Canonical Hermeneutics and Systemic Injustices

I watched the #PhilandoCastile dash cam video about an hour ago and am still horrified. This case appears to me to be a miscarriage of justice on every level, from the 50ish stops in 14 years to which Castile was subjected, to the actions of the officer, to the acquittal of the officer by the jury.

What is also puzzling to me is the continued insistence by some that Christians ought to concern themselves only with preaching the gospel and not with issues of systemic injustice in our societies. There are various reasons why I think some deny either that policing is a systemic issue to be addressed or that, more broadly, Christians should be engaged in confronting systemic injustice. Here I only want to briefly suggest that one of the reasons for this is a truncated canon.

My training is in biblical theology, and specifically in canonical criticism. I have been taught and have subsequently tried to teach others to read the Bible as a whole, as one book. And yet, evangelicalism continues to be what I would consider a mostly Pauline stream of Christianity. There is, of course, nothing wrong with Paul – I love Paul! I love the five solas of the Reformation, I love the explanation of the gospel of Christ followed by the ethical exhortations (indicative –> imperative), I love the rich imagery that Paul uses for God’s salvation of his people. Paul’s writings are just as inerrant and inspired as the rest of Scripture, and therefore just as important. But when we shrink our Bibles down to Paul, and specifically down to Romans and Galatians, we miss out on a lot of what the Bible has to say about justice.

The Mosaic Law, Israel’s prophets, and the wisdom literature all address justice in ancient Israel. And that material repeatedly connects justice with social issues, and particularly with the treatment of the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Often (though, of course, not always), the marginalized are in that position for some ethnic reason, whether it is Israel being mistreated by a foreign nation or Israel mistreating foreigners and strangers in their midst.

When we come to the Gospels, Jesus also repeatedly speaks about how his followers ought to treat the same groups of people: the poor, the oppressed, and marginalized. And again, we see that “marginalized” has ethnic overtones. The same concern for the social implications of the gospel are found in Paul, albeit more so in Philemon than in Romans or Galatians. Still, his commands about husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves, and other such social relationships would have been radical compared to societal norms in his day. James is concerned that Christians treat the poor, orphans, and widows with the love they are due as God’s image bearers. And the book most avoided by expository preachers, Revelation, stands at the end of the canon with a hard word for the church. If Christians participate in or support the unjust systems of this world, they ride the Beast along with the Harlot.

The Bible shows that God confronts systemic injustice through his Word. Of course, the necessary caveat here is that what the Bible says is just for society is not always what society believes is just. With this caveat in mind, though, the point still stands: God cares about justice, and about the systemic injustices that occur in our societies. Perhaps if we moved beyond our (selective) Pauline canon within a canon we would see this a bit more clearly.

A Biblical Theology of Resurrection in an early Christian Burial

My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.

One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.

A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.

The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.

On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.

Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.

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.

Typology, TIS, and Biblical Theology

On Saturday Jim Hamilton contrasted the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement’s and biblical theology’s understanding of typology. The gist of Hamilton’s argument is that TIS focuses on the divine author’s intent in understanding typological patterns and readings, whereas BT (or Hamilton’s approach to it, anyway) focuses on the human author’s intent.

Patrick Schreiner responded this morning with a post of his own, pointing out three ways in which he believes the divine author’s perspective is emphasized over the human author – the NT use of the OT, paratexts, and the idea of biblical authors “speaking better than they knew.”

I’ll throw my hat in the ring here, but before I do I’ll say that I appreciate both of these men’s spirit and writing. They both do a great service to the church in their thinking, and I’d imagine they are a blessing to their local churches as well. I’ve benefited greatly from both of their writings, whether it’s Patrick’s blog or Jim’s books.

For me, though, I wonder if both of these posts are articulating a false dichotomy between the human author’s and divine author’s intent. While Hamilton wants to emphasize the human author, Schreiner wants to emphasize the divine, at least in some places. And yet, don’t the two work together? As Tyler Wittman put it in a comment on Hamilton’s post,

I think since Holy Scripture is at once something written 100% by God and 100% by human authors, we simply have to deal with the text as it stands. Asking whether or not the human author intended this or that type may be the wrong question of Scripture, as if understanding the literal sense must be either/or.

The problem is that such a question seems to presuppose a competitive relationship between the divine and human authors.

This is, for me, exactly right. On the one hand with Hamilton I want to say yes, we need to understand the human author. But on the other hand I want to say with Schreiner that yes, we need to understand the divine author. And in contrast (I think) to both, I’d say that the two must be understood together. It is not as if I am seeking one author’s intent to the exclusion or downplaying of the other in the text; rather, it is in the text that we see both authors’ intent at the same time. Further, intent is a primarily textual phenomenon; it originates with the author but is known predominately through the text. To distinguish between what the divine author was thinking and what the human author understood seems to me to be impossible.

