The Son’s Light and Biblical Understanding

I don’t think it’s any secret that I subscribe to an Augustinian understanding of how we approach and comprehend Holy Scripture’s message to God’s people. Commonly known as “faith seeking understanding” (from the Latin fides quarens intellectum), this view says that we come to the Bible and understand its message not as blank slates, without presuppositions and with complete objectivity, but in faith. Those who read Scripture with the eyes of faith in Christ Jesus most fully comprehend what it is saying. Or, to put a finer point on it, only those who read in faith can fully understand its message.

When I espouse this epistemological approach to comprehending Scripture, I am usually asked the same question: “But what about unbelieving biblical scholars/readers from whom I (or we in the discipline) gain knowledge about the Bible’s message?” While I understand the impetus behind that question, I also think it arises from a misunderstanding about the Bible’s ultimate purpose. The Bible, as an historical document, has a series of messages written by specific people at a specific time and for a specific audience – it is in one sense, therefore, for information. But the Bible is not just for information; it is for transformation as well. Again, this aspect has an historical aspect to it, one that is particular to each book contained within the biblical canon, but the Bible’s ultimate transformative purpose, as a covenant document inspired by God the Holy Spirit, is to point to the consummate revelation of the Triune God, Jesus Christ, the incarnate person of God the Son, so that we might know him and be transformed into his image, and, through this transformative knowledge, know and love God the Father. In other words, the ultimate purpose of the one Bible, in all of its diverse parts, is to help us know God and love him. Only those who have confessed Christ as Lord by the power of his Spirit to the glory of his Father can do that.

Along these lines, I have just finished Matthew R. Crawford’s fine monograph, Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2015; I’d recommend that you drop what you’re doing and read it now – it’s brilliant). In it Crawford notes (see esp. pp. 184-205) that Cyril also held to this view of biblical interpretation, and dealt with the question of how both believers and unbelievers can in some sense understand the Bible. According to Crawford, Cyril used John 1 and John 9, both instances in which Jesus is referred to as light, to distinguish between two types of illumination. The first, what Crawford calls “creative illumination,” is given to all humanity and is a function of all of creation’s participation in God, and particularly in the Son’s wisdom. (“Participation” here is not salvific, but only intended to communicate that anything that exists only exists because it is created and therefore participating in the one life-giving essence, the Triune God.) The Son is Light, and all of creation as creation necessarily lives in that light. They may reject the light, but that does not vanquish, extinguish, or turn off the light. Crawford glosses Cyril’s thoughts on this type of illumination by referring to it as “generic rationality.” As image-bearing creatures, human beings are capable of basic reasoning, and therefore of understanding Scripture in its historical sense.  In other words, because human beings can reason logically and utilize the tools of historical research, the whole Bible is to one degree understandable to all people.

But there is another type of rationality according to Cyril, a pneumatic, or spiritual rationality, that is only afforded to those who have confessed Christ and been renewed by his Spirit. It is this “redemptive illumination” (Crawford’s term) that allows readers to not only comprehend the details of individual passages and books but to see read them in light of their divine intention. By the help of the inspiring and now illuminating Spirit the Scriptures show readers Christ, and thereby they transform them into his image and make known to them the Father. There is, in other words, a creative illumination that is common to all humanity by virtue of their participation in the Son’s Light, and there is a redemptive illumination that is only given to those who have confessed Christ and received his Spirit. When we read the Bible, therefore, those who read it with us, believing and unbelieving, can come alongside and assist us in our understanding of its historical sense. But only those who confess that Jesus is Lord and receive his Spirit through repentance and faith can see him, know him, be made like him, and through him know and love the Father, when reading his Spirit-inspired Word.

Holy War in the Bible


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I’m really excited that another resource has come out from my friend Heath Thomas. Heath is Associate Professor of Old Testament and PhD Director at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His latest publication is an edited volume (along with Jeremy Evans of Southeastern and Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University) on Holy War in the Bible. I’m sure this will be a welcomed resource on an important theological and ethical topic. You can order the book here.

 

 

Read the Fathers: Beginning in Advent

 

I just came across this blog that is set up to as a reading guide for the Church Fathers.

By reading seven pages a day for seven years, you can study a vast library of theology, history, liturgy, apologetics, biblical commentary, and devotion written in the first seven centuries of the Christian church.

The first reading begins on 2 December.

Southeastern Theological Review’s Round Table Discussion with Michael Licona

I’m thankful for STR for conducting a round table discussion concerning some of the brouhaha around Licona’s interpretation of Matthew 27. I won’t get into my own personal feelings of how this situation unfolded. You can read the dialogue here and decide for yourself.

