The Best of 2021

Last year, I started a tradition of compiling a few of my favorite things from the year ending. Books, music, and film have been my constant companions for as long as I can remember. So here are my superlatives from 2021.

Favorite Book

The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology, by Thomas Joseph White

I am a slow and deliberate and fairly selective reader. I rarely read books that are hot off the presses. There are so many great books that I haven’t read that I usually wait to see which books stand up to the scrutiny of time before making the commitment to read them. I try to prioritize the classics I haven’t read, or haven’t read in too long (for example, this year I did some remedial work in Pseudo-Dionysius, Bernard of Clarivaux, and Bonaventure). So I almost never read enough books published in the current year to have a favorite. This year was no different. My favorite book from 2021 was actually published in 2017. Thomas Joseph White, a Dominican Thomistic scholar of the first rank, has written a truly magisterial treatment of this central Christian doctrine (I noticed it made Brandon’s best of list too). White’s book covers a remarkably wide range of issues on the person and work of Christ: everything from dyothelitism and the satisfaction theory of the atonement to the descent into hell and the nature of the resurrection body. I don’t quite agree on every point (his critique of the Calvinist doctrine of penal substitution distorts some things) but White’s treatment is consistently erudite and fair. Almost he persuadest me to believe Thomas’s view on the knowledge of the human nature of Christ (that Christ possessed the beatific vision and perfect knowledge in his higher soul). Overall, this book is a remarkable achievement in defense of classic Christology and an ontological understanding of Christ as true God and true man.

Honorable Mention: Dracula, by Bram Stoker, a classic in the horror genre I only recently read for the first time.

Favorite Movie

Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung

I believe this was officially a 2020 film but only had wide release in early 2021. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant family trying to build a farm and adjust to life in 1980s rural Arkansas. Beautifully shot and brilliantly acted, Minari is small story with massive implications for the human predicament. Some of the turns are wrenching, but the resolution is positively feel-good . Don’t miss the religious overtones: the religious fanatic, the exorcisms, the idol of money, the importance of church/community, the inclusion of the other, the costs of love, the gifts of grace (the minari plant that gives the film its title grows without effort). Also, the main character is named Jacob and he builds a well! Another subtext: the emotional strains of manhood in bleak economic circumstances, a theme that is noticeably muted in much popular art. (As I write this, there are a couple movies I have yet to see that are much anticipated: P. T. Anderson’s Licorice Pizza and Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley).

Honorable mention: Dune: Part One, directed by Denis Villeneuve

Favorite Album

Pressure Machine, by The Killers

I have always enjoyed The Killers (and lead singer Brandon Flowers’ solo work as well) but this album marks a decisive step forward for the band, in my estimation. The polished pop rock anthems are traded in for mostly subtle and somber acoustic reflections on the depths of human pain. I don’t want to share too much because the album needs to be experienced not over-analyzed, but suffice it to say the album is about life in rural Utah (where Flowers lived for a period as a child) and especially the aftermath of the opioid epidemic (overdoses, suicide, and the shattered dreams of youth). Musically, it has echoes of R.E.M. and fairly obvious homages to Bruce Springsteen. The latter comparison is most apt because Flowers is able to accomplish for his native West what the Boss did for the working class in his native New Jersey. Religious themes are threaded throughout. So this isn’t just an album about pain; it’s also about wrestling through doubt and despair to find meaning and hope, symbolized in the opening track’s “West Hills” (a theme pregnant with biblical allusions).

Honorable Mention: I Don’t Live Here Anymore, by The War on Drugs

Pseudo-Dionysius on the Beatific Vision

But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then, as scripture says, ‘we shall always be with the Lord.’ In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. Marvelously, our minds will be like those in the heavens above. We shall be ‘equal to angels and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.’ That is what the truth of Scripture affirms.

-Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names

Camp Meetings, Collards, and Christology

Large crowds once gathered at camp meetings in early Alabama – Alabama  Pioneers

Theology writing can sometimes be boring, conformist, and placeless. What would theology sound like if we let our distinct “accents” come through, even if ever so slightly?

