Is Lessing also among the gnostics?

Lessing’s famous dictum that the accidental truths of history cannot prove the universal truths of reason summarizes the epitome of critical scholarship.   Stated another way, “how can an accidental and contingent particular, say the Resurrection, establish a universal truth like Christianity?”

The Common-Sense believer will say that’s stupid, and it is.   But, there is a sense in which Lessing has some force.  If you prize the “universal timeless truths” over history, then you really can’t avoid his charge:  are you really saying the ultimate truth of Jesus depends upon historical verification in the Resurrection (Paul evidently thought so in 1 Cor 15).

I think there is a response to Lessing, and that is to cut it off at the knees.  Lessing’s statement is a refined, modern version of Platonic dualism:  an antithesis between the One (universal truth) against concrete particulars (history).  If you accept this Platonic dualism, it’s hard to avoid Lessing’s charge.

Ontology is chiastic

Much of my project consists in rejecting the view that there is an entity behind the entity that is the real entity.  When played out in terms of creation and soteriology, this means that deliverance is the overcoming of estrangement (Tillich/Horton) and the rescue from finitude. (I would quote some examples from Orthodox Bridge where they say precisely this, but people would then call shenannigans since it isn’t a scholarly venue.  Fair enough)   A narratival ontology by contrast is dynamic, forward-moving, and is redeemed by the spoken word whose echoes (literally, since sound is the vibration of air) redeem the cosmos.

Another interesting thought:  narrative and covenant are related.  We really can’t know the existence of a covenant pact except in the narrative from which it arises. Have we not also seen that covenant is a category that can also answer ontological questions?  Which model is more relevant to biblical life, participationist schemes or narratival schemes?  Ontologians (forgive the neologism) speak of ousias, overcoming the carapaces of embodiment (Milbank), entities behind the ousia, etc.   A covenantal narrative speaks of blood, cutting, hair, flesh, presence, and genital emissions.   Which model is relevant not only to the biblical narrative but also to real life?

Reformed theology is accused of being nominalist.  It’s hard to see how this is so.  On the other hand, it is not immediately clear why we should favor philosophical realism in its ancient or medieval forms.   The contrast between these two systems allows the Reformed to posit a more robust ontology:  verbalism.   Realism, whether Platonic or Thomist, sees the forms as extra/intra mental realities.   That’s well and good, but at the end of the day the forms are either still in my mind or in Plato’s world above the world. And that’s it.  The Covenantalist sees ultimate reality in the spoken Word.    Imaging Creator Yahweh, our words, whether good or bad, create new situations and new realities.  To be sure, we can’t create physical entities ex nihilo, but the situations are no less real because of that.   In terms of salvation, these spoken realities approach us extra nos.

(Recommended reading:)
Horton, Michael, Four Volume Series on Covenant
Leithart, Peter.  Brightest Heaven of Invention, pp. 223ff

In Practice

  • A participationist model will approach the Lord’s Feast asking how the elements change.  A covenantalist will ask is this not a manifestation of the joy of the kingdom and of Yahweh’s victory?  A covenantalist approach let’s Yahweh feed us and isn’t worried about the elements changing our ontological status.
  • A participationist model is vertical.  It is more interested in the Forms and in moving to a higher degree of finitude (which will ultimately be overcome).  A covenantalist is horizontal:  it is focused on the in-breaking of Yahweh’s kingdom in history.  I understand that the anchorites speak of Kingdom in their eucharistic services.  That may be so, but it is ultimately dwarfed by a focus on what the elements do.  Incidentally, this is the real value of what the word “rite” really meant.  When Yahweh spoke of signs, it usually meant “sit back and watch this.”  It meant Yahweh was acting mightily for his people’s deliverance.

Nota Bene:   is not the idea (oops) of Sign eschatological?  It points to the final reality but is not the final reality; yet, the final reality is in some small way present in the sign.  Never lose the tension between the sign and the thing signified, for that tension is in its essence eschatological.

Paul, The Law, and the Jewish People

by E.P. Sanders

I didn’t find his project to be as radical as many of his critics and followers think it is. More often that not, Sanders hedges his bets and only gives “tentative” proposals. Many of his conclusions will be familiar to those who have wrestled with the NPP:

1) Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness.
2) Paul was a coherent thinker, if not an organized and systematic one.
3) The tensions in Paul’s theology arise from sets of convictions: He does not view Christianity as a different religion than Judaism, yet notes that it is quite different in focusing around Jesus of Nazareth and a loosening of Torah.
3a) Paul gives numerous treatments of the Law which are not easily systematized.


