Arguing from Silence in the Early Church

This summer Luke Stamps and I had a relatively brief interaction about penal substitution and its catholicity. One of the common objections to penal substitution is that it is not found in the early church’s theological reflection. While we gave some brief examples in our posts of where it might be found, at least implicitly, there is a larger problem with this kind of approach to the Patristic period. We often use the early church in one of two problematic ways: either to proof-text in support of our position or to make an argument from silence against a position we oppose. While methodologically speaking the former is a bit easier to confront, the latter seems more prevalent these days (at least in my reading). Our hermeneutics classes have warned us of proof-texting enough that I think it’s easier to reject that approach not just biblically but historically. What is harder to reject, but what is just as problematic, is citing the silence of the Fathers as proof that a doctrine isn’t biblically or theologically warranted.

This is methodologically suspect on at least two levels. Historically, it ignores the fact that Christian doctrines develop over time. Theology does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it worked out in all its loci all at once immediately after the last apostle passes away. It should be clear to those who have studied church history that the Patristic and Medieval periods are given over to working out the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. Soteriology and ecclesiology are the focus of theological reflection in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, while anthropology and eschatology (to name just two) are being worked out in much more detail in contemporary theological discussions. To ask a second century apologist to speak about the Triune God with the same level of exactness as fifth century Christians is anachronistic. And to argue that a particular understanding of the atonement (e.g. penal substitution, or justification by faith alone) is not warranted because the Fathers do not mention it[1] is to miss the point that soteriology is largely assumed and not worked out with particular fervor or exactness until the Reformation. In other words, historically, this “argument from Patristic (or Medieval) silence” is an error of anachronism.

The “argument from silence” is also theologically problematic. For Protestants, the ultimate doctrinal standard is not a particular period in church history or how early or late a particular doctrine is widely attested, but whether or not a particular doctrine is faithful to Holy Scripture. While we certainly want to pay attention to any belief’s development, our assessment of it, if we are to be fully Protestant, should rest finally with whether or not it conforms to God’s Word. As Protestants, we affirm that the church can and does make mistakes, ethically, interpretively, and doctrinally. Just because the first, second, or third (etc) generations of Christians after the apostles believed something does not make it automatically true, nor does their lack of attestation to a belief make that belief necessarily false. Sola Scriptura demands that we make those judgments ultimately from Scripture, not via picking a particular period of church history as more important than another.

That said, there is a reason we often look to the Patristic period for validation of our beliefs – it is important both historically and theologically. Historically, it is most immediate to the apostles and their teaching. More importantly, perhaps, is that, theologically, the conclusions of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon are accurate summaries of biblical teaching about the Trinity and about Christ, and therefore can be used (penultimate to Scripture’s authority) to assess whether or not later doctrinal developments are faithful to the good deposit of Scripture and the church’s summary of it in the three ecumenical creeds. So it is not as though I am arguing that the early church is unimportant in theological reflection. By no means! But I am saying that arguments from silence are not proper method, either historically or theologically.

[1] I’d argue they do, but it is still a very minor theme in their discussion of salvation when compared to its prominence in contemporary evangelical theology.

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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?

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.

Earthy Signs of Israel’s Restoration

At the end of Hosea, God promises to restore Israel, and he declares his redemptive purposes using the earthy symbols of grain and vine:

They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:7).

The following book, Joel, reverses this earthy restoration with a promise of YHWH’s judgment:

The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes (Joel 1:10).

Notice that a third earthy element, oil, is added into the mix. We could also add here the sign of water; throughout the Old Testament, water is a sign of judgment in both its excess (e.g. Genesis 6) and its lack, as well as a sign of restoration (e.g. Ezek. 47:1-12). For Israel, then, the earthy signs that they are looking for, the signs that demonstrate that YHWH has renewed them through his Messiah and Spirit, are water, oil, grain, and vine (cf. also Deut. 7:13 for the initial promise of blessing via these elements). Israel’s redemption is pictured as a redemption of the Land, and particularly of those four elements.

