30 June 2010

Vanhoozer's Decahedral

In the July/August 2010 Modern Reformation, Kevin J. Vanhoozer contributes a short article where he lays down "a ten-point checklist for fledgling theological interpreters of Scripture." It basically articulates a way of reading the Bible as Scripture—as God's self-communication—in a canonical and ecclesial context (pp. 16–19).

This is nothing new, of course. But it's still unwelcome among large swaths of religious academia. I'll just reprint the theses here; Vanhoozer provides commentary under each one in the article. Here's how he describes his decahedral: "The ten theses are arranged in five parts: the first term in each pair is properly theological, focusing on some aspect of God's communicative agency; the second draws out its implications for hermeneutics and biblical interpretation." Without further adieu:

  1. The nature and function of the Bible are insufficiently grasped unless and until we see the Bible as an element in the economy of triune discourse.
  2. An appreciation of the theological nature of the Bible entails a rejection of a methodological atheism that treats the texts as having a "natural history" only.
  3. The message of the Bible is "finally" about the loving power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16), the definitive or final gospel Word of God that comes to brightest light in the Word's final form.
  4. Because God acts in space-time (Israel, Jesus Christ, and the church), theological interpretation requires thick descriptions that plumb the height and depth of history, not only its length.
  5. Theological interpreters view the historical events recounted in Scripture as ingredients in a unified story ordered by an economy of triune providence.
  6. The Old Testament testifies to the same drama of redemption as the New Testament, hence the church rightly reads both testaments together, two parts of a single authoritative script.
  7. The Spirit who speaks with magisterial authority in the Scriptures speaks with ministerial authority in church tradition.
  8. In an era marked by the conflict of interpretations, there is good reason provisionally to acknowledge the superiority of catholic interpretation.
  9. The end of biblical interpretation is not simply communication—the sharing of information—but communion, a sharing in the light, life, and love of God.
  10. The church is that community where good habits of theological interpretation are best formed and where the fruit of these habits are best exhibited.
Vanhoozer sums it up:
Scholars know deep down that they can and should do better than stay within the confines of their specializations: "For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the interpretive good I want, but the historical-criticism or proof-texting I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but interpretive habits that have been drilled into me. Wretched reader that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of secondary literature?" Thanks be to God, there is a way forward: the way, truth, and life of collaboration in Christ, where sainthood and scholarship coexist, and where theological exegesis and exegetical theology are mutually supportive and equally important.
Now, I'll admit to being blinded by a slight infatuation with Vanhoozer, especially after reading books like Is There Meaning in This Text? I've not much to say here by way of criticism. I'm hoping some others can pick that up, not least the "apocalyptic" bunch floating around out there, as I'm not quite sure what view, if any, they might have with respect to hermeneutics (if "they" even have a "view"). I'd also like to see some discussion about how Vanhoozer's implicit criticisms here cut to the quick of a lot of modern confessional Reformed exegesis and theology.

Also, this touches upon what I've grown increasingly comfortable saying publicly as of late: Theology done without an eye on (i.e., in service of) the church is useless. But on second thought, it might be best to break off this subsequent and tangential discussion from this post and deal with it later. For now, I'll leave the Decahedral to stand alone for the reader to digest.

14 June 2010

Father Abraham Had Many Sons

AT THE PRECISE MOMENT we’re introduced to the pagans from Ur of the Chaldeans in the book of Genesis, we meet the one whom the God of creation called to start fixing the evil mess Adam and his children made. Through Abraham and his children and grand-children, God eventually sent his Son to fulfill finally and faithfully the vocation to which his ancestors were called. And Abraham was the one who left everything behind, walking by faith, even when he didn’t know where he was going (Heb. 11:8). For this, he was revered by the people of Israel as a model of true piety. Such was their reverence that the anonymous Jewish priest who wrote Jubilees thought, “Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life” (23:10). Indeed, Abraham was thought to have not even sinned against God (see The Prayer of Manasseh). He was their father, one in whom they could be proud.

This may bring to mind that elementary school Bible song:
“Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had father Abraham;
I am one of them and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord!”
We’d then scream something about our right arms and left arms, and by the end of the song we all looked like we were marching in place (with the added, though inexplicable, nodding of the head). It must have been quite a scene to behold—a sanctuary full of pre-pubescent adolescents awkwardly lurching about. (I couldn't link to just one version—see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, from all different peoples around the world.)

Well, the song serves it purpose—to expend energy. But what about it? Just who are the sons of Abraham? Can we modern, Western children really be Abraham’s sons?

One portion in particular of Saint Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome gives us the answer. In chapters 3:27–4:25, the apostle begins to unpack one central theme he discussed in 3:21–26, namely, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (v. 22). The obedience of Jesus is everywhere drawn out in this portion of the letter as the sole ground of God’s free justification, with faith its sole means.

After he contests the importance of the Mosaic law as a means to justify oneself, the apostle Paul appeals to the story of Abraham to bolster his claim that righteousness is credited only by faith. The reasons he does so should interest us. As we just saw above, Abraham was widely revered throughout Israelite history. It is probable that Paul wanted to show the largely Gentile Roman churches that those he had had arguments with (certain Jews and Jewish Christians) were not understanding Abraham rightly according to the Scriptures. Thus he argues, contrary to Jubilees and The Prayer of Manasseh, that Abraham was not so much “perfect in all his deeds with the Lord” but was justified by faith: for “to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). Because Abraham is an exemplar of faith in God’s promises — not “perfect in all his deeds”—he is truly the father “of all who believe without being circumcised” (v. 11; see also Gal. 3:7, 29). By the way, those “who believe without being circumcised” are those modern, Western children, giddily stomping and swinging their arms to the tune of “Father Abraham Had Many Sons.”

It is no surprise that Abraham held such a prominent position in Israelite history; after all, the Old Testament gives him that place. He is the father of the chosen nation and the one in whom the promise of God was sent forth, and we mustn’t miss the fact that God’s plan all along was to include Gentiles in his promise—the promise of adoption and reconciliation (Gal. 3:8). Now we can see one reason why Abraham is given so much space in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans: if his gospel is “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1), the very same God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then the apostle needed to show how his gospel stood in continuity with the Word of God given to the prophets, while at the same time showing, for the Gentile Christians’ sake in Rome, that there is a certain amount of discontinuity, especially with respect to the Mosaic law. In short, they didn’t need to be circumcised, because righteousness is credited by faith (apart from Torah) in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, which draws “all people” to him (John 12:32).

In this way, we Christians today, who are so far removed from the world in which Abraham lived, can call him our father. We didn’t deserve this, of course, but God obligated himself to do it on the day he walked the gauntlet of animal carcasses while Abraham was sleeping (Gen. 15). Moreover, the Apostle to the Gentiles teaches that our ability to call Abraham father is proof that God has kept the promise he made way back in Genesis 15. This promise is grasped by faith and rests on grace alone, and it is “guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Rom. 4:16). So Abraham, the father of the faithful, kept on believing God, and any person, if he or she believes like him, will also be reckoned righteous (see Rom. 4:11, 23–24).

Finally, all of this depends on the character of the life-giving creator God who made such promises. And we can be sure, as Saint Paul was, that this God will keep them, because he is the only one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17).

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 30.6 (June 2006): 22–23}

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