The God who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital

Wright, G. E.  The God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital

A very important work in 20th century biblical studies. Dissatisfied with the liberal gutting of the Faith, yet uncomfortable with actually affirming said Faith, Wright (not to be confused with NT Scholar NT Wright) and the Biblical Theology movement posited a God who makes himself known by his acts. We know God by what he does in the narrative.

On one level I agree. A narratival theology, indeed a narratival ontology, demands a God who acts. We know God by his saving work, not from our philosophizing about his essence (or if you are into hyperousia, the essence beyond the essence).

There is a problem with Wright’s proposal, though. As numerous neo-liberals have pointed out, Did God actually act in *this* space-time history? If Wright says no then how is he any different from old-school liberalism? If he says yes, how is he not a biblical conservative?

Even worse, by positing God’s acting in a different narrative than the real life narrative, we have a modalistic narrative behind the narrative, which is not so different from the hyper-ousia modalism of God behind God.  I’ve accused Eastern Orthodoxy’s essence/energy model as modalist.  It posits an Essence behind the Persons who are Behind the Energies which (no longer who?!) are behind the narrative.  One cannot miss the heavy irony:  EO vaunts itself on starting with the Persons of the Trinity (Or maybe the energies?) which gives it a dynamism that the West lacks.  In reality, though, by not identifying God with the God of Israel’s narrative–or rather, the identity of God is not connected to Israel’s narrative, but is rather an entity behind that narrative–the end result is the same.

Conclusion:

Actually an enjoyable book. I really benefited from it and it probably stands a few rereadings. Still, one must note the author’s presuppositions.

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The Bible Commands War Against Hellenism

For I have bent Judah as my bow;
    I have made Ephraim its arrow.
I will stir up your sons, O Zion,
    against your sons, O Greece,
    and wield you like a warrior’s sword.

Zechariah 9:13

Ironically, the Biblical Horizons guys could have scored huge points against Calvinist International if they would have quoted these verses.

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.

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?

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.

They burned incense to the Queen of Heaven: A story

(I used to write short stories a long time ago)

Year:  587 B.C.
Place:  Judah

Yakov was inspecting his vineyard one day when Halachi came by.  “Yakov ,” Halachi said, “Do you care to join me for worship this week?”
“I have regular worship meetings in my family and village. You know that,” replied Yakov .
“Yes, but you aren’t worshiping according to the traditions,” Countered Halachi.
“What traditions?”  Why?  We have Moses’ writings.”
Halachi was ready for this response.   “True, but Moses’ writings have to be interpreted properly.  How do you know you are reading them correctly?”  The truth was, Yakov didn’t know.   He admitted there were some hard passages in Torah.  “I’ll tell you what,”  Halachi offered, “Just come and see.  I’ll answer any questions you have”
“Okay,” Yakov agreed.

(Later that evening)

Yakov was met by clouds of strange incense and different orders of worship.  Then he paled noticeably.  “Halachi,” asked Yakov in a heated voice, “Why are your friends worshiping that cow?”  Yakov pointed to a bronze cow in the corner.
“Yakov ,”  replied Halachi condescendingly, “They aren’t worshiping that cow.  Don’t be silly.  They are worshiping God.”
“So God looks like a cow?”
“No.  They are worshiping God through that cow.”
“I don’t understand the difference,” said Yakov .
“Okay.  Basics.  Is creation good?” asked Halachi.
“Yes.”
“So God wants us to honor his good creation,” pressed Halachi.
“I suppose so,” conceded Yakov .
“Yakov , I know Torah as well as any.   Worshipping metal images is wrong.   But we aren’t doing that.  We are worshiping God through the image.”

One year later

“Yakov , what news from the front?” yelled Shaul, a leader in the Jerusalem militia.

“Nebuchadnezzar has not yet advanced.  I guess he is waiting for us to weaken a little more he throws everything at a final assault,” mused Yakov .   It wasn’t a bad plan, he admitted.  It was one he would have done.   Jerusalem couldn’t last much longer.   Yakov ‘s plan changed from a simple resistance and hoping Nebuchadnezzar got distracted, or Pharaoh got involved, or something.  Now, instead of winning Yakov could only think of getting out of here alive.    Both options seemed dim.

“How long do you give us?”  Yakov noticed that Shaul asked that question out of earshot of the others.

“Maybe a week.  No longer than a fortnight, certainly.”

“How did we get here, Yakov ?   Why did Jehovah-Baal forsake us?   Weren’t we faithful to the traditions of our fathers?”

Yakov had trouble focusing on Shaul’s question through the thick incense.   “Must we have all this incense going,” he asked?

“Come now, Yakov.   All sides agree that incense is proper in worship.”

“But this incense seems different.”

“Yes, it is the incense of extreme prayer and hope.  This incense is to the Queen of Heaven.  She will deliver this city.”

Yakov wasn’t sure anymore.  Halachi’s arguments seemed good at the time.   The crops were better than usual and it made sense of the chaos in Yakov’s life.  Something still felt off with the worship, though.  If God was spiritual and created heaven and earth, then it seemed odd that he would be so constricted to a metal cow.   What did a cow have to do with God anyway?

Yakov didn’t get to find the answer to that question, as the wall beneath him shook.

“I guess that week turned into today” shouted Shaul.   Yakov couldn’t shout back as the wall rumbled again.

BOOM

“The Garden-Gate has been breached!” Someone shouted. Yakov looked up to see Babylonian troops spilling in through the breach.   Shaul died in a hail of arrows.   The soldiers advanced upon Yakov.   Given the narrow alley, Yakov could fight them one at a time.  Their numbers would make the difference.   And then the first line fell to unseen arrows.

2340293-groundskeeper_willie

“Quick lad.  We have a few minutes.  Come this way.”

“Who are you?

“My name is Willie-Rechab.   I can get you out if we leave now.”

“But what about the city, my men–

“They are dead men, and you will be, too.”

“But why do you care about me?”

“I noticed you didna burn incense to the Queen of Heaven.   But don’t think it is cause ya deserve rescue.  You don’t, but ne’ertheless, here is an out if ya will tak it.

Metal cow-gods be damned, Yakov thought, here is life.

 
 
 

If Judith be canonical

…then inerrancy must be abandoned.  Consider the chronology:

We have a seventh century B.C. Assyria, under the rule of a sixth century Chaldean (Babylonian) king, invading a fifth century restored Judah, with an army led by a fourth century Persian general (Holofernes was the Persian general under Artaxerxes III in the successful campaign against Egypt in the fourth century B.C.). In truth, no major attacks were made on Jerusalem while under Persian rule in the fifth and fourth centuries (an unprecedented period of peace for war-weary Canaan).

Similar problems can be leveled at Tobith.   Anchorites have tried to exonerate these two books, but their attempts prove my point.  Jimmy Akin suggests either (1) the errors are traced to bad manuscripts, or (2) they are fairy tales.  The problem with (1) is that Akin gives us no examples of this being the case, nor does he list any scholars who take that position.  (I am not an expert on apocryphal manuscript traditions, but I doubt many are; I have, however, read a good bit on the Apocrypha and for a time argued for it, and I never came across that claim.  There are no doubt minor manuscript variances–that is true with any document.  What the Anchorite needs to show, though, is that there is a significant error or variation at this particular point.  No argument was given, though).   Affirming (2) effectively concedes the point.  You can’t hold to inerrancy and call key parts of the Bible, which are presented as history, fairy tales.