Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament

Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis by Gary A. Anderson. Baker Academic (April 2017, 220 pp).

The relationship between theology and biblical studies is fraught with misunderstanding. While maybe not always murderous in intent, their relationship often feels like what it must have been like to stand between Cain and Abel—strained and tenuous, at best. There are certainly numerous exceptions, but generally speaking, it often seems that theologians have no personal stake in the claims they are making while biblical scholars are so entrenched in their traditional reading that they miss incorporating fruitful theological insights into their exegesis. Anderson-Doctrine and the OTSo there’s something humbling—perhaps even startling, sadly, because it’s so rare—in a serious theologian rolling up his sleeves and doing meaningful exegetical work informed by theology and the tradition, which so obviously affects not only the scholar’s career, but their personal faith as well. Gary Anderson, professor of Catholic Theology at Notre Dame, is such a scholar and Christian.

With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Anderson claims on the first page of his newly released book of essays, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, that he makes the “rather audacious claim” that theological doctrines actually aid the process of biblical exegesis and, when properly used, play a key role in uncovering the meaning of a text. As Robert Louis Wilken blurbs on the back, this claim, and his understanding of the historical-critical method, theology, and the history of biblical interpretation, makes Anderson a “rare creature among biblical scholars.” That sounds like quite the mouthful but, to extend the metaphor, he is a rare bird able to be identified and understood by all those who have the patience and discipline to explore, and not just by fellow expert ornithologists. Anderson writes clearly and intelligibly while also reminding the reader that serious reading of the Bible theologically is a “demanding enterprise” and reminds the nontheological reader of the benefits of “having some theological sophistication.”

In fact, the most startling and welcome aspect of this book for me was how this collection of essays read much more like extended devotionals and meditations than a scholarly précis. Throughout the book I found myself continually rediscovering the Old Testament—particularly through the eyes of the Church Fathers— and wanting to go back to the texts. There are exegetical gems which have the potential to reorient ones reading of Torah, for example: “The construction of the tabernacle is the climax of creation” (64) and “the moment of lighting the sacrificial pyre is the very apogee of the Torah” (ibid).

Gary-Anderson
Gary A. Anderson has written books on sin and Christian charity and writes for First Things and other magazines.

There are moments that may make the more conservative scholar uncomfortable like Anderson’s contention that “Paul’s turn to the figure of Adam as the prime example of a biblical sinner is not in accord with the basic thrust of the Old Testament itself” (73) and others times when all sides might feel a bit put out like in the third chapter on creation: “Though Gen. 1 does not teach creatio ex nihilo in the way early Christian theologians might have thought of it, it does not rule it out as decisively as many modern readers have assumed” (48). There is also plenty that the Protestant scholar will find exception to such as Anderson’s study of Mariology and his chapter on the biblical warrant for purgatory but he might also make the Catholic theologian uncomfortable with his usage of Barth in places. Above all, I would say that this book brought me further into the heart of God, which for reader, and I would daresay, author alike, there could be no greater hope.

There are three other subthemes at the heart of the essays—apart from the main thesis that doctrine and biblical studies belong together—that Anderson identifies for the reader:

  1. There is no single method of reading Scripture advocated or that holds sway in the book. This is illustrated in his favorable use of Barth in the proper biblical grounding of original sin (which, provocatively, neither thinker believes is found in Genesis 3, proper) alongside chapters arguing the biblical warrant of Mariology and purgatory.
  2. The need for biblical scholarship to make a concerted effort to properly understand what theological doctrines actually wish to affirm. One of the biggest hindrances between the exegetical grounding of Christian doctrine, Anderson writes, is the ignorance of biblical scholars actual grasp of theological doctrines.
  3. The importance of the Old Testament, with particular influence on Jewish interpretation, as a source for Christian doctrine.

Though these themes are on display throughout the essays, it is easy to lose them in the midst of the specific material of the individual chapters. I found myself wanting more internal consistency and coherence among the essays. To that end, Anderson’s book would have been richer if he would have taken the time to write a new section on methodology or discussed in more depth the proper relationship between theology and scriptural exegesis and how they are to inform one another. We see the fruit of Anderson’s methodology but it would have been more satisfying to see behind the ways in which that fruit was picked. Nevertheless, Anderson has given readers a treat in his careful theological exposition of the scriptures.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

Advertisements

Book Review: The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Volume Two

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
John Martin, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852)

The Crucifixion of the Warrior God
Gregory A. Boyd
Fortress Press, 2017. 1492 pp.

Rhetorically, Volume Two of Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is far more eloquent than Volume One. What, in the previous volume, was touch-and-go and overburdened by footnotes and block quotes becomes in this volume a far more thoughtful and well-articulated argument. The improved rhetoric helps Boyd flesh out a more convincing description of his Cruciform Hermeneutic, even though his uncritical presuppositions, discussed at the end of my previous post, continue unchecked.