I heard an interview with Jens Kruger on the radio the other day. Kruger is a Swiss-born banjoist who was talking about the years he spent with Bill Monroe, the Father of American bluegrass. Monroe cautioned Kruger against simply mimicking other bluegrass players. He said “You’re not from Kentucky. You’re from Europe. You have your own influences. I want to hear that.” It got me thinking. What would my writing look like if I didn’t just try to ape the style of theologians from another place (or seemingly no place in particular) but wrote theology in an Alabama accent, so to speak. Even if it’s slight.

Shouldn’t a philosopher from Kentucky be shaped just a little by the rolling bluegrass of his native state? Or won’t an ethicist from East Tennessee have at least a tinge of the hills and hollers come through? Or shouldn’t the camp meetings and collards of Alabama be detectable just a little in my own writings, at least to those who have an ear for it?

Style in theology writing, as a friend recently remarked to me, is especially tricky. The subject matter requires a certain reverence and circumspection and is often best served by directness and clarity. Still, academic theology, like all human discourse, must be indigenized somewhere, addressing a particular people and a particular set of needs and emerging, of course, from a particular writer. I honestly can’t think of many clear exemplars of what I have in mind, where a uniquely emplaced style comes through. Maybe Stanley Hauerwas? Maybe minority and female theologians are our best examples? I certainly don’t have it figured out in my own writings. It’s mostly a wish and an aspiration.

What do you think? Who is doing this well?

Epiphany in the Darkness

On a day of horrible news, how fitting that this day we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. A timely reminder that only Jesus deserves our absolute fealty. Only Jesus deserves our worship. Only Jesus deserves our best gifts. The truly wise of the earth will peacefully resist every Herod and bow only to the Christ child.

The days are dark indeed. But in this season, we celebrate–if only by faith and not by sight–that the Christ-light has dawned. Even now men and women, boys and girls from all nations are coming to his light and to the brightness of his dawn. And one day every nation and every ruler and every individual will bend the knee to the only-begotten, incarnate, crucified, and risen Son of God. Nations rise and fall. Political parties flourish and collapse. Elections are won and lost. Only the throne of Christ will be established forever. So, on a day of national mourning, let us echo the ancient prayer of Solomon (Psalm 72):

Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son.

He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.

The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.

He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.

They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.

He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth.

In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.

They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.

Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper.

He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy.

He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight.

And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.

There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.

His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed.

Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things.

And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen.

The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.

Carl Henry on Social Justice and the Gospel

Time was when what it meant to be an evangelical was the affirmation that both evangelism and social action are integral parts of the church’s mission. Not either/or but both/and: both the verbal proclamation of the saving message of Jesus Christ and the pursuit of social justice as a present sign of the coming kingdom of Christ. The postwar neo-evangelical movement deliberately positioned itself as a third way, distinct from the withdrawn and adversarial social posture of fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the heterodox humanitarianism of the Social Gospel, on the other.

Consider the words of the dean of evangelical theologians, Carl Henry:

But in and through its evangelistic mission to the world, the church is to enunciate and implement the revealed principles that God addresses to the human race by exemplary Christian leadership to the whole realm of public affairs. Social justice is not simply an appendage to the evangelistic message; it is an intrinsic part of the whole, without which the preaching of the gospel is truncated. Theology devoid of social justice is a deforming weakness of much present-day evangelical witness

Marxists make a hurried leap from the economic needs of the poor to forced redistribution of the property of the rich. However indefensible this revolutionary alternative may be, it can hardly be challenged and stayed if evangelicals are indifferent to the necessities of the poor as well as the neglected responsibilities of the rich…

Jesus did not limit the signs of his coming triumph only to those who responded to the gospel. Of the ten lepers healed, only one returned to acknowledge his mercy, but this one thereby became the rumor of hope for all the leprous. Jesus became the hope of a new day so that wherever he went some sought him for healing. Not every loaf of bread given to the starving prepares the way for evangelistic commitment—nor need it, for feeding the hungry is a duty whether they respond to Christ in this life or not. They have been kept alive not only for the opportunity to find life’s true meaning and center, but also for God’s sake; unregenerate man bears remnants of the divine image, and God has a purpose in the world even for those who do not respond to the Redeemer. A part of that purpose is that Christians remind all mankind that the Christ that reigns tomorrow is not only Jesus of Nazareth who came yesterday, but is also the risen Lord of the church, who through his redeemed body of humanity signals the tidings that no one need permanently consign himself or herself to a living hell, whether here or hereafter.

Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 4

Chrysostom on Christ the Refugee

Here is the critical race theorist, er, early church father, John Chrysostom, on how the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt and the return of the magi to Persia signal the validation of Christ’s true humanity and the spread of the gospel to peoples east and west, despite the attempts of oppressive rulers to thwart God’s plan.

There is something else here worth noticing, one touching the magi and the other touching the Child. The issue is why didn’t the magi remain with the Child? And why didn’t the Child remain in Bethlehem? Both had to escape as fugitives shortly after they were received with joy: the magi to Persia and the holy family to Egypt. Why? This is worthy of close examination. The magnificence of God’s plan of salvation would not have been believed if he had not come in the flesh. If Jesus had fallen into the hands of Herod, his life in the flesh might have been cut off. Many circumstances were quietly ordered providentially within human history. Even while the flesh of the Christ child was in danger, some dared to imagine that he never assumed our common human flesh, that his coming was like that of a ghost. These impious ideas will ultimately destroy those who do not confess that God has come to us in the flesh in a way becoming to his deity.

As to the wise men, they were sent off quickly, commissioned to teach in the land of the Persians, having thwarted the madness of the king. Herod was allowed the opportunity to learn that he was attempting things impossible, against prophecy, and that there was still time to quench his wrath and desist from his demented plot. It is fitting to God’s power not only to subdue his enemies but to do so with ease, deceiving the deceivers in a way fitting to God’s almighty power. In the same way the Egyptians had earlier been deceived, their wealth transferred secretly and with craft and God’s power made awesome to them.

The Word Became Flesh. But Why?

As we celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the birth of God the Son into his world, here’s one question to hold meditatively in our minds and hearts over the coming days: why did God become a man? This is, of course, the title of St. Anselm’s classic eleventh-century treatment of the incarnation: Cur Deus Homo, Why God Became a Man. But it’s a question that many have taken up before and since. The place to begin when answering this question is our Lord’s own words about his incarnational mission. As we read the gospels and study just the times that Jesus explicitly says “I have come” or “the Son of Man came,” a multi-faceted portrait emerges. Jesus tells us that he came, among other things:

  • To fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17)
  • To do the will of the Father (John 6:38)
  • To bear witness to the truth (John 18:37)
  • To serve and to give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45)
  • To seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10)
  • To bring a sword of division, that is, to bring all humanity to a crisis point over his identity and mission (Matt 10:34-35)

Anselm’s own answer to the question had to do with the connection between the incarnation and the atonement: God became man because only the God-Man could make satisfaction for sins. Only God could repair the infinite breach caused by humanity’s dishonoring of God. But only a human could die on behalf of and in the place of fallen humanity. Indeed, the atonement is the principal purpose of the incarnation that we encounter in Scripture. But it’s not the only one, as the list above from Jesus’ own lips demonstrates.

In his treatment of the necessity of the incarnation in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas offers a ten-fold purpose of the incarnation. While Thomas does not think that the incarnation was absolutely necessary for the redemption of humanity (because God is omnipotent and could have devised many other ways—a point that Anselm before him and some Reformed theologians after him would dispute), he does think that the incarnation was necessary in the sense of being the most fitting (conveniens) way for God to accomplish human salvation. Why? Because the incarnation is most useful both for our “furtherance in the good” and for our “withdrawal from evil.” On each of those points, Thomas offers five further explanations for a total of ten reasons God became incarnate:

Furtherance in the good:

  • To make certain our faith in God
  • To strengthen our hope that God loves even sinners like us
  • To enkindle our love
  • To give us an example to imitate
  • To cause us to participate in the divine life, which is our true and final bliss

Withdrawal from evil:

  • To teach us to reject the devil
  • To teach us humanity’s dignity
  • To show us that only God’s grace can accomplish salvation
  • To cure our pride
  • To free us from sin through the satisfaction of the God-Man (here, Thomas marshals an argument similar to Anselm’s).

