The Son’s Light and Biblical Understanding

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

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 The Bible, as an historical document, has a series of messages written by specific people at a specific time and for a specific audience – it is in one sense, therefore, for information.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

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

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

Scripture and Tradition

My friend Ryan Godfrey, a Roman Catholic, and I have agreed to write a number of short position papers on a variety of topics. We’ve agreed to answer a few questions in each paper, but there is no set format. We’ve also agreed to keep footnotes to a minimum, although I’ll probably break that rule frequently.

These are intended to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement, not to be sweeping generalizations about where we think each other is going to end up in eternity, or who should be thrown in the stocks, etc. etc. We will each post our own position papers, after which we’ll give each other time to respond. Those responses will also be posted here.

The first of our topics is Scripture and Tradition. I’ve posted my position paper below. Ryan’s can be found here.

Enjoy.

 

Scripture and Tradition

1. What is Scripture?

Scripture is the Triune God’s self-communication to his people, inspired by the Spirit, testifying to the Son, and revealing the Father. It is the revelation of Yahweh, given in the context of his redemptive covenant,[1] and has as its end both the communication of who God is and the transformation of his people into the Son’s image. It is thus a revelatory and redemptive document. “Scripture” is synonymous with “Bible”, and by Bible I mean the 66 books of the Protestant canon (more on canon below).

The source of Scripture is ultimately the Holy Spirit, who “breathes out” the text (2 Tim. 3:16), “carrying along” the prophets and apostles, who wrote it down (1 Pet. 1:21). Because Scripture’s source is the Holy Spirit, it is infallible and inerrant in everything it says. Further, because the Spirit inspires the scriptures, their aim is bound up with the Spirit’s, namely to testify to the Son and his work (John 16:4-15), bringing conviction, judgment, and repentance. The Spirit’s inspiration of the text also places the foundation for Scripture’s authority squarely in the hands of the Triune God. While the people of God certainly passed down what was given to them, the Bible’s source is ultimately God, not men.

Scripture is not the only means by which God has revealed himself, but it is the only enduringly accessible means by which his people know him. God’s power and creative act are seen through nature (Rom. 1:20-21), but general revelation is only properly interpreted by special revelation, and namely by Scripture. Other means of special revelation include events (e.g. Moses and the burning bush), direct communication (e.g. via the prophets), and, ultimately, the person of Jesus. We should be clear that the ultimate revelation of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, but as soon as we acknowledge this fact we are confronted with his bodily residence at the right of the Father. He is therefore only known through the scriptures that testify to him. Likewise, we only know of and understand the events and direct communication both testaments through the scriptures. Thus the Bible is the only enduringly accessible means of special revelation available to the people of God. The Bible is therefore the Spirit-inspired Word of God that gives us access to the Word, the second person of the Trinity, who in turn makes known to us the Father. It is the ultimate authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice, teaching God’s people about him and how to live in relationship with him.

 

2. What is Tradition?

Tradition is also authoritative, but derivatively so. Its reference point is always Scripture, because Scripture gives it its aim and operation. Both of these are captured in 2 Tim. 2:2 – “. . . what you have learned in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Likewise in Deuteronomy 6 the people of God are instructed to pass down God’s instructions to their children. Tradition, then, is the faithful passing down of prophetic and apostolic instruction from one generation to the next. Note here, though, that this prophetic and apostolic instruction is Scripture. The prophets and apostles, or Old Testament and New Testament, are the source for the Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition is held accountable to be faithful to that source.

In the history of Christianity, this “passing down” has generally been accomplished in three ways – hermeneutically, doctrinally, and liturgically. Hermeneutically, the rule of faith has served as a summary of biblical teaching, both in terms of its redemptive narrative structure and its focus on Christ. Doctrinally, the three ecumenical creeds served as accurate summaries of biblical teaching on the nature of God and the work of Christ. Liturgically, early Christian worship was structured around scriptural patterns and ordinances (e.g. reading a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, celebrating the Lord’s Supper). In each of these areas, though, their authority is derived not from their ability to explain an otherwise unfathomable text but rather from warrant given by the text for their instruction. For instance, Jesus gives the disciples the rule of faith on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:27, 44); Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to pass on sound doctrine in the Pastoral Epistles; and, as already noted, liturgical practices find their warrant and shape in Scripture.

