Reading Scripture with the Communion of Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racial Reconciliation and the Catholicity of the Church

The Center for Baptist Renewal is a project that a few of us have been working on for the last several years. At the outset, Matt and I wrote a manifesto that sort of guides our work at the center. One of the articles addresses the topic racial reconciliation:

We affirm that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are created in God’s image and, if they have repented and believed in Christ, are brothers and sisters together in the one body of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Because of this shared imago dei and because of Christ’s saving work among all nations, peoples, and tongues, we believe that one major task of Baptist catholicity is to promote racial unity, especially within the body of Christ.

Over at the CBR blog, we wrote a commentary on each of the manifesto’s articles, including this one. We wrote it three years ago, but it’s as relevant as ever and we stand by every word of it. Concern for racial reconciliation is not a function of “wokeness” (a vague and unhelpful term anyway). For many of us, it’s a function of our fundamental creed: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The Christian’s ultimate citizenship is not to be found in any earthly city, but in coming the city of God, the church militant and the church triumphant: the multi-ethnic, multi-national body of Christ that spans space and time, earth and heaven.

The Boy Jesus in the Temple: A Brief Tropology

I went for a walk by myself in the cool of the late afternoon today. Meditations ensued. I started tropologizing the story of the boy Jesus returning to his temple.

A 15th-century page from a Book of Hours. Public Domain.

Here’s what I was thinking: We all, like Mary and Joseph, can lose sight of Jesus. We can assume his presence by relying on other caretakers. We can presume that someone else will remain with him. But we will find him again where he was always to be: in his Father’s house, attending to his Father’s business. It’s not mainly the church building that is the new covenant antitype of the old covenant temple. It is Christ himself and the people he is building into a spiritual house: the church. Perhaps you feel like you have lost sight of Jesus. We all do from time to time. But we will find him again in the place he has promised to be: in the preaching of the Word, at the Lord’s Table, and on mission with him, building his Spiritual temple.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Inspired by my blogmate Brandon, I decided to do a 2020 favorites list. I’ve expanded mine a bit beyond books, but that’s where I’ll start.

Favorite Book

The Day Is Now Far Spent by Robert Cardinal Sarah

The Day Is Now Far Spent: Sarah, Cardinal Robert, Diat, Nicolas:  9781621643241: Amazon.com: Books

This book was released in 2019 but I digested it slowly and finished it at the very cusp of the pandemic in 2020. The third in a trilogy of books by Cardinal Sarah, this one punches the hardest. It’s a jeremiad written by an African prelate against the various spiritual crises of the church in the West. I was near the end of the book before I realized that I had misidentified the scriptural reference in the title. I had assumed that Sarah was referring to Romans 13:12, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” which seemed appropriate given the contents of the book. But it’s actually an allusion to Luke 24:29 and the Emmaus disciples’ plea to the Risen Christ: “But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’ So he went in to stay with them.” The upshot of Sarah’s wakeup call: even if the church in the West is facing a new twilight, as long as Jesus abides with us, we have hope.

Favorite Movie

A Hidden Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick

A Hidden Life (2019 film) - Wikipedia

This is Terrence Malick’s most linear, plot-driven film since Days of Heaven (1978). But it has all of the stunning cinematography, masterful editing, prayerful voiceovers, and deeply Christian content that we have come to expect from the reclusive filmmaker. A Hidden Life tells the story, inspired by actual events, of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian farmer and devout Christian who became a conscientious objector to the Nazis during World War II and suffered the consequences. It offers a timely reminder that non-conformity for the sake of faith and conscience will be costly. One reviewer described the film like this: “The movie is cinema at its mightiest and holiest. It’s a movie you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses.” So turn off the kitschy, flat-footedly evangelistic movies that pass as Christian film. This is what Christian art looks like on a cinematic canvas.

Favorite Album

Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers

Punisher (album) - Wikipedia

Phoebe Bridgers’ evocative sophomore album (after a couple of collaborative projects) is all the more impressive when you remember that she was only 25 when it was released in June. The title track, “Punisher,” is a reference to a particular kind of overeager fan who smothers a famous artist. But Bridgers isn’t looking condescendingly at her own fans; it’s actually self-referential. The song and the album as a whole are an homage to one of her major influences: the late indie icon, Elliott Smith. Like Smith, Bridgers offers up penetrating and confessional lyrics, inviting her listeners into the darkest corners of her own psyche. My favorite track on the album might be “Chinese Satellite,” which laments the fact that Bridgers wants to believe in something–religion, aliens, anything–but just can’t find her way to faith.

