How does this seriously work as exegesis?

When I was studying the Eastern church fathers and praxis, I would come across statements that would make me cringe.  I wanted to read theology and the Bible in light of “tradition” and the church, but even at times when I would try to give the most positive spin on a patristic gloss, I would go away thinking, “I just don’t know if that really cuts it.”  Here is an example:

“When Moses pitches his tent outside the camp – that is, when he establishes his will and mind outside the world of visible things – he begins to worship God. Then, entering into the darkness – that is, into the formless and immaterial realm of spiritual knowledge – he there celebrates the most sacred rites.” – St. Maximos the Confessor

If we are to read the Bible in light of the patrum consensus, can we really affirm the above exegetical gloss seriously?  Here are a number of questions that come to mind:

  1. On what grounds do we say that Moses’ pitching his tent = contemplating the world beyond and not something else?  Literally, the sky is the limit among options!
  2. I asked a Roman Catholic a similar question about allegorical exegesis, and he replied, “You have to read it in light of the church.”  I responded, “Well, doesn’t that give Scripture about as much authority as the British monarchy?”

This is why I hold to Common Sense Realism.

Keys to a recapitulatory Christology

Ephesians 1:10 says Christ sums up all things in himself, both in heaven and on earth.  Christology, then, recapitulates–or sees the recapitulation–of all things (including Scriptural exegesis) in Christ.

I think this is a lot more helpful than making verses say that Christ earned some legal status and transfered that legal status onto us.  One could argue that I am forcing the biblical text onto a recapitulatory grid.  That’s true, I suppose, but everyone does that and indeed, given what van Til taught us, it’s hard to avoid doing that.

The following verses seek to show that Christ “recapitulated” Israel’s story, Israel’s promises, and Israel’s inheritance.   We receive this, not by having some fictional legal status transfered to us, but in sharing in the body of Christ.  Christ gained these promises and in sharing in his body, which is Christ, we participate in these promises.

There are  hundreds of verses to that point, and I suppose dozens of counter-arguments, and I do not have time to examine either in full detail.   However, I will quote and refer to a Protestant author who has effectively reshaped the debate. Richard Hays has decisively and convincingly argued that Galatians 2:16 should be read as “the faith(fulness) of Jesus Christ” rather than “faith in Jesus Christ.”   While the actual Greek grammar is the subjective genitive (Hays’ reading), I won’t go into the technical details here, but will rather focus on the implications of Hays’ argument.

If Hays is correct, then saying the “faithfulness” of Jesus Christ makes Christ the active agent in salvation.   It means Jesus is doing something.  At this point the Calvinist will say, “Yes, Christ is doing something.  He is obeying the law and transfering that to our account.”   Technically possible, I suppose, but let’s place Christ within the narrative of Israel.   If Hays is correct, then this reading corresponds nicely to Romans 5–the Second Adam.   Jesus is not only acting as another Adam, but he is also acting as another Israel.  He is the faithful Israelite.  He is, in other words, recapitulating Israel’s story (when I do a book review of Hays’ work I will bring out other points).   To follow up on the previous line, Hays placing Jesus in the climax of Israel’s story.

Hays notes in his book that a weakness of traditional Protestant readings of justification and Galatians fail to show how justification and Christology have any real connection.  This is another way of paraphrasing Sanders’ complaint that justification is a side-issue to the real Pauline core:  participation in Christ.   Sanders is wrong, but he is onto something.  Justification is not a side-issue, but it doesn’t fit into the schematic the way Protestants typically make it fit.  When I finish Hays’ work I will bring out this argument.

One final point, if Hays is correct, then this argument makes better sense of baptism.  If Jesus is the True Israelite (indeed, the True Israel itself; cf. Matthew 2:15), and in Christ’ baptism he continued the story of Israel in a new way (or better yet, he recapitulated Israel’s story), then we, too, find ourselves in this saving, healing story if we also participate in Christ.   How do we identify with Christ?  We do so in baptism.   This doesn’t confer “magic salvation” points to us ala some crass construals of “baptismal regeneration.”  Baptism does save, not because of the magic powers of __________, but because it brings us into the locus of salvation:  Christ and his body the Church.

It was always hard to see how the sacraments were important given a hard reading of sola gratia.  If grace alone truly saved (indeed, especially if we were elect from all time), then we really didn’t have to get baptized.  I know, I know, God works through secondary causes.     But that’s just ad hoc theology.  If pressed to the edge, one has to admit that nothing, not even baptism, contributes to our salvation.   Yes, there are appeals to obedience and what not, but remember what sola gratia claims.   Baptism ends up being a fifth wheel.

On the other hand, if Hays’ reading is correct, then baptism, while “salvific,” does not become a “work” that gets me into heaven (the meritorious scheme has since been abandoned.  Merit has no place in narratival ontologies).