When Jesus comes, he comes as Israel’s Anointed – “Messiah” just means “anointed one.” He is anointed both at the beginning of his ministry in baptism and at the end of his ministry, just before his Passion, with oil (Matt. 26:6-13). In other words, Jesus embodies these restorative signs of Israel’s salvation, water and oil, in his Messianic anointing. With respect to the grain and vine, two elements crucial to Israel’s commemorative and formative Passover meal, Jesus embodies these as well, this time in the Last Supper. As he breaks the bread and takes the cup, identifying them as his body and blood, he is taking up the rich symbolism of Israel’s redemptive hope and culminating it in himself. There is now bread to eat, and there is now the fruit of the vine to drink – in Christ. We could also point to the “I AM” statements in John; Jesus is, among other things, Israel’s Bread, Light (associated with oil lamps), Living Water, and Vine.

Jesus, in other words, takes all these earthy symbols of Israel’s redemptive hope upon himself, and fulfills them. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, including its hope of restored Land. By taking these earthy symbols on himself, Jesus is declaring that in him Israel, including the Land itself, is redeemed. All of Israel’s promises, including the Land promises, are fulfilled in the incarnate Son.

But neither Jesus nor the NT stop there with respect to these symbols. These earthy symbols are not only fulfilled in Jesus but also instituted as signs of his Kingdom. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and King, but he does not isolate the presence of the Kingdom in his person. Instead, through pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus spreads his Kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via the proclamation of the gospel by his Church. And as his Spirit-filled Church expands, they bring with them signs of the Kingdom, namely the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These two ordinances are instituted by Christ as signs of the Kingdom because they are signs of Israel’s redemption in him and therefore also signs of Israel’s restoration as YHWH’s people in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

Jesus’ body and blood – Israel’s redeemed grain and vine – are proclaimed to us in the Supper, and therefore the Supper is a sign of Israel’s redemption. Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed to us in baptism, and therefore our identification with Christ in our submergence into and reemergence out of the waters is a sign of Israel’s redemption. And as we anoint ministers, we anoint them (historically with oil) to minister the Word – the vehicle of Christ’s authority in his Church – to his people. The congregation sits under the kingship of the anointed Christ as anointed ministers proclaim his Scriptures. The Church’s symbols are therefore Israel’s symbols, and thus as the Church worships Christ they are doing so as the renewed and restored Israel, the Israel of God, because they are united to Israel’s Messiah who redeemed Israel in his own flesh.

John Sailhamer: In Memoriam

I learned on Twitter earlier that John Sailhamer has passed away.  Due to his failing health over the last decade, his last major project – The Meaning of the Pentateuchwas published way back in 2009. In our consumer-driven, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately American culture, that may as well have been a century ago. But Sailhamer’s influence has always been more about his positive impact on students than his publishing per se. If you read his books – The Pentateuch as Narrative, Introduction to Old Testament Theology, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, even Genesis Unbound, as well as his commentaries – it seems obvious that these arise directly out of his teaching. And if you talk to his students, they’ll confirm that this is in fact the case.

This is why I feel a great loss at Sailhamer’s passing, even though I never had him for a class. One of the greatest regrets of my life is not taking him for Hebrew or Old Testament my first year at SEBTS; he left the next year for Golden Gate. But in God’s providence I still feel as though I’ve been under his guidance, since during my time as a secretary at SEBTS I served two “Sailhamerites,” as we called them. Every day, for almost 4 years, I worked as an administrative assistant for these men, so that while I was making copies or filling out reimbursement sheets for them they were schooling me in the ways of Sailhamer.

At first I was skeptical; I hadn’t taken Sailhamer or anyone else that followed him during my M.Div, and it was only through serving these men that I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. Then I began my first semester of doctoral work and took a Hermeneutics seminar. Suffice it to say that Sailhamer’s hermeneutical idiosyncrasies came up a number of times, and I needed to find out why. I picked up Introduction to Old Testament Theology, and I was hooked. I was convinced that the shape of the canon is hermeneutically crucial, that meaning is text-centered, and that intertextual links between biblical texts are the building blocks of the canon and of good theology.