Per 1) I disagree with him, but any answer to this question is tricky. I certainly agree that the Law God gave to his people was not intended to be works-righteousness (otherwise God is a tricksy fellow). That is an entirely different claim than saying 1st century rabbis saw it as such. I think Sanders is guilty of conflating two issues into one. I can agree with him that the average Jew didn’t go around in a crude medieval Catholic fashion worrying about how many Hail Marys he said that day. On the other hand, and even the NPP project hints toward this, many did associate at least one level of salvation with who they were as Jews. Contrary to both critics and advocates of NPP, it really isn’t that wide a gap between salvation based on my good works and salvation based on my ethnic identity.

Per 2) This might be tough to say, but we all think it: in one sentence what did Paul really teach about the Law? You simply cannot answer it in one sentence. In some places he says its good; others its bad. Romans 2 almost reads it in soteriological terms, yet that is the exact opposite of Paul’s larger theology. Surprisingly, Sanders doesn’t opt for either easy route: he doesn’t say “Paul’s view is consistent” nor does he say “Paul is simply incoherent.” Rather, he says that Paul is operating around certain parameters from which he does budge. When faced with different ethical situations, it seems like there are different conclusions.

Per 3) This conclusion would have been easier to say pre-70 AD. While the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch, its doubtful they gave themselves that name. They would have saw themselves as good Israelites reconstituted around Jesus of Nazareth, whom God raised from the dead. This creates a real tension that isn’t easily solved until the Temple’s (and hence, Judaism’s identity) is destroyed.

i) It goes without saying that Jewish converts to “The Way” would not have to give up their identity (Paul certainly acts like a good Jew from time to time).
ii) Yet, Gentile converts would not have to embrace Jewish identity markers.

SO far both points are unremarkable. The real problem come with the next one:

iii) Jew and Gentile have to worship together as “one body.”

Sanders doesn’t really point to a conclusion so much as to highlight the problem.

The Deposit of Faith, towards a definition

What is the apostolic deposit of faith?  This question is hard to answer in a non-circular manner.  The implied answer among all traditions is “Whatever we are already teaching now.”  Such a position is impossible to prove.  For all of the evils of liberal/critical biblical scholarship, they did shed important light on the manner.  If we focus on the apostolic kerygma, we see an emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection according to the Scriptures.   So what is the apostolic deposit?  To quote an older liturgy, “Christ has died.  Christ has Risen.  Christ will come again.”

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.

The Canon of Scripture (Bruce)

Bruce, F. F.  The Canon of Scripture. Downers Grove,IL:  InterVarsityPress, 1988.

The canon of Scripture is one of the most important questions of Christian theology.  It is directly related to the most important question of Christian theology:  the question of authority.  One’s position on the canon either justifies or undercuts one’s ultimate authority.   Bruce’s book on the canon is not remarkable:  he does not say anything that was not already said by Bruce Metzger of Lee McDonald.   That is not say the book is useless—on the contrary.  Bruce represents the finest of conservative, evangelical theology and his conclusions and methods are always sane and judicious.   This review will briefly highlight Bruce’s method (which is more of a historical survey) and reflect upon Bruce’s conclusions:  how strong they are, whether they actually follow, and what this entails for Evangelical theology.

Bruce gives a brief survey of the meaning of the word “Canon” and the different senses it was used in church history.  Canon did not mean list of books in the Scriptures but the rule of faith by which one determines other aspects of the faith (Bruce 1988:  18).  In other words, canon meant “tradition.”

Bruce has a section on the Old Testament development of the canon.   Here he follows the standard evangelical line that the Old Testament canon was definably formed by the end of 400 B.C.   He makes this claim on the basis that the church appealed to a set of Scriptures (29).  Like other Evangelicals, he appeals to Josephus’ claim that the unbroken succession of prophets ended around 400 B.C.   He ends the chapter with an interesting (and I think accurate) suggestion that the practice of the worshipping community recognized the canon (42).  In other words, liturgy shaped the canon.

While there was some controversy in delineating the New Testament canons, the areas of concern were always clearly noted, and the discussion is somewhat simpler by comparison.   The Gospels and the Pauline epistles did not have trouble getting into the canon.   The Apocalypse was problematic because heretical groups appealed to it.   Bruce gives a survey of Church Fathers on the Canon from Clement of Rome to Athanasius.