So, to summarize, Thomas teaches that God became man in order to give us faith, hope, love, an example, divinization and beatitude, victory, dignity, grace, humility, and atonement. What glory! What grace! What mind-bending mystery! That one of the Trinity would become a human to make humanity one with God!

Grudem and Eternal Generation: Did I Bury the Lede?

Systematic Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine:  Grudem, Wayne A.: 0025986517977: Books

The inimitable Fred Sanders has reviewed the revised Trinity chapter in Wayne Grudem’s second edition of Systematic Theology. As per usual, Fred’s take is clear, measured, engaging, grounded in Scripture, well-versed in the tradition, and just the right amount of levity. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but the nub of the review is Fred’s attempt to move the conversation away from Grudem’s eternal functional subordination (EFS) to his affirmation of eternal generation, which signals a reversal from the first edition. It’s not that Fred ignores or downplays the problems that remain with Grudem’s insistence on EFS, not least its superfluity and awkward fit with the eternal relations of origin that Grudem now affirms. But Fred’s point is more of a hope and a prediction:

If it were in my power to divert attention and passion into the right channels, I would direct everybody to focus on the doctrine of eternal relations of origin in the triune God….I predict eternal generation will prove its vigor, and the persuasiveness of EFS will continue to fade.

As I noted at the beginning of my post the other day, Grudem’s new edition has made two or three noteworthy shifts: he now affirms eternal generation and the unity of the divine will and qualifies some of his speculations with the language of mystery. But the greater part of my initial response wrestled with the implications of Grudem’s continued commitment to EFS. Fred seems to disagree with this prioritization:

The doctrine of eternal relations of origin is so important that I can survey Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Second Edition, and say that of the two Trinitarian news stories –the addition of eternal generation and the double-down on eternal functional subordination– the former is by far the bigger story.  I don’t expect many people to agree with me in that estimation, but through a number of conflicts and confusions in the past decade, the strategic task of retrieving eternal generation has been the main objective worth striving for. Let me put it this way: By faithfully equipping his readers with the doctrine of eternal generation in this second edition (and cutting appendix 6!), Grudem has given his students the orientation they need to take their trinitarian theology further into the satisfying resources of the great tradition than his first edition encouraged. Let eternal generation have its patient, perfect work, and obviating the felt need for EFS will be among its lesser accomplishments.

I appreciate Fred’s attempt to be charitable in his critique. In the four plus years of the “Trinity controversy,” Matt and I have tried to find this same balance both in our online responses and in our published works (even hosting EFS perspectives on our own blog). In both public and private, I have defended EFS proponents against charges of heresy and punches from critics that felt below the belt. So, I am grateful for the model that Fred gives to us all here: be firm in your critique but be fair in your evaluation.

Further, I am sincerely heartened by Fred’s optimism. I hope he is right. The best-selling evangelical textbook on systematic theology now includes a clear affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son and has removed the appendix that cast doubt on it. I am still concerned with the narrow, proof-texting method that led Grudem to change his mind: it came down to a translation of one word in the Greek New Testament. As Matt and I have tried to demonstrate, one of major problems that led so many evangelicals to affirm EFS for so many years is a narrow biblicism: doing theology by collating verses of Scripture rather than attending to canonical patterns, doctrinal parameters, and the history of interpretation. Even if we alter some of the conclusions, if the hermeneutical and methodological problems remain, then we unintentionally leave ourselves open to heterodoxy. But maybe I should be more hopeful; maybe this influential author affirming the eternal relations of origin–these crucial, biblically-warranted synthetic doctrines–will tend to crowd out the more problematic holdovers from his previous work.