Introductory explorations on the new perspective on paul

The New Perspective on Paul, falsely so-called, is not a recent phenomenon.   I doubt I have any “new” light to shed on the topic.   On the other hand, I think I can pinpoint the key issues in the New Perspective and why the Reformed tradition reacted so wildly against it.

Obviously, there are many areas of contention between the NPP and Reformed camp, but I will only pick one area.  It concerns the phrase “works of the law.”  Does “works of the law” equal “man’s attempt to gain righteousness before God on his individual works” or does it mean “the ethnic boundary markers of Judaism”?

I maintain, with the NPP, that “works of the law” means “ethnic boundary markers.”   This reading actually makes sense of the whole fuss on circumcision in Galatians.   On the other hand, if Paul truly wanted to combat works-righteousness, then he wasted a lot of (precious) ink talking about Jewish rites.   Rather, if we say “boundary markers,” then the narrative (deliberate use of the word) of Galatians (and Romans) flows more smoothly.

The problem is not “how can I find a gracious God?” but “Given the mess Israel and the world are in, and the strange events of Jesus the Messiah, how can God be in the right?”

Test Cases

In Galatians 2:18 Paul says “if I rebuilt what I tore down I make myself out to be a sinner.”   The language of “rebuilding” and “tearing down” implies some kind of fence or wall.  What do fences and walls do?  They demarcate boundaries.   They say, “this and not that.”  What is Paul fussing about in Galatians?  He is dealing with the problem of circumcision and Jews and Gentiles eating at different tables.  In other words, he is angry because men are acting like they have different identities even though there is one Messiah.  Nobody is trying to “earn” his or her salvation by “merit” ala Pelagius.

Therefore, when Paul is rejecting works of the law, he is doing so in the context of circumcision.  But what was circumcision for in the Old Covenant?  It demarcated the identity of the covenant people of God.   If we keep this reading in mind, Paul’s exegesis of Genesis 12, 17, and 18 in Galatians 3 actually stays relevant to the point (on the other hand, insert “works righteousness” and it’s hard to see how the nations being blessed before Abraham was circumcised makes any sense).

Therefore, “works of the law” = “circumcision” = “Jewish identity rites.”

But why does the Reformed faith get so angry over the above exegesis?  While I reject sola fide the way Calvinists define it, nothing I’ve written above contradicts even their reading of justification.  Nothing above advocates earning “medieval merit” (in fact, I think the above reading refutes that).   Sure, they have to change the mindset of their systematic theologians, and perhaps need to start asking different questions, but since they chant “sola scriptura” even that should not be a problem).

So what is the problem?  The problem is if they accept this reading they can’t immediately start bashing Roman Catholicism.  (Yes, I reject Catholicism, too, but not for those readings.)  This is a big deal because Calvinism, being formed in the Augustinian dialectic, necessarily demands Catholicism as an antithesis.  (Keep in mind that Hegelianism isn’t simply thesis versus antithesis = synthesis.  Rather, the thesis posits it’s antithesis while simultaneously remaining the thesis.  I’m accepting Charles Taylor’s reading of Hegel on this point).   Therefore, if Galatians wasn’t written as the blast against Roman Catholicism, then Calvinists are in trouble.

I think it is more than that, though.  All traditions and communities have metanarratives.   Calvinism’s metanarrative, in its more honest moments, is that Roman Catholicism teaches merit-righteousness and Galatians and Romans refutes precisely that.

I think it is even more personal than that.  We can’t admit our heroes were on the wrong track.  The hagiography surrounding Luther and Calvin would put any Orthodox monk-author to shame.  Some go so far to identify their experiences with Luther even to falsifying their own childhood experiences (God pulled me off of a Harley at age 9, etc).  If Luther’s reading of Galatians is wrong, so the argument goes, then Luther is wrong.

While I do think Luther was wrong, the above argument is logically fallacious, and even when I was a Calvinist I told them as much.   They didn’t listen, though.   Narratives are powerful stuff.

I wish NT Wright would drop the Calvinist line

I don’t know what NT Wright seems to gain by insisting he is a Calvinist.   I know a lot of Federal Vision guys also take this stand.  True, NT Wright denies our works earn righteousness, and he wants to maintain a primary commitment to Scripture (I have problems with the directions he takes it, but I can go with that for now), but that doesn’t equal Calvinism.   Calvinism is dialectically construed and won’t survive the cumulative hammer blows from post-postmodern epistemology, current theological moves, and new players in the conversation (see David Bentley Hart).   Wright’s strengths will always be limited by staying with a label whose adherents despise him.   He can be far stronger elsewhere.

Anyway, he’s denied a few key tenets of Reformed theology:

  1. He rejects individual election (and more specifically, he rejects that Romans 9 speaks at all about individual election).
  2. While his view of justification isn’t Roman, it “un-narrates” the Reformed view.  I hope to outline that argument later.
  3. His reading of Scripture and narratival approach deconstruct the “WCF-or-death!” approach.  After you read his exegesis (which is like hearing a dozen anthems at once), and then you read the Confession’s use of Scripture and method of argument, you feel let down.

