Is There an Application in this Text?


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.

Intertextuality in Revelation

Today on Twitter (and by today I mean 2 minutes ago) I mentioned that I think there is much work to be done on intertextuality between Revelation and the rest of the New Testament. Because of John’s obvious reliance on the Old Testament, there have been an increasing number of articles and books published on intertextuality between Revelation and the OT. For instance, G. K. Beale in his commentary, as well as in his earlier John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (which has been assimilated into the much larger commentary), notes all kinds of fascinating intertextual connections, but they are largely confined to Revelation’s use of the OT. So far there has been surprisingly little published on how Revelation alludes to other NT books.

Alistair Roberts pointed me to the John-Revelation project, which is a fascinating and compelling textual comparison of the two books, and he also mentioned Peter Leithart’s forthcoming commentary on Revelation as a possible source for this kind of work. In my book I point to a number of textual parallels between Revelation and Hebrews-Jude, and early in the twentieth century R. H. Charles in his ICC volume noted the distinctive connections between John’s Apocalypse and the Gospel of Matthew. But, given Revelation’s status as the canon closer and its relatively late date in comparison with the rest of the NT, we shouldn’t be shocked if there are a plethora of connections between it and the Gospels and Letters. I for one believe this is an area where NT scholars can find hundreds of treasures in a relatively unexplored field.

Quote of the Day

Right now I’m doing some research on the nature of wisdom in Solomon’s judgment over the case of the two women claiming the same baby. I came across this great quote from Richard Briggs:

Complaints against the supposition that this is a paradigm of wise judgment have come thick and fast from various quarters, including the rabbis, some feminist critics, and most memorably, Mark Twain. We shall take our cue from Mark Twain, if only because he is generally more fun than most scholars (83).

Richard Briggs, The Virtuous Reader, Baker Academic 2010.

Toward a Holistic Hermeneutic

Chris Morgan, Dean of the School of Christian Ministries at CBU, and I have recently published an article in the most recent issue of The Journal of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Right now the journal is available online, but it will also be published in print later this spring.

Our introduction reads:

In this article we argue hermeneutics ought to be holistic. A proper method for biblical interpretation ought to include a concern for exegesis, narrative, doctrine, the church, and application. Much like an orchestra, each of these fields has a part to play in biblical interpretation, and, while each may have a featured part at some stage, none should be allowed to play a purely solo act. Exegesis both rests on and results in theology, for example. Similarly, churches not only shaped the original context of the biblical material, they are still the primary interpretive context and central focus of the application. Our hope is that a holistic hermeneutic can produce a fuller symphonic interpretation. In what follows, we seek to sketch the overall contours of these aspects, suggest how they fit together, and offer an example of this method in practice.

You can access the article and read it in its entirety here.

Hermeneutics and the Eternal Generation of the Son

In two weeks I’ll be presenting a paper with the same title as this blog post at the Southeast Regional meeting of ETS in Birmingham, AL. I’m also presenting the same paper at the ETS Far West Regional meeting in LA in April. I’ve never presented the same paper at two different conferences, so it will be interesting to get feedback in Birmingham and then tweak (rewrite?) the paper for the April conference. I was only planning on presenting in LA, but I’ll take any excuse to go to Sweet Home Alabama and get some good BBQ.

Here’s a paragraph from my introduction explaining my aim and thesis:

This paper seeks to explore and compare the hermeneutical presuppositions and methods of, on the one hand, early Christian interpreters who saw the doctrine of eternal generation taught in Proverbs 8 and, on the other hand, modern interpreters[1] who do not see the doctrine here. What makes the difference in interpretation? It is surely not exegetical rigor – both the pre-modern and modern interpreters have rigorously explored the text with every available interpretive tool.[2] And in the not uncommon case that one assumes modern exegesis is more rigorous and scientific than pre-modern interpretation, it should be noted here that modern commentators cannot come to an agreement on the passage’s meaning, either as a whole or in determining what specific verbs mean (e.g. qana, v. 25). This is in spite of a general commitment to a method (historical-critical, or its close cousin, historical-grammatical for evangelicals) and a conclusion – the passage does not teach eternal generation.[3] In other words, the issue has to lie elsewhere, and I propose here that the difference between those who affirm eternal generation, both in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere, and those who deny it is their theological and hermeneutical foundations. This paper will compare and contrast the aforementioned interpreters’ approaches in order to demonstrate that this is indeed the case.

[1] In using the term “modern” I mean post-Enlightenment, which includes both modern and postmodern readers. While the latter tend to eschew the objectivism and scientific positivism with which moderns approach the text, postmodern readers still tend to retreat to modernistic exegetical methods in their interpretation.

[2] Thus this paper is not an exegetical defense of eternal generation from Proverbs 8, but rather an argument that those who see the doctrine taught here have legitimate theological and interpretive rationales for doing so.

[3] One notable exception is Richard M. Davidson, “Proverbs 8 and the Place of Christ in the Trinity,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 17.1 (2006): 33–54, but even here it should be noted that he does not use the language of eternal generation but only hypostatization. His focus is more on the incarnation language in the passage than on the relationships between the persons of the immanent Trinity. See also Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., “Wisdom and Creation,” JBL 104.1 (1985): 3–11.

