings that pay attention to biblical repetition, either at a lexical or narrative level – are rooted in the fact that God has providentially ordered redemptive history to progressively  and repetitively intensify until it reaches its culmination in Christ. That is, God has so ordered the events from the first Adam to the Second Adam that they a) are repetitive at both the level of the event and the level of the author’s description of that event and b) intensify via this repetition to point forward to their eschatological fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. This providential ordering is related to the previous point, in that God’s revelation of himself centers on the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s providential ordering of redemptive history also points forward to that same Christ. We should therefore expect at both the literary and historical levels to find repetition from one biblical story to another.
  3. The Christological Center of Human History: Christ is not only the center of biblical history; he is also the center of human history, of the entirety of God’s economic activity in redemption and also in creation. Interpretations of the Bible that focus on seeing repeated patterns at the lexical and narrative levels find their ultimate foundation in God’s providence over all of human history, since that providential ordering centers on Jesus. This last point actually grounds the first two: because God’s economic activities of creation and redemption both center on the incarnate Son, he has ordered all of human history, and therefore all of redemptive history, and therefore his revelation of himself as part of that redemptive activity, to point to and find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.