Evangelicals and Historical Theology

For a few years now I’ve felt that evangelicals need to reevaluate our relationship with the Christian tradition. Some of this is related to my own experience with tradition, while other aspects of this impulse arise, I think, from seeing how evangelicals use the tradition in their own work, whether in service of their scholarship or of their understanding of liturgy. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself  – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used, or, at worst, something completely ancillary or even inimical to our commitments to sola Scriptura. I’ve written about the latter elsewhere; here I want to highlight a few ways in which I think we as evangelicals need to reconsider how we approach tradition as simply a tool to be used rather than as a gift to be received under the authority of Scripture.

A word before I do about why this is important – tradition, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is the living faith of the dead. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints. Treating tradition rightly is a matter of loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. With that context set, how do many evangelicals (including myself) use tradition?

  1. Tradition is useful as a concept when I want it to be. We evangelicals often talk out of both sides of our mouth about tradition. On the one hand, we want to uphold sola Scriptura, often to the point that it effectively becomes nuda or solo Scriptura. This total rejection of tradition in service of (supposedly) proving and bolstering our commitment to Scripture’s final authority has resulted in a generation of Christians, lay and academic alike, who by and large haven’t thoroughly read the Fathers or the Medieval theologians, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the historical development of Christian theology, and who haven’t been trained to read with the communion of the saints under the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, we want to claim tradition when it is useful. We pull it out of the closet in which we’ve shoved it when we need it, whether to spur on our hobby horses or to hammer our opponents. We say to tradition, “you should not be seen or heard unless spoken to,” and we only speak to it and call on it to speak when it is convenient for us. We use it as a blunt instrument, instead of seeing it as a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ to be received and passed on in like-minded service.
  2. Tradition is useful for proof-texts. Because of our common lack of training in the tradition, the means by which tradition is useful to many of us can only be by proof-texting. Not many of us have read through the corpora of the Fathers or through Anselm or Aquinas (much less Ephrem or Bernard or the like). This leaves us with only one option when we need to call on the tradition – proof-texting. There are, of course, times when one verse from Scripture or one sentence from an historical figure has a meaning that is unequivocal and obvious. But more often than not, proof-texting leads to misinterpretation and misuse of texts, biblical and historical alike.
  3. Tradition is useful because it is malleable. Because we are not trained in the tradition, because we only need proof-texts, and because we see it as lacking in authority in any sense, tradition is continually subject to individual judgment in each generation. This means we can change it based on our own individual interpretive judgments – excising creedal clauses being the most obvious and egregious example.

So what are some ways to turn the tide on these problematic approaches to tradition? Here are some suggestions for moving from a utilitarian approach to tradition to what I hope is a more healthy view and appropriation of it.

  1. Read through the corpora of a few major historical figures. Take some time to read through all of the major works of Irenaeus and Augustine. Or all of Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. &c. You’ll be challenged, surprised, encouraged, and convicted. You’ll also be confused sometimes, and even find yourself in disagreement. That’s fine – we all need to learn how to read charitably and critically at the same time. Most of the major works of major historical Christian figures are available for free at ccel.org.
  2. Read the recent scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis and the historical development of Christian theology. Because earlier generations of Christians, and particularly those in the Patristic and Medieval periods, do not share our cultural contexts, there are times where they are difficult to understand. There is much recent scholarship on the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological commitments of early Christian theologians that will assist in accomplishing #1. You could find many resources for each theologian and for each period, but I’d start with John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, and Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. 
  3. Read with charity and humility. Neither of the above points matters if we aren’t reading primary and secondary sources in order to love our historical neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, but instead are reading them to use and abuse them for our pet arguments and projects. These are men and women to be loved as image bearers of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we need to treat them and their ideas with love and respect. Critique is necessary, because we’re all finite and fallen, but critique must come from within the confines of Christ’s Church, the unity we have in him by the Spirit, our common goal of bringing glory to the Father, our common table, and our common final biblical authority. Both reception and critique also must come with an acknowledgment that, again, we are all finite and fallen. When I read, I read as one who is not God, either in terms of my intellect or my authority. I do not know everything, and the things I know I only know by the grace of the one true God who reveals himself to me by his Word and Spirit and who made me in his image. This means that I must be circumspect when I critique, because I do not critique from a place of omniscience or ultimate sovereignty but as a fellow beggar trying to help another beggar know what good bread looks like. Of course all Protestants, including myself, will see places where we disagree with the tradition. But we need to do so having given our interlocutor, our brother or sister in Christ, a fair, generous, and full hearing before doing so.