Due to other factors, I had already changed my concentration to biblical theology, and now I changed my dissertation topic almost immediately – the canonical shape of the New Testament. Jonathan Catanzaro and I started a “Canonical Theology” student group. My first published article, written mostly while I was still at SEBTS, was due to Sailhamer’s impact on how I read the NT. To say, therefore, that Sailhamer’s influence on me during my doctorate was substantial would be a vast understatement.

Over the years I’ve shifted a bit on some of these issues; for instance, I no longer agree that historical background is inconsequential in understanding particular texts. I sometimes don’t find Sailhamer’s intertextual connections, or, more often, his theological conclusions given those connections, convincing. But the foundations of Sailhamer’s approach, namely a close literary and intertextual reading coupled with canonical consciousness, still drive the way I read the Bible. Even though I never had a class with Professor Sailhamer, he remains one of the top five people who have influenced how I read and understand Scripture.

Because of this, I was incredibly excited to meet John a few years ago when I was still at California Baptist University. One of John’s close friends at SEBTS, Bob Cole, who also was one of those Sailhamerite faculty I served, took me with him to see Sailhamer in SoCal. At that point John’s health had declined such that he was consigned to what amounted to an electrical, driveable recliner; he fell asleep often, usually while one of us was talking to him; and he could barely speak. But I will, with the Lord’s help, never forget that he seemed to have the entire Hebrew Bible memorized, even in his condition. Bob and I would mention this or that text, and John would slowly but surely convey how that text was linked to other texts, parse the verbs, note other grammatical connections. He couldn’t walk, could barely talk, and couldn’t stay awake, but the man had hidden God’s Word in his heart. And it was because he did that over the course of decades he influenced so many to read the Old Testament as an eschatological messianic book, a book that’s goal and content is Christ.

Thank you, John, for your labors. May you rest in the peace of Christ.

Gregory of Nyssa and a “Community of Wills”?

In Against Eunomius I.1.34 (NPNF 5), Gregory says this regarding the Father and Son sharing in one nature:

So also the Father and Son are one, the community of nature and the community of will running, in them, into one. But if the Son had been joined in wish only to the Father, and divided from Him in His nature, how is it that we find Him testifying to His oneness with the Father, when all the time He was sundered from Him in the point most proper to Him of all?

At first glance this sounds problematic from the standpoint of proponents of dyothelite Christology and, correspondingly, one will in the Godhead. A phrase like “community of wills,” along with the analogy Gregory uses right before this of two men agreeing with one another, could be taken to mean that Nyssen is here implicitly affirming multiple divine wills. This is, in fact, just the kind of passage that twentieth-century social Trinitarians might point to in favor of their understanding of “person,” and in fact the Cappadocians are employed frequently in support of their position. But there are clear reasons to reject a “social Trinitarian” reading of Gregory, at least in this particular passage.

1. Elsewhere in Nyssen, as well as in other pro-Nicenes, God is one in every way. The *only* distinction that exists in the Godhead is the means of subsistence in the essence, i.e. the eternal relations of origin that distinguish the persons. Nyssen previously in “Against Eunomius” has spoken repeatedly of the fact that God is one in every conceivable way – power, authority, command, goodness, justice, glory, etc. The only way that the persons are distinguished is via eternal relations of origin (see e.g. I.1.22).

2. The context clearly affirms one will. Nyssen speaks immediately prior to this passage about God’s will in the singular. Again, this is in accord with the way Nyssen speaks elsewhere about God’s simple unity.

3. The analogy with the two men agreeing is not intended to be one to one correspondence. Nyssen makes this quite clear throughout his works on the Trinity, including “Against Eunomius.” We should not take his analogy here as anything more than that – analogous. Nyssen consistently affirms a healthy dose of apophaticism and the analogical nature of language elsewhere.