There is some repetition in Bruce’s narrative.  For example, in the development of the New Testament canon he discusses Athanasius and Tertullian.    Later on he has chapters on Athanasius and Tertuallian which say the same thing.

The most important questions about the canon are the ones at the end:  what are the criteria for canonicity and who gets to make that decision?   Bruce lists the criteria: apostolic authority, antiquity, orthodoxy, and catholicity (pp. 256-262).  He lists other sub-criteria as inspiration and widespread use, but I will focus on these four.[i]

Conclusion and Response

While it is true that the Church appealed to a set of Scriptures commonly known as the Old Testament, it nowhere identified the contents of those writings in a systematic form.  In other words, there was an Old Testament canon, but there is no proof that it had hard, fixed boundaries, appeals to Josephus notwithstanding.   Appeals to Deuteronomy’s warning not “to add to this book” do not help, since those who claim a fixed OT canon apply Deuteronomy’s warning to the whole OT canon (which deligitimizes most of the OT—and Moses was simply applying that to the Torah).   If one says the Jewish community did not define the OT canon because everyone already knew what was in it, this is a huge argument from silence and assumes what one is trying to prove.

Yes, there was an “Old Testament” and most of the books in this “Old Testament” were similar, but the “Jamnia” canon and the LXX differed in content per the Apocrypha—and it is the LXX that the early church followed.   (Another important point is that the Jamnia council to which many Evangelicals appeal, was radically anti-Christian in its orientation.)

Criteria for the Canon.

In conclusion I will look at Bruce’s criteria for the canon.  His criteria is helpful but raises more questions than solves:

  • Apostolic authority:   Was it written by an apostle?   This is problematic because Mark, Luke, Acts, and probably Hebrews were not written by apostles.   Bruce is aware of this and softens the argument that they were written under the aegis of an apostle (Mark-Peter; Luke-Paul).  Bruce notes that all four gospels are anonymous, so how do we know who wrote what (which is important for the “apostolic authority” argument)?  His unspoken answer:  because tradition says so.
  • Orthodoxy:  This next criterion was important because many false gospels under the names “Peter” and “Thomas” were circulating, so it became obvious that “apostolic authorship” was not enough (nor was it self-authenticating).   Did the gospel teach the apostolic faith?   The interesting question is that the apostolic faith is defined, not as Scripture alone, but the prior teaching of the church (150).  Reflect on that statement for a while:  we know something is Scripture because it agrees with church tradition.  Corollary:  church tradition determines the horizon of Scripture.    Bruce hints at this but is not explicit about it.
  • Antiquity:  this was to rule out literature that may have been edifying, but was not part of the original Christian writings, namely The Shepherd of Hermas.
  • Catholicity:  If the church is one, holy, and apostolic church, then it cannot have numerous canons for an indefinite period of time.


Bruce did a fine job in this book.  He offers a number of helpful meditations on various Scriptures and wades through a minefield of difficult issues.    Bruce is aware of many problems relating interpretation to canonicity, and hints at a few solutions, but ultimately pulls back.  Nevertheless, this book is rightly known as the standard on the canon.

One other corollary:  Greg Bahnsen made one argument popular:  we know it is the bible because God’s word is self-authenticating.  Never mind the Mormon, Muslim, and JW can make the same claim (it begs the obvious question:  self-authenticating to whom), the historical truth of the matter is that the earliest Christians, who much closer to the situation and more familiar with the issues, either did not think the text was self-authenticating, or were horribly deluded if they did

Another problem with the above claim:   if I say Tobit is self-authenticating, and the Reformed presuppositionalist says it isn’t, who gets to make the call?

[i] Lee MacDonald gives the same list as Bruce, although MacDonald is more aware of the problems in this list and offers a much fuller and more satisfying discussion.   The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1995).

Theology *is* like geopolitics

From N.T. Wright

“Like America looking for a new scapegoat after the collapse of the Cold War and seizing on the Islamic world as the obvious target, many conservative writers, having discovered themselves in possession of the Pauline field after the liberals tired of it, have looked around for new enemies. Here is something called the New Perspective; it seems to be denying some of the things we have normally taught; very well, let us demonize it, lump its propopents together, and nuke them from a great height.” (p. 247)

Justification in Perspective, ed. Bruce McCormack