The Trinity Debate (2016-2017): A Selected Bibliography

The-Holy-Trinity-in-Stained-GlassThe 2016-2017 Trinity debate over the eternal submission of the Son was covered thoroughly by this blog, other blogs, Christianity Today, podcasts, a panel at ETS, and most certainly in every theological group text in evangelicalism. In an attempt to try and boil the debate down for those who want to read up, reflect, or reference the debate, I created a bibliography on all of the published material I could find based on a list I’ve been accruing since late 2016.

That bibliography was 42 pages. Forty-two. 42.

Frankly, many of those sources were unhelpful, repetitive, and/or broken links. So I decided to whittle it down to the bare essentials — posts that defined the debate or appeared to be shared extensively — and it became an 11-page bibliography. That’ll have to do.

Download the bibliography here.*

 

*A reader brought to my attention the monster list over at Books at a Glance. This list has been updated with additions from their list and a few others I originally did not include from my own notes.

Where Are All the Patristics Scholars in Evangelicalism?

During my graduate work at Criswell College, I was fortunate to have a systematic theology professor who had studied patristic theology in his doctoral work, and a patristic theology professor who majored in the discipline and wrote his (now published) dissertation on early Christian exegesis and Irenaeus. I was more spoiled at the time than I realized.

As a Ph.D. student in theology, I’m spending more time than ever reading the patristics, and I’ve begun to realize how little definitive work on patristic theology has been done by evangelicals. Aside from a few notable contributions by evangelicals, the field is mostly dominated by Catholic theologians and the occasional non-evangelical Protestant. (I do think, however, that this is going to change. Evangelical theologians and pastors in my generation seem to care more than ever about patristic retrieval.)

On Twitter last year, Seumas Macdonald tweeted a short thread with some thoughts on why there’s been a dearth of evangelicals working in patristics. That thread is now no longer available, but he wrote a blogpost outlining many of the same thoughts. To summarize the five-tweet thread, Macdonald made the following points:

  1. Some evangelicals act as though church history started with the Reformation.
  2. As such, evangelicals short-sightedly read earlier church history through a Reformation lens.
  3. Most evangelical seminary tracks contain only one early church history course, and there’s likely not a patristic specialist there to teach it.
  4. Evangelicalism, thus, is caught in a vicious cycle of marginalizing patristic theology and thus marginalizes those who specialize in the field.
  5. In worst cases, evangelicals who focus on or fall in love with patristic theology end up leaving evangelicalism for more (perceived) friendly denominational/theological/ecclesiological pastures.

There’s so much more to be said, for sure, but Macdonald is onto something here. I remember during my graduate program, many of the undergrads moved from Baptist or other evangelical churches to Catholic or non-evangelical high church traditions. They did this, largely, because they felt as though evangelicalism isn’t tied to the tradition of the church, and so they were unable to connect with Christians of the past through evangelical ecclesial structures (or lack thereof).

I can’t say I blame them. I was tempted at times myself. But—sorry for the shameless plug—but this is precisely why we founded the Center for Baptist Renewal. The Baptist tradition and other similar evangelical groups are not—or at least should not be—disconnected from the great Christian tradition. I’m thankful, however, that some Baptists are trying to retrieve the Tradition. And personally, I’d rather be a catalyst from within than a critic from without.

The “allegorical” readings of the Patristic Fathers, the Catholic flavor of the first thousand or so years of church history, etc. are not reasons to abandon pre-Reformation theology. And yet, so many evangelicals immediately bristle at this notion on the principle that we should care more about the five solae of the Reformation. These five truths recovered the gospel in many minds. I recently wrote a study on the five solae, so I understand this sentiment and greatly appreciate the correctives that came with it. The Reformation was an act of God—I truly believe that—but we should consider two things.