4. The syntax of the sentence makes clear that Gregory does not mean multiple wills in the Godhead. Here it is in Greek:

καὶ ὁ πατὴρ καὶ ὁ υἱὸς ἕν εἰσι, τῆς κατὰ τὴν φύσιν καὶ τὴν προαίρεσιν κοινωνίας εἰς τὸ ἓν συνδραμούσης

Note both clauses. The first clause has two singular nouns (“father” and “son”) taking a plural verb to describe them (“are”), but the predicate noun is singular. The plural persons of Father and Son are one. Of course, this is no different than Jesus’ affirmation in John 17. What about the second clause, the more troubling one for our purposes? To begin with, this is an explanatory clause about how Father and Son are one, as indicated by the κατὰ preposition. So Nyssen is at the very least not contradicting his previous statement, but expanding on it. When we look at this expansion of his explanation about God’s oneness, we find two singular nouns – “nature” and “will” – in the middle of a genitive absolute clause – τῆς … κοινωνίας. In other words, whatever “community” means here, it is defined according to (κατὰ) both nature and will. (I am dependent on Seumas Macdonald for insights into the syntax of this sentence). Nyssen is certainly not positing a “community of natures” in the way a “community of wills” would have to be taken for trithelitism. In fact, all that Nyssen really seems to mean here is that, while distinct in their personhood, Father and Son are one in essence and volition.

This, by the way, is the problem with “proof-texting” the Fathers. If one simply presses CTRL-F for “will,” several passages like this will pop up. If we read them cursorily and out of context, they seem to support a social Trinitarian view of the divine persons. But on further inspection, that could not be further from the truth.

HT: Seumas Macdonald and Ryan Clevenger for help with accessing the Greek of this passage.

Is There an Application in this Text?

No.

Or at least, if what we mean by “application” is “something practical,” then the answer is often, “no, not immediately so.”

I was listening to the radio this morning and there was an ad for some kind of art foundation. The tag line was “art works.”

No it doesn’t. Art isn’t supposed to “work.” It’s not supposed to be immediately practical. Neither is theology or the Bible many times, for that matter. That’s because the arts are not supposed to be “practical.” They’re of a higher order, one that’s job (yes I’m using that ironically) is to point us to the true, good, and beautiful or how we’ve rebelled against it.

Of course, the Bible is transformational. Scripture’s purpose is to point us to the Son by the illumining power of the Spirit so that we might know the Father, and in seeing the Son we are transformed into his image (see 2 Cor. 3:17-18). In this sense every text is applicable, because every text calls us to respond to Christ in faith, whether for the first time or for our continued sanctification. But this is not the same thing as “practical.”

I’m afraid in our thinking on preaching, theology, art, and a whole host of other issues we have been taken in by that distinctly American philosophy, pragmatism. The truth of something is known through its usefulness and the results it engenders. This just isn’t the same as contemplating God for who he is and being transformed into his image.

None of this is an excuse for theologians to keep their heads in the clouds and ignore their ecclesial-rooted calling and audience. But it is to say that I think that many calls for theology to be made “practical” are many times influenced more by pragmatism than by a proper understanding of the role of theology (and the rest of the arts).

Historical Theology and Biblical Evidence in the Trinity Debate

I don’t intend for this post to be long, just want to make a quick point about the relationship between historical theology and biblical evidence when we talk about the differing views of the Trinity.

I’ve seen some comments on social media and blogs that go something like this: “While I can appreciate historical points of view, what I really care about is what the Bible says.” In this scenario, historical theology is placed second to our own biblical exegesis. As a Protestant evangelical, I certainly understand and agree with the sola scriptura emphasis that lies behind these kinds of comments, but I think this is a false dichotomy.

