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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Samuel V. Adams and Paul’s “apocalypse of Jesus Christ”

I think I’m getting to the bottom of Samuel V. Adams’ excellent, invigorating, complex, stimulating and—in my view—flawed critique of N.T. Wright’s historical methodology.

History and theology have given us two different ways of understanding “apocalyptic”. When historians such as Wright use the term, what they have in mind principally is a body of literature, mostly of Palestinian Jewish origin, dating from roughly 300 BC to the early second century AD, which furnished, among other things, supernaturally revealed narratives of hope for Jews suffering Greek and Roman oppression. The corpus consists of texts such as Daniel, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Levi, or parts thereof. Some of the Qumran literature has a distinctly apocalyptic colouring.

Adams accepts that the literary-historical understanding of apocalyptic has some value. “Wright’s observation that apocalyptic literature is both political and covenantal seems exactly right and is an important point that needs to be made, especially when interpreting the book of Revelation” (238). But he thinks that Wright is at fault in dismissing the use of the term to designate “an epistemological/theological posture as well as a perspective on the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s saving work” (235). Scot McKnight has also recently discussed the controversy.

From Adams’ point of view, “apocalyptic” is a category that transcends all historical worldviews, including the historical-apocalyptic worldview of first century Judaism; and he maintains specifically that when Paul speaks of the revelation or apocalypse Jesus Christ, it is this epistemological/theological definition that provides the appropriate “interpretive matrix”.

Was Paul a Jewish apostle or a post-Barthian theologian? On which side of the hermeneutical wall does he belong?

The problem, he argues, is that if we leave the interpretation of Paul to history, if we confine our understanding of his thought to the first-century Jewish-apocalyptic worldview, then “the actual impact of the irruption of God is minimized”. The assumption is that at the heart of Paul’s theology is something like a “dialectical engagement with the living and personal God” (242) that must be universally or cosmically relevant and accessible. The apocalypse of Jesus Christ is “absolutely unique with respect to any and all worldviews to which it comes” 270). It is an epistemological and ontological novelty.

The word “irruption” comes from Wright’s Hulsean Lecture, published in Paul: In Fresh Perspective:

In the messianic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection Paul believes both that the covenant promises were at last fulfilled and that this constituted a massive and dramatic irruption into the process of world history unlike anything before or since.

For Wright the “irruption” of God into history in and through Jesus, even if a unique event, remains explicable according to the historical categories of Jewish apocalyptic and is, therefore, “confined within the limited field of worldviews” (239). Indeed, the phrase “unlike anything before or since” sounds rather like Jesus’ description of the suffering that would attend the siege of Jerusalem: “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt. 24:21; cf. Dan. 12:1; Jos. War Prologue 12).

The question that Adams asks is “whether or not Paul’s experience of the singular apocalypse of Jesus Christ is knowable in these terms”. Put simply, is Paul’s “apocalyptic” historical or theological? Was Paul a Jewish apostle or a post-Barthian theologian? On which side of the hermeneutical wall does he belong?

Adams’ argument about “Paul’s epistemological shift” needs to be looked at more closely. For now, I want briefly to consider his interpretation of the phrase “apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, which comes from Paul’s defence of his apostleship in Galatians:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation (apokalypseōs) of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11–12)

Adams offers little in the way of exegesis. In discussing Barth earlier he made the very general statement that, for J. Louis Martyn, Paul is writing about the “apocalypse of Jesus Christ”, therefore Paul is “to be read with the expectation that the reader might encounter a third horizon”. This third horizon is clearly not limited to the historical outlook of the text. The idea is that in the text the objective reality of God (Torrance) is encountered as his self-disclosure in the event of Jesus Christ, especially within the crucifixion.

The phrase “revelation of Jesus Christ” in Galatians 1:12 can be understood either objectively or subjectively: basically, either Jesus is the content of the revelation or he is the means or agent of revelation. The former seems more likely to me in view of the statement in verse 16 that God “was pleased to reveal (apokalypsai) his Son to me”. But either way, Paul’s argument is that he received his “gospel” through a “revelation of Jesus Christ” in order that he might “preach him among the Gentiles” (1:16).

To make sense of this, the obvious place to turn is Romans 1:1-4:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paul’s gospel is not that God has been revealed in the “Christ event”—though he may not have disagreed with that, assuming he would have understood such an abstraction. It is that the risen Jesus, whom Paul encountered on the road to Damascus, has been made king—over both Israel and the nations—by means of his resurrection from the dead. There is no reference to the crucifixion.