Volume Two’s structure is also far more soundly organized. I did not find myself asking, as I did in Volume One, why whole sections of text existed for the sake of Boyd’s thesis. Most of Volume Two feels appropriate and necessary for the claims he proposes. I am still convinced that the work as a whole could have been comprised of one volume, with most of Volume One being pared away as unnecessary elaboration, but the amount of paring needed in Volume Two is very small.

With these less significant rhetorical considerations out of the way, my aim in this second review will be to see how far Boyd’s version of the Cruciform Hermeneutic works, what its limits are, and how his applications of that hermeneutic succeed or fail. Volume Two is organized around four principles that Boyd sees aCrucifixionCover_FINALvol1s central to his understanding of that hermeneutic — Cruciform Accommodation, Redemptive Withdrawal, Cosmic Conflict, Semiautonomous Power — most of which (exempting the last one) are robust enough ideas in their own right to substantiate their own individual book reviews. It is here that we see Boyd’s academic / scholarly verve show up in a powerful way, as he stakes claims on what the Cruciform Hermeneutic ought and ought not look like. He is passionate and articulate, and he brings up some questions that seem to me as particularly intriguing.

In the previous review, I mentioned that Boyd’s idea of a Cruciform Hermeneutic could be a helpful tool for reading the Old Testament, and that its chief problem is not its methodological / theoretical conception (i.e. look at the Cross, use it to read the OT), but in the precise manner that Boyd imbues it with presupposed definitions of terms like Love, Violence, and War. In Volume Two, he charts out a hermeneutical method that is admirable, but still lacks the honesty of confessing its epistemological pre-commitments.

Rather than chart out my review based on his structure, I am going to pick at few individual moments in his arguments for these principles and observe some of what seemed to me his strongest claims as well as some of what seemed the most problematic. At the end, I’ll offer some concluding thoughts on the unified work altogether.

Strengths — A Robust Description of Cosmic Warfare

One of my favorite sections in CWG was the Principle of Cosmic Conflict section. Here Boyd’s previous work on spiritual warfare (God at WarSatan and the Problem of Evil) manifests in a brilliant manner, demonstrating both an avid reading of the OT full of its supernatural density as well as a scholarly identification of ancient near East gods “hidden,” as it were, in the text. Boyd goes beyond the typical scholastic OT reading that discusses the presence of “Rahab” or “Leviathan” as cosmic metaphors and actually asserts, as me and my Pentecostal brethren would assert, that these are not simply metaphorical entities for the sake of a pre-modern people’s worldview, but that, instead, they are actually spiritual entities who operate both in the spiritual realms and in the natural realm.

In fact, I would say that Boyd’s greatest success in CWG as a whole is the manner in which he presents a thorough academic case for the presence of ongoing spiritual conflict between God and the forces of evil, something that many other theologians either write off as entirely soteriological (as those in the Reformed camp tend to do) or as entirely societal (as those in the Liberation camp tend to do).

In light of this cosmic conflict, Boyd re-engages two OT accounts in ways that I find very convincing. The first is his reading of Job, in which he brings to attention the wide variety of satanic references throughout the book in order to drive home the understanding of Job as the subject of cosmic warfare. The second is his reading of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, where Boyd presses on the ANE worldview where both Pharaoh and the Sea itself are cosmic powers that, in the end, devour one another.

All this being said, the Principle of Cosmic Conflict does meander into its own waters of convolution, as most of CWG does. A significant problem could be raised that Boyd’s understanding of cosmic conflict allows for a semi-Manichean view of reality, giving the devil and his forces far too much agency. One result of this semi-Manicheanism could be, for instance, a reading of events like 9/11 as attacks of the devil allowed by Yahweh’s “redemptive withdrawal,” which, honestly, is no different than Pat Robertson’s infamous declaration of such events as divine judgment. Boyd addresses this problem directly but unconvincingly, waving the concern off without much critical engagement as he does with most of the biggest (and most interesting) problems raised against his theses.

Problems — A Surprisingly Critical View of Moses and the Torah

Maybe I’m a “traditionalist,” and maybe I’m overprotective. But one of the most shocking sets of claims throughout CWG is the way that Boyd continually treats Moses (as a person) and the Torah (as a collection) with supreme amounts of suspicion and, at times, derision. When addressing “problems in the OT,” I typically expect that the Book of Judges will be presented, that the morality of various decisions throughout the Histories will be presented, and that, broadly, our discussion will center on the “Canaanite genocide” (a term I’m wary of, because definitional presuppositions), the holy wars, and other clearly man-based judgments. I never expect a discussion on Moses and the Torah.

The reason for this is because the confession of both the OT and the NT is consistently one of praise and respect with regards to Moses and the Torah. Psalm 119 is the most famous of these, of course, but the verses from Psalm 19 ought to be observed as a testament to this:

another-image-of-greg-boyd.jpeg
Gregory A. Boyd is a speaker in the Neo-Anabaptist movement and is an advocate of open theism and Christian pacifism

“The Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the Testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the Precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the Commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes” (Psalm 19:7-8). Jesus, famously, is formally coronated Messiah (at least, in the eyes of His disciples) on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah present. Paul, Peter, and John all base their theologies in the context of Moses’ writings.