It is a false dichotomy not because historical theology or historic interpretation is equal to Scripture – it’s not! – but because the hermeneutical warrants given by the 4th century pro-Nicenes for not only homoousion but also for eternal generation and eternal procession are absolutely crucial for our confession that YHWH is one God in three persons. In other words, you cannot get to Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and further clarified at Chalcedon without the biblical interpretations given by the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicnene theologians. And, again, you cannot get to Trinitarianism per se, i.e. the confession of homoousion, of one God in three persons, without eternal generation and procession, and you cannot get to those lynchpins of Nicene Trinitarianism without the historical interpretive warrants given by Athanasius, Hilary, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, etc.

So when we talk about Basil’s or Augustine’s or Cyril’s or Nazianzen‘s view of a particular text, it is not merely an historical exercise that has little to do with biblical warrant. Rather, we are attempting to show that the biblical warrant given in the 4th and 5th centuries for Nicene Trinitarianism is crucial to the confession of Nicene Trinitarianism.

What Makes a Doctrine “Biblical”? On Method

I know some grow weary of debating the doctrine of the Trinity, and I understand that frustration. Social media and the blogosphere are not the best platforms to sort out a doctrinal debate as significant as our understanding of the Trinity. I do not intend here or in future posts to continue “debating” with anyone; instead, I hope to provide some constructive arguments for how we, as Protestant evangelicals  (and, for me, free church Southern Baptists) should go about formulating and articulating doctrine. I also hope in subsequent posts to use this method to demonstrate the inherent biblical nature of the classic doctrine of the Trinity, especially with respect to the doctrine of eternal generation.

The basic question at stake is, “What makes a doctrine biblical?” That question is of course important to Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike, but it is particularly important for us Protestants, affirming as we do sola scriptura. What I would like to do here is articulate an appropriate theological method that is faithful to sola scriptura in a robustly theological and historical manner (which, by the way, is how the Reformers originally articulated the idea). In contrast to a stark biblicism that sees theology as essentially an individual project whereby the reader exegetes a handful of passages and then makes theological conclusions, this method is, I think, more careful to understand that theology is not autonomous, it is not presupposition-less, it is not a-historical, it is not merely a matter of proof-texting or collecting a handful of texts, and it is not unmoored from other Christians’ reflection throughout space and time. With that said, then, what does an evangelical theological method look like?

(Note that this is a sketch and not intended to be exhaustive.)