 

(HT Ben Blackwell)

Michael Kruger on the basis of distinguishing heresy from orthodoxy in the early church

Over at Canon Fodder (which is the best name I’ve heard for a blog), Michael Kruger has been discussing misconceptions of the NT Canon. In his latest post he discusses the basis for distinguising heresy from orthodoxy in the early church. I really enjoyed what he writes concerning the role of the Old Testament in the early church.

 Routinely overlooked by those in the Bauer camp—ironically in a Marcionite fashion—is the decisive role played by the Old Testament amongst the earliest Christians. M.F. Wiles once declared, “There was never a time when the Church was without written Scriptures.  From the beginning she had the Old Testament and it was for her the oracles of God.”[1]   Aside from the numerous examples of Old Testament usage within the New Testament itself, quotations from the Old Testament are abundant within the writings of the apostolic fathers and other early Christian texts. Thus, right from the outset, certain “versions” of Christianity would have been ruled as out of bounds.  For example, any quasi-Gnostic version of the faith which suggested the God of the Old Testament was not the true God but a “demiurge”—as in the case of the heretic Marcion—would have been deemed unorthodox on the basis of these Old Testament canonical books alone.  As Ben Witherington has observed, “Gnosticism was a non-starter from the outset because it rejected the very book the earliest Christians recognized as authoritative—the Old Testament.”[2] So, the claim that early Christians had no Scripture on which to base their declarations that some group was heretical and another orthodox is simply mistaken.   The Old Testament books would have provided that initial doctrinal foundation.

[1] M.F. Wiles, “Origen as Biblical Scholar,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible: From the Beginnings to Jerome (ed. P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 454.

[2] Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magadelene, and Da Vinci (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 115.

You can read the entire post here.

Book Notice: Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address

A book to keep your eye on if you are interested in theological interpretation is Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (Eerdmans) edited by Craig G. Bartholomew and David J.H. Beldman. In the Preface Bartholomew and Beldman lament that the Old Testament is for the most part unknown by the majority Christians and that there are far too few books to assist Christians to feast upon it as Christian Scripture. Their response to the famine is this edited volume with the goal of listening for God’s address through the Old Testament:

At the heart of the hermeneutic advocated in this book is the belief that our love for the Old Testament and our desire for God will come together only when we make the goal of our interpretation to listen for God’s address. If Scripture is God’s Word, then any other goal is inadequate.

Hearing the Old Testament boasts an impressive collection of contributors beginning with Bartholomew’s opening chapter, “Listening for God’s Address: A Mere Trinitarian Hermeneutic for the Old Testament.” Part II of the volume concerns methods in interpretation and is appropriately named, “Learning to Listen.” Essays from Part III are involve listening to the different sections of the Old Testament.  Part IV concludes the volume with, “Hearing and Preaching the Old Testament.”

What stands out about this volume is the careful editorial process. Contributors to Part II, “Learning to Listen” first read Bartholomew’s chapter on Hermeneutics and then were invited to interact either positively or negatively with his essay. Contributors to Part III were asked to write their chapters after reading Bartholomew’s chapter and the chapter’s on “Learning to Listen.” Part IV was then written in light of the Parts I-III. This type of editorial planning should bring a certain type of cohesion that normally lacks in an edited volume. I only hope that future volumes may follow suit.

The List of chapters and authors:

  1. Listening for God’s Address: A Mere Trinitarian Hermeneutic for the Old Testament by Craig G. Bartholomew
  2. History of Old Testament Interpretation by Al Wolters
  3. Philosophy and Old Testament Interpretation by Bartholomew
  4. Literary Approaches and Old Testament Interpretation by David J.H. Beldman
  5. History and Old Testament Interpretation by Tremper Longman III
  6. Biblical Theology and Old Testament Interpretation by Mark J. Boda
  7. Canon and Old Testament Interpretation by Stephen G. Dempster
  8. Mission and Old Testament Interpretation by Christopher J.H. Wright
  9. Ethics and Old Testament Interpretation by M. Daniel Carroll R.
  10. Hearing the Pentateuch by Gordon J. Wenham
  11. Hearing the Historical Books by Iain Provan
  12. Hearing the Psalter by J. Clinton McCann Jr.
  13. Hearing the Old Testament Wisdom Literature by Bartholomew
  14. Hearing the Major Prophets by Richard Schultz
  15. Hearing the Minor Prophets by Heath Thomas
  16. Hearing and Preaching the Old Testament by Aubrey Spears

Ehrman, Canonization, and the OT Prophets

After teaching through the Latter Prophets and Writings this past quarter, I was continually struck by two things – the fact that the prophets were generally ridiculed, persecuted, and ignored, and the fact that the entire Old Testament canon is a coherent whole, continually tied together textually. Each author appears to relate his work to previous material in the OT and especially to the Torah.