 

3. What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition?

As is already evident by the way the previous two sections are structured and articulated, for Protestants, Scripture stands over and above tradition. Although tradition has a derivative authority in the life of the church, Scripture has the ultimate authority. Sometimes this means that parts of the tradition must be modified or rejected in light of fresh understandings of biblical teaching. Tradition certainly contains much weight, as does the community in which one practices their Christian faith, but Scripture supersedes both of these.[2]

An issue that presents itself immediately in this articulation is how to account for the canon and the rules that help us read it (regula fidei, creeds). With respect to the

canon, both Roger Beckwith for the OT[3] and, among others, David Trobisch for the NT[4] have demonstrated that the people of God recognized a distinct set of books for both testaments. I am more familiar with NT studies, and in that field MSS evidence for an early NT canon continues to grow. It is becoming commonplace in scholarship to recognize that, by the mid second century at the latest, the NT was circulating in four distinct codices – the four Gospels, Acts and the General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. Given that this is the terminus ad quem for this means of circulation, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that John was responsible for the collection of the Gospel corpus (which includes his Gospel), the Acts plus General Epistles corpus (which includes his letters), and Revelation (authored by him). This leaves the Pauline letters, and many scholars recognize that Paul or one of his disciples probably collected and circulated these in a codex. In other words, the New Testament canon is not a product of fourth century council decisions, but of the recognition of the Spirit-inspired and apostolically testified character of these books by the people of God. Canonization is the church’s recognition of the inherent character of Scripture, not its decision about which books to include and exclude. It is thus a product of its source, the Holy Spirit, rather than of its recipients, the church.[5]

In terms of the rule of faith and the creeds, I’ve already noted the former’s reliance on Christ himself for its source and authority. Jesus taught the disciples to read the Scriptures, and the Spirit inspired the apostles to write that teaching down for us. Right hermeneutics is ultimately derived from the Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying Word. Creeds, likewise, find their source in Scripture. As David Yeago has argued,[6] it is not enough to say that the three ecumenical creeds derive their teachings from Scripture; rather, we must say that their affirmations are found in Scripture. The creeds attempt to use conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about scriptural patterns of language. They are not documents that stand over Scripture, telling us how to read it, but rather the derivative summaries of Scripture’s doctrine. Thus Scripture stands as the norming norm of the creeds, and indeed of all confessions, conciliar decisions, hermeneutical methods, and Christian practices. It is the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Word that has ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice, and it is this Word that calls the church to Christ, shapes her faith in Christ, and patterns her practices to transform her into the likeness of Christ.

 

[1] Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading.

[2] See, for example, Alistair McGrath, The Genesis of Christian Doctrine. See also Heiko Obermann’s distinction between Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 (the latter of which is static and unquestionable, contra what I am arguing here).

[3] Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church.

[4] David Trobish, The First Edition of the New Testament; idem, Paul’s Letter Collection. Another point to be made here is that the entire Bible is a tapestry of intertextual illusions, and it is apparent that the authoring process is one in which each book is tied textually to previous books. Thus the inherent Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying character of Scripture is wedded together between books, making the recognition by the church of inspiration a relatively easier task.

[5] For more on this, see John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” pp. 9-46 in Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2001).

[6] David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” in Engaging Theological Interpretation of Scripture, ed. by Stephen Fowl.

Resources for Theological Interpretation

I’m reading and writing on theological interpretation of Scripture at the moment, and I want to make sure I’m covering all my bases. Below is a list of books dealing with the subject; I’m going to try and compile a list of articles later. I’ve organized them by a) books specifically about TIS, b) hermeneutics books that directly deal with TIS or TIS issues, c) biblical theology books that directly deal with TIS or TIS issues, d) dogmatics texts on the doctrine of Scripture, and e) history of interpretation texts that assist in the ressourcement of premodern interpretive methods. Sometimes these divisions are rather arbitrary, as many of these books deal with at least two if not more of these categories. Nevertheless, here they are.

What am I missing here?

TIS Texts

Adam, A. K. M., Stephen Fowl, Kevin  Vanhoozer, and Francis Watson. Reading Scripture with the church: toward a hermeneutic for theological interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.