1. Primarily, we should be willing to learn from those in the midst of the expansion, canonization, and creedal development of Christian orthodoxy. If we’re truly orthodox Christians, then we affirm major creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. The affirmations forged and fought for in these creeds are essential to Christian faith and practice, and yet we take for granted the time and context in which these theological foundations were laid. We act as though we can take the creeds and leave everything else; however, the creeds didn’t happen in a vacuum.

2. Further, we shouldn’t forget that the Reformers relied heavily on the early church, especially the work of Augustine. Not even the Reformers cut themselves off from the great tradition. It’s a common joke to say that all of Western theology is a footnote to Augustine, but it’s especially true of the Reformation.

Denominations are fine, even important at times. They help us build accountability, missional partnerships, and communal identity. But we can’t become so polarized and dichotomized within our denominations that we fence ourselves off from the bloodline of Christianity—the theological heritage of two millennia of Christian thought. Timothy George said it well:

I believe in an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. We do not advance the cause of Christian unity by abandoning our biblical understanding of the church. But how do we hold these together? Three things: First, recognize the centrality of Jesus Christ. The closer we come to Jesus Christ, the closer we come to one another as brothers and sisters in him. Second, study the Bible together. The Bible belongs to the whole people of God, not just to one denomination or church tradition. We can clarify differences and find a deeper unity by going deeper into the Scriptures. Third, prayer. Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father (John 17:21) that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe. We can join our prayer to the prayer of Jesus and in so doing become a part of its fulfillment.

May we continue to recover and retrieve pre-Reformation theology and tradition, keeping our denominational distinctiveness without sacrificing our Christian theological heritage.


Note: If this post looks familiar, it’s because a version of it originally appeared at my old Patheos blog.

The Boundaries of ETS and the Task of Christian Scholarship

As this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) approaches, I want to return to an open letter to the members of ETS written by Stanley Gundry. In this letter, he expressed concern about the ramifications of a recent resolution affirming traditional marriage and the sexual binary of men and women. Commenting on the dangers he sees in defining ETS’s boundaries beyond its current parameters (affirmation of the Trinity and the Bible’s inerrancy), Gundry asks:

What better forum is there for collegial discussion and debate of complementarianism and egalitarianism, open theism and classical theism and all points in between, eschatology, the “new perspective” on Paul, and yes, even the question of whether same-sex “marriages” can be defended biblically, than a forum where we have agreed to appeal to the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the Bible, God’s Word written?

Gundry raises a question that will likely remain ongoing in Christian academia: What are acceptable boundaries for Christian academic societies? Some say ETS is already too narrow, while others say groups like the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are too inclusive. I am not sure what the answer is, because all answers are somewhat subjective. But it leads to a broader question worth commenting on here: How should Christian scholars approach the task of biblical-theological inquiry?

Again, I am not making assertions one way or another about a specific society’s guardrails—after all, I am just a lowly student member of the ETS and SBL. Further, this is not an affirmation or denial of the resolution Gundry is addressing. However, we can learn a few things from the early Christians’ attempts at theological purity and from our own age of theological novelty. After a brief sketch there, I will offer some suggestions and reflections that I am chewing on as I seek my own career in Christian scholarship.

Early Christianity and Heresy

In his punchy little book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Alister McGrath considers a number of reasons why heresies popped up in the first centuries of Christianity. One interesting reason he points out was the desire or even pressure for theologians to make Christianity appear respectable among the non-Christian thinkers of the day. He notes,

As Christianity became more deeply embedded in the late classical culture, it was subjected to increased criticism by its intellectual and cultural opponents. [Leading critics such as Celsus and Galen of Pergamum] argued that its leading doctrines could not be taken seriously by cultured people. (86)

McGrath goes on to use Arius as an example. “Arius offered an understanding of the relationship between God and creation that was regarded as philosophically rigorous by the standards of the time,” but that his heresy ultimately “introduced radical inconsistency into the Christian understanding of its core identity.” Arius offered an intellectually and culturally acceptable proposal, but orthodoxy and orthopraxy won out in the end. “The vision of faith offered by Arianism was quite different from that offered by orthodox writers such as Athanasius of Alexandria.”