Adams’ theological apocalyptic offers no help in understanding that “gospel”, but the proposition makes excellent, if remarkable, sense when interpreted according to the matrix of first century Jewish apocalyptic. By means of Jesus’ faithfulness and elevation to the right hand of God, YHWH has both resolved the political-religious crisis faced by his people in the first century and has asserted his sovereignty over the pagan oikoumenē—to use a less theologically loaded term than “cosmos”. This is the “mystery” that has been revealed and made known to all nations (Rom. 16:25-26).

We should also register the fact that for Luke the risen Christ who is revealed to Paul is identified not with YHWH but with the persecuted disciples (Acts 9:4). Again, this makes good sense in Jewish-apocalyptic terms, but for the theologians it can only throw a spanner in the works.

It has to be a problem that the theological approach is so reluctant to engage in a careful reading of the texts on which it presumes to hang its biblical argument. I made this point with respect to Adams’ reliance on the traditional understanding of the name “God with us”. Exegesis does not support the theological-apocalyptic reading of Galatians 1:12. The view depends almost wholly on a theoretical discussion that makes little attempt to establish common ground with the apostle commissioned by the risen Lord to proclaim his name among the Gentiles.

Exegesis points to a Jewish story about how the God of Israel intervened in the affairs of his people to bring about a far-reaching transformation of their historical condition. If at a later point theologians, operating outside of the Jewish-apocalyptic worldview, need to find less circumscribed ways of explaining the significance of the so-called “Christ event”, then that is their prerogative. They may even have a point. But I object to the pretension that the theological construct somehow transcends the historical and to the attempt to impose that construct on Paul.

Comments

Maybe I’m just being awkward, but the problem I have with the exclusively historical approach is that it consistently ignores the features of Jesus’s appearance in the narrative of Israel which are justifiably described as “a massive and dramatic irruption into the process of world history unlike anything before or since”, and in limiting the actions of Jesus to mainly 1st century events and categories, fails to observe the obvious ways in which his actions defied previously known biblical categories, and exceeded them in their reach and consequences. (No messiah was expected to be born by divine agency in a virgin birth; no messiah was ever expected to die on a cross and be resurrected; no messiah said ‘Love your enemies’ etc etc).

I’m struggling with the arguments over ‘apocalypse’ though. You only quote one verse (Galatians 1:12) which Adam’s may have used to lend fuel to his argument, and I don’t see how it can be proved whether the word here relates to historical apocalyptic genre or some new category of apocalypse, or neither. I can’t see how any conclusive case for either an ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ understanding of ‘apocalypse’ can be made from this verse. Does Adams’ rest his argument on this one verse alone?

Curiously, Galatians 1:12 seems at odds with 1 Corinthians 15:3. The Galatians gospel was given to Paul through what we would understand to be divine revelation, ie “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it”. The 1 Corinthians gospel uses the word “received” more in the sense of a tradition received and passed on. Adams seems to be using ‘revelation’ (or ‘apocalypse’) in yet another sense, as in the idea of a “divine irruption into history”. We also have yet another meaning of ‘apocalypse’ - the more recent sense of events of great magnitude and destruction such as might accompany the end of the world as we know it.

Maybe you can help me out here. I’m appreciating the review, and having the gist of Adams provided for me.

With respect to your first point, if I’ve understood the argument correctly, Adams maintains a distinction between divine irruptions that are understood according to the categories of Jewish apocalyptic and divine irruptions that transcend the categories of Jewish apocalyptic—and indeed of any other worldview.

So for example, is the resurrection of Jesus part of the story of Israel, to be interpreted with reference to such passages as Ezekiel 37, Daniel 12:2-3, Hosea 6:1-2, and other Jewish texts which make resurrection a matter of the vindication of the righteous? Or is it to be understood as an ontological novelty—a new creation which transcends the narrative of Israel?

I would argue, in fact, that it is both, but in the New Testament it is the historical-apocalyptic explanation that is by far the most important.

On the second matter, Adams basically assumes J. Louis Martyn’s reading. It seems to me, though, that even in Galatians and certainly in the context of Paul’s thought as a whole, what he proclaims to the Gentiles is not a timeless revelation of God in the Christ event—that is an unnecessary over-abstraction, a theological over-extension driven by modern philosophical assumptions. His gospel cannot be dissociated from the story of what God is doing to transform the circumstances of his people—the family of Abraham—during this time of eschatological crisis. He proclaims an event that has massive implications for the future of Israel and of the nations. So what does Adams do with a passage like 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10?