Bartholomew, Craig G., Colin J. D. Greene, and Karl Möller. Renewing biblical interpretation. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press ;, 2000.

Billings, J. Todd. The Word of God for the people of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010.

Bockmuehl, Markus N. A.. Seeing the Word: refocusing New Testament study. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.

Bockmuehl, Markus N. A., and Alan J. Torrance. Scripture’s doctrine and theology’s Bible: how the New Testament shapes Christian dogmatics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Farkasfalvy, Denis M.. Inspiration & interpretation: a theological introduction to Sacred Scripture. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010.

Fowl, Stephen E.. The theological interpretation of Scripture: classic and contemporary readings. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.

Fowl, Stephen E.. Engaging scripture: a model for theological interpretation. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Fowl, Stephen E.. Theological interpretation of scripture. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2009.

Green, Joel B.. Practicing theological interpretation: engaging biblical texts for faith and formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011.

Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical exegesis: a theology of Biblical interpretation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

Treier, Daniel J.. Introducing theological interpretation of Scripture: recovering a Christian practice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright. Dictionary for theological interpretation of the Bible. London: SPCK ;, 2005.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright. Theological interpretation of the New Testament: a book-by-book survey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. Theological interpretation of the Old Testament: a book-by-book survey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Watson, Francis. Text, church, and world: biblical interpretation in theological perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994.

 

Hermeneutics Texts

Leithart, Peter J.. Deep exegesis: the mystery of reading Scripture. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2009.

Smith, James K. A.. The fall of interpretation: philosophical foundations for a creational hermeneutic. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. Is there a meaning in this text?: the Bible, the reader, and the morality of literary knowledge. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. The drama of doctrine: a canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

 

Biblical Theology Texts

Bartholomew, Craig G., and Elaine Botha. Out of Egypt: biblical theology and biblical interpretation. Bletchley, Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press ;, 2004.

Bartholomew, Craig G., Joel B. Green, and Anthony C. Thiselton. Reading Luke: interpretation, reflection, formation. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press ;, 2005.

Bartholomew, Craig G.. Canon and biblical interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006.

Watson, Francis. Text and truth: redefining biblical theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997.

 

Dogmatics Texts

Swain, Scott R.. Trinity, revelation, and reading: a theological introduction to the Bible and its interpretation. London: T&T Clark, 2011.

Webster, J. B.. Word and church: essays in Christian dogmatics. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001.

Webster, John. Holy Scripture: a dogmatic sketch. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

 

History of Interpretation Texts

Hall, Christopher A.. Reading scripture with the church Fathers. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Keefe, John J., and Russell R. Reno. Sanctified vision: an introduction to early Christian interpretation of the Bible. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Lubac, Henri de. Medieval exegesis: the four senses of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ;, 1998.

Doctrine and Interpretation

What is the relationship between doctrine and interpretation, specifically in terms of the former’s influence over the latter?

I’ve recently finished Scott Swain’s Trinity, Revelation, and Reading, and am currently reading Kevin Giles’ The Eternal Generation of the Son. Here are there answers:

Swain says,

Church dogma, we might say, is a sign of Christ’s victory through Word and Spirit within the common mind of the church. It is for this reason an ancient landmark that should not be moved.

To the extent, therefore, that the church’s dogmatic deliverances are indeed faithful summaries of the scope, shape, and substance of scriptural teaching, their use in interpretation does not constitute the imposition of an external burden or alien standard upon the interpreter of Holy Scripture. Church dogmas provide instead a divinely authorized interpretive key for unlocking the treasures of God’s word, a blessed pathway into Holy Scripture.

Giles similarly states,

What we must recognize is that there is no reading of Scripture apart from a communal understanding of it, apart from tradition. The question is not, do I accept that my communally held beliefs inform my exegesis or not – they unquestionably do – but, which communal beliefs will I prioritize? . . .the best tradition to inform our interpretation of Scripture is what the best of theologians across the centuries have taught, especially when it is codified in the creeds and confessions of our church.

What do you think? Do, and perhaps more importantly should, the three ecumenical creeds or the seven ecumenical councils have any bearing on our interpretation? What about more contemporary confessions?