Reading Scripture with the Fathers (Hall, review).

Before people jump to the conclusion, “He’s just a Protestant so what does he know?” please let me finish the review then you can start throwing objections and seeing what sticks.

 

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The book turned out much better than I expected it to be. The author avoided anachronisms and the scope of the text, while very limited, skillfully outlined the Church Fathers’ (more on that elusive term later) handling of Scripture.

Christopher Hall argues that Evangelicals should make the Church Fathers routine conversation partners in our interpretation of Scripture. Not to make them the last word, since much of their exegesis is rather forced, but because a regular *re*reading of the Church Fathers provides an important epistemological service: it forces us to examine our own presuppositions and culture as we come to the text.

What is a Church Father? Admittedly, any definition of this term is somewhat arbitrary. Hall summarizes the definition along the lines of someone who has received traditional teaching (Hall 50; cf Irenaeus) and faithfully preserved conciliar conclusions. A Church father must have antiquity, holiness of life (although this can be stretched when it comes to things like temper and gentleness) and orthodox doctrine. Granted, a number of questions are begged at this point, but we must move on.

Hall then survey eight fathers: four Eastern (Athanasius, Nazianzus, Basil, and Chrysostom) and four Western (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great) and points the reader to certain works. Much of this section is a summary of what you would find in textbooks on the Nicene and post-Nicene period. I won’t go into it here.

He then contrasts the allegorizing of Alexandria with the more literal approach of Antioch.  And while I know that men like Chrysostom rejected the allegorizing approach, I didn’t know how widespread such a rejection was.  Hall gives the standard reasons why all allegories (possibly excluding Paul’s unique usage) are doomed to failure:  allegories by definition are impossible to falsify.

What can we take from the Church Fathers? Unlike modern academic tendencies, they did not divorce the reading of Scripture and the doing of theology from liturgy (happily, with the coming demise of the German-based post-graduate system in America, we might be approaching a period when this is possible).

Even more, the Fathers had mnemonic powers that Americans can only dream of. This allowed them to be remarkably sensitive to motifs in Scripture that a concordance might miss. While Hall doesn’t cover this, to be a bishop in the ancient church one must have memorized the entire Psalter. (And later, to be a Cossack warrior in Russia one must also have memorized the Psalter. When you get captured by Muslimists chanting the Psalter would help you endure torture).

And to be honest, if you want to memorize large chunks of Scripture, you probably need to chant it. Not recite it nor re-read it, but chant it. That’s likely why John Chrysostom had the entire Bible memorized.

As a whole the book is outstanding. Some repetition and for those who have read widely on the Nicene debates, parts of the book can be skipped. On the other hand, this is probably the best introduction to the Church Fathers.

Should the church fathers determine our conclusions about what Scripture means?  No, for a number of reasons:
  1. More often than not they are not asking the same questions–and this is a historical inevitability that cannot be helped.
  2. With the exception of Chrysostom and a few others, most did not go systematically through the Bible.  This means if you want an exposition of your favorite verse, odds are it won’t be there or it won’t be developed in any real length.
  3. I also believe that the church fathers would have rejected this quasi-infallibility that we place on them.  Yes, they themselves tended towards it in their hagiography (interesting side note:  Gregory Nazianzus called Athanasius the Pope of the entire world.   Boy, that has ecumenical ramifications! LOL).

So again, what point the church fathers?

  1. They can teach humility in reading past theology.  Of course, Orthodox interlocutors will call foul at that point since I don’t seem like the most humble person.  Fair enough, but I am only sharp when people advance theologies that attack my hope in Christ’s saving me.  If anyone denies that Yeshua gave me his Holy Spirit as a down payment and that my sacraments are graceless, well then…
  2. What I mean by the above is that we should be careful of throwing heresy charges because people don’t believe what we believe at a later date.  Be careful of calling heresy what would condemn earlier fathers of heresy.