  1. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine relies on the illumination of the Spirit. Our ability to understand and interpret the Bible in its fullest sense – as the Word of God for the people of God – is dependent upon the Spirit who inspired it illumining our hearts as we read. We must start by asking for the Spirit’s help.
  2. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis.  The study of doctrine is grounded in exegesis. If we miss this point, we’ve missed the point of doctrine. In theology, we are attempting to understand what God has said to us in a systematic fashion – that is, in an orderly way, not just by working through individual books but by organizing these disparate texts in a way that demonstrates their coherent and unified message about particular topics. That task always begins with exegeting particular relevant texts. So, when we talk about the Trinity, for instance, we are in part asking about what the Bible says about God, and for this there are a number of texts where we need not only to repeat what they say but be clear about what is being said. 1 Cor. 8:6 is a good example. Understanding this verse requires the tools of exegesis (historical background, literary criticism, lexical knowledge, grammar and syntax, etc. etc.), and in turn our exegetical conclusions inform our theological stances. The key point to note here, though, is that “biblical” means more than just exegeting particular texts. There are a number of other ways in which we rely on God’s revelation to us in his Word to formulate doctrinal conclusions. Further, there are some (many?) doctrines that require more than just exegesis of individual texts alone. Therefore,
  3. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine pays attention to the patterns of biblical language. The latter phrase is taken from David Yeago’s excellent little essay, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma.” In it he argues that doctrinal decisions in early Christianity, and particularly as solidified in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, were a) reliant upon and in accordance with Scripture and b) doing so via paying attention not just to proof-texts but to patterns of biblical language. The theologians’ task was and is to use appropriate conceptual terms to render accurate theological judgments about these patterns. For instance, with respect to the word “homoousios,” it is not biblical in the sense that it is not found anywhere in the Bible. But the pro-Nicene theologians saw that the New Testament speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God, individually and collectively, and that in doing so it continues to affirm Old Testament monotheism. How do we render an accurate judgment about this pattern of language – not just a judgment about an individual verse or a collection of verses, but a pattern – that testifies to the divinity of three person and to the oneness of God? Homoousios. Notice my emphasis here on “pattern” and not just collecting verses; while the Fathers would point to particular verses in noting these patterns, it was never just about individual verses themselves or just collecting them, but about the pattern of language noticed across these verses when seen together. So, for instance, the Fathers noticed that the Son is called by the same names as the Father (and the Spirit). This nominal pattern (among other equally biblical reasons) led them to conclude that the Son is God in the same sense that the Father is God. They share the same names. This is a pattern, not just pointing to a particular verse, or just collecting a few verses that seem to indicate Jesus’ divinity. No, it is more than that; it is attending to patterns and shapes. Speaking of shapes,
  4. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is narratively shaped. The pro-Nicene theologians, and indeed the New Testament writers and apostolic fathers like Irenaeus, saw that the Bible has a particular shape or structure to it. This structure, commonly known as the “economy” of Scripture, is centered on the life and work of Jesus Christ, the gospel, the good news of God’s work of redemption. Notice that for us evangelicals, this is just a way of saying that the Bible is focused on the gospel – the evangel – of Jesus Christ. Particularly important in this regard for our purposes, though, is knowing how to speak of the Son in his incarnation versus in the life of the Trinity ad intra (immanent; before redemption; the life of God before creation). This was especially crucial in the fourth century, as the Arius, Eunomius, Asterius, and other anti-Nicenes used texts that spoke of Jesus’ submission to the Father to argue for the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. the pro-Nicenes countered that no, one must read Scripture in a way that pays attention to its gospel shape, especially when speaking about the Son. Does a particular text speak about the Son’s incarnate form or his life with Father and Spirit ad intra? (Luke Stamps has already noted just such a reading in Nazianzen.) I will come back to this in a future post, but it is worth noting here that for the pro-Nicenes a text speaking about the Son’s submission was always one which spoke of the incarnate Son, not of the immanent Trinity. This talk of the economy and reading according to the Bible’s structure was part of the rule of faith. This is because, for the Fathers and for us,
  5. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is a ruled doctrine. The rule of faith is notoriously difficult to pin down, but in my opinion Irenaeus’ hermeneutical method gives us a good example of what it looked like for many early Christian readers. For Irenaeus, the Bible should be read with three things in mind (see on this O’Keefe and Reno, Sanctified Vision): the economy of Scripture, the hypothesis of Scripture, and the narrative recapitulation in Scripture. The economy we have discussed. The hypothesis of Scripture is its main idea. Irenaeus compares it to a mosaic; we might use the analogy of a puzzle. Just like the puzzle box top gives us a picture of how the pieces are supposed to fit together and the picture they are supposed to collectively form, so the hypothesis of Scripture tells us what its big picture is and how its pieces (texts) fit together to form that picture. For Irenaeus, that picture is Jesus. Every text fits into the puzzle in a particular fashion to create and point to the big picture, which is of Christ. (I cannot take the time to go into this here, but this is because the Son is the ultimate revelation of the Father, and we know the Son through the Spirit’s inspiration of God’s Word. See here for more.) The third foundation is recapitulation. By this Irenaeus means that every story, person, event, etc. finds their culmination in the person and work of Jesus. This is essentially recognizing that the Bible is typological; stories are shaped and patterned similarly, and each of those patterns leads ultimately to the story of Jesus. Notice that these foundations are a) thoroughly Christological and b) thoroughly biblical. Irenaeus is relying on texts like John 5:46 and Luke 24:27, 44 to inform his method, but he also demonstrates its validity in actual interpretation (see e.g. his On the Apostolic Preaching). This rule was passed down and informed subsequent readers of Scripture, and likewise for us, then,
  6. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is informed by tradition. I know that some of my Baptist brethren may, if they haven’t already, be cringing at the mention of “tradition” and “Scripture” in the same breath, much less at the fact that I am doing so positively. But hear me out. Tradition is not inspired; Scripture is. Tradition is not inerrant or infallible; Scripture is. Tradition is not ultimate in authority; Scripture is. But to the extent that tradition is faithfully and accurately representing what God has given us in his Spirit-inspired Word, it is *derivatively* authoritative. Thus the Creeds, for instance, are *derivatively* authoritative; that is, they have authority only insofar as they accurately represent the ultimate authority, Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying, Father-revealing Holy Scripture. Scripture is ultimate; the Creeds derivative. But that brings us to the second term, “authority.” If the Creeds faithfully distill the teachings of Holy Scripture, then they have a derivative *authority.* They teach us what all Christians everywhere ought to believe about God, salvation, the Church, & the last things. Again, this is not equating them with or placing them on equal footing with Scripture. We must understand “derivative” as Protestants. But the Creeds have been tried and tested for almost two millennia. Their derivation from Scripture is seen ubiquitously by Christians throughout space and time. We should thus be incredibly cautious when we begin to think that we have a new exegetical point overturning them. The Creeds are not infallible, nor are they inerrant per se. But that doesn’t mean they should be seen as merely “valuable” but not “authoritative.” I am a Protestant evangelical Baptist. I believe in sola scriptura. But sola scriptura has never meant nuda scriptura or the rejection of derivative creedal authority, either in what we confess or in how we interpret Scripture. I think of tradition as guardrails. It’s there for a reason. Sometimes guardrails can be adjusted, or moved, but to ignore or do away with them entirely is not wise. Speaking of guardrails,
  7. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is refined by dogmatic, philosophical, logical, and experiential questions. Sometimes when we make judgments about patterns of biblical language, these patterns reveal rather clearly the judgment we ought to make. Other times, though, other kinds of questions have to be asked, namely those of the systematic and philosophical variety. Another way of saying this is to say that sometimes choices are presented to us doctrinally that need systematic and philosophical help to answer. Both Luke and I have written on this previously here, so I’ll point you there. Finally,
  8. A biblically rooted and informed doctrine is worked out in an ecclesial context. No man is an island, and no Christian does theology apart from the rest of the body of Christ. As we pursue theological precision, we do so with the communion of saints throughout space and time. This means reading the Bible in an ecclesial, and especially a liturgical, context, and asking how other Christians have read the same passages and formulated their own doctrinal conclusions.