There still has yet to be serious reflection on whether the ecclesial view of justification negates the traditional Reformed view.  I want to say it does, but I have yet to see the hard evidence.

Review of Peter Leithart’s Behind the Veil

Review of Behind the Veil

This is Peter Leithart’s long-awaited commentary on the epistles of John.  It follows the examples of the earlier commentaries (of admittedly unequal value) in the Through New Eyes series.  The series’ strength is seeing the rich and complex intertextual connections throughout Scripture (in other words, Leithart and Co., come to the obvious conclusion that each paragraph in the English translations of Scripture is not reducible to “3 points and a poem”).  The series’ weakness is its (often) flippant dismissal of those exegetes (almost always holy men and sometimes martyrs) who came before them.   (Jordan is particularly notorious on this point).

Leithart identifies the enemies against whom John is writing as a variant of Judaism.  He then gives a thorough discussion of the various nuances of post-apostolic Judaism(s) and Gnosticism(s).  He explains that scholars are divided on whether the enemies are Gnostics or Judaizers.   The problem is that the enemies display characteristics of both groups, but are not reducible to either.    John is writing before Gnosticism really became a problem, and the Judaizers seem to display anti-Jewish presuppositions.

Leithart is baffled by the Judaizers’ anti-material worldview.   Is this not fundamentally at odds with the rich, creation-oriented worldview of the Old Testament?   Leithart cannot really answer this question except to say the Jews were influenced by some Eastern proto-gnostic cults.   That’s a half-truth, though.   Leithart does not factor in the influence of the Talmud at all.   This remains a fatal weakness in the Federal Vision movement.  They note certain qualities of the Old Testament and read that into the worldview of “all Jews and all times.”  When this happens, as we see here, they cannot account for the anti-Christian character of the Jews in John’s time.

Nevertheless, Leithart is on to something.  His discussion points the reader to the interplay of Gnosticism and Judaism.   Leithart’s weakness, though, is that he keeps wanting to see Judaism as something good and Old Testament-ish.   After the Jews killed Christ, though, and in the book of acts began defining themselves as violently anti-Christian, it became a different creature.

The Strengths of the Book

At the beginning of each literary section in 1 John, Leithart gives a chiastic outline.  These outlines are usually straightforward.  They help the reader see literary patterns in John, and these literary patterns often suggest how the reader should interpret the book.

Leithart defines the “darkness” not so much as “evil,” but as the passing away of the Old Covenant order.   Darkness is the time before light, and those Christians who cling to the darkness—to the Old Covenant order that is passing away—are exposed (23).  Obviously, this has overtones with both Genesis and the Gospel of John.   Darkness isn’t bad, for it is part of God’s creation; however, it is bad to cling to the darkness after the light has come.   Thus, the enemies of the Churchin the Johannine epistles are Jews.  (Leithart weakens this someone by calling them Judaizers—that’s certainly true but that’s not the whole problem).

Continuing with his darkness/light theme, Leithart offers a somewhat new yet common-sense reading of “judgment:”  judgment is when the light exposes the darkness.  It is not necessarily bad; it is the shining of light on darkness.[i]

Leithart’s discussion on “propitiation” is worth the price of the book. He explains to the reader that liberals and evangelicals fought over the way to translate the verb “hilasmos” in the New Testament.  To make a long story short, neither propitiation nor expiation makes much sense in John.   Leithart takes us back to how the word is used in the LXX and the way the Hebrew equivalent was used:   instead of placating the wrath of an angry God, Jesus acts as the “cover” over creation (58ff).   Originally, it covers the ark, which was a microcosm of the cosmos.  Jesus is the “ark-cover” for the whole world and it is through Jesus that God views the world.

Conclusions and Criticism


Elsewhere, commenting on John 2:19ff, Leithart brings up the specific problem of apostasy.  This was one of Leithart’s key observations in The Baptized Body.  What Leithart didn’t resolve in The Baptized Body was how his discussion of apostasy doesn’t refute the P in TULIP.   Leithart brings the issue up in this book but dodges all the real questions.  He notes that “perseverance” doesn’t mean “let Go and let God,” (which is true), but that we truly endure to the end.   Fair enough, but that’s not the question.  The question is whether God causally and fully effects that perseverance.  If not, then apostasy is real.  If he does, then apostasy is not real.

My last criticism is the style of the book.  Leithart is a superb writer and I have sung his praises for seven years now.   This book, though, is written in a folksy, direct-to-you style.  That’s not bad, but one gets the impression he is trying to write to Sunday School teachers who haven’t much familiarity with theology.  That is perfectly legitimate, but then he footnotes Greek and Hebrew lexicons!   To be fair, that’s not a criticism of the content of the book but merely an observation.


The chapters dealing with 2nd and 3rd John were surprisingly good.  3rd John gives a brief meditation on biblical theology and the coming Apocalypse.

[i] Leithart gives a very good meditation on the interplay between God’s life and light.