The Thorny Issue of Historical Background Research

I just sent in a review of David DeSilva’s recent book, The Letter to the Hebrews in Social Scientific Perspective (Cascade Companions; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012). As the title indicates, it is a social scientific study of Hebrews. In the review I articulated my concern with some fundamental assumptions with this approach to biblical studies, which I’ve reproduced below.

(If anyone knows if quoting my own review on my own blog is copyright infringement, please let me know. I’ll adjust accordingly. I also plan on updating this post with the relevant bibliographic info if/when the review is published.)

. . . the issue is with the broader tendency in biblical studies to make a sharp distinction between what it meant and what it means (xii) and therefore to place the onus of interpretation on reconstructing historical background, from author to audience to cultural influence, rather than on the text itself.

The issue here lies primarily in the idea that the intended audience of the biblical books, and even more conspicuously, the biblical canon, is almost completely focused on first century readers. But this, both for non-believing interpreters and for confessional Christians, is not the case; the biblical authors frequently mention other readers besides the community to which the letter is originally addressed, and, for confessional Christians, the Bible is not only a collection of historical documents but also and foundationally the Word of God for the people of God. That is, it is the Word of God for all Christians, near to the original context and far from it. To thus locate the interpretive crux on reconstructing the context of the original audience seems at best to dichotomize falsely the book’s readership between original readers and future readers; this is neither authors’ intent, human or divine.

Furthermore, this exacerbation of the importance of historical reconstruction often yields little actual benefits. Ironically, this is nowhere a more acute problem than with Hebrews; we are left in the dark, or at least in the twilight, on both authorship and audience. DeSilva cannot escape this despite his best efforts, and is left to generalizations that are of little assistance. So, for instance, on the question of audience, even after a detailed discussion of its makeup, DeSilva is left to this innocuous conclusion: “In all probability, the community was probably composed from a wide range of social strata . . .” (37). Additionally, this approach tends towards valuing cultural background over Old Testament background, and DeSilva does not escape this. A mere page after listing the litany of OT books upon which Hebrews’ author draws (10), DeSilva makes the altogether puzzling comment that Heb. 12:5–6 is much more dependent on Seneca than it is on Prov. 3:11–12, the passage that is directly quoted (11).  This sort of baffling retreat to cultural background over explicit OT quotations and allusions is frequent throughout the book, and is symptomatic, in this reviewer’s opinion, of this type of approach to biblical interpretation.

This is not to deny the validity of studying the cultural milieu of the biblical books, or even the fact that at times this study may provide valid insights, but rather to say that I think modern biblical studies overemphasizes it to an unhelpful degree.



Athanasius and Proverbs 8

Right now I’m researching the hermeneutical foundations for the patristic and medieval use of Proverbs 8 to support the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. One of the essays I’ve been working through for the last few days is Luise Abramowski’s “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius.”[1] My German is below poor, so I hope I’m understanding Abramowski correctly, but what I take the article to be saying is that a number of hermeneutical principles worked together to allow Athanasius to understand Proverbs 8:22-31 as teaching eternal generation.

  1. John 1:14, 16, etc. necessitate seeing Jesus as the divine embodiment of wisdom. In other words, Athanasius begins with the assumption that Jesus as the Logos is enfleshed Wisdom, and therefore that Wisdom must not be a creature (as the Logos is not a creature).
  2. This means that Proverbs 8:22-31 cannot refer to Wisdom as a creature.
  3. The genre of Proverbs, as paroimia, should be understood as either “Sprichwort” (Latin, proverbium; “proverb”) or “Gleichnis” (“likeness,” “allegory,” “parable”). In other words, the tentative nature of the language and message of Proverbs should give the reader pause before proceeding with any definitive interpretation, even of individual words.
  4. Regarding ktizein, there are verbal parallels that suggest it can mean something other than ontological creation (e.g. Prov. 9:1).
  5. It is important for Athanasius to identify the “person” speaking in each verse, and especially between the pre-incarnate Logos and the incarnate Christ (e.g. v. 22 vs. v. 25).
  6. Related to this last point, Athanasius found it highly important to understand individual passages in light of their placement in and reference to the biblical storyline, especially as it relates to the Word becoming flesh.

All of this led Athanasius to reject Arian subordinationism from this passage and turn to eternal generation as the alternative interpretive solution. I’m not sure what I’ll do with that yet, but I do find it interesting that, at least in my opinion, Athanasius seems to be operating with some fairly standard interpretive principles: pay attention to genre and context, pay attention to the biblical narrative, and pay attention to textual details and parallels. The one principle that I think gets people nervous nowadays is that Athanasius starts with the assumption that the NT (e.g. Hebrews 1) interprets Proverbs 8 as it was originally intended. Modern interpreters tend to prefer to isolate Proverbs 8 (or any OT passage) from its reception history, and especially NT reception. I’ll refrain from commenting on that, for now at least.

[1] Luise Abramowski, “Das Theologische Hauptwerk Des Athanasius: Die Drei Bücher Gegen Die Arianer (Ctr. Arianos I-III),” Communio Viatorum 42.1 (2000): 5-23.