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

Coming wrath, turning from idols, resurrection from the dead, and coming on the clouds of heaven are all the stuff of the Jewish apocalyptic worldview, and they are central to how Paul’s constructs his gospel. But they are worse than useless for Adams’ theological definition of apocalyptic.

There is an argument that what Paul recites in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 is not the gospel of verses 1-2 but a primitive creed. So the “gospel” which he preached to the Corinthians is the same gospel that he “received” by the “revelation of Jesus Christ” in Galatians 1:12, but he also delivered to them a set of credal statements which had been handed on to him by the early church.

If Adams is following in the Barthian trad then I don’t think he is saying that apocalyptic is abstract from the Jewish context, but that dogmatically speaking it precedes and conditions the Jewish history. TF Torrance’s *The Mediation of Christ* is a good illustration of how that works. And Israel in Barth’s doctrine of election also illustrates how Jewish history works not in abstraction but in concretion relative to God’s irruption into human history.

But how do we speak meaningfully about something that precedes and conditions the Jewish history? I see this in his argument, but where does it come from? Does the Jewish history demand a dogmatic apocalyptic a priori? Who has decided that this is the case? Torrance? Barth?

The impression I got was that the abstract notions only ever become concrete in human history in general terms, not in the particular covenantal history of Israel. If we push the argument to the point of saying that theological apocalyptic finds expression in the history of Israel, then it seems to me that the argument has become self-defeating. Let’s just have the history of Israel and be done with it. The troubled biblical story of God’s people is fully capable of accounting for the transcendence of the creator God in its own narrative terms without resorting to arguments about an irruption into history that transcends all worldviews.

But, OK, it’s challenging stuff…

It is a matter of engaging in Christian dogmatics. The realization that even Jewish apocalyptic has a metaphysical heritage. You seem to be presupposing that God has “inspired” a certain period of history; why? Do you not believe in what Matthew Levering has identified as participatory history vis-a-vis linear history? That God encompasses all of reality, from beginning to end? That even the Apostle Paul presupposed upon certain theo-logic in order to say what he did for example about the primacy of Christ over and for creation in Col 1.15ff as the imago Dei etc. So you seem to be suggesting or presupposing that in Paul and the NT writers all had critically worked out a certain theo-logic based purely upon an ostensible Jewish history (i.e. in the OT). Why are you presupposing that? How do you understand the development and the grammar for the Trinity at Nicea-Constantinople or Christology and Chalcedon? Do you think that is abstract relative to Jewish categories as well?

Andrew here’s what I’m referring to in re to Levering: Click Here Do you just reject what he is saying out of hand?

Do you reject the idea of theological exegesis? Or is it only a certain type of theological exegesis you reject? Since NT Wright engages in it too.

Andrew,

And the real issue that you seemed to be concerned with is an issue of time’s relationship to eternity and vice/versa (that seems to be the source of your critique in regard to abstract thinking – which is interesting since Barth is said to be a post-metaphysical theologian who does theology a posteriori from the Self revelation of God in Jesus Christ). Darren Sumner in years past wrote this elucidating article on this very issue; you might find it instructive.

What do you think about the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura? It seems to me that you ascribe to a solo scriptura instead.

Sola (or solo) scriptura speaks more to the authority of Scripture in our practice of the faith in life.

What we’re dealing with here is the heremeneutical approach to Scripture as we read Scripture itself.

Also, quoting other works outside of Scripture as helpful in heremeneutically interpreting Scripture would show that one does not hold to “solo.”

Scott,

Sola scriptura historically entails a healthy understanding that interpretive tradition/i.e. Christian dogmatics etc play in Scripture’s reception and thus interpretation. So I don’t agree with you.

The discussion we’re having here is the role that theological exegesis ought to have as a hermeneutical model. Andrew largely (apparently) repudiates that type of exegesis, and prefers maybe something like the LGH and/or maybe emphasizing literary analysis etc. There’s a real difference. But this is why I brought up “solo” because solo works from a deconfessionalized heremeneutic whereas sola does not.

I read your post. I have two basic criticisms, if you’ll allow me.

First, I think you miss the point about “linear” history. The Old Testament tells a story that might be called “linear”, but it is not naturalistic or “human alone”—far from it. The living God is dynamically involved in the affairs of his people, both miraculously and providentially. My understanding of “biblical theology” is that God is fully engaged in history, acts through history, at least insofar as it concerns the well-being and mission of his people.

The point about the emphasis on history has to do less with “the logical rules of a historical proof” than with the story that is being told by the historical community. The argument is that it is primarily this story that explains the content of scripture. No one is reducing history to a string of historical vignettes.