While heresy is heresy for a reason, it is often assumed that heretics were bent on destroying the Church. But as McGrath notes throughout, it seems that heretics were more often confessing Christians whose innovations were out of step with the core orthodoxy passed down from the apostolic period. Some heretics such as Arius or Marcion, for example, thought they were purifying Christian doctrine, not destroying it. The question is not about intention, though, so much as it is about doctrinal integrity.

Christian academia contains a hodgepodge of opposing views still today. There are well-meaning Christian scholars who seek to “recover” or “rediscover” certain aspects of Christian belief—for better or worse. Sometimes Christian scholars offer helpful considerations that cannot be ignored even in disagreement (e.g., the New Perspective on Paul), and sometimes they offer revisionist accounts that do not square with historic Christianity (e.g., approval of same-sex sexual practice). Other times, scholars who do not even claim to be Christians dedicate their work to undermining or discrediting Christian beliefs (e.g., Bart Ehrman). In other words, Christian scholarship (or scholarship about Christianity) comes in many forms and with mixed results. But we have to be careful to distinguish between the Arius, the Athanasius, and even the Celsus among us.

The Task of Christian Scholarship

I recently signed a contract with B&H Academic to write a book on the Trinity in the Book of Revelation (based on my PhD thesis), and the pull toward trying to be novel or unique is already threatening to take me off balance. In Christian scholarship, the idol of novelty is a real struggle. We are blinded by our own ambitions or by the expectations of our peers. We know “nothing is new under the sun,” but we do not always want to believe it.Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

1. Be faithful to God’s Word.

If only this were obvious. Christian scholars have a tendency, if we are not careful, to dance around biblical texts without actually dealing with them. Thousands upon thousands of words will be presented at Christian academic societies this year, with biblical texts only making brief appearances in between parentheses. I have sat in a few presentations where I have thought, “This passage either disagrees with him, or he needs to deal with it directly.” I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

2. Do fair, rigorous, and honest research.

This point is two-fold.

First, there is nothing worse than a scholar who blindly and unfairly derides positions in opposition to his or her own. I recently saw a Reformed scholar rail against the New Perspective on Paul with platitudes and overstatements, but without truly engaging the best arguments that school of thought has to offer. If our viewpoint makes the best conclusion of the biblical data, it can stand on its own and it can stand against its best challengers. Christian scholarship should exhibit rigorous considerations of varying viewpoints with no stone unturned, allowing the rigor of our work to make the case.

Second, Christians should be leaders in academic integrity. Expanding a bit on the previous paragraph, we should be fair to other viewpoints simply for the sake of being fair. It is not morally upright to trash an opposing view, even if you are right about its merits. Also, plagiarism is on everyone’s radar once again. This is not surprising—again, the pressure to produce something “new” is real. But Christian scholars especially should “do all things for God’s glory” (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the process by which they conduct and explain their research. We do not need to play dirty or cut corners; we have all we need in God’s Word through God’s Spirit to make compelling truth claims.

Scholarship that Is Always Christian

Now, back to Gundry’s point. On the one hand, he is right that Christians can pursue the truth together. We should not be afraid of dissension or critique, and we should keep the tent broad as we seek to develop doctrine in our own age. I cannot agree more with Gundry here.But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society is always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society isn’t always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

In any event, let us strive not to get too cute with our research, lest we become functional Arians or worse. Orthodoxy does not automatically equal empty-headedness. Heretics are often well-meaning people with big brains, but their doctrinal innovations are weeds in the otherwise beautiful garden of orthodoxy. Each one of us, in the end, is capable of giving into the pressure of unnecessary innovation or compromise. The desire to be accepted and respected by our peers looms over us. It is tempting to fudge a little or give a little rather than be labeled a fundamentalist or worse. But we can and must do better.

May our Christian scholarship go the way of the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).

The “Scripture and…” Seminars in Boston

I say it every year, and I mean it every year – my favorite events of IBR/SBL are the Scripture and Hermeneutics, Scripture and Doctrine, and Scripture and Church Seminars. These seminars attempt to combine rigorous biblical study and philosophical and theological reflection in an ecclesial context. This year, the SAHS and SADS seminars will continue their themes from last year, the Kingdom of God and Divine Action in Hebrews respectively. The SACS seminar will discuss the theme of the Kingdom of God from an ecclesial and liturgical perspective. I’ve listed the program, including date, time, and location, below.

