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.

Guarding the Good Deposit and Ministering Sound Doctrine

As a Baptist, I am staunchly in favor of religious liberty for all and the individual freedom of conscience required for that collective liberty. I’m also in favor of congregational rule in local churches. And more generally as a Protestant, I definitely confess sola scriptura. This does not mean, however, that I’m against confessions and creeds or their derivative authority.

I’ve written elsewhere about what it means for confessions and creeds to have derivative authority – that is, authority that is derived from its faithfulness to Scripture, the ultimate authority – and how that relates to the Protestant commitment to sola scriptura. Here I only wish to highlight the fact that Scripture itself suggests that Christ’s ministers are to disciple believers via passing on sound doctrine. In other words, confessing sola scriptura does not negate the (derivative, secondary) authority of tradition, but rather it is in these supremely authoritative scriptures that we find an analogy to tradition’s authority in Jesus and the apostles commanding Christians to disciple believers precisely by carefully passing down a summary of their teachings.

1. Christ Passes on Sound Doctrine

I could go all the way back to the OT and Deuteronomy 34 here, but I’ll stick with the NT for now. Jesus conveys the importance of tradition and its role in discipling his followers in many places; here, I’ll highlight two. First, on the Emmaus Road in Luke 24, Jesus schools his followers on how to read the Old Testament. We are not given the details of this discussion, but instead Jesus gives his apostles a “rule” to follow regarding how to read God’s Word. What we have in the NT is the administration of that rule via the apostolic deposit, i.e. the NT itself. The rule’s application has been inscripturated and thus serves as the rule itself – to be in accordance with Jesus’ rule is to be in accordance with the NT. Nevertheless, Jesus’ instructions here can serve as an analogy to the authority of doctrine. Doctrine is derivatively authoritative insofar as it is faithful to the inscripturation of Jesus’ rule – the Bible.

We also see Jesus commanding his disciples not only to baptize new believers but to teach all of Christ’s followers to obey “everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19). This summary statement includes what the apostles later write under the inspiration of the Spirit in the NT. He was telling them to pass on what he had taught them, which I would venture to say included how to read the OT Christologically, what to believe about Jesus, and how to follow him. Of course, now that Christ’s teaching is inscripturated, Matthew 28 just is referring to the NT. There is no outside equally authoritative tradition. My only point here is that Jesus’ command gives analogous credence to the idea of holding believers accountable to a summary of Christian teaching.

This is a direct command from Jesus to pass on something that is not Scripture itself but rather a faithful summary – Jesus’ faithful summary! – of Scripture. We do not have the Luke 24 conversation recorded. Arguably, we do not have everything that Jesus commanded (John 20). These instructions are passed down via the NT, and our subsequent administration of it must find itself in accordance with this inscripturated application of the rule. In other words, Jesus’ rule, in both Luke 24 and Matthew 28, is administered in his inspired Word. Our job now is to make sure what we pass down is in accordance with this supreme authority, the inspired Word of God in the Prophets and Apostles.

2. Paul Commands Timothy and Titus to Pass On Sound Doctrine

In the Pastoral Epistles, we find numerous instructions by Paul to both Timothy and Titus to pass on what they have learned to others. For example:

…remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3).

…the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient…and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:9-11).

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed (1 Tim. 4:6).

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching (1 Tim. 4:16).

Teach and urge these things. If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing (1 Tim. 6:2-4).

O Timothy, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (1 Tim. 6:20).

Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:13).

By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:14).

…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:14-15).

[An overseer] must hold firmly to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).

We could add to this references to “the faith” and either guarding it or departing from it, as well as the hymns (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:16) and references to trustworthy sayings. In any case, from the list above it is apparent that Paul had trained Timothy and Titus in sound doctrine and expected them to pass it on to those they were discipling, and so on (2 Tim. 2:2). He seems to be referring to a summary statement about who Jesus is, what he’s done, and how to know him. There also may be some hermeneutical guidelines (e.g. a rule of faith) a la Luke 24 in mind in these passages, especially when Paul references speculation and Jewish genealogies and myths. Of course, what Paul is referring to as “the good deposit,” “the faith,” “sound doctrine,” “the teaching,” etc. is what then became inscripturated in the NT. Once again, there is no inspired authority outside of Scripture. But our point here is that these instructions by Jesus and Paul give us analogies to the ministerial role of tradition subsequent to the writing of the NT.

