Archive for the 'scripture' Category

Providence

I’ve just finished reading Book I of Calvin’s Institutes, his book on knowledge of God the Creator. In some of the concluding sections he discusses predestination. Although perhaps I’m passing over far too much in saying this, what was most interesting to me is a word he does not use anywhere in his discussion: sovereignty. (This word, in fact, is rarely used in the Institutes and seems more often used in polemics against Rome than in descriptions of God). Calvin’s first treatment of predestination occurs in the context of a larger section on the providence of God and it is this concept, rather than that of sovereignty, that dominates his analysis.

Therefore, since God assumes to himself the right (unknown to us) to rule the universe, let our law of soberness and moderation be to assent to his supreme authority, that his will may be for us the sole rule of righteousness, and the truly just cause of all things. Not, indeed, that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power — but Providence, that determinative principle of all things, from which flows nothing but right, although the reasons have been hidden from us.   (I.XVII.2)

‘Supreme authority’ is somehow sovereignty, but it is interesting how Calvin steers away from bald accounts of power and toward something else.

And truly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence — not the empty, idle sort that the Sophists imagine, but a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity. (I.XVI.3)

Towards identifying the ‘Sophists’ my footnotes provide this:

What the Sorbonne doctors say, that God has an absolute power, is a diabolical blasphemy which has been invented in hell. (Sermons on Job, Job 23:1-7)*

I can’t pretend to have a full understanding of what Providence is for Calvin, but it is clear that it is tied to a constant and sustaining engagement of God in the world, that it is directed to the eventual good of the world, that its understanding is tied to a life of piety and should encourage and direct the pious. It is the working of God towards His good plan and the Scriptural incidents through which Calvin discusses it are all placed within a larger understanding of the work of God as just and righteous.

By contrast, compare the approach of a modern apologist for predestination, R.C. Sproul. In his popular defense of predestination, Chosen By God, he moves straight past a consideration of Providence to sovereignty (cf. p. 23), which becomes the predominant consideration in his approach. This is the sovereignty which seems to hang on the question of whether there is anywhere in the universe a “maverick molecule” running around free of the sovereignty of God which might frustrate His plans.

It seems to me that Sproul has reversed Calvin’s approach. Sovereignty becomes the guarantor of God’s plan; for Calvin, God’s plan and Providence are determinative — an account of power over molecules or else plays a role of secondary importance. 

I apologize to all committed Calvinists out there if I am procuring a straw man from the world of contemporary Calvinism. But I find this comparison interesting and instructive against an approach that trades on sovereignty, omnipotence, etc. as concepts ready to be plugged in to a logical argument abstracted from the larger account of God’s Providence within which Calvin sets his argument.

File this under my improving impression of Calvin, confirming my suspicion that some of his later apologists do not do him nearly enough justice. But, lest I give the impression that there is nothing to butt heads against in the Institutes or that Calvin is ever-congenial here’s how he closes the sections on Providence and predestination:

Let those for whom this seems harsh consider for a little while how bearable their squeamishness is in refusing a thing attested by clear Scriptural proofs because it exceeds their mental capacity, and find fault that things are put forth publicly, which if God had not judged useful for men to know, he would never have bidden his prophets and apostles to teach. For our wisdom ought to be nothing else than to embrace with humble teachableness, and at least without finding fault, whatever is taught in Sacred Scripture. Those who too insolently scoff, even though it is clear enough that they are prating against God, are not worthy of a longer refutation. (I.XVIII.4)

 

* Ockham, Gabriel Biel and Duns Scotus are cited as Calvin’s chief opponents here by my version of Institutes.
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2,245 footnotes later…

rsgJust finished NT Wright‘s Resurrection of the Son of God, his massive argument for the historicity of the resurrection. One of the most interesting things about it is how Wright’s approach to the question of the resurrection is fitted to the theological content of the same.

In his first first chapter he outlines objections to a project of interrogating the question of the resurrection via historical study. One set is historical in nature and deals with whether it can be done — whether history has the tools or data to approach it. The second set is theological and questions whether it should be done — whether the ground of the Christian faith should ultimately be approached using anything but profession of faith.

Wright argues that history can approach the resurrection. He does so by, well, doing it… and doing it carefully, extensively (seriously, I counted up the footnotes) and strongly. And, in the course, a beautiful parallel between his method and the theological content of the resurrection emerges that answers the question of whether it should be approached using history. He is very concerned to argue that resurrection is not solely a cipher for a purely spiritual reality, having no place in the  physical or historical world. To grant that only faith and not history may access it is contrary to this. Further, approaching the resurrection historically, as Wright notes at the end of his book, is fitting in light of creation: “History matters because human beings matter; human beings matter because creation matters; creation matters because the creator matters”. It is also fitting in light of incarnation. Finally the resurrection’s ushering in of new creation parallels Wright’s suggestions towards renewed epistemology. The historical study of the resurrection inevitably brings one to worldview considerations, but out the other side of these, there is a new world accessible to renewed study.