But I am not as convinced as Fred is that EFS will simply die a natural death now that eternal generation has won the day. Grudem still tries to dovetail his commitment to EFS with his newfound affirmation of eternal generation, and I suspect the multitudes who read Grudem will simply follow suit. Fred believes that “there will be more and more to say about [Grudem’s EFS] in a smaller and smaller community of discourse.” This may be true in some academic circles. In fact, I believe it is. The 2016 controversy was a real game-changer in that regard. But let’s be honest: Grudem’s influence and book sales dwarf whatever the more academic treatments have achieved. Pastors, students, and laypeople who read the new edition will still walk away thinking that the divine persons are eternally distinguished by relationships of subordination and submission. They will still be influenced by an idiosyncratic model of hierarchical “roles” and a divine will that that is “actualized” by the divine persons for different tasks in creation and redemption. In a sense, Grudem’s affirmation of eternal generation only makes makes matters more difficult for those wishing to correct the errors of EFS. The new affirmations give cover for an expanded and barely qualified defense of an eternally subordinate Logos.

It should go without saying, but I want to make clear that my critique here is not “cancellation.” I am not calling for people to throw away their Grudem! He is a senior scholar who has had a profound and positive effect of hundreds of thousands (!) of Christians. I pray this new edition continues to have this kind of impact. And I sincerely rejoice that he (and some other EFS proponents) are shifting toward a more traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. But given the footprint of the “big blue (now white) book,” I had hoped for more than the formal addition of eternal generation (on narrow translation grounds) that rests uncomfortably with his broader treatment of the Trinity. Grudem may now affirm eternal generation. But EFS is still driving the train.

Is “Eternal Functional Submission” a Heresy?

Systematic Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine:  Grudem, Wayne A.: 0025986517977: Books

Wayne Grudem has just released a second edition of his best-selling Systematic Theology. While many of us have read Grudem with benefit, assigned his textbook in classrooms, and recommended it to others, some of us have also expressed serious concerns about his treatment of doctrine of the Trinity. So, one of the big questions surrounding this new release was whether or not Grudem would qualify any of his previous teachings on the eternal functional submission of the Son to the Father. Having read the relevant portions of the revised chapter on the Trinity, it is apparent that Grudem has made a couple noteworthy adjustments/clarifications: he now affirms the eternal generation of the Son and admits (in some sense) that there is one divine will (although it’s difficult to see how these admissions cohere with his broader understanding of the Trinity). But rather than retract any of his former writings on EFS, he actually doubles down. He still believes the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father, not just in terms of his incarnate mission, but in the eternal life of God himself, even speculating (with only a little caution) that this relationship of subordination in function is precisely what distinguishes the persons ad intra. Because Grudem interacts with Matt’s and my critique of his position, we plan to write a more thorough response to the revised chapter. But for now, I wanted to say a few words about an important question that gets raised in this debate: is EFS heretical?

For starters, we need to acknowledge just how serious this question is. Heresy (from the Greek word hairesis, “choice”) denotes not just an ignorant or inadvertent false belief, but a high-handed, intentional departure from the clear teaching of Scripture on a cardinal doctrine of the faith as it has been understood by a consensus of Christians down through the centuries. Each aspect of this definition is important. Heresy is a deliberate choice and not an accidental mistake. It violates Scripture not on a minor doctrinal dispute but on one of the “big ones”: the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc. And it departs from the consensus of the faithful not just in one parochial corner of the church but across time and place and the various traditions that make up the whole body of Christ. This is why heresy has most often, and rightly, been measured against the ecumenical creeds and councils–not because these documents supplement some deficiency in Scripture but because they faithfully summarize proper Christian interpretation of Scripture.