So, it is utterly surprising to me how critical Boyd is of Moses and of the Torah. I do not wish to come across “starry eyed” regarding the first five books of the Bible — there are certainly moments and scenes that we might find bizarre at the least and obscene at the most in those texts. It is true that we certainly have a lot of room for growth in our exegetical understandings of the Torah. But Boyd says, at one juncture, that Moses and Aaron’s “fallen and culturally conditioned hearts caused them to view their heavenly Father in ‘twisted’ ways,” thinking of how they view God as the sort of God who brings plagues and goes to war. This strikes me as strange.

Of course, Moses and Aaron are not perfect. The Scriptures themselves make this clear when, for instance, Aaron makes the Golden Calf, or when, for instance, Moses strikes the rock he is commanded to speak to. But Boyd is perpetually suspicious of Moses, and he often attributes various clauses of Levitical law to him (in his “fallen and culturally conditioned” weakness) rather than to Yahweh whenever doing so suits Boyd’s narrative. I find it, simply put, too rhetorically convenient to believe that whenever Yahweh orders someone to be stoned or put to death that this is a consequence of Moses’ interpretative weaknesses, as opposed to Yahweh’s revelatory wisdom. And it is hard, in my opinion, to claim to be advancing a hermeneutic with the belief that all Scripture is “God-breathed,” and come to the conclusion that the Torah, culturally-distant as it is, is anything other than “the perfect Law” that both OT and NT describe it as (cf. Psalm 19, 199; James 1:22-25).

In Summation

There are many other things that could be discussed with regards to CWG, but I feel that I have written far too much as it is. A few conclusory words could be said as to why I find CWG so unconvincing, and, with that, maybe some suggestions for future theologians for how to write a better work engaging the problem of OT violence.

  1. One of CWG‘s greatest weaknesses is that Boyd writes very clearly in the service of his pre-committed ideological and theological beliefs, rather than using inductive exegetical work to support those beliefs. He comes into the conversation with the firm notion that Augustine and Aquinas are wrong about God’s eternity (and other matters), that Love ought to be defined using a modified version of the modern notion of Nonviolence, and that the presence of violence in the OT ought to be considered a major epistemic problem. A conversation on each of these topics would make for an interesting book, and, in fact, those books are necessary before one could even begin to trace out the sort of hermeneutic that Boyd attempts in CWG. Rather than sitting down and hashing out his differences with Augustine and Aquinas the typical manner (i.e. through thorough academic discourse), Boyd presupposes their fallaciousness and dismisses them with a quick word in edgewise. He uses this rhetorical form throughout CWG: just as the conversation gets interesting, he concludes his argument with simple logic, rather than complex, nuanced discourse. The whole work could be rewritten, in a far more convincing way, by starting with its major deterrents, grounding its claims and definitions in solid exegetical work first, and then bringing external discourses (re: open theism, etc.) into play as the thesis gains strength.
  2. The idea of a single “hermeneutic key” to unlock the problems of the OT is also misguided. This book could have been an intriguing discourse on simply the Canaanite genocide (and it would have held more weight that way, I believe). But by attempting to over-incorporate the whole of the OT, Boyd makes the common mistake of using one hermeneutic tool for a variety of diverse and unrelated texts. Universal theological attempts like this one are almost always doomed to failure because they are more easily tempted by ideological presuppositions. A more particular account would make for a much more interesting read.
  3. Boyd’s greatest ideas in the book occur when he writes his own ideas, rather than relying so heavily upon his academic sources. CWG makes for a great bibliography of OT violence; but it would have made a more effective argument if much of that bibliography was left in the footnotes and in the back of the book, rather than taking up vital space needed for substantive rhetoric.
  4. Finally, setting up the problem as a real problem, rather than making the stark — and rhetorically simplistic — statement “this is obviously problematic,” is crucial in making an argument worthwhile. Not once in CWG did I ever feel that Boyd was presenting an answer to a problem that I felt was significantly worthwhile. It is a problem that the New Atheists find troubling, but that is fine by me; I don’t find the New Atheists worth being troubled about.

There are many fruitful discussions that could be had around the problems of violence and the OT, but CWG does little more than retread ground that has already been discussed and propose an extremely narrow (sectarian) view of OT exegesis as the ultimate, worldwide solution to an already-“dead horse” conversation. At its best, CWG provides suitable bibliographic materials to aid the student of theology in wrestling through a specific problem, or it suggests a view of supernatural powers that is worth considering, at the least. But at its worst, CWG is cloaked open theistic propaganda, struggling to suggest its theological framework as orthodoxy without actually putting in the rhetorical work necessary to accomplish so audacious a task.

I would like to thank Fortress Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.