I’d also say, contra Patrick, that the NT uses the OT far better and far more faithfully to the human authors’ intents than I think we sometimes give credit. Intertextuality, sometimes quite complicated intertextuality, helps explain many of the passages Patrick cites, as well as others. G. K. Beale and John Sailhamer have dealt extensively with Matthew 2 and Hosea 11, and I have attempted to provide a thorough textual explanation for Paul’s use of the Sarah and Hagar story. The other examples he mentioned can be solved, in my opinion, through discussion of context (e.g. Rachel and Ramah – the Jeremiah passage is in the middle of ch. 31, about the new covenant).

So with Hamilton, I want to affirm the human author’s typological abilities. But with Schreiner I want to affirm the importance of considering the divine author’s intent. Contra to both, though, I want to affirm that these two work in concert, not in contrast or even in focusing on one and downplaying the other.

Scripture and Science

The relationship between science and Scripture is a hot topic today. I am of the opinion that, too often, Scripture is asked to accommodate to the positivist rationalistic assumptions and conclusions of modern scientific inquiry. Here are Vos’ insightful words on the subject:

“At present many writers take exception to [death entering the world through Adam’s sin], largely on scientific grounds. With these as such we have here nothing to do. But, as is frequently the case, strenuous attempts are made to give such a turn to the Biblical phrases as to render them compatible with what science is believed to require, and not only this, some proceed tot he assertion that the Scriptural statements compel acceptance of the findings of science.

Attempts of this kind make for poor and forced exegesis. Scripture has a right to be exegetes independently from within; and only after its natural meaning has thus been ascertained, can we properly raise the question of agreement or disagreement between Scripture and science.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 36-37.

 

Francis Watson on the Biblical Story

. . . a book that begins with the assertion that ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ establishes, through the comprehensiveness of its scope, the expectation that the narrative will lead eventually to an equally comprehensive goal – as indeed it does, in the creation of new heavens and a new earth at the close of the book of Revelation. The universal horizons of this narrative do not permit the extraction of ‘the story of Jesus’ to serve as the legitimation-myth of a small community in its self-imposed exile from the world. Over against the apolitical parochialism of some postmodern narrative theology, the story of Jesus must instead be interpreted as the midpoint of time, deriving from the universal horizon of the creation of the world and of humankind in the likeness of God, and pointing towards the universal horizon of an eschaton in which the human and non-human creation together reach their appointed goal.

Francis Watson, Text, Church and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 153.

Storied Typology

Over at Euangelion, Joel Willitts has written a couple of posts on doing Biblical Theology. I think Joel’s intuitions are correct that a typological approach tends to exalt “fulfilment” to the neglect of the “type.” Willitts wants to show the meaning and the significance of the “new” is profoundly shaped by understanding the “old.” He writes:

The new event is in the shape of the archetype and thereby embodying its importance. The idea is that the new event’s significance is dependent on the significance of the old event. The new event is “another manifestation of the basic archetype”. The new derives significance in relation to the old.

Be sure to read his whole post here.

Book Notice: The King in His Beauty

Image via Amazon.com

Image via Amazon.com

I could not be more excited about this book. Schreiner is an excellent biblical theologian, and *finally* we are seeing a bit more production in the area of whole Bible biblical theologies. I also am excited to see his organization of the book around God, his people, and the land.

The volume is slated for publication in June 2013 by Baker Academic.

Goldsworthy on Biblical Theology

For my Biblical Interpretation class at CBU I am requiring Robert Plummer’s 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible and Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan. Although the latter book is technically (and subtitled) “an introduction to biblical theology,” I am requiring it because, as Goldsworthy notes, “biblical theology is essential for hermeneutics” (25). In chapter one, Goldsworthy gives the following reasons why this is the case:

  • “Biblical theology gives us the means of dealing with problematic passages in the Bible by relating them to the one message of the Bible” (21).
  • “Biblical theology enables us to relate any Bible story to the whole message of the Bible, and therefore to ourselves” (22).
  • “Biblical theology shows the relationship of all the parts of the Old Testament to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and, therefore, to the Christian” (23).
  • “Biblical theology enables us to map out the unity of the Bible by looking at its message as a whole” (24).
  • “Biblical theology provides the basis for the interpretation of any part of the Bible as God’s word to us” (25).

What you might notice from this list is that the first four points essentially say that biblical theology enables us to read the Bible as a whole and not just individual parts. This is vital to the task of interpretation, as each passage, chapter, section, and book of the Bible cannot be understood without placing it in the larger context of the biblical canon. This helps interpreters deal with two major roadblocks, namely problematic passages (#1 above) and the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament (#3). It also allows us to read the Bible as a unified story (#2) about Jesus Christ (#3b), which is then the proper way to understand application (#5). Biblical theology, in other words, gives us the context for interpretation (the whole Bible and its story), the object of interpretation (Jesus Christ), and the goal of interpretation (transformation into Christ’s image. Biblical theology could not be more important to the task of interpretation.