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.

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.

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.

1 Bible does not = a million popes

A common rebuttal to sola scriptura is that it makes each man a pope.   But let’s examine this reasoning. Are they saying that each person reading the bible comes to his own conclusion?  Well, so what?  People interpret material and come to conclusions.  That’s called having a brain.  The objection only holds water if we add one more premise: and is such a judicial authority in the church.

Now, this is a devastating rebuttal to Congregational governments because they are islands in the stream (sorry, bad Dolly Parton reference).  It doesn’t touch synodical governments.  Billy Bob in the Presbyterian church can read his Bible and come to wacky conclusions and it doesn’t mean anything judicially, for Billy Bob as an individual member does not have judicial authority in the synod (and hence isn’t offering his interpretation of the Bible as normative).

Let’s pretend that Billy Bob’s presbytery takes his interpretation and makes it official, would not the objection hold then?  Well, it might hold but consider what has happened:  the representative form of government has limited Billy Bob’s initial appeal.  Billy Bob–or thirty Billy Bobs–only has a normative voice in the context of his synod, and that synod is simultaneously being checked by higher and lower courts.

Ecclesiastical Republicanism is the most perfect form of government, but it is not completely flawless.  I was a part of Louisiana Presbytery when it imploded (and caused no small amount of grief).  But even its implosion illustrated the truth:  higher and lower courts were acting upon the Presbytery, albeit unsuccessfully.

Someone could further object, “Yeah, well if there are 30 Presbyteries, then there are  30 different teachings.”  To which I say, “Prove it.”  That usually ends the debate.  But let’s pretend there are a lot of different teachings.  So what? That’s the cost of doing business in a fallen world.

Preserving theological values

It was suggested that I was too subjective in theology and disagreed with everybody.  Obviously, such a claim is false.  I think I know why people say it, though.  I don’t walk lock-step with any one man.  God expects us to be big boys and big girls.   John said that we have an anointing from the Holy Spirit and don’t need to be overly dependent on teachers.  I had originally invited anchorites to point out my disagreements with the Confession. That invitation is still open.   In the following is a list of theological “values.”  Values are what are important to our identity as Christians standing in the Reformed catholic tradition.  They must be preserved.   That does not mean, however, that the philosophical presuppositions and currency of the 5th or 16th century are on the same level of Scripture.  Nor does this mean shying away from actual difficulties in a position.

Unfortunately, when anyone in a Reformed setting tries this, it often looks like he is attacking the Reformed faith.  I intend no such attack.  Whatever weaknesses I might perceive in the Reformed tradition, I don’t see any better alternatives. I write this as someone who is happily in the Reformed tradition, loves the best of the Reformed tradition, and will gladly defend that tradition from perceived defective views.  Now, on to the values…

  • Election:  My questions about election are different than most.  I fully affirm, contra all forms of semi-Pelagianism, that God doesn’t need our permission to be God.   I do believe God chooses who will be saved.  However, there are some problems the way it is usually set up.  If the identity of the Logos is fully-formed in eternal generation before the Pactum Salutis where the Father elects to save those into the Logos, then it’s hard to see how Nestorianism of some sort doesn’t follow.  Better yet, however, is to see Jesus of Nazareth as the subject and object of election, and election as the event that distinguished God’s modes of being (hyparchos tropos).  In any case, election must be affirmed as to allow the “offense of God’s actuality” (a phrase attributed to Robert W. Jenson).
  • Assurance: Assurance represents a problem.  How do I know that I am really assured?  The problem is not that I with my fallible human knowledge can know infallibly.  The real problem is that I exist in time yet God has promised that he will be God to me and that nothing can take me out of Jesus’s hands.   To attack assurance on these grounds is simply to preach a doctrine straight from hell.  That’s not to say that all tensions are gone, though.   But that’s the key issue:  tensions.  Instead of viewing assurance in a metaphysical construct where I find myself against a metaphysical doctrine of election to which I do not often hear a response, I suggest, following Michael Horton’s project, to see assurance in an eschatological context.  On a practical level, we can’t form our doctrine of assurance in such a way that ignores the most basic of Christian categories:  simple faith and trust.  Do you believe that Jesus did what he said he did?  Do you trust that he cut a covenant which we see in the bread and the wine?
  • Justification:  I fully agree with WSC 33.  Any deviation from that is fraught with huge problems.   This is where I part company with N.T. Wright.   Wright’s conclusions are bad.  His historical framework and questions are quite good, and quite frankly, won’t go away.  Further, and many critics of the Reformed faith don’t realize this, but Wright fully affirms the forensic, extra-nos aspect of justification against attempts to read it as theosis or transformation.
  • Sola Scriptura:  It’s fairly obvious that few know what this phrase really means, and that most certainly includes the Young, Restless, and Reformed crowd.  It does not mean “The Bible Alone.”  It does not mean the bible is our only authority.  It means that the Bible is the norm that norms our norms.  If you don’t know what that phrase means, you need to go read some more.  The Bible is the norm–let’s call it Holy Scripture, actually–that creates and legitimizes subordinate norms.  This not only means we may look to the Church and history, but that we must look.   It protects us from silly positions like “The Bible is way too subjective, but for some reason, dozens of canons from councils, dozens of statements from fathers in different cultural milieus, those are objective.”  As I tell people at Orthodox Bridge, I will gladly look to the church for advice and for theological grammar.  It simply doesn’t follow, however, that the church suddenly has ipso facto infallible authority in everything over my soul.

    On a more important note, and here is where my formulation is different, it is better to see Holy Scripture as the witness to God’s narrative:  God’s actions in (ultimately) raising the Israelite from the dead.  I prefer to see Holy Scripture in ultimately narratival terms as opposed to what I call “The Divine Database Model.”  The latter is too platonic and plays into the hands of traditionalists who can then start asking difficult questions about the canon.   My position, however, does an end-run around that by anchoring back into the Hebrew narrative, to which the New Testament documents witness, for the Hebrew canon was largely fixed prior to the existence of the Church (yes, I am aware of Stephen’s hinting of an OT church in Acts 7.  I don’t think it is warranted to read too much into that one phrase).

A narratival sola scriptura

Formally: The scriptures are a witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (Karl Barth).
Materially: The scriptures narrate the story of Israel’s God who raised The Israelite from the dead (Robert W. Jenson) and ushered in the kingdom (Pannenberg and NT Wright).

Implications: At this point I am simply arguing based on the Hebrew scriptures alone. We can debate whether this OT canon was formally closed or not, but neither the Sanhedrin of Jesus’s time, nor Jesus himself, seemed too bothered about a “horizon-less” canon.

Corollary: By anchoring my view in the Hebrew Scripture (and seeing the NT documents as supplementary witnesses to the revelation of the Kingdom in Jesus of Nazareth, again Jenson), I am doing an end-run around the claim that I am accepting the documents of the church but rejecting the church. I think that claim is silly, but I will pretend it holds water for the moment.

If one doesn’t anchor sola scriptura in some form of “narratival epistemology” or “narratival ontology,” then its hard to see how it can stand against more tradition-based claims.

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.