Read Paul in Your Bible, Then Read This

apostle-paul

Years ago, I was talking with a friend on the phone when he began telling me about finishing E.P. Sanders Paul and Palestinian Judaism and another work by Jimmy Dunn. The issues that he brought up from those books seemed so foreign and out of reach that he might have well been reading to me the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in the original Coptic (which I’m sure he would have liked to do also). At the time of that conversation, I had studied a couple of the classic studies on the historical Jesus, but long scholarly tomes on the apostle Paul were another matter. Anderson-Paul's New PerspectiveTalking about the impact that the 4QMMT Dead Sea Scroll had on the way we read Paul seemed an exercise for an old librarian in Cairo somewhere, not for a 20-something campus pastor. And yet, while I knew that those ideas mattered, and mattered a great deal, I wondered where to begin. I wish that Garwood Anderson’s book had been on my shelf back then, because it is the place to start. One Amazon reviewer said all you need to know: “If you like John Piper and N.T. Wright, buy this book!”

For those of us who care deeply about the New Testament, especially Paul, Professor Anderson’s book on Paul published last year is like pulling away the curtains to let the light in. “Friendly to all but friends to none” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as Anderson finds something to like in both the new, old, and post-new perspectives on Paul but yet is not content to take any approach wholesale. He cites a particular kinship with Michael Bird’s approach, “especially in his care to make rapprochement between divided factions, showing that the differences are less severe than frequently supposed” (108).

Anderson’s study is incredibly learned and yet is lively reading. (To read or not read all of the footnotes the first time through was my continual dilemma.) As the well-respected Pauline scholar Michael Gorman blurbs on the back, “Anderson has mastered the literature produced by the traditional, new and post-new perspectives on Paul.” And yet the reader takes comfort in Anderson’s honest confession on the first page of the book that “If I were granted but one desideratum of Pauline scholarship it would be that they all take a decade of Jubilee, cease publication, and let me catch up.”

All of the big names are here and introduced: Sanders, Hays, Wright, Dunn, Gorman, Barclay, Campbell, Martyn, Bird, and Watson; and all of the debates are summarily dissected: pistis christou, justification, impartation and imputation, solution and plight, a “center” of Pauline scholarship, works and law, Paul’s “conversion” as well as fair-length treatments of contentious passages like Romans 3:21-4:28 and Philippians 3:1-11 that contain material seized by both perspectives. Admittedly, those who have done no to little reading in Pauline studies (maybe you are scratching your head at the above list) will have to work hard to find their way around Anderson’s book, but for my money, there is no better work out that is both a generous and accessible introduction to serious Pauline scholarship— as well as a contribution to the scholarship itself—than Paul’s New Perspective.

Anderson
Anderson is professor of Greek and New Testament at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.

In large part, Anderson is in lock step with the new perspective (and he admits there really is no such monolith as “the” new perspective) but believes that some of their positions become “reductive overcorrections.” The provocative thesis that drives Anderson’s book past the first 150 pages of fantastic summary of the Pauline debates is that contradictory schools of Pauline interpretation are “both right just not at the same time” (379). That is because neither perspective pays adequate attention to the fact that Paul was only human and that, inevitably, his theology would have changed and shifted over time. And so Anderson proposes rapproachment between the either/or debates in Pauline scholarship by looking at how Paul’s thought developed over time. He says, “The shortcomings of both the TPP (traditional perspective on Paul) and the NPP (new perspective on Paul) are accounted for in the same way: both schools of interpretation are insufficiently attentive to the manner in which Paul’s soteriology has developed from his earliest to later writings” (ibid). In other words, the new perspective is right to stress that phrases like “works of the law” in Galatians is written as shorthand for Jewish ethnic descent (which includes “boundary markers” like circumcision table fellowship) and should not be read as generic good deeds done in order to merit favor with God. And yet, those who transfer that reading to “works” as mere shorthand for “works of the law” fail to adequately see how Paul’s thought has undergone development from specific Jewish and Gentile concerns to more basic anthropological considerations.

Though Anderson’s developmental thesis does not depend on enlargement of the accepted seven-letter Pauline corpus, a chunk of the book is devoted to making a case for the disputed letters. Anderson makes a case for the inclusion of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles, along with the undisputed Galatians, Romans, 1 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians and Philemon. The extension of the Pauline corpus from the undisputed seven letters to a contested 13 letter corpus is important, Anderson believes, because it allows us to fill out Paul’s theology and development: “I’m persuaded that excessive trepidation on this matter has precluded New Testament scholars from seeing a possibly larger picture” (166). In arguing for their authenticity, Anderson summarizes his case by saying that “far from a misunderstanding of or derivation from Paul’s soteriology, these letters corroborate a trajectory already evident in the undisputed letters, so much so that one would be justified in thinking that Paul himself wrote them” (381).