 

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Vanhoozer’s First Theology

Kevin Vanhoozer (KV) bases this prolegomena off of speech-act theory.   He is working from several methodological presuppositions, all of which I think are sound:  our understanding of God and our understanding of Scripture presuppose one another (or are correlates). This is helpful because it alleviates the problem of whether we need to start with God or Scripture.

His book has three parts:  God, Scripture, and (Cultural) Hermeneutics.

God

KV raises the problem of whether the Trinity belongs in a philosophy of religions.  He advances the standard claims against pluralism: whenever a pluralist defines a “core” of all religious beliefs, that core is inevitably exclusivistic–it excludes other categories (57).

Drawing from themes by Robert W. Jenson, KV places God’s identity in his self-identifying acts as the God of Israel.   Before that he notes the problem of the term “identity.”  Does it mean ontological sameness or self-constancy in the case of God?  According to Paul Ricoeur, the God of the Philosophers is the God of idem-identity (bare essence; ground of being, the ineffable One swallowing the Many).  This makes differentiation of any sorts (persons, relations) a movement towards non-being. By contrast, the God of Israel is the God of ipse-identity (constancy, covenantal fidelity).  God identifies himself as Israel’s God and ties his name to a promise.  This is not the god of the philosophers.  Very fine section.

Effectual Call as Case Study

KV perceptively notes that the doctrine of effectual call is simply an example of the problem of the God-world nexus. Does God operate on the world in a causal manner merely, or is the relation one of calling, speech?  As Descartes noted, the God-world nexus is seen in the following problem:  how does the mental (God, mind, spiritual, etc) have any effect on the physical?

KV proposes we see this relationship in communicative categories.  If there is a God-world nexus, the “calling” is the “communicative joint” (118).  The Word that summons has both content and illocutionary force (energy).

Speech Act Terminology

Before continuing it will be helpful to explain key speech-act terms.  A perlocution is what one brings about by one’s speech act (120).  Locution is the speaking (154).  Illocution is the content and intent of the Locution.

Scripture as Speech-Act

KV proposes that speech-act theory allows us to transcend the debate between revelation as content and revelation as act, since Speech-Act includes both (130).

He has some good responses to high-church readings of Scripture and tradition:  “I see no reason that cognitive malfunction could not be corporate as well as individual” (223).   He notes the Anabaptist claim to “read in community” is not that materially different from the Romanist/EO claim that the Church reads the Bible.

This claim to “self-referentiality is artificial; it disconnects the text from the extratextual world and from the process of reading…[quoting Francis Watson] To regard the church as a self-sufficient sphere closed of from the world is ecclesiological docetism” (Vanhoozer 216).

Indeed, such a position reduces to “interpretive might makes right.  One may very well question the grounds of such optimism: the believing community in Scripture is too often portraryed as unbelieving or confused, and subsequent church history has not been reassurring either” (219)

And Vanhoozer asks the most painful and unanswerable of questions:  how can we guard against the possible misuse of Scripture?  If we have to read the Bible with the church, we have to posit the corollary:  the church’s interpretation is what counts.  But what are the criteria so we know the church interpreted it correctly?  The Holy Spirit will guide it.  Well, what about Heira?  That doesn’t count.

It’s kind of like the definition of pornography:  I’ll know it when I see it.

Conclusion

The book is mostly magnificent.  The final sections on Cultural Hermeneutics have promise, but only if you are already interested in that topic.

The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative

Frei investigates the breakdown between story and reality, realistic and figural interpretation.  His Yale post-liberal presuppositions aid his analysing German liberalism.  They do not help him construct a coherent alternative.

A realistic interpretation is a strict correspondence between word and reality.  There can only be one meaning:  that of the author.  This is problematic when one approaches biblical prophecy: were the prophets’ intended meanings the same as that of the New Testament readers?  At this point the realistic paradigm breaks down.