3. Ministers Pass on Sound Doctrine

These examples demonstrate that both Jesus and Paul (and I’d argue we could include the other apostles) commanded Christians to pass on sound doctrine. There’s no time to expand on this here, but, to clarify briefly, they also are clear that this “deposit” is faithful to the Word God has already given to his people in the OT and to the Word he was giving at the time to the apostles. In other words, this “deposit” was only authoritative insofar as it was faithful to God’s inspired and inerrant Word, both as it already existed in the OT and was being written in what we now call the NT. Of course, that sound doctrine and teaching was subsequently inscripturated in the NT. We do not have any source of inspired authority outside of Scripture. But, by way of analogy, ministers are still called to pass on sound doctrine that is in accordance with Scripture.

Tradition, then, is not at odds with Scripture per se, but is rather the God-ordained means of stewarding the faithful summary of Scripture. Tradition is a steward, or minister, of Scripture’s main point. It is a minister of how to read Scripture. It does not stand over Scripture, but like any good minister is used to pass on what has been entrusted to it. In this sense, it is authoritative, but only secondarily and derivatively. We could say the same thing about pastors and congregations; the authority that God has entrusted them is ministerial, and only effective insofar as they are faithful to the ultimate authority, God’s Word.

Basil and Augustine on 1 Cor. 15:28

In defending ERAS, many proponents point to 1 Cor. 15:28 as one of the primary texts that supports it (in addition to, say, 1 Cor. 11:3, John 6:38, and Matt. 26:39). In this passage Paul says,

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

The  explanation of this passage from an ERAS framework is that, given the Son’s (supposedly divine) future subjection to the Father in this passage, it must also therefore be true that the Son has always submitted to the Father, even before the Lord’s acts of creation and redemption.

This is not how the early church, and particularly the pro-Nicene theologians who formulated the homoousion and its subsequent developments in the Nicene period, read this and other such passages. For instance, Basil says in Against Eunomius of 1 Cor. 15:28 that,

“If the Son is subjected to the Father in the Godhead, then He must have been subjected from the beginning, from whence He was God.  But if He was not subjected, but shall be subjected, it is in the manhood, as for us, not in the Godhead, as for Himself.”

Note that Basil actually agrees with ERAS proponents in theory – if this passage speaks of the Son’s submission to the Father in his divinity, then it means that the Son has been subjected to the Father eternally. But Basil notes the temporal aspect of this passage (in other words, he’s being exegetically rigorous) and says that, given that the subjection takes place in time, it must therefore be referring to the Son’s actions in the temporal order, i.e. in his incarnate state.

Augustine speaks a number of times to this particular passage in De Trinitate, and expands on Basil’s understanding of the text as speaking to Christ’s submission in his humanity, not in his divinity.

“So there need be no hesitation from anyone in taking this to mean that what the Father is greater than is the form of a servant, whereas the Son is his equal in the form of God (I.15).

Note that Augustine here distinguishes between Christ’s humanity and divinity using the terms “form of a servant” and “form of God.” This tactic is employed in a number of other places, including other passages in which he discusses 1 Cor. 15:28. For instance, in Book I, section 20, he says:

So inasmuch as he is God he will jointly with the Father have us as subjects; inasmuch as he is priest he will jointly with us be subject to him.

And finally, in speaking about creatures seeing God face to face on the day of judgment, Augustine says in I.28,

This is to be a face to face seeing . . . when every creature is made subject to God, including even the creature in which the Son of God became the Son of man, for in this created form “the Son himself shall also be subject to the one who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28; emphasis mine).

The point is that, along with the other pro-Nicenes, Basil and Augustine eschew any hint of subordination within the Trinity, other than that of modes of subsistence (alternatively called taxis, or order). For the pro-Nicene theologians, there is no difference in authority, there is no submission, there is no functional subordination, except as it occurs in the humanity of the incarnate Son.

NT Wright on Justification…Again

Well maybe you live under a rock and don’t know this yet, but NT WRIGHT IS PUBLISHING A BOOK ON PAUL. AND IN IT HE WILL DISCUSS JUSTIFICATION.

I think people’s brains might explode over this, either because of the length of the book or because we’re going to have to re-hash the “justification as declaration” vs. “justification as action” argument for what must be the upteenth time.