Let me end by quoting a juicy bit at the conclusion of Anderson’s book that will give you a feel for where Anderson is going and hopefully will entice you to pick this one up:

The rapprochement offered here succeeds only under two conditions, to be sketched now briefly: 1) that justification cease to be the center and preoccupation of Pauline theology such that it is made to bear weight for which it was not intended and 2) that union with Christ once and for all take [sic] its place as the central and integrative fulcrum of Pauline soteriology in all of its juridical, relational, transformational, and ecclesial dimensions (384).

For those looking for a way to better understand New Testament and Pauline scholarship and the points in the key debates, there is no better place to begin than Paul’s New Perspective. But I must warn you, once you begin reading in Pauline studies, it’s hard to stop. But it will make you read your New Testament like you never have before. As Wesley Hill says, in Anderson’s book “one is reminded yet again why wrestling with Paul is so invigorating.”

Preach

 

b7c4d697cbcf1995f5cc97167659f5c7

There’s a new Gallup poll out on what makes people go to Church, according to Christianity Today, and it’s kind of awesome. The number one reason why folks go to church is to hear sermons about Scripture. 82% of Protestants cited a rigorous exposition of Scripture as what draws them to Church. I say “kind of awesome” because the best answer would be “I go because she is the body of Christ and we love her and want to build her up” but I imagine that answer wasn’t an option on the Gallup poll.

Here’s the money paragraph from the article.

Last year, Ed Stetzer cited several examples of congregations (such as Oklahoma megachurch Life.Church) that shifted toward more rigorous teaching once they noticed interest from the unchurched: “In other words, those for whom sermons were being dumbed down aren’t dumb. They are interested in the truth or else they’d be out golfing.”

I’ve long believed that churches, evangelicals in particular, make things far too easy on folks in the pews by “contextualizing” things in such a way that it’s impossible to distinguish from the wider culture. This survey shows that is a mistake. Here’s to more rigorous teaching and more demanding church going that holds a certain finger to the way culture does things and is her faithful self in serving our Lord.  

Hans Boersma and the Church Fathers on Scripture

1920px-Sanzio_01

Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church by Hans Boersma  Baker Academic Press 336 pp. March 2017

Several years ago, before the Lord blessed us with ridiculously time consuming and needy children, my wife and I got the chance to visit Italy and see some of the great art of the West. After a very strenuous day of exploring Rome and Vatican City, as we were finishing up our Vatican Museum tour, our guide asked if any of us wanted to walk a bit farther to go to the Papal chambers where Raphael’s School of Athens was painted. It was a bit of a walk though, she said, and so we could skip it if we wanted. All I wanted to do was sit down and eat some gelato, but I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance again and prayed to the good Lord to give my legs one more mile. He did and I saw Raphael’s painting, which, as any lover of the humanities knows, is a real treasure. It’s also a great way to envision Hans Boersma’s thesis in his new book: we have all fallen far too hard for Aristotle as moderns, and to recover a proper biblical hermeneutic, we need to turn back to Plato.

Boersma- Scripture as Real PresnceThough this comparison is somewhat crude, I don’t think it’s too far off. The focus of Raphael’s painting, as you know, is the competing metaphysic between Plato and Aristotle: between Plato’s mysticism—he’s the one on the left pointing up to the mysteries of the heavens— and Aristotle’s embodied realism—Aristotle holds his hand down to the earth embodying his focus on concrete scientia. Like Raphael’s painting, Boersma’s book also revolves around this dualistic metaphysic; he believes that Plato and Aristotle represent the two competing methods of Scriptural interpretation. Scripture as Real Presence is an exercise in patristic exegesis because we need to get back to the way the fathers read Scripture. In short, the fathers read Scripture better than we do because they had the right metaphysics. As pre-moderns, the church fathers were Platonists, combing the Scriptures sacramentally (Boersma’s term), looking for Christ in every sentence and every verse.

As moderns, we have forfeited our deep reading of Scripture for a historical, scientific hermeneutic—a hermeneutic in line with Aristotle’s metaphysic—content to stay on the surface of things, content to squalor in the mud and the bugs—when we could reach to the heavens with Plato. That is the thesis of the book. Let me now fill out—and question—that picture.

Boersma’s book is driven by two main contentions: first, to get us to see that we must have a sacramental metaphysic in order to properly read Scripture. Second, and inseparably related with the first, to convince the reader to reclaim the Church Father’s sacramental reading of Scripture. Let’s take both in turn, beginning with the second claim:

xHans-Boersma.jpg,q1414793825.pagespeed.ic.SLlJFSpMYm
Boersma’s faculty photo at Regent College in Vancouver, a fantastic institution.