A figural reading is close to Reformed typology:  the narrated sequence contains its own meaning (Frei 28).  While Frei doesn’t draw the explicit conclusion, if typology is true, then one must have a narratival epistemology.  One will note this is standard Protestant–especially Reformed covenantal–hermeneutics.  So what happened in history, especially in Germany?  The blossoming liberal schools quite correctly saw that if typology is true, then the bible has a coherent unity.  If the bible has a coherent unity, then it forces a narratival epistemology.  If that is true, then dualisms of a Platonic or Kantian sort are ruled out.

“What if Plato were a German Liberal?”

The development of hermeneutics didn’t take place in a vacuum.  Scholars were interacting with contemporary philosophical shfits.  The liberal schools would not accept a realistic hermeneutics because it was obvious (for them) that miracles and resurrection were not part of “reality.”  They could not accept a typological reading because typology is at war with internalized, spiritual pious gush.

Schleiermacher’s comments are appropriate at this point.  His denial of the Resurrection and the miraculous is well-known, but perhaps not his reasons why.  They are several:  if the truth of the story is in the event, then it stands or falls apart from my internalized spiritualization of the text.  Further, if the goal of Jesus (on the liberal gloss) is his coming-to-realization of God-conciousness, then the Resurrection makes such reading pointless.  Indeed, the cross is an anti-climax.

Lessons to be learned:  A Conclusion of sorts

It’s not clear if Frei himself avoids all of the criticisms of liberal theology.   His distinction between factuality and factuality-like probably won’t hold up under scrutiny (which is why few liberals adopted it).  His understanding of narrative theology is brilliant, but narrative theology only works if the narrative is…well..real. Did it actually happen?

If we do not have eschatology as the corresponding pole to history, as none of the liberals did, then it is hard to avoid Strauss’s criticisms.   If the goal of hermeneutics is eternal, timeless truths (ironically shared by both modern Evangelicals and Schleiermacher), then Lessing’s ditch is insurmountable.  If truth is Platonic and necessary and eternal, necessary because it is eternal, then why bother with historical contingencies like narratives?  If this is the case, Lessing is absolutely correct.

 

Against hyper-church hermeneutics

I am feasting on Kevin Vanhoozer’s First Theology.  He is the unsung hero of Reformed Evangelicalism.   He critiques those who say the church’s interpretation is what makes it right (his specific target is the Yale school of theology, but it as easily applies to Anchoretic models):

This claim to “self-referentiality is artificial; it disconnects the text from the extratextual world and from the process of reading…[quoting Francis Watson] To regard the church as a self-sufficient sphere closed of from the world is ecclesiological docetism” (Vanhoozer 216).

Indeed, such a position reduces to “interpretive might makes right.  One may very well question the grounds of such optimism: the believing community in Scripture is too often portraryed as unbelieving or confused, and subsequent church history has not been reassurring either” (219)

And Vanhoozer asks the most painful and unanswerable of questions:  how can we guard against the possible misuse of Scripture?  If we have to read the Bible with the church, we have to posit the corollary:  the church’s interpretation is what counts.  But what are the criteria so we know the church interpreted it correctly?  The Holy Spirit will guide it.  Well, what about Heira?  That doesn’t count.

It’s kind of like the definition of pornography:  I’ll know it when I see it.

Passing a Peace Pipe on the Canon

I am willing to consider 1 Maccabees canonical if those High traditions concede the very point of 1 Maccabees:  the complete destruction of Hellenization, which would mean, among other things, the removal of the LXX, and the eliminating of overly-allegorical hermeneutics (Paul used it for illustration, not doctrine, and certainly not the negation of the “earthiness” of the Old Testament, which is precisely how it was employed; and this also applies to some Reformed folks today.  Typology only works if your audience already agrees with you on type and anti-type).

I really can’t consider 2 Macc. as canonical.  It’s okay as far as literature goes, but there are some problems (like sacrificing for dead idolaters).  3rd Macc is one of the worst books in human history.

