Are Reformed Really this naive?

I try not to keep interacting with Orthodox Bridge.   I certainly can’t comment over there, given their commitment to triumphalist rhetoric.  However, as bad and insulting as some of their articles are, they can be helpful to Protestants.  If you are a Protestant looking at Orthodoxy, yet you also really know what you believe as a Protestant (an increasing rarity), and you see Orthodox guys reading your beliefs as such, you will be insulted.  Similarly, I am doing the Orthodox a favor.  If they will take my comments seriously, they will be better able to help honest seekers who know that the smarter Reformed, even if they are wrong, probably aren’t this intellectually stupid.

I am not going to interact with the whole article.  It is somewhat self-feeding and you get the idea after a while.  It is about a Jewish convert to Orthodoxy who detoured through low church evangelicalism.

The bad news is that often I would decide for myself what the Scriptures meant.

This is ambiguous.   If he is saying “my mental faculties were functioning correctly and I was able to use syntax to figure out what the sentence said” then there is no problem.  This is simply how language works.  If he is saying, “I found out the meaning apart from any interpretive community,” then it is naive.  But no Confessional Reformed church believes that.

I mean, I took sola scriptura (“only the Bible”) seriously!

No, you didn’t.  That is not what sola scriptura means.  It means the Bible is the norm that norms our norms.   If you don’t understand that sentence then you need to quit apologetics for a while and study some more.

Let me hasten to say that the Bible is all God intends it to be. No problem with the Bible. The problem lay in the way I individualized it, subjecting it to my own personal interpretations-some not so bad, others not so good

Every evangelical leans this in the first 5 minutes of hermeneutics 101.

In fact, it seemed to me that the more one held to the Bible as the only source of spiritual authority, the more factious and sectarian one became.

My tradition, the Westminster Confession, explicitly condemns the above statement.

Even the Old Testament was still in the process of formulation, for the Jews did not decide upon a definitive list or canon of Old Testament books until after the rise of Christianity.

This isn’t exactly true.   Paul’s statement that the Jews received the oracles of God would be meaningless if those silly Jews couldn’t identify the oracles of God.

Interestingly, it is this later version of the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, rather than the canon of early Christianity, that is followed by most modern Protestants today.

After Beckwith’s book on the Old Testament, few scholars seriously hold the above line.  Granted, if it falls much of Anchorite apologetics crashes to the ground, so they have a vested interest.

The rest of the article is too painful to continue.  If Orthodox Bridge wants to operate with childish notions of Evangelical scholarship, that is their prerogative.  I know they think that converts by the dozen are fleeing the Evangelical world, but I suspect those numbers are inflated.   I will leave them with some key evangelical works on hermeneutics:

Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology.

Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology

James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation

Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?

If you are even remotely familiar with the arguments in the above texts, then you can’t keep with silly posts like above.  If you choose to ignore these above arguments, then you’ve essentially conceded the game.

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Is there Greek and Hebrew thinking?

Another observation on today’s Federal Vision is the parting of ways among some of their thinkers.   Most notably is Calvinist International’s rejection of Jim Jordan’s model of “Hebrew Thinking.”  I don’t come down on either side of the discussion, but I will make some observations.  Unlike both parties, I don’t hold to Van Til’s system.    They write,

In his lecture, “Exorcising the Saints of the Great Hangovers,” we were named as a dangerous influence because we stand with the Reformers, the mainstream Reformed tradition, and C S Lewis regarding the natural law and natural theology.

I follow the above guys only so far as it keeps me out of trouble.   Their use of categories was wise and shouldn’t be likely discarded.   I think natural law can work if we see that equity is an inescapable concept.    At the end of the day, though, I will go with Torah over natural law.  Much of CI’s response is a justification of natural law.   I won’t interact with that since I presuppose (irony?) a form of natural law at the most basic level.