As anyone familiar with Hans Boersma’s thought will know, he is a sacramental theologian. It will be no surprise, then, to find the thesis that we must read Scripture sacramentally at the heart of his new book. As for his understanding of all creation as sacrament—that all things point to the goodness and reality of God— absolutely: understanding Thomas’ analogia entis—that we are all gifted being at every moment of our existence—was a defining moment in my intellectual life and spiritual understanding. Unfortunately, Boersma’s usage of the term “sacrament” is confusing in this book. When he turns to a “sacramental hermeneutic”, or the reading of Scripture he believes the Church Fathers employed, the term suddenly transitions from seeing all things as revealing God to seeing all Scriptures as revealing Christ. The usage is imprecise and leads to misunderstandings. Why not call it a “Christocentric” understanding of Scripture, for example? The reason I bring it up here is because I am not convinced of everything that he believes a “sacramental hermeneutic” entails and yet I would very much want to affirm Boersma’s sacramental theology. Let me draw this out by going to Boersma’s second driving theme.

The most fascinating, though controversial, motif of Scripture as Real Presence is Boersma’s thesis that we read Scripture only as well as our background metaphysics allows us to. Drawing from Origen, Boersma says that, “good metaphysics leads to good hermeneutics” (5). What that means more concretely is, “The way we think about the relationship between God and the world is immediately tied up with the way we read Scripture” (ibid). As moderns, we look at Scripture much too mechanistically, which, Boersma believes, has led to reductionism—the stripping away of profound truths and formation from Scripture. Instead of reading as moderns, we must get back to the pre-modern (read Platonic) “sacramental hermeneutic” of patristic interpretation. Boersma explains: “the reason the church fathers practice typology, allegory, and so on is that they were convinced that the reality of the Christ event was already present (sacramentally) within the history described within the Old Testament narrative. To speak of a sacramental hermeneutic, therefore, is to allude to the recognition of the real presence of the new Christ-reality hidden within the outward sacrament of the biblical text” (12).

origen
Origen, the third-century Alexandrian theologian plays a large role in Boersma’s book.

His usage of sacramental is unclear to me here—is it because Christ is the Logos through which all of creation and reason is informed that He is present in all parts of the Old Testament narrative, for example? What’s concerning to me is how Boersma next marries a “sacramental hermeneutic” to Christian Platonisim: “To speak, therefore, of a ‘sacramental hermeneutic’ is not to reject other, perhaps more common labels [like allegory, anagogy] but rather to allude to the shared metaphysical grounding of these various exegetical approaches” (13). So, wait…. Does that mean I can’t read Scripture Christo-centrically if I’m not a Platonist? It often seems like it. Consider this:

“My Christian Platonist convictions imply that I will happily go back to the church fathers (or the Middle Ages or anywhere else) to look for insights that can contribute to the practice of a sacramental reading today. After all, the question of whether a ressourcement of the exegesis of the church fathers is possible and worthwhile is, ultimately, a question of the truth or false of its metaphysical and hermeneutical presuppositions (276).”

The way this works out in practice is that Boersma takes on the popularity of N.T. Wright whom he has stand in for the “redemptive historical” method of biblical interpretation and the new perspective on Paul.

The redemptive historical method Boersma sees as too confined by a modern hermeneutic. He says, “One of the greatest pastoral drawbacks of both the historical method and the new perspective on Paul is that it’s hard to see how, with these approaches, readers of the Old Testament are able to relate the historical narrative to their own lives” (xiv).

Additionally, “The weakness of historical exegesis…is that it doesn’t treat the Old Testament as a sacrament that already contains the New Testament reality of Christ” (xv).

In other words, without a Platonic metaphysic that allows for allegorical readings, the reader of the biblical text is unable to see how all of Scripture points to Christ and the Old Testament stands relevant only inasmuch as we can leave it behind and relate it to today. I found this an odd claim given how much I have benefited from seeing both the Old and New Testament scriptures in their historical context as a grand narrative with Jesus at their center and as their climax: in other words, in the redemptive-historical method that Boersma wants us to reconsider. In fact, I see Boersma’s dichotomy between historical and sacramental exegesis to be the biggest weakness with this work. I don’t think that he would advocate abandoning historical exegesis but in certain places he certainly discounts its importance and its relevance. In the conclusion, for instance, after ringing an optimistic tune about whether a return to pre-modern patristic exegesis is possible, Boersma says, “Thankfully, it is possible to point to a growing conviction, not only among dogmatic theologians but also among biblical scholars, that exegesis is not primarily a historical endeavor and that it first of all asks about the subject of the text—that is to say, about God and our relationship to Him” (277, emphasis added).

plato
Plato from Raphael’s School of Athens. Detail.

Now, Boersma would simply accuse me of being too wedded to my modern metaphysic but a statement like that makes me profoundly nervous. Chrysostom, Boersma says, expressed his concern that an allegorical reading of the Scriptures could lead to the text saying whatever the reader wanted them to. But we should not fear, Boersma says, because the “rule of faith” disallows any reading of Scripture that would conflict with orthodoxy. But what of the myriad of conflicting interpretations that lead daily to denominational splits, all “read in the Spirit”? Chrysostom’s worry becomes my fear when I read a sentence that states that exegesis isn’t really about history. Does this not imply that we should simply throw the author’s original intent out the window? Indeed, scriptural interpretation is not only history but it is certainly not less. I understand that we stay wedded only to the literal sense of Scripture at our peril and spiritual impoverishment, but to imply that we do not begin with the history and context of Scripture—that Scripture is not primarily about what the author’s intended to convey—invites, unfortunately, not a pre-modern sacramental reading contained within the Church’s rule of faith, but only encourages the continual splintering of the tens of thousands of denominations that we see today.