Couple that with the fact that Bart Ehrman has been on my mind recently (I blame Dan Wallace and the Mark fragment), and you know why I’ve been thinking about canonization. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the entire worldview Ehrman has attempted to construct (or, rather, glom off of Walter Bauer) concerning the formation of the biblical canon. Ehrman would have us believe that the canon is the product of the “orthodox” winning against Gnostics and others whose writings were of a completely different character from what we find in the New Testament. Of course, Ehrman’s focus is on the NT but I would imagine he might say something similar of the OT canon’s formation.

Back to the Latter Prophets – I just don’t see how Ehrman’s view of canonization fits, especially with the prophets. The prophets were not popular, and even after the exile their message probably would not have been especially well received. This doesn’t fit with Ehrman’s view that the “popular crowd” wins out in canon battles.

More importantly, though, I simply don’t see how Ehrman’s view fits given the organic growth of the canon. Scholars like Brevard Childs, Stephen Chapman, and Christopher Seitz have demonstrated again and again that the Old Testament was formed through continually re-appropriating the received text in light of new situational circumstances. The people of God continued to receive a fresh word, but it was always a fresh word tied to the word that had already been received.

Furthermore, I don’t see why we shouldn’t view the New Testament’s formation this way as well. It wasn’t as if the NT authors’ message was wildly popular among the larger Roman population, and though it was much more accepted by the time of Athanasius’ festal letter, evidence suggests that the canon was quite stable well before that point (see David Trobisch, The First Edition of the NT).

Additionally, I understand that Seitz argues that the New Testament canon was formed in much the same way as the Old in his new book (although I haven’t been able to get to it yet). And by studying the way the New Testament uses the Old I think this makes abundantly more sense than saying that a council 400 years (or 600 if you want to take Ehrman’s most ridiculous proposal) after the fact chose the 27 books of the NT. The NT clearly uses OT texts, narratives, and themes to interpret Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, commissioning of the Church, and eventual return. The books of the NT were written for the same reason and using the same approach as the OT. God had done something new, this time decisively and finally, in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit inspired the authors to interpret that event in light of the received word of the Old Testament.

So the fact that both the OT and NT are the products of organic growth flies in the face of Ehrman’s assertion that the canon is a disparate group of writings that fit with what the “orthodox” felt needed to be included.

Some Brief Observations about D.A. Carson’s Review of Theological Interpretation of Scripture

Over at the Gospel Coalition website, they have posted Don Carson’s chapter “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But . . . .” from Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives. Edited by R. Michael Allen. London: T&T Clark, 2011. I became aware of this chapter a month or so online at Amazon. After GC posted the chapter a friend of mine was interested to hear my thoughts and so I thought I would briefly share them here. I do not intend for this to be anything real in depth but more so just some observations from reading.

First, I am thankful for Dr. Carson’s work throughout his career. In my mind, he truly exemplifies one who carries out his academic work as an act of worship and seeks that it to be done for the church (even when his work is not directly addressing the church). Having said that, Dr. Carson’s article is also a welcome to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) movement both in his charity and questions of the movement.

Dr. Carson’s chapter is broken down into six propositions where he gives a brief affirmation of what TIS represent but also gives his qualification for his agreement. One issue I see through his whole chapter is his neglect of some of the major works in TIS that contradicts his characterization of TIS. I’ll give two examples:

His first proposition is thae issue of history and theology in biblical interpretation. He rightly notes that TIS rejects a historical-critical methods that presuppose anti-supernaturalism. From this he concludes that TIS as a whole tends to pit history as the villain to theology. He then continues to a critique to the dichotomy that he has created. I was baffled that he would make such a conclusion with an entire volume from the seven volume Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar on history and biblical interpretation dealing with this issue. I am sure there are some in TIS, because the movement is so varied, would create this dichotomy but I find this to be an oversight from some of the main literature from leading proponents.

A second example is that Dr. Carson writes that a goal in TIS is to bring biblical studies and theology back together–which is exactly right. Here, his critique highlighted some of the issues of the difficulties in how exegesis and systematics come together. Here, again I think Dr. Carson has too small of a selection that does not represent what some of the more main proponents are writing. I am thinking of Daniel Treier’s “Biblical Theology and/or TIS and Francis Watson’s, Text and Truth which explores how theological interpretation relates to biblical theology. For sure, Carson is right in the difficulties he highlights. I do not think most of TIS would disagree with the way he has set up categories.

These are just two examples I found in his chapter that are a result of choosing to interact with too small sample of the literature and then critique the whole movement. I would encourage you to read the chapter because I believe it will continue to refine the TIS movement.