This positions him to be the herald of a new age, who speaks with the authority of a new age; previous ages are thus imperfect not simply as all ages are, but rather, are deeply tainted with paganism which only he and a few predecessors have been able to see and correct.

Yes and no.  That much of Western Civilization held on to remnants of paganism is beyond doubt.  The question is whether these specific remnants can fall under common grace (and so be retained) or are they truly pagan and should be rejected.

The idea that past doctrines might actually have the same meaning as some of his own formulations seems ruled out for him by his historicistic principle; the past must be inferior simply because it is past, and truth is new.

Can I say two things:  this is a true proposition as regards Jordan but much of the “Hellenic” thinking is bad and that affirming the latter clause does not entail the former?

Only the Bible stands above this, but not the Bible as read consensually over time; but rather, the Bible as read now, by him.

This is a legitimate criticism of Jordan.  Many times I would have no problem with his conclusions if he would take the time to work out the sixteen steps he used to get there instead of being so dogmatic about it.

Is There a Greek Mind?

The next section of the essay explores who is the true Van Tillian.  Since I am not one I won’t come to a conclusion.  Ironically, I think I will agree with Van Til on his use of the Greeks.  I think the guys at CI do a good job in showing how Jordan borrows from various streams of antiquity while claiming to reject antiquity.

However, I think Jordan does score some points on the effects of Hellenic thinking and I realize that much esotericism is Jewish in origin.  Here is what neither CI nor Jordan have said:   ancient Greek thinking is by no means Western.  It is Eastern.  Many Greeks borrowed from Egyptian and Babylonian magic religions.   So when Greek Orthodox Christians engage in pagan practices like monasticism and extreme ascetism, they are not shucking their Greek heritage for some bastardized Judaism.  They are simply drawing upon the Eastern strain of Hellenic thinking.

And the sad fact remains:  read the earthy sexuality of Song of Solomon and then read Tertullian, Basil, and Augustine on married sexuality.   There is a huge difference between Hebrew and Hellenic thinking.

As to Jordan’s historiography of the Reformation on this point, the CI guys are correct.   Calvin did not simply recover the Hebrew worldview.  Calvin held to Plato’s view on the soul.  Bucer quoted False Dionysius with approval.  I disagree with both gentlemen.

But the antithetical polarity continues in Mr. Jordan’s lecture, with him at one point sounding like an odd combination of Adolf von Harnack and Dr. Bronner:

I can’t shake Harnack’s thesis.  Sure, it’s a bit crude but there is something to it.  When I read the ancient fathers and the Greeks, I see “hyperousia,” the termination of motion, and a serene god.  When I read Zephaniah I see Yahweh fighting like a drunken Samson!

The CI guys then give a list of scholars who have supposedly rebutted the Greek vs Hebrew thesis.  All I can say is, maybe.  I don’t think there is such a view that the Greek brain functions differently than the Hebrew brain.  That is silly.  But the philosophical concepts behind the Old Testament and the ancient Greeks are worlds apart.  Hesiod (and Virgil, too-cf Aeneid Book VIII) saw each successive age as worse than the last one.  Hebraic Christianity on the other hand sees a progression from Older Glory to Newer Glory (2 Corinthians 3.  It’s in the text, Barr notwithstanding).

The CI guys then point to “Hellenism” in the New Testament.   I don’t deny Greek influences, but I do stand by my thesis that pagan Greek philosophers would find certain categories in the OT as incompatible with their own.  The rest of the paper is a spiel on natural law.  I’ll leave it at that.

Reading Hebrew: An act of literary defiance

If a tradition claims to be the font and fullness of God’s revelation, and that tradition prizes a translation of the Old Testament (Vulgate, LXX) over the Hebrew/Aramaic, then the act of reading Hebrew is itself a literary defiance.  This is the question I asked the anchorites at OrthoBridge:  if the LXX is the text by which we measure other texts, then what’s the point of even using the Hebrew?  At this point Harnack’s charge of Hellenism is actually correct!  If we marginalize the Bible that Yeshua read, is this not a de-Hebraicizing of Yeshua?  Isn’t this downplaying (if not fully separating) his human nature?