Boersma, as a self identified Christian Platonist, has written an important book in which he challenges the dominance of modern historical exegesis in favor of a pre-modern “sacramental hermeneutic” which follows in the footsteps of the Church fathers. We should stand and applaud Boersma’s sacramental theology and his desire to read Scripture more richly. All of creation and Scripture is a sacrament in that it points to the presence and glory of God and Boersma is one of our finest Protestant voices in reminding us of that fact. But I question the wisdom of downplaying historical exegesis for a Platonic and allegorizing hermeneutic. (In fact, I quite like Aristotle.) In my experience, 21st century Protestant readers of Scripture are already far too uprooted from the important details of, say, second-temple Judaism, in order to make their reading of Scripture more meaningful and fruitful. Surely we can see Christ in all of Scripture without being Christian Platonists. I’m tired of being asked, “What is this Scripture saying to you?” What I want to know is: what did the writers intend to say to their original historical audience? Then, and only then, may I ask and answer the subjective question with conviction.

*Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.

Fleming Rutledge and the Crucifixion

*Rutledge’s book came out a couple years ago but it has won some major awards and recently been re-released in paperback so I wanted to post a review that I wrote which I never posted, which I thought especially apropos given that it’s Holy Week.

Fleming Rutledge- The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ Eerdmans, 2015 (669 pp.)

Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central focus the suffering and degradation of its God.

–PBS special “The Christians” 1981.

51iB04IqXvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Why the cross? It seems an easily answered question for those familiar with the plot line of Christianity but on reflection the crucifixion does not easily explain itself and requires interpretation, Rutledge says. Ask even mature Christians what it was that Jesus accomplished on the cross and how it was accomplished and the answers will likely be short and fairly inarticulate — thus the need for this book. The Crucifixion is a gift to preachers and teachers alike in large part because there are surprisingly few books of this kind in publication. Her book fills a hole in the need for book-length overviews of the atonement.

There are two things that are particularly helpful about the way Rutledge has written her book:

First, she writers as a preacher for preachers. Rutledge is not interested in a theology book for theology sake but to give preachers and teachers a resource for better understanding and speaking about the death of Jesus Christ. “These pages attempt to be a bridge between academic scholarship, on the one hand, and local congregations, on the other,” she writes in the preface (xvii). Her book is littered with anecdotes, literature quotations and excerpts from the liturgy of the Church (particularly Episcopalian of which she is a part). It is clear that she has continually asked herself, ‘will it preach?’ in the composition of this lengthy book. Her section on Jesus wrestling with the forces of evil and death in the garden of Gesthemene (pp. 371-375) should be read by every preacher before they begin preparing their annual Easter sermon. It will undoubtedly bring the earth-shattering consequences of Jesus life, death and resurrection back into the heart of the gospel with the reminder that Jesus death is much more than the forgiveness of individual sin but also the victory of God over everything that opposes His reign.

Second, Rutledge is intentionally inclusionary of the Church’s wide-ranging and diverse interpretations of the atonement. The Crucifixion is not written to privilege the Christus Victor view over the substitutionary model or to defend the “legacy” of the Reformers interpretation of penal substitution, to note just two of the more prevalent current reasons for those writing on the atonement. Though Rutledge admits that it is a “challenge” to address such a profound topic in an understandable way while still engaging with the wide spectrum of the church’s teaching about the crucifixion of Christ, her decades of pastoral experience in the Church have made this “work of a lifetime” a comprehensive overview of the theories of the atonement. Though this inclusionary treatment has made the book a lengthy read, for the faithful and persistent reader, however, this inclusionary approach is invaluable. This reviewer, for instance, has come away with a deeper understanding of Anselm, apocalyptic and hell to name but just a few of the more prominent sub-themes that run throughout The Crucifixion.

From the outset, Rutledge notes that there are actually two questions connoted in the question of why the cross? The first and most obvious is, why was it necessary for Jesus to give his life away? But there is another that is seldom asked: why was the cross —crucifixion— the means by which that death was accomplished? Anslem in his treatise on the atonement, Cur Deus Homo, asks, why should God have to “stoop to such lowly things,” as the crucifixion or “do anything with such great labor” when he could simply flick the demons away? Though the first question guides the book as a whole, the second, Rutledge says, stands at its heart. Anselm’s answer to his interlocutor, and one that Rutledge returns to continually is a sobering one: “Nondum considerasti quanti ponderis peccatum sit—You have not yet considered the gravity of sin.”