Retractare: Israel, the promise and problem

If you ask an amillennialist (or some historic premils) how he reconciles two truths from biblical eschatology that are in tension between the already/not yet.   That’s okay though the problem is getting them to affirm anything specific about eschatology.  I see the same thing with respect to Israel.  In many ways the New Testament shows Israel as an enemy to the people of God.  Paul even says as much (Romans 9-11).    Further, we need to be careful in advocating a parallel covenants in the New Testament.   So this is one anchor in our hermeneutics.

Another anchor is that Paul also says they are ” concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28).  He also says in Romans 9:3-4 that to them belong (present tense) the oracles and the covenants.

If an amillennialist can chant “already/not yet” every time a tension arises, then why can one not posit a tension when dealing with actual biblical truths?  When I dialogued with the Russian nationalists and True Orthodox for several years, there was a lot of angry Jew-bashing.   Jews were accused of promoting all kinds of international banking corporatism and immorality.  And in a large sense that is true.   And we can apply the “they are enemies” anchor in this sense.  But the True Orthodox stop there.  They should have read the rest of Romans 11.  God has a future for them.

This is a forward-looking eschatology.   Whatever else one may think about the millennium or the Davidic Throne, positing a future plan for Israel (on the Messiah’s terms) gears both ethics and eschatology.  It keeps theology from circling the wagons and getting static.  It lets one draw a firm line in the sand with respect to the Jews (e.g., the Messiah commands repentance and faith and we must reject your immorality [Hollywood]), but understanding that the biblical time-line is moving forward.

And without getting too conspiratorial, this makes happenings in the Middle East very relevant.

And for my fellow Reformed, everything I have said would have been endorsed by John Murray, Horatio Bonar, and Robert Murray M’Cheyne.

PaRDeS and the Patrum Consensus

I was reflecting on the debate between Messianic “John” and the guys at Orthodox Bridge.  Of course, John won the debate catastrophically.   He raised an interesting point that I want to pursue.   The Patrum Consensus, so key to Orthodox theology and tradition, states that the true faith is that which is believed everywhere, at all times, and by all.  John explored a number of obvious difficulties with that claim.  One new problem he raised was in asking if the Jerusalem church circa 120 A.D. would have used the not yet existing Alexandrian hermeneutics of allegory or the Hebrew PaRDeS system of interpretation.   The implication is obvious: how could the Jewish church use the method of interpretation that a) was not yet invented and b) in contradiction to how Jewish texts (or texts in general) were read until then?

We commonly hear: the right knowledge of Scripture is based on the right interpretation.  That of course is true.    What is the right interpretation?  It is that passed down by the Fathers.    This becomes more problematic.  The Fathers before the 4th century (or may mid 3rd century) did not use the more extreme allegorical, Alexandrian model.  This is especially true within the Jerusalem orbit.  How could one seriously read Hebrew prophetic texts which anticipated a kingdom of Yahweh on earth, which interpretation could only be yielded by a plain reading of Scripture, by allegorizing and spiritualizing the passages?  Never mind the logical problems involved in such hermeneutics.

Already we see two of the legs of the Patrum Consensus undermined:   this is not the way Scripture was read in the Jerusalem church (contra “everywhere”) in the first century (contra “at all times”).   This raises yet another problem:  if it is acknowledged that the Jerusalem Church, which is/was considered Orthodox, had a strikingly, indeed logically differing method of interpreting Scripture, then how can one affirm the yields of such a method by continuing to use a model in logical contradiction to it?

But I don’t agree with everything in the PaRDeS model.    I am not convinced that it fully avoids the allegorical silliness that was inherent in the later Byzantine model.  Further, I am not convinced it would have yielded the kingdom expectations of 1C Judaism.  But someone will reply, “Paul used allegory!”   True, but how did he use allegory?  This raises a problem in typology that is difficult to deal with today because various schools of typology have been institutionalized.   Typology, or “allegory” in the sense of how Paul is using it, is always in service to a larger theological method.  Therefore, to use typology to prove a theology is question-begging.   To use typology to illustrate a theological point is fine.