Terms of surrender for the Federal Vision

Not that I have any authority to issue these, but if any FV wants to know why no one likes them and takes them seriously (and even more:  on points perhaps where you guys actually get it right), this should help:

  1. Renounce all language that states or suggests temporal unions, elections, and justifications based on obedience.   At the end of the day, your theology must say that God justifies the ungodly.  How is it good news for me to hear that I have temporal salvation based on my obedience?
  2. Begin merging the CREC into accepted NAPARC denominations.   By all means keep the same structures in terms of Presbyterianism but submit to oversight.
  3. Fully endorse the Confession’s teaching on sacramental union.   These two words would solve 90% of the problems.

In doing so, NAPARC will hear you on:

  1. Literature and hermeneutics:  granted much of the stuff at Biblical Horizons borders on insanity, I fully grant that the chiastic hermeneutics is more “natural” to the text than the American “Three Points and a Poem.”  And it is far more interesting.
  2. We will tone down a lot of the “Baptistic” stuff in American Presbyterianism
  3. We acknowledge that it is hard to criticize you guys on “loose Confessionalism” when much of NAPARC compromises on the 2nd, 4th commandments and often gives more weight to parachurch ministries than to the local church.
  4. Given the coming collapse of the PCA, we will gladly accept the more robust (and biblical) expressions of the CREC re-formed around a Confessional framework.
  5. We acknowledge that Canon Press often produces challenging and incisive literature that can counter-balance the tendency to “theological inbreeding” in some Reformed publishing venues.

We will even let you name the location in which the surrender was signed.  We’ll call it something like Greyfriars.

Review of Church Dogmatics I/2

This is not a full review, since I am not dealing with sections 15-18.  Those are important because of his discussions of asarkos/ensarkos, but since he takes up that theme elsewhere, I won’t worry about it.

I don’t think this is one of Barth’s more important contributions, but it is one on which most Evangelicals think he is “the bad guy.”  It is in this volume where he more explicitly denies that the text in your hands is the revelation of the Word of God.  Rather, it is a witness to that revelation.   What Barth is actually doing is making use of the divine/human model of Christology and applying it to Scripture.   

On other areas he explores how is model impacts dogmatics within the Church and the proper limits of Church authority.  He makes an important point that is often missed by evangelicals:  he is adamant to deny that the church is in any sense the custodian of God’s revelation (and keep in mind on Barth’s gloss, revelation does not necessarily equal Scripture).  When churches do this (EO and Rome), they make themselves above God’s revelation and beyond any real critique.  Barth’s model, by contrast, can assign a lot of authority to the church while never fearing of an abuse of infallibility claims

Barth also advocates a role for the laity perhaps more than other communions.  He doesn’t develop the point, but his model could alleviate a lot of the problems associated with subjectivity in Scripture.  In fact, one can even develop a robust personalism on this point.  If what it means to be a “person” is an opening to the other, and if everyone is engaged in the reading and practice of Holy Scripture, then everyone’s so-called subjective interpretation is taken into the “other’s” interpretation.”

Subjectivity is only a problem when each man is an island unto himself.  This is a problem for congregationalist models.  For Reformed (and Anglican and Lutheran) this isn’t near a problem.  I think Barth makes some valuable suggestions, but they won’t impress everyone.  He talks about fear and bravery at the end of this volume.   If we allow dogmatics to become a lay enterprise, and each one has to bring his interpretation for correction and critique, then there will be the fear of “I don’t have complete control.”  This is perhaps why anchoretic communities love to rail on the “subjectivity” of sola scriptura.   It is scary, but it is also how we grow.  