Anyway (don’t ever use that transition in a paper, kids), Mike Bird has thrown us all into the deep end with this tantalizing quote from Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

[E]ven though Romans 3.21–31 is part of the same flow of argument as Romans 5—8, and Galatians 2.15–21 is part of the same flow of argument as Galatians 4—6, and even though these two larger arguments do develop a view of the spirit’s work in the transformation of character which can properly be seen both as virtue and as theōsis, this does not take away from the fact that when Paul speaks of initial justification by faith he means it as a very particular, specific claim. This ‘justification’ means that, ahead of any transformation of character other than the bare, initial pistis whose whole nature character is by definition to look helplessly away from itself and gratefully towards the saving work of the Messiah, this person is welcomed into the family on the basis of that confession of faith and nothing else. The inaugurated-eschatological assurance which this welcome provides is thus both forensic (the verdict of ‘not guilty’ in the present will be repeated in the future) and covenantal (full membership in Abraham’s family is granted at once and will be reaffirmed in the resurrection). The two dimensions join up in practical ecclesiology: the mutual welcome which Paul urges in Romans 14 and 15 is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.

Bird then asks whether this will assuage Reformed-ish folk and if Wright seems to regard justification as both social and soteric.

I’ll venture a few thoughts:

1) Although the “forensic” language in the quote certainly seems to be a step towards his critics, in that it may suggest that NTW acknowledges that justification has an inherently soteriological significance, it still does not address what, in my opinion, is the crux of the issue. In Justification, as well as in various places in his other works, Wright argues that justification is not a legal action by God on a person that places them in his kingdom, but instead a declaration by God about their continuing status as part of his covenant people. It is, in other words, purely declarative act according to Wright, instead of what has historically been understood as a transformative and saving act. Nothing in the above quote suggests that Wright has shifted on this understanding, and of course nothing suggests that he hasn’t shifted.

2) That brings us to the second point – this quote has no context whatsoever. So, kudos to Mike Bird for getting us talking already.

One thing is certain; the blogosphere is going to explode once we all get a chance to work through PFG.

 

Article Accepted

I received news tonight that my article “Arbitrary Allegory, Typical Typology, or Intertextual Interpretation? Paul’s Use of the Pentateuch in Galatians 4:21-31” was accepted for publication in Biblical Theology Bulletin. It still has to go to the copy editor, and I have no clue on the timeline for publication. But, the hard part is over.

I’ve been looking for a home for this article for a year now, and its been a hard search. This is probably my favorite piece from what I’ve worked on so far (even my dissertation – but who likes their dissertation anyway?), so I’m excited that the LORD has blessed me with the opportunity to publish it.

Here’s the abstract:

“This article begins by surveying the modern history of interpretation of Gal 4:21–31, and in doing so demonstrates that virtually no commentators from the time of Calvin have concluded that Paul accurately conveys the message of the Pentateuch’s narratives to which he alludes in his “allegory.” It then provides an alternate approach to the analysis of Paul’s interpretation of the Pentateuch in this passage, relying on the hermeneutical tool of intertextuality. It demonstrates, through four sets of intertextual connections within the Pentateuch, that the Hagar and Sinai narratives are intricately related and therefore appropriately read by Paul. It concludes that, instead of viewing Paul’s interpretation in Gal 4:21–31 as arbitrary allegory, modern commentators should give Paul a bit more grace in their analysis of his hermeneutic.”

Scriptural Hermeneutics

This is an excellent quote from Richard Hays on hermeneutics after exegeting 2 Cor 3:1-4:6 in Echoes of Scripture, ch. 4:

The meaning of Scripture is enacted in the Christian community, and only those who participate in the enactment can understand the text. Consequently, the transformation of the community is not the presupposition but also the result and proof of true interpretation. Where God’s spirit is at work, the community (“we all”) is being transformed into the image of Christ and liberated to see, when they read Scripture, that the old covenant prefigured precisely this transformation. (Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 152)

The quote sums up a number of what I consider to be essential characteristics of a biblically grounded hermeneutic:

  1. Textual – A Christian reading of the Bible pays attention to the words, sentences, paragraphs and books of the Bible in detail (this is not explicit in the quote but it is from the context of the entire chapter)
  2. Pneumatological – A Christian reading of the Bible is rooted in a recognition of the Spirit’s inspiration of the text and in a reliance on the Spirit for understanding (illumination)
  3. Christotelic – A Christian reading of the Bible understands that the purpose of the Scriptures is not only to reveal Christ but to transform his church into his image through the Spirit
  4. Communal – A Christian reading of the Bible takes place in the context of the community of the faithful, the church
  5. Transformational – A Christian reading of the Bible is not only concerned with information but with transformation, namely into the image of Christ
  6. Holistic – A Christian reading of the Bible regards both the Old and New Testaments as the true, complementary, and complete revelation of God through Christ that are to be read in the above ways

Am I missing anything else?