To say that the “linear theory of history has abstracted humanity and ‘natural’ history from God’s life as the ultimate and primary ground of all reality and history” makes no sense. As I see it, the abstraction lies in the phrase “primary ground of all reality and history”. History, or historiography, is the narration and interpretation of concrete events.

Secondly, I still don’t see how a christological theory of history “provides the necessary frame for apprehending the true meaning of biblical texts”. More often than not, when theologians start interpreting biblical texts, particularly with a view to defending their theology, they get it wrong. I can see the value of a “metaphysics of participation inscribed in creation” in very general terms, but I don’t see that it offers any help for biblical interpretation. Scripture is not about God and creation. It is about God and Israel, God and his people and their troubled historical existence. 

Scripture is not about God and creation. It is about God and Israel, God and his people and their troubled historicalexistence.

I’d venture to say “creation” IS “Israel”…

If any man be in Christ he is a new creation” i.e., ‘new Israel’.

Andrew you wrote:

First, I think you miss the point about “linear” history. The Old Testament tells a story that might be called “linear”, but it is not naturalistic or “human alone”—far from it. The living God is dynamically involved in the affairs of his people, both miraculously and providentially….

This response is curious, because your description here actually collapses what Levering identifies as linear history with his participatory history; i.e. “The living God is dynamically involved in the affairs of his people, both miraculously and providentially.” Yes, and so there is a vertical and linear/horizontal component to history; participatory history (God’s Triune life providentially in-breaking and sustaining creaturely history) is the reality in which creation finds its ultimate reality both protologically and eschatologically. You don’t agree with that?

You wrote:

The point about the emphasis on history has to do less with “the logical rules of a historical proof” than with the story that is being told by the historical community….

Okay, but I am referring to (as is Levering) how higher critics engaged the text through non-confessional means; through text-critical/historical-critical tools; tools that developed as a result of intentionally deconfessionalizing the reception of the Bible. This is the linearizing of history I’m referring to, and it is indeed based upon an anti-supernatural engagement with the text (that doesn’t even need an argument, Andrew, it is apparent for anyone who has spent any time in the discipline of biblical studies).

Andrew you wrote further:

To say that the “linear theory of history has abstracted humanity and ‘natural’ history from God’s life as the ultimate and primary ground of all reality and history” makes no sense….

Why does this not make sense? I’m not sure I’m getting your methodology, Andrew. Are you ignoring the development within biblical studies signaled by Gabler et al that as I already sketched above moved away from receiving Scripture as Holy, and instead began to engage it as profane? Your responses are acting like that never happened! That’s what I’m referring to at one level as ‘linear history’ (i.e. School of Religons approach etc), and there is nothing “supernatural” or providential or genuinely Christian about receiving or engaging Scripture that way. Again you seem to be acting as if none of that has happened. Historism when applied to the text of Scripture denudes Scripture of its center, at least the center that Jesus sees in Scripture (Jn 5.39; Luke 24). Historical-criticism applied to Scripture has no understanding of Scripture’s ontology (as John Webster discusses that), it has no understanding of Scripture’s vertical location as God’s Triune speech (i.e. participatory/providential history); and this has radical impact upon one’s engagement with the text of Scripture. This is what I’m referring to as the primary ground of all reality and history; i.e. a doctrine of the primacy of Jesus Christ, as the firstborn from the dead (Col 1.15ff).

You write further:

… Scripture is not about God and creation. It is about God and Israel, God and his people and their troubled historical existence.

This is the most problematic of all you have written, Andrew! Scripture starts (protologically) with creation narrative, and it ends (eschatologically) with new creation narrative! You cannot be serious when you assert that Scripture is not about God and creation! Are you?? You almost seem to be reading Scripture as a dispensationalist. Scripture is about God in Christ; Israel is an aspect in that Triune story, an important aspect as mediator of the Messiah (in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant which transcends the nation of Israel and is about God and the ethnos/nations) to the world. When I said you sound like a dispensationalist I said that because this his how they read the Bible; as if the point of Scripture and salvation history was about the nation of Israel. Absolutely not! It is all about creation and new-creation, and Christ as the second Adam, the firstfruits of God, the imago Dei (Col 1.15) is the new creation, He is the point telos of creation, he is the telos of the nation of Israel for the nations. New creation and creation are woven tightly into the fabric of the whole of Scripture. I am very surprised that you’ve asserted what you have there!

…participatory history (God’s Triune life providentially in-breaking and sustaining creaturely history) is the reality in which creation finds its ultimate reality both protologically and eschatologically. You don’t agree with that?