§19, chapter 1 deals with Scripture as a witness to God’s revelation.   Resisting the urge to attack Barth because he “doesn’t believe the Bible is the Word of God,” let’s actually see what he is saying and what it means for our own situation.   A witness to a thing is not the same thing as the thing (and if anyone maintains it is, he or she will have to explain precisely why transubstantiation is wrong).  Further if we collapse the sign into the thing signified, is this not a movement towards nominalism?  The sign is pointing beyond itself to the “real.”  If we remove the “sign,” how can we have access to the real?  We are then saying that the “sign” is merely a “name” for the thing signified.  

Before people fear too much, Richard Muller, while perhaps not necessarily endorsing this view, does allude to several Reformed scholastics who said something similar.  

For whatever demerits Barth’s project may have, one cannot help but notice Augustinian themes.  If you attack Barth, then you must continue and attack Augustine.  

Chapter 2:  Canon
    Barth gives an unusually careful discussion on the nature of canonization.  Surprisingly, given his anti-Roman polemic throughout this series, he faults the position of Luther and Calvin and gives more weight to the role of the church.   However, this can only work when the Church submits to the same revelation.  

    Towards the end of chapter two he gets into why he doesn’t believe Scripture should be considered “inerrant.” I can’t follow him at this point, though Evangelicals really haven’t reflected hard enough on his concerns.  We believe the Word of God is self-attesting.  If we leave the discussion of “self-attesting” in the arena of the Triune God, well and good.  Because then self-attestation is truly a triune act, and if you deny it then you deny God.  If we maintain, however, so Barth reasons, that self-attestation is an act of the text of Scripture, then we open ourselves to lots of devastating criticisms by Anchorite traditions.  

    Barth tries to play the “Calvin vs. Calvinists” card.  Historically, such a claim is simply false.   However, even Richard Muller admits that the epistemology of later 17th century scholastics was such that they really couldn’t avoid the later criticisms of the Enlightenment.

    We should be all means reject Barth’s conclusions–at least, if we want to stay in good position in conservative, American churches–but be forewarned that Barth’s position can avoid all the pitfalls facing Evangelicals in their debates with anchorites.   The downside, though, is that it is particularly difficult on Barth’s gloss to say, “Thus saith the Lord.”  To Barth’s credit he emphasizes the preaching of the word.  However, at this point in Church Dogmatics Barth is not clear on how his view of the Bible can be authoritative for the church.

In §20 chapter 1 Barth gives a very thorough discussion of tradition and authority and its development in Roman Catholic history (warning:  this lasts for about ten small-font pages).  In the previous section I critique Barth for not giving any reason why one can take his position and say, “Thus saith the Lord” (which Barth admirably wants to do).   He does work out some of the weaknesses and reduces some of the subjectivity in Evangelicalism by anchoring the Bible in the Church.  However, he avoids leading us back into Anchoretic slavery by saying that the Church, like Holy Scripture, is a witness to God’s revelation.  Anchoretic communities make it an aspect of God’s revelation (and hence, above the ability of being critiqued).   This doesn’t alleviate all of the problems, but it is a better start.  

Can I be claimed by Israel’s scriptures?

If the Bible (which itself is an anachronistic term) is seen as a supratemporal deposit of divine truth, then the adherent of sola scriptura has to face the uncomfortable questions of the formation of the canon.  Granted, witnesses to the truth do not replace the truth (a key distinction that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics routinely fail to make), but still the problems do not go away.

With the narratival turn in hermeneutics, both Christian and secular, one is increasingly enabled to see the authority of Scripture (and necessarily the Church) in a different light.  Following Robert Jenson, rather than asking, “Am I allowed to claim the Bible as the supreme authority?”, a better question is, “What right do I have to place myself within Israel’s narrative?”

Whether the “Church” (whatever that word means) created the canon is a moot point.  It emphatically did not create the Old Testament canon.  It received it (and at times stood under judgment from it; cf Paul’s warning to the Roman church in Romans 11).  If God’s identity in Jesus of Nazareth is tied to Israel’s story, which it must be, then Israel’s story (which me must insist climaxed in Jesus of Nazareth) must judge the Christian and the Church.