If you’ll be in Boston, I’d encourage you to sign up for these seminars (links to SADS, SAHS, SACS sign-ups), as well as for the dinner on Saturday night. That meal is the absolute highlight of the entire week, for me, and this year the cost has been reduced – so please join us!

SCRIPTURE AND DOCTRINE SEMINAR

11/17/2017
1:00 PM to 3:15 PM
Room: Back Bay C (Second Level) – Sheraton Boston Hotel (SB)

Benjamin Quinn, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Presiding

Steve Harris, Hamilton, ON, Canada
Hebrews in Historical Theology: The Contours

Craig Bartholomew, KLICE, Tyndale House, Cambridge
Creation, the Ongoing Priesthood of Jesus, and Divine Action in Hebrews

Gareth Cockerill, Wesley Biblical Seminary
The Present Priesthood of the Son of God

Luke Stamps, Anderson University
“No One Greater”: Hebrews and Classical Christian Theism

Scott Hahn, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Covenant, Sacrifice, and Divine Action in Hebrews

Q & A Panel with Presenters
Discussion

Q & A Additional Panelists
Michael Rhodes, Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, Panelist
Amy Peeler, Wheaton College, Panelist

SCRIPTURE AND HERMENEUTICS SEMINAR

11/18/2017
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 306 (Third Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)

Heath A. Thomas, Oklahoma Baptist University, Presiding

Jason Hood, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Boston Campus
God’s Empire: Exploring the Structure of the Kingdom in the Gospels

David J. H. Beldman, Redeemer University College
“Where Now Is Your King?” The Kingdom of God in Judges

Lynn H. Cohick, Wheaton College (Illinois)
“The Kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5): Kingdom in Ephesians and Philippians

Julien Smith, Valparaiso University
The Transforming Image of the Ideal King: Paul’s Apostolic Defense (2 Cor 2:14-4:6) in Light of Greco-Roman Political Ideology

Walter Strickland, Southeastern Seminary
Interpreting the Kingdom of God: The Ethics of Black Liberation in James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts

Discussion

SCRIPTURE AND CHURCH SEMINAR

11/19/2017
4:00 PM to 6:30 PM
Room: 103 (Plaza Level) – Hynes Convention Center (HCC)

Michael Wagenman, Western University, Presiding

Vince Bantu, Covenant Theological Seminary
Biblical Interpretation and Liturgical Performance in Global Christian Perspective

Peter Leithart, Theopolis Institute
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the Old Testament

Ruth Padilla-deBorst, Boston College
The Kingdom of God and Everyday Liturgies in the New Testament

Dru Johnson, The King’s College (New York)
Placebos, Elevator Buttons, and High Powered Lasers: How Ritual Ethics Enable Us to See the
Kingdom of God

Discussion

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

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

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

You can read my full review here.

David Foster Wallace on Turgidity

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

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

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

Craig Bartholomew and the Kuyperian Tradition

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

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

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

Biblical Studies and Systematic Theology: An Allegory

This is anecdotal, and, for the purposes of this post, a bit hyperbolic, but in my experience there is still a divide within evangelical scholarship between biblical studies and systematic theology. To be sure, there are those who do these together and do it well, albeit from one or the other discipline, but, for many evangelical scholars, an academic version of Lessing’s ditch makes its disciplinary mark and it, like the original, cannot be crossed. Biblical studies is biblical studies, and theology is theology, and never the twain shall meet. Again, of course there are biblical scholars who believe all sorts of things about theology, and of course there are theologians who read the biblical text. But with respect to how these two disciplines mutually inform one another, the implied answer, at least from their praxis, seems to be that they don’t.

Here’s an example: I have witnessed, countless times, evangelicals trained in biblical studies exercise a hermeneutic of suspicion when it comes to systematic categories, concepts, and terms. To my biblical studies friends, theology is something that should be kept at arm’s length, at least until we’re done exegeting. Dogmatics is also something that, to many biblical scholars, isn’t rooted in the Bible but instead in tradition, philosophy, and so forth.

I have also witnessed, namely through reading but also through listening to papers and to conversations among peers, systematic theologians theologize without exegeting the biblical text. Constructing dogmatics appears to be, for many, a task we can do without exegesis. Theologians look to philosophy, the hard sciences, the social sciences, logic, and history to “do theology,” but the biblical text is a footnote at best.