Furthermore, this question of heresy is so earnest because the doctrine of the Trinity is so central and so non-negotiable for Christian orthodoxy. It is interesting to see what evangelicals get really animated about these days. Social theories and political positions often get more scrutiny than teachings on core Christian doctrines. Perspectives on secondary or even tertiary issues are sometimes elevated in importance above primary doctrines. For many it seems, you can fudge on the Trinity as long as you vote for the right candidate and hold the right position on women in ministry! But in truth, the doctrine of the Trinity dwarfs every other belief in the system of Christian thought. Get this one wrong and the foundations are shaken.

So does EFS fall into this category of heresy? To answer this question fairly, we have to give a charitable reading of the explicit affirmations of EFS proponents. They tell us that they affirm the Nicene Creed–now with more explicit statements about the eternal relations of origin (Grudem was previously critical or at best ambivalent about these crucial doctrines and their biblical basis). They affirm the homoousios, the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father (and the Holy Spirit). They are careful to place any submission or obedience at the level of function rather than substance or essence (though this distinction is problematic when we are thinking about the immanent Trinity). So, at the very least we need to acknowledge that at some level EFS proponents are not trying to depart from historic Nicene orthodoxy. But at the same time, many of us find it difficult to square these affirmations with the notion that there is a hierarchy of authority in the inner life of the Trinity. If God is one in essence, power, and will, then the submission of one divine person to another in the inner life of God is a category error and a significant one at that. We believe that Grudem has misread, not just a few obscure theologians in church history, but the ecumenical creeds as well and, most importantly, Scripture itself.

At this point, it may be helpful to draw a distinction between formal heresy and material heterodox implications of a particular doctrinal position. I have recently been reading Thomas Joseph White’s erudite treatment of the doctrine of Christ, The Incarnate Lord. In his treatment of Karl Rahner’s doctrine of the incarnation, White is eager to acknowledge that Rahner “affirms unambiguously” the truth of the traditional Chalcedonian doctrine of Christ. White notes a number of places where Rahner does this explicitly. Still, in his treatment of Rahner’s idiosyncrasies, White comes to the conclusion that Rahner’s position, in point of fact, actually implies a kind of “subtle” Nestorianism, though Rahner himself doesn’t quite acknowledge those full implications. It seems to me that White’s respectful but frank critique of Rahner serves as a helpful model for how we might approach EFS. It is most welcome that EFS proponents like Grudem wish to affirm their Nicene bona fides, but a close examination of their position along with a close inspection of the historic doctrine of the Trinity as it has been received down through the centuries lead many of us to conclude that while not formally heretical, EFS is materially, if subtly and unintentionally, heterodox in some of its implications.

Reading Scripture with the Communion of Saints

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There has been some controversy recently about the dangers of “standpoint epistemology.” I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with this exact term until I started seeing it all over the place on social media and other places online. Even though I teach hermeneutics and have read my fair share of philosophical treatments of the topic, my training is in systematic theology and New Testament, not in feminist theory, where the notion of standpoint epistemology shows up most prominently. My expertise is in the history of doctrine and, in particular, how Christians have appealed to Scripture in Christological controversies. So, I’ve got to be honest: my familiarity (and interest level, to be frank) is pretty low when it comes to contemporary feminist philosophy.

But what seems to be bothering folks is simpler than all that. The idea that has been criticized so fiercely of late is the notion that Christians can be helped in understanding the meaning of Scripture by listening to fellow Christians with different cultural perspectives and life experiences. The idea that white Christians might need black Christians or men might need women in order to discern the full meaning of Scripture is taken as a threat to the Bible’s objective meaning and as evidence of nefarious secular ideologies infiltrating the ranks of evangelicalism. The alternative approach is that Christians, regardless of their social or cultural location, when using the right interpretive tools, are perfectly capable of arriving at the text’s objective meaning. In this understanding, hermeneutics is seen as a science, like chemistry or physics, in which cultural perspectives are irrelevant; they give you no advantage or disadvantage in determining the singular, objective meaning of Scripture.