It’s not that I disagree with it. I just think it’s the wrong place to start if we want to understand scripture.

This is the linearizing of history I’m referring to, and it is indeed based upon an anti-supernatural engagement with the text…

What I have problems with here is that you seem to confine “linear history” to the anti-supernatural side of the equation. History is by definition linear. I don’t think the historical approach is necessarily non-confessional—in fact, I think, that like biblical Israel the church should confess the narrative of God’s dealings with his people. And I don’t think that historical-critical methods are intrinsically harmful to faithful readings of scripture.

So I may just be struggling with your terminology. Linear history for me is a good thing. That may also explain what I said about your “linear theory of history has abstracted…” statement. I guess you mean “detached”.

This, however, I disagree with:

Historical-criticism applied to Scripture has no understanding of Scripture’s ontology (as John Webster discusses that), it has no understanding of Scripture’s vertical location as God’s Triune speech (i.e. participatory/providential history); and this has radical impact upon one’s engagement with the text of Scripture. 

In my view the attempt to assert a peculiar ontology for scripture as divine speech is redundant—it adds nothing to understanding and is not required by scripture itself. In my view, scripture is, all the way through, historical testimony. Besides, you appear to contradict yourself when you point to Christ, rather than scripture, as the “primary ground of all reality and history”—and even there, I think you are over-interpreting Colossians 1:15-20.

This is the most problematic of all you have written, Andrew! Scripture starts (protologically) with creation narrative, and it ends (eschatologically) with new creation narrative! You cannot be serious when you assert that Scripture is not about God and creation!

Well, perhaps that was an overstatement—but to make the point that the overwhelming bulk of the Bible has to do with the concrete historical experience of the family of Abraham. Part of the historical witness was that Israel’s God was the creator of heaven and earth and that he would have the final say over evil and death. But that’s just five out of the 929 chapters in the Bible. About 0.5%.

I don’t regard the historical narrative as merely the “mediator of the Messiah”. What drives the whole narrative is the historical existence of a people called to bear corporate witness to the creator God. That people was saved from destruction—the war against Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem, etc.—by the death of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, the Son of Man who is vindicated for his faithful obedience to YHWH. It was saved because God would not forget his promise to Abraham, which was not that there would be a Messiah but that there would always be a people.

That’s why eschatology is so prominent in the New Testament. It is patently not all about a final renewal of creation. It is about the vindication of those who would bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection, first to the Jews, then to the nations; and it is about the concrete historical rule of YHWH over the nations of the ancient world. Your creation-oriented hermeneutic simply doesn’t know what to do with all that.

Bobby, thanks for your robust responses.

It is a matter of engaging in Christian dogmatics.

Why? Why do we need “Christian dogmatics”? Are Christian dogmatics divinely ordained? Who says so? Or why should I not suppose that “dogmatics” is simply one formal way of encapsulating certain aspects of the story of God’s people to serve a particular and contingent cultural-intellectual purpose?

The realization that even Jewish apocalyptic has a metaphysical heritage.

Indeed. That is part of the story.

You seem to be presupposing that God has “inspired” a certain period of history; why?

No, I would say that certain critical things happened at a certain critical period in the history of the people of God and were recorded, more or less reliably, in the New Testament, which is a collection of historical documents reflecting the outlook and understanding of people at the time. We confess a historical continuity with that narrative—it is part of our story, as also the conversion of the Roman empire and nineteenth century revivalism are part of our story.

Do you not believe in what Matthew Levering has identified as participatory history vis-a-vis linear history? That God encompasses all of reality, from beginning to end?

I’ll address that separately. 

That even the Apostle Paul presupposed upon certain theo-logic in order to say what he did for example about the primacy of Christ over and for creation in Col 1.15ff as the imago Dei etc.

As above. That is part of the story.

So you seem to be suggesting or presupposing that in Paul and the NT writers all had critically worked out a certain theo-logic based purely upon an ostensible Jewish history (i.e. in the OT). Why are you presupposing that?

I don’t see the problem. The writers of the New Testament were self-evidently (mostly) first century Jews who thought like first century Jews, like Jesus himself. That’s the way the world works. They understood God according to their scriptures, history and worldview. God was the creator of all things, who had called Abraham to be the beginning of a convent people, to whom he remained faithful through thick and thin.

How do you understand the development and the grammar for the Trinity at Nicea-Constantinople or Christology and Chalcedon? Do you think that is abstract relative to Jewish categories as well?