All in all, an excellent book. Two questions about it:

  • Wright bases his argument in the belief of the early church. He notes that questions of authority and continuity still have to be addressed to draw conclusions for the modern church. How is this to be done, and will an approach with a foothold in history be able to do this, or does it require something else?
  • He approaches the Easter story via Paul first, then the gospels, which seems somewhat backwards, but is important in that his approach is via historical development, and Paul comes first. Where does this place him in relation to other theological approaches to the resurrection?

Colossians Remixed reaction

Just finished reading and discussing Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed with a couple of my favorite peeps. I would describe it as ok but not good or good but not great, depending on my mood.

Their overall project is to reread Colossians from a somewhat postmodern perspective with a view towards how it might inform and be meaningful to postmodern readers who are suspicious of absolutes, feel ethically paralyzed in a world of diverse choices and viewpoints, or are anxious to cut themselves off totally from any external metanarrative.

In the earliest parts of the book they point in interesting directions:

In this discernment of our cultural context, postmodern emphases on choice, diversity, difference and otherness simply function as a smokescreen simply function as a smokescreen to cover the homogenizing forces of global capitalism. (32)

They go on to indicate that modernity and post-modernity, viewed via political/economic lenses represent a similar set of political/economic choices oriented towards autonomy and acquisition.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Too often postmodernists turn out to be liberals in their ethics and politics who no longer believe in the conceits of liberalism but have no where else to go.” Economic globalization is late capitalism without the framework of a modernist ideology of progress to provide it a narrative foundation and ethical direction. (33)

This attention to the interplay between the political/economic and the epistemological really piqued my interest and seemed part of the basic grounding of their project. Unfortunately, they mostly ditch this insight in the rest of the book. As a result, the book — an argument for embracing elements of postmodern epistemology as a better way to conceive of the message of Colossians — is approached in a thoroughly modernist way! They set the problem in Part I, discuss epistemology (working with the individual) in Part II and then attack praxis in Part III. We attack knowing first, then doing can follow. And most of this can be done at the level of the individual (their Ethic of Community has to wait for p. 169).

I think they didn’t read their Hauerwas or their MacIntyre well enough. These things can’t be separated like this, certainly not with knowing preceding doing. If anything, doing precedes knowing or, better, there ought to be a dynamic and ongoing interplay between these. My ability to understand and conceive of moral choices is shaped by the practices I am a part of, my ethical choices, the story I am a part of, and this happens by involvement in tradition, a larger community.

I would have loved a book written holding the epistemology and praxis in interrelation throughout, diagnosing their connections in the problem, observing how our practices shape our knowing and imagining, working out how a newly conceived, engaged knowing re-informs practice. Alas, not quite in this book. But still there are a lot of fruitful pointers here for our own work on this project. A project that is definitely communal and definitely the work of being the church and will be way more convincing, inviting, exciting and engaging for the suspicious, paralyzed or hostile folks Walsh and Keesmaat want to draw in.

Bibles, red and green

A recent post by periphery alerted me to the existence of the new Green Bible – a bible made from recycled materials and with passages relating to creation and environmentalism printed in green.  Particularly for those seeking to up their hipster cred, it seems like part of the appeal has got to be its hipster redux of red-letter bibles. One wonders, then, if we can learn something about what’s going on here from the red-letter predecessor.

The English Standard Version blog has an article on the origins of red-letter Bibles here.  They date from 1899, the idea of Louis Klopsch, editor of the Christian Herald magazine.  In his version (The New Testament… With All the Words Recorded Therein, as Having Been Spoken by Our Lord, Printed in Color) OT passages referenced directly by Christ were marked by a red cross and prophetic references to him are marked by red stars.  A couple of quotes from Klopsch on his project:

Here the actual words, quotations, references and allusions of Christ, not separated from their context, nor in a fragmentary or disconnected form, but in their own proper place, as an integral part of the Sacred Record, stand out vividly conspicuous in the distinction of color. The plan also possesses the advantage of showing how frequently and how extensively, on the Authority of Christ himself, the authenticity of the Old Testament is confirmed, thus greatly facilitating comparison and verification, and enabling the student to trace the connection between the Old and the New, link by link, passage by passage.

In the Red Letter Bible, more clearly than in any other edition of the Holy Scriptures, it becomes plain that from beginning to end, the central figure upon which all lines of law, history, poetry and prophecy converge is Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. He expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself and the Divine plan for man’s redemption, and the Red Letter Bible indicates and emphasizes this Divine exposition and personal revelation at each successive stage, making them so clear that even the simplest may understand. It sheds a new radiance upon the sacred pages, by which the reader is enabled to trace unerringly the scarlet thread of prophecy from Genesis to Malachi. Like the Star which led the Magi to Bethlehem, this light, shining through the entire Word, leads straight to the person of the Divine Messiah, as the fulfillment of the promise of all the ages.