To be sure, there is some validity to these kinds of warnings. If someone is suggesting that differing cultural perspectives determine the meaning of Scripture or that the text of Scripture has no determinate meaning or that any particular culture is incapable of discerning the clear teaching of Scripture, then all orthodox Christians should oppose such a notion. But what I get from the evangelicals I have gleaned from hermeneutically (D. A. Carson, Kevin Vanhoozer, Todd Billings, Jeannine Brown, among others) and what I myself teach is something much different than those things. Instead, what I would suggest is that listening to different Christian perspectives–including those from different social and cultural locations–is a sign of hermeneutical humility. I don’t know whether or how others might use this term, but here’s what I mean by it: the truth of Scripture is inerrant and infallible and determined by the Divine Author who inspired it, but my interpretations are none of those things. The meaning of Scripture is objective, but my reading of it–not just the answers I provide but the questions I even think to ask or the elements that I emphasize–is always shaped by my own subjective perspective. None of us comes to Scripture as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. No, all of us have certain presuppositions and preunderstandings that shape how we read and what we see. That doesn’t mean we are stuck in a rut of our own presuppositions; we can approach the truth of Scripture with greater and greater clarity the more we study, the more we pray, the more we seek wisdom (D. A. Carson compares this increase in interpretive faithfulness to an asymptote in mathematics: a line that gets closer and closer to a curved function without ever touching it). This dynamic between the reader and the text and between its parts and the whole has been called the hermeneutic circle, or perhaps better, the hermeneutical spiral. But this is all old hat. It’s not evidence of some novel, acronymic ideology. Every evangelical textbook on hermeneutics of which I am aware acknowledges the role of presuppositions in the interpretive task.

So, because my perspective is limited, I am helped by listening to the perspectives of others: my pastor, my wife, my friends, my community group, good books and commentaries, the church’s creeds and confessions, the great theologians and exegetes of church history, and so on. As inheritors of Enlightenment philosophy, moderns tend to view interpretation as an individual endeavor. Pietism has often doubled down on this and spiritualized it: “All I need is the Holy Spirit!” But the historic Christian position is that interpretation is a communal practice: we read Scripture most properly in the context of the church and the communion of saints across place and time. The reading and hearing of the Word of God is, after all, one of the ordinary means of grace that we receive principally in the body of Christ. As Christian orthodoxy was being discerned in the early centuries of the church, there was a concern that interpretation and doctrine be ecumenical in the older sense of the word: worldwide, not local or regional, but universal, East and West.

But it’s not just different Christian individuals who can help us; it’s also those with different life experiences. It is not difficult to imagine that a person who has experienced a debilitating disease might read Jesus’ healings in a different light than someone who hasn’t. Or that a woman might read the story of Mary and Martha in a unique light. Or that an enslaved person in the antebellum South might have read the story of the exodus in a different light than his enslaver. Or that a Christian experiencing severe persecution might read the imprecatory psalms in a different light. In his excellent book, The Word of God for the People of God, Reformed theologian Todd Billings tells the story of teaching in Ethiopia and noticing how the Old Testament dietary laws struck his students there in a different way, given their cultural experiences, than they typically do Westerners. Different cultural perspectives and life experiences don’t create new meanings in the text; rather, they help us to see what is really there that we may have missed. Scripture’s meaning is determinate, but it is not flatly singular. Like all good literature, Scripture’s meaning is rich and thick, not meager and thin. Other perspectives aid us in discerning that richness.

None of this means that experience determines meaning or that a lack of experience puts up an impenetrable barrier to communication. But it does mean that our perspectives, even after careful study, are still finite and limited (not to mention fallen and biased). Reading widely and listening sympathetically to how Scripture has been read at different times and in different cultures can help to correct our blind spots and enrich our own encounter with Christ in Scripture. Most fundamentally, we read the Bible not as isolated individuals, but as members of the body of Christ. In this body, each member has its own unique gift to bear to the whole; and in the historic and global church, we have an embarrassment of interpretive riches. Different perspectives don’t produce their own discrete treasures; but they do give us distinct vantages on the one multi-faceted diamond that is the truth of Scripture. In short, I don’t believe in standpoint epistemology. “I believe in the communion of saints.”