My rather crude view is that at a certain point the kingdom narrative, which dominates scripture all the way through to the end of Revelation, ceased to have relevance for church in the Greek-Roman world, and the fathers set about the challenging intellectual task of constructing a new more or less Platonic-Christian worldview largely on the basis of John’s Gospel.

Andrew wrote:

Why? Why do we need “Christian dogmatics”? Are Christian dogmatics divinely ordained? Who says so?…

Do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe in two-natures/one person Christology? Why do you read Holy Scripture as Holy and not as profane? Why do you read Scripture as if it is God’s Word? Do you think that there is not history of reception of the Bible that informs the way you personally receive Scripture as God’s Word? You don’t see that as a consequence of Christian dogmatics; i.e. dogma that has historically shaped the church and Christians throughout the church’s history? The reason we need Christian dogmatics is because all of the above questions I just asked you are dogmatic questions, and they impact your reception of Scripture as Holy as they do your’s (i.e. the answers to those questions). I mean if you want to jettison all of church history and act as if Jesus hasn’t been participatory present in his church providing her with teachers etc for her edification I suppose that’s a prerogative you could take; but I wouldn’t suggest it, and I think if you do that it is disingenuous. We need Christian dogmatics because we are participants in the body of Christ and the great cloud of witnesses (i.e. the participatory reality of history again!); because we are participants in the Great Teacher’s life (Mt 23 the Pauline corpus etc), and he has been teaching his church since the genesis of the church — and still does (again the participatory reality of history). There is no de nuda scriptura; there is no de nuda creatio; there is only creation because God upholds all things by the word of his power, and it is within that primal word that scripture finds its ontology or taxis or ordered reality relative to God. These are all conclusions that come from thinking Christian dogmatically. Thinking this way is not an imposition on the Scripture but rises up from reflecting upon Scripture’s inner-logic; i.e. the logic that allows the occasional writings of Scripture to say what they do about God, about creation, about Israel, about sin/evil, about Christ, and about the new creation. This is the work of Christian dogmatics, to provide a rigorous grammar through which we can better approach Scripture, and even receive Scripture as Holy (which you benefit from as well, Andrew).

You wrote:

…We confess a historical continuity with that narrative—it is part of our story, as also the conversion of the Roman empire and nineteenth century revivalism are part of our story.

Again, you seem to be collapsing what Levering calls participatory history into linear history, conflating them and then critiquing the concept of participatory history (as the ground of linear history i.e. doctrine of creation — Christian dogmatics again, which you are engaging in as well in your presuppositions) as if you pretty much repudiate it; which is more than ironic!

You wrote further:

… That’s the way the world works. They understood God according to their scriptures, history and worldview. God was the creator of all things, who had called Abraham to be the beginning of a convent people, to whom he remained faithful through thick and thin.

Okay, but that doesn’t negate the fact that what they presupposed about God, even from their worldview, especially from their worldview (and I don’t like that category that much) does not invite for readerly questions that look at the deeper metaphysical reality being presupposed by their worldview (one funded by an idea of election, etc.). To read Scripture as if it is absolutized by its sitz im laben, as far as I am concerned is petitio principii, Andrew. You are appealing to an a priori dogmatic and theological understanding of the Second Temple Judaic psyche, itself informed by theological ontology and epistemology that is not neatly disclosed by simply reading Scripture (as you seem to be asserting). Their worldview (to use that cumbersome language) is informed by some pretty deep theo-logical categories fund, again, the occasional writings of all of Scripture. It is the task of the theological-exegete to interrogate that theology, and see where it leads; but it is to do so through what has counted as an orthodox grammar and lens (not slavishly committed to, but usefully committed to as the lens by which Christians throughout the centuries have attempted to engage with Scripture). None of this means that part of that cannot be reshaped by engagement with historical-critical studies, but those studies themselves are built upon certain premises that at an ontological level are based upon a metaphysical materialism rather than a supernaturalism. You seem to be suggesting that we can some how sanctify historism, plunder it and deploy it in such a way that our reconstructed histories can tell us more about Jesus than Jesus can through the text of his own life as disclosed dialogically through Scripture that is Holy.

Your low view of the ecumenical councils and the grammar they worked out helps make everything else you’ve written in reply to me make sense.

Thanks for the engagement, Andrew!

Do you think that there is not history of reception of the Bible that informs the way you personally receive Scripture as God’s Word? 