Well this turned out to be rather long. If I’d known it’d go over 2k words I might have just asked Derek Rishmawy to write it, or propose it as an article somewhere.

I’ll conclude by summarizing a Protestant evangelical Baptist method thusly: it is illumined by the Spirit, rooted in biblical exegesis, governed by patterns of biblical language, shaped by the biblical economy, guided by the biblically-derived rule of faith, guarded by biblically-derived tradition, refined by systematic and philosophical reflection, and located within the communion of the saints.

 

Baptist Theological Method

Over the last day or so I’ve read Richard Barcellos’ The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More Than a Memory (Fearn: Mentor, 2013). I highly recommend this short but pastoral, exegetically based, and historically informed study of the church’s communion practice from a Baptist perspective. Although I could highlight a number of quotes from the book on everything from prayer to the Holy Spirit to Baptist history, one of my favorite sections is a very brief note on theological method Barcellos makes at the beginning of his final chapter. He writes,

The Reformed confessional and catechetical formulation of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is not based on one biblical text or a few isolated proof texts. It is based upon a complex of texts, exegetical work on those texts, the doctrines derived from those biblical texts and others in concert with a redemptive-historical, whole-Bible awareness and in conversation with the history of the Christian tradition.

In place of “the Reformed confessional…as a means of grace,” we could substitute the simple phrase “Christian doctrine.” Doctrinal formulation is not a matter of proof-texting (although certainly we should allow for doctrinal formulation on the basis of only one text), but rather, as David Yeago puts it, using conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about the patterns of language found in Scripture.