Some implications and questions:

  1. How does the authority of the New Testament function today?  When Paul wrote 2 Timothy 3:16 he did not have the New Testament canon in mind.   Anchorites make a great deal of this point, presuming that it refutes Sola Scriptura.   However, Paul does say the Old Testament is indeed sufficient for faith and practice–making the anchorites’ challenge return back to them.   How then are we to view the New Testament?
  2. Apropos (1):  Eastern Orthodoxy’s view of tradition actually shows promise at this point.  Rather than committing to Romanism’s two-tier model of Tradition and Scripture, Orthodoxy places Scripture within the larger category of Tradition.  This move allows us to see Scripture functioning as a witness to the truth while remaining within the larger context of the church.  Unfortunately, this breaks down for them in practice. If the Fathers and Scripture are both norms of tradition, and we use tradition to interpret tradition (ignore the circularity for the moment; everyone does this), then we face a problem:  if authors of Scripture and the Fathers are within the same continuum of Tradition, then why may we not use Scripture to interpret the Fathers?.
  3. Apropos (2):  Orthodoxy’s initial move showed promise in solving the problem of (1):  if the New Testament is not a free-standing ultimate, which appears to be the case in a plain reading of 2 Timothy 3:16, as Orthodox and Romanist critics of Protestantism routinely assert, but yet remains authoritative (as any sane Christian must also assert), then we can perhaps see it as a norming witness to Israel’s story which simultaneously judges our story.  I should expand upon the use of the term “norming witness.”  The New Testament does not norm the Old Testament.  If it it did then it would be the ultimate norm (in which case 2 Timothy be self-contradictory).  It is a witness to the Old Testament while norming our practices (thus the New Testament is authoritative for the life of the church and stands above any Father or Council).
  4. We have problems if we stop here, though.  (3) can only work in a Christian theology and praxis if it is centered around the Person of Christ: God’s self-identity in the life of Israel.  Our story has a conclusion.  It’s conclusion entered into the midpoint of the story, if you will.  This frees Reformed Protestants from the tired claim of its opponents of worshiping a book, not a person.  If God’s identity in history is narratival, then there is no hard disjunct here.   The Old Testament points us to Christ and Christ’s identity was unfolded in Israel’s story.
  5. We cannot escape a Hebraic emphasis.  Any attempt to downplay the Hebrew scriptures, and I say Hebrew Scriptures, not the Old Testament in general, cannot escape the charge of Hellenophilism and supercessionism.

Good thing St Paul wasn’t in my seminary class

Someone pointed out a Peter Enns’ essay recently to me.  Enns is dealing with “apostolic hermeneutics,” and granted that phrase is somewhat question-begging (who doesn’t believe he is not reading the Bible the same way as the apostles?), he touches on an of which many Evangelicals are aware, but few really develop:  The New Testament uses the Old Testament in a bizarre way.

Many are aware of that problem, but few draw the next conclusion (as Enns correctly does):   the main tenet of Historical Grammatical hermeneutics is the text has one primary meaning, and it means for you what it meant to the original audience.

So far, so good.   What do we do when we come to a passage like Hosea 11:1?

  • Despite all the nuances and “forward-looking of the prophets,” Hosea says nothing about the Messiah.
  • Without knowing the story of Jesus, you would not see Jesus in this text (see Philip and the Ethiopian).
  • If one claims that there is a fully worked-out eschatology in the Old Testament, then why was (is) it so hard for many Christian and Jewish readers to see?  Further, does this not simply flatten redemptive history?
  • As Enns notes, “Strict grammatical historical exegesis forces one to conclude that Matthew is not using strict grammatical exegesis.”
Enns’ proposal:
  1. Paying attention to the language of 2nd Temple Judaism can avoid many of the above problems.
  2. We must avoid the Enlightenment reduction that “words” must always and only conform to this particular reality.