Modern Christianity is striving zealously to draw nearer to the great Founder of the Faith. Setting aside mere human doctrines and theories regarding Him, it presses close to the Divine Presence, to gather from His own lips the definition of His mission to the world and His own revelation of the Father… The Red Letter Bible has been prepared and issued in the full conviction that it will meet the needs of the student, the worker, and the searchers after truth everywhere.

I found some blog-based discussion of these Bibles as well.  A standard critique can be found here; essentially, the whole Bible is inspired, if anything is red, it should all be. (The author’s identification of red-letter Bibles as friendly to the development of liberal theology via their failure to treat all Scripture as equally inspired, however, seems off the mark to me, for reasons I will discuss below, and because Klopsch was a great friend and benefactor of D.L. Moody and his Bible Institute.)  This writer gets a little closer to the point, I think, at the very end of his post.  Here a blogger for Christianity Today raises some concerns about the Green Bible; he asks the right question in his comment, i.e., putting feelings about environmentalism aside, whether highlighting themes is a good or bad idea in general. (Most of the post’s comments discuss the Bible via the appropriateness of green concerns.) Apparently a movement is afoot as well for “Red-Letter Christianity” (here’s a piece describing it by Tony Campolo, and his book of the same name; Jim Wallis is involved as well).  The Bible-coloring suggestions for the Emergent church movement here are entertaining.

Most of the commentary I’ve found on the red-letter bible is, I think, off target.  In fact, I’d say Klopsch himself better understands the import of his edition than the subsequent commentators. In the first two quotes above he presents a pretty clear picture of how he intends the form of his edition to highlight a message, to affect how it is read. I wish I knew more about editorial theory to speak more informedly here, but its framework seems like the better way to approach colored-letter versions of the Bible. The levels-of-inspiration arguments are beside the point, for example – we need, regardless of Bible edition choice, an understanding of how different parts of the Scripture lay claim to our lives (OT vs NT to begin with, but there are plenty of other questions) that goes far beyond just saying that the whole thing is inspired. We should instead approach these editions by trying to understand how editorial choices affect our reception of the text.

Questions for a red-letter edition include how determining which verses should be treated as quotation (even John 3:16, for example, is unclear) affects our understanding the Gospel writer as narrator/commentator (though this problem already exists with the addition of quotation marks). We should observe how Klopsch’s identification of prophecies predicting the Messiah seriously restricts the range of readings these verses can sustain and promotes, as he understands, his desired christocentric reading. The issue that strikes me most strongly about such editions is that the emphasis on the spoken words of Chirst alone is an editorial choice interpreting Jesus primarily as a moral teacher, and the central substance of the Christian life as a decontextualized set of moral principles and teachings. When this happens we have a major problem with theology and ethics. My favorite description of the framework for ethics in which these decontextualized moral principles naturally live is due to Bernard Williams; he calls it a “midair” stance*.  Moral issues can be addressed from midair, the actor having stepped back from the problem, used abstract principles to work from a relatively objective position, likely with feet about six feet off the ground, and the properness of his ethical reflection can be read from the accuracy of his manipulation of these quantities.  I think this is a seriously mistaken approach for the Christian, and indicates a problem that the red-letter bibles are likely based in and likely promote. For another example of a theological position encouraged by the editorial choice, see the third quote from Klopsch above. For a simple argument this is not the way the faith ought to operate, consider only that if red letters is what the church fathers had been after, we would be reading the Gnostic and not the Synoptic Gospels.

There’s no ridding ourselves of a multitude of editorial choices when reading the Bible. Therefore, what I want to suggest here is that those looking to use the Green Bible should consider the red-letter editions and their impact. Not having access to a Green Bible myself, I can’t analyze its presentation of the text; rather, I want to suggest a framework for thinking this through. I’m arguing that concerns around the relative importance of red versus non-red verses or the details of which verses should be regarded as quotation should be secondary to a consideration of how this editorial choice has shaped our theological and ethical reading. In the same way, a defense of the appropriateness of green concerns for Christians and the details of which verses ought to be green might need to be secondary to a careful account of how the editorial choice of the green lettering reflects and shapes theological concerns and ethical reasoning. I suspect it does so in a direction quite different from that of the red-letter Bibles, but maybe in the end no more satisfactory.

*Full disclosure: I, unfortunately, only know Williams’s description via Hauerwas’s presentation of it, which I assume is accurate enough.  I’m working here from Ch. 2 of The Peaceable Kingdom.