Making James and Paul Play Nice

Since all Bible blogging roads lead back to Near Emmaus, and since Brian LePort seems to continually blog about things that I’m already thinking about (get out of my head Brian!) I’m going to piggyback off of another one of his posts today. Yesterday Brian posted on the question of whether or not James and Paul were involved in a dispute or rivalry. While I’m not going to engage with much of his material here, I do want to argue for some similarities between Paul and James, and namely similarities in their writings to Christian churches and their use of Scripture. Paul’s letter to the Romans and James’ epistle both exhibit a number of parallels, including the following.

First, Ryan Armstrong lists parallels between Rom 5:3-5 and James 1:2-4 (suffering produces endurance, etc.), Rom 6:23 and James 1:15-16 (the wages of sin is death), and Rom 2:13 and James 1:22 (doers of the law).[1] None of these parallels is particularly strong in the Greek; they should probably be categorized more as conceptual similarities rather than as textual connections. They do, however, show that James and Paul were at least thinking similar thoughts on different issues.

A more important and more textual parallel, though, lies between Rom 1:17 and James 2:23. Romans 1:17 is a quotation of Hab 2:4, which in turn is an allusion to Gen 15:6 where Abraham’s faith is credited to him as righteousness. As Richard Hays has shown, because Paul has left out the crucial personal possessive pronoun of Hab 2:4 (“his faith”), Rom 1:17 should be taken as showing Paul’s twofold concern for “God’s own righteousness” being shown in the gospel and for “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.[2] Paul’s use of Hab 2:4, then, combines it’s original intention in Habakkuk of arguing for God’s covenant faithfulness while also making use of its allusion to Gen 15:6 and the need for all men to come to God through faith for justification. Gen 15:6 is also quoted by James 2:23. Thus both passages make reference to passages in the Old Testament that are intended to show how God operates in terms of salvation. Righteousness comes through faith. In other words, both of these writers use allusions ultimately to the same passage of the OT to help their readers understand what they are saying about justification.

This connection is made stronger by what comes after Romans 1 and what comes before James 2. In Rom 2:1-11, Paul argues that God has no partiality, specifically concerning ethnicity, and in James 2:1-13 God is said to have no partiality, specifically between the rich and the poor. Rom 2:6 says that each will be judged according to his works, and James 2:24 says that man is justified by works as well as faith.[3] More parallels could be shown, but the fact that these, along with the one noted by Armstrong between Rom 2:13 and James 1:22, all surround what are arguably the most important statements in each of the books – Romans 1:17 and James 2:23 – should point the reader to the fact that the two passages, and moreover the two books and thus the two corpuses, are clearly connected.

How we interpret these connections, as Richard Hays has noted in Echoes of Scripture (29-33), is of course the million dollar question. I’m inclined to say that they demonstrate that Paul and James are much closer on the issue of justification and even on their articulation of it than some scholars want to allow.

What about you?


[1] Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 41.

[2] Ryan Armstrong, “Canonical Approaches to New Testament Theology: An Evangelical Evaluation of Childs and Trobisch,” Th.M. thesis., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2007, 104. The last two verses listed are also parallel to Matthew 7:26.

[3] I take ‘justification’ here in the sense that Paul uses ‘judged’ in Romans 2:6.

Pet Peeves, Soapboxes, and Hobby Horses

Was Paul intending for his readers to conjure this picture in their minds in Ephesians 6:10-20?

Or this?

Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins (Isa 11:5).

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’ (Isa 52:7).

The LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. According to their deeds so will he repay, wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render repayment. So they shall fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the LORD drives. ‘And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,’ declares the LORD (Isa 59:15b-20).

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness… (Isa 61:10).