In the first part of the book, “The Crucifixion.” Rutledge builds on Anselm’s answer for why the crucifixion specifically was the form of death chosen for Jesus. Her answer is that the cross and the crucifixion, “marks out the essential distinction between Christianity and ‘religion.’” That is, the crucifixion is such a horrendous death that it must dethrone any type of natural preconceptions that we may have of who God should be or what He should be like. The sheer “irreligiousness” of the cross subverts any anthropomorphic reductions of Christianity in the guise of a Feuerbach or a Freud. This really isn’t something that could be made up, is the essence of Rutledge’s claim. Paul said the same thing: “for we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” This notion of the “irreligiousness” of the cross is a powerful reminder and one that pastors need to reclaim time and time again in order to remind the Church that in the words of Moltmann, we worship a “crucified God.”

The sheer scandal of such a proclamation was brought home recently when a Muslim friend said to my wife, “that cannot be true. God cannot die.”

Having reminded the reader in part one of just how subversive and strange the central belief of Christianity really is, Rutledge turns to the more traditional question of what Jesus accomplished in the much longer part two, “The Biblical Motifs.” She gives a helpful two-fold categorical grouping of the various theories of the cross offered in Scripture ­— atonement and deliverance. The first, atonement, is God’s action in making vicarious reparation for sin that understands the cross as a sacrifice, sin offering, guilt offering, expiation, and substitution where related motifs are the scapegoat, the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant. The second, deliverance, is God’s victory over the powers of sin and death that sees the cross as rescue from bondage, slavery, and oppression and interprets it as the new exodus, the harrowing of hell, and Christ the Victor. From there, she devotes eight chapters to expanding on each of the major theories that come out of these two main categories. I will not take up any more space diving into those chapters, but they deserve your time.

Reading Rutledge’s book is a commitment — it is long and extensive because it is concerned with eliminating the shrug and the “heard it before” understanding of what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus’ death is the crux from which all of history turns and it demands our time and study. Rutledge has given believers and seekers alike a gift The Crucifixion. It invites us all to understand in order to love the greatest gift that has ever been given.

 

 

Jesus the Faithful Israelite- Thursday Holy Week Meditations

Golgotha
Golgotha, the rock upon which history turns.  

Today we have come to Golgotha, a small and insignificant hill in Jerusalem where criminals of the state are executed. We come to it a day early so that tomorrow we might say little and simply pray and weep at the body of our Lord who hangs upon the tree.

Yesterday, Wednesday of Holy Week, we looked at how it was going to take someone that was more than flesh to overcome the curse of the law because Torah had proved that every person was trapped in his and her flesh and all of its bondages to sin.

“Adam’s sin established a regime of spreading death that led to sin….Israel herself was overtaken by flesh and came under a curse” (203). Because Israel is itself entrapped in flesh, Torah, the law that was given to her in order that she might bless the nations, has become her prosecutor that she too, is entrapped in the flesh and under the curse of sin. Leithart says, “The curse is not exclusively because Israel became proud of her possession of Torah or because individual Israelites were proud of their meritorious law-keeping, though both of those attitudes are examples of how flesh perverts Torah. Paul’s point [in Galatians] is far more straightforward: the curse rests on Israel because she has failed to obey the law (Gal 3:10) [199, original emphasis]. And so Paul says that the chosen people of God have been liberated through the work of the Jesus and his death on the cross:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14 NRSV).

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsThis is why Paul is so incredulous toward the Galatians. How could those who received the Spirit and been freed from the curse through their belief in the faithfulness of Christ, return to the old stoicheia, to the very law which pronounced the curse upon them? It is only through understanding Jesus as Son of David, as the faithful Israelite, that the mechanism of the atonement comes into full view. It is here that we come to the heart of the mystery of Easter week and are able to have a clue to answering the question that centers Leithart’s book: “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Hanging on the tree, he is a cursed one, and by bearing the curse he breaks through the curse….Jesus is condemned as a rebellious son, though he is not. He is condemned as a rebellious son by the rebellious son, Israel in the flesh. In that precise sense, Jesus suffers the curse of Israel. Because Jesus the faithful Israelite bears the curse, he delivers/redeems Israel from the curse. He takes the place of Israel that should be cursed in order to remove the cursing. And so the flow of blessing, the flow of the Spirit, begins (200).

By jumping straight to the universalizing of sin, that Jesus died for all, we miss precisely how redemption from the curse works. Paul is speaking to his fellow Israelites when he says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law….” Are the rest of us Gentiles rescued as well because of the death of Christ, well yes, but one misses the glory of the story of Scripture and the workings of the plan of God if one skips over why Jesus must have been from the line of David. That’s why Paul in his greatest letter describes the gospel as being “promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…” (Romans 1:2-3).

As Leithart says, “God’s promise is universal, to ‘justify the Gentiles by faith,’ but that universal promise is realized only in the fulfillment of the particular promise that the blessing will come through Abraham’s seed” (201).

Through the faithfulness of Jesus the true Israelite, Israel has fulfilled its mission to bless the world. The same Spirit that hovered over the waters and moved to create, now descends upon the nations.