Well, that’s an interesting way of putting it. I can happily view dogmatics as part of the history of reception. The history of reception is as much part of the story of the people of God, the family of Abraham, as the story given us in the Bible. Also, part of the history of reception which informs my understanding of the Bible is the historical-critical method, which for all the damage it has done, has also opened our eyes to its narrative-historical character. The method, for my purposes, is “critical” primarily in the sense that it does not assume dogmatic tradition has got everything right. I certainly do not operate with an anti-supernaturalist hermeneutic.

I’m sure the Spirit has supervised interpretation over the centuries, but there is no reason to think that that supervision has been infallible or not conditioned by intellectual culture. Dogmatics is not a fool-proof guide to the interpretation of scripture, and it seems to me to be the case, whether we like it or not, that the post-enlightenment historical consciousness is at last helping us to reader scripture better.

If we are then left with a gulf between our understanding of the Bible and dogmatic tradition, then we have to do something about it. My preference is to regard dogmatics as part of the narrative, as much subject to prevailing worldviews (pace Adams) as New Testament apocalyptic. The answer is not to keep allowing theologians to make scripture say what they think it ought to say.

…and it is within that primal word that scripture finds its ontology or taxis or ordered reality relative to God.

I’m afraid that sounds to me like a theological fiction. To ascribe an “inner logic” to scripture is just the same as the old sensus plenior argument—it’s a way of smuggling meanings into the Bible that don’t belong there.

Again, you seem to be collapsing what Levering calls participatory history into linear history, conflating them and then critiquing the concept of participatory history (as the ground of linear history i.e. doctrine of creation — Christian dogmatics again, which you are engaging in as well in your presuppositions) as if you pretty much repudiate it; which is more than ironic!

I object to this. Clearly Israel believed it was participating in history with YHWH. This is not conflating two different models. It is simply recognising that the biblical narrative has to do with a historical community’s experience of God. So I would turn it around: the concrete historical experience of the community is the ground for any more abstract notions of participatory history. But this is not engaging in Christian dogmatics. The presuppositions are (in principle) historical: scripture bears witness to the beliefs of the historical communities that wrote and read the texts. That’s all there is to it.

I’m really not sure I follow the last part of your argument. You talk about enquiring into the metaphysics underlying the biblical worldview (I’m not very fond of the term either). Now either that is a later philosophical enquiry, in which case it may satisfy our curiosity but cannot pretend to shed light on the meaning of the texts. Or it is itself a historical enquiry—how would the ancients have explained their own metaphysics?—but a very difficult one, because they didn’t ask the questions in the sort of terms that you presuppose; in fact, the question may be anachronistic and meaningless.

How would you explain or articulate those “pretty deep theological categories” that inform the biblical worldview? What are you actually talking about?

You seem to be suggesting that we can somehow sanctify historism, plunder it and deploy it in such a way that our reconstructed histories can tell us more about Jesus than Jesus can through the text of his own life as disclosed dialogically through Scripture that is Holy.

You keep reifying this “historism” as some sort of metaphysical evil. All we are asking is what a word or saying or story or event or whatever means within the relevant historical and historical-literary context. We do it for Plato, we do it for Shakespeare, we do it for Milton. There’s nothing peculiar about it. The problem is that for 1500 years the church forgot what the original context was and assumed that its dogmatic conclusions were all that was needed to guarantee an accurate reading of the text.

Andrew wrote:

If we are then left with a gulf between our understanding of the Bible and dogmatic tradition, then we have to do something about it. My preference is to regard dogmatics as part of the narrative, as much subject to prevailing worldviews (pace Adams) as New Testament apocalyptic. The answer is not to keep allowing theologians to make scripture say what they think it ought to say.

This is quite a negative view of what theologians do! But since you reject (below) the idea of the ‘inner-logic’ of Scripture, negativity makes sense. What’s interesting, though, is that you don’t seem to hold the same view when it comes to the capacity that historical-criticism can and can’t do. Apparently historical-criticism does not attempt to reconstruct the “inner-history” within which the text of Scripture is located and written within. To me your critique is a double-edged sword, and you ought to fall on it as much as any theologian (if they ought to at all).

The history of interpretation is framed by confessional Christian dogmatics; that is undeniable. Yes, post-enlightenment has moved some beyond confessional so-called pre-critical interpretive practices; but that’s a crying shame. At the same time, I’m not totally antagonistic towards what has happened in the critical and now post-critical periods—there is some value there—but I only see that value tempered by also realizing the role and frame that Christian dogmatics offer, with particular reference, again, to the history of interpretation as a resource for the interpretive process. I’m not advocating an all or nothing, but a some here a some there.