To put it simply: my biblical studies friends are often suspicious of systematicians, and my systematician friends often find exegetical work boring and useless.

Or, to put it allegorically, biblical studies and systematic theology are, in this view, like Jacob and Esau: they are family, twins, even, but different in stature, interests, and outcome. While they greet each other warmly on the outside, they do so under a cloud of suspicion on the inside (Genesis 32-33).

Rather than these two roads diverging so widely in the wood of Christian scholarship, though, it would be better if we did not put asunder what God has joined together. Frankly, this mutual suspicion between tasks is born not out of the superiority of one discipline or the other, but is instead a hangover from modernism. In seeking to cast aside every authority but the self, modernism separated exegesis from theology, interpretation from the church, hermeneutics from confession. This ought not to be so.

Biblical studies and systematic theology, rather than suspicious but related brothers, are instead more like covenanted friends. They push one another, edify one another, love one another, encourage one another, protect one another. Instead of Jacob and Esau, brothers in paternity but rivals in spirit, these tasks should be seen more like Jonathan and David: covenanted friends who seek to serve the one God together. Each has its strengths, but each needs the other to edify its work in places where its tools are insufficient in and of themselves.

Suspicion is a product of the spirit of the Enlightenment; mutual love is a product of the Spirit of God.

On Scholarly Focus: Pursuing Dogmatic Biblical Theology

I am currently reading A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life – a feast for those pursuing an academic ministry – and last night I read the end of the chapter, “The Field of Work.” This section focuses on two poles: on the one hand, the scholar’s need to connect their discipline to other areas of knowledge, since, as God’s creation, all knowledge is connected; and, on the other hand, the scholar’s need to dig deeply in one specific area of focus. I cannot remember the exact quote, and I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment, but Sertillanges ends the chapter by cautioning the academic not to take that first principle too far because a jack of all trades is a master of none. Everything is interesting, everything could garner our attention, but the academic life is a disciplined one, and this is especially true with respect to the focus of one’s study.

I find this particularly difficult. My dissertation was an integration of canonical criticism (biblical studies), the history of interpretation (hermeneutics), theological method (dogmatics), and tracing a theme through the NT (biblical theology). That’s a lot to tackle in one monograph; too much, really. Looking back, I realize I should have narrowed considerably. In any case, I mention that because it is characteristic of how I operate: many areas of study catch my eye, and I tend to try and fit them all together. As Sertillanges says in his first principle, this is, on the face of it, not a bad thing: all areas of knowledge are connected and therefore can and should be integrated. My problem has been that I do not drill down deep enough in one area and only then, once I’ve done so, ask where the other wells of knowledge connect to mine.

This has been an issue I’ve been pondering for at least a year, and toward the end of last year and the beginning of this one I began to see with some clarity where I’d like to dig. I’ve given it the moniker dogmatic biblical theology. By “dogmatic” I mean the study of Christian doctrine in its historical and systematic formulations. By “biblical theology” I mean reading Scripture with its redemptive historical, intertextual, and contextual features at the forefront of the interpretive process. There are a couple of other terms floating at the edges that need mentioning, but I haven’t quite figured how to put these into a concise, summary phrase. “Ressourcement” would be the first; I want to retrieve the biblical-theological rationale, and the pre-critical methodologies from which that rationale arose, for traditional dogmatic categories. “Protestant” would be the second; my theological method is situated within a Protestant, evangelical, Baptist theological method. Combining these, and to state it succinctly, I want my focus to be recovering classic Christian doctrines from an evangelical perspective via pre-critical hermeneutical retrieval and biblical-theological reflection.Perhaps an even more succinct way of putting it is that I want to do biblical theology in service of hermeneutical and dogmatic retrieval. I think this gives me enough focus to dig deeply while at the same time scratching the itch of disciplinary integration.

Perhaps that last paragraph is a bit “meh” for you. Not your cup of tea, etc. That’s fine. Understanding Canaanite creation myths isn’t my favorite blend, but more power to you if that’s the well you want to dig. I’d still encourage you to a) pick up Sertillanges ASAP, if you’re pursuing an academic vocation and b) articulate your specific area of focus.