I want to believe
Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing
You know I hate to be alone
I want to be wrong

It’s an aching reminder of the restlessness and longing all around us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2020

It’s become an annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. There are a few reasons why I continue to compile this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good. Fourth, I’m regularly asked by folks what books I’m reading or “what’s a good book to read for X topic?”

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2020. Check out my 2015 and 2016 lists at my old Patheos blog, and my 2017, 2018, and 2019 lists posted here at Biblical Reasoning.

God in Himself by Steven Duby

The doctrine of divine simplicity is one of the most crucial doctrines in Christian theology, but also one of the more overlooked and misunderstood. Duby does a fantastic job of explaining the doctrine theologically, biblically, and even devotionally. You can also check out my Church Grammar conversation with Steven to hear more about the book.

Figural Reading and the Old Testament by Don Collett

Collett’s book is perhaps the clearest argument for the importance of the figural (see also: typological, allegorical, etc.) sense of Scripture. In sum, he asserts that we don’t have to choose between “literal” or figural. Come for the argument for the necessity of figural reading, stay for the excellent historical survey of the issues and the examples he gives from Job, Proverbs, et al.

The Soul of Basketball by Ian Thomsen

If I were to quit ministry and take up another career, it’d be a sports writer and podcaster. That was essentially my dream as a kid. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve particularly been drawn to the NBA and its history. This book in particular is a well-written narrative of how the NBA got to where it is today. Also Dirk.

The Culture of Theology by John Webster (ed. Ivor Davidson and Alden McCray)

The late John Webster was a real gift to the church. Of the many books and articles I’ve read, this collection of lectures might be my favorite overall. In this book, Webster lays out the nature and purpose of theology, and what it means to be a theologian in light of it.

Divine Discourse in the Epistle to the Hebrews by Madison Pierce

Prosopological exegesis — identifying the speakers in the biblical text where their identities might be unclear, particularly as it relates to divine speech and the NT’s use of OT texts — is an old reading strategy for the early church with a renewed interest from modern scholars. It seems that there is a lot of work still to be done before we see PE’s full potential, but this book is the most helpful and sustained example on offer. You can also check out my Church Grammar conversation with Madison to hear more about the book.

Madison Pierce on New Testament Theology and 100 Other Topics

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Madison Pierce of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She returns to discuss first jobs (3:20), a “slow round” on books that shaped our scholarship, missing Texas, and favorite movies (12:00), Madison’s ETS paper on the Trinity in Hebrews (25:55), interpreting Revelation (33:40), a second “slow round” on what other areas of scholarship we would like to study, the authorship of Hebrews and Johannine literature, and favorite sports teams (46:50), frustrations with the PhD process (59:50), and more. Buy Madison’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson. Episode sponsor: Lexham Press.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

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Evangelicals and Premodern Exegesis

This episode is a short talk based on my recent piece over at Mere Orthodoxy, “In Defense of Premodern Exegesis,” where I lay out the fundamentals of premodern exegesis and how evangelicals can employ their method.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson. Episode sponsor: Lexham Press.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

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Richard Bauckham on Christology and Jesus’s Eyewitnesses (Repost)

This episode is a repost of our conversation with Dr. Richard Bauckham. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:04), early Christology (7:50), the theology of the Book of Revelation (15:10), the testimony of Jesus’s eyewitnesses (24:37), the city of Magdala (37:15), poetry (46:26), and more. Buy Richard’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

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Steven Duby on Divine Simplicity, Christology, and Theological Knowledge

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Steven Duby of Grand Canyon University. We discuss divine simplicity (2:28), Trinitarian analogies and metaphors (9:34), Christology’s place in theology proper (17:45), and Thomas Aquinas on theological knowledge (27:35).

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

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Patrick Schreiner on the Ascension and the Theology of Acts

Dr. Patrick Schreiner of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary returns to discuss the NBA (2:56), the importance of the ascension (7:41), and the theology of Acts (30:50).

Church Grammar is presented by the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things. You can follow him on Twitter at @brandon_d_smith.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

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