Andrew wrote:

I’m afraid that sounds to me like a theological fiction. To ascribe an “inner logic” to scripture is just the same as the old sensus pleniorargument—it’s a way of smuggling meanings into the Bible that don’t belong there.

Eh, I’ve just addressed this above. Historians do just as much “smuggling” ostensibly as do the theologians; not buying that response.

Andrew wrote:

Clearly Israel believed it was participating in history with YHWH. This is not conflating two different models. It is simply recognising that the biblical narrative has to do with a historical community’s experience of God. So I would turn it around: the concrete historical experience of the community is the ground for any more abstract notions of participatory history.

I would flip this on its head (your flip) and say: the concrete particularity of God’s life in Jesus Christ enfleshed and those in union with Him by the Holy Spirit is the ground of experience through which God is known, and by which all other historical particularities in regard to Israel make sense (moving from shadow to substance/telos). Participation is not grounded in an abstract historical experience of the “people of God,” it is grounded first in God’s own participatory life for us in Christ, and it is this vertical reality that implicates how linear history (so called) makes sense in relation to Him and His in-breaking into the world. There is no Israel, there is no history, there is no revelation without that first order reality who is God (In the beginning). If you are going to read from bottom-up (i.e. Israel’s experience of God back to God), then I would suggest the better route, as I just noted, would be to start with Christ (as the par excellence particularity of Israel’s history) and work from there (a posteriori).

Andrew wrote:

… how would the ancients have explained their own metaphysics?—but a very difficult one, because they didn’t ask the questions in the sort of terms that you presuppose; in fact, the question may be anachronistic and meaningless.

This seems really rather strange to me, Andrew! You seem to have much more confidence (maybe of the enlightenment sort) to access what in fact the ancients actually thought. And then you seem be building a whole hermeneutic based upon your confidence and ability to reconstruct the ancient near east psyche. I think Adams is critiquing this very notion, and rightly so! This is about theological ontology and epistemology, and your treatment of things doesn’t seem to critically engage with that reality at all (i.e. the noetic effects of sin etc and how that impacts theological enquiry and hermeneutical/exegetical conclusions). You can assert that what Adams, and what I am saying is meaningless and anachronistic, but that fully misses the point here; again, the point has to do with theological/hermeneutical epistemology which is intextricably tied to theological ontology. You can dig your heals in all you like at this point, you claim a certain access to history, etc, but that does not engage with the elephant in the room which happens to be a theological elephant — this is where Adams’ (and of course I haven’t read him so I’m guessing based upon what you’ve written and knowing in general where he is coming from) thesis I think pretty much leaves your position listless. J

Andrew wrote:

… There’s nothing peculiar about it. The problem is that for 1500 years the church forgot what the original context was and assumed that its dogmatic conclusions were all that was needed to guarantee an accurate reading of the text.

No Andrew, I think this is rubbish! The church did not forget anything (your position is starting to sound a little like the Ladder Day Saints!), the mind of the church, if properly conceived, is first grounded in the life of God’s life in Christ by grace. This takes us back to my early response to you about participation (in this comment). Jesus never abandoned his church, but to read what you just wrote (and what many others in your mode do like NT Wright et al) one would think exactly that; i.e. that God’s presence had been absent until the ball got rolling to its current trajectory (in sectors, like yours, in biblical studies) — that just silly and absurd! In fact there is a movement of theological retrieval and ressourcement that is attempting to draw from the riches that lay in the heritage of the Christian church. Now just because you seem to think that that heritage is either not there or defunct doesn’t make it so — God forbit it! — it just means that you have chosen to believe that the enlightened mind is better suited to access the real life categories of Scripture than is the “pre-critical” mind. But I refuse to accept that, in fact I take it as pretty much blasphemous thinking! If we follow through on your logic God had abandoned his church for 1500 years; the years that gave the church the grammar for the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the homoousious, etc. This is why I actually think you do reject the idea of participatory history, because it is that reality that believes that God has always been present in his church providing dialogically conditioned ways of knowing him through Holy Scripture by the Spirit.

Anyway, Andrew, we are on totally different wave lengths here; as I’m sure you and Adams are. But the hurdle that you haven’t overcome or even really engaged with, as far as I can see, is the hurdle of explicating and engaging with the notion of a theological epistemology (which is a very important piece, even fundamental piece of thinking Christian dogmatically — which is maybe why you haven’t really engaged with it). To simply defer to the mind of the ancients only illustrates your disengagement here (with theological epistemology); because you are already presupposing upon an epistemology that believes it can access the ancients mind unabated, at least enough to say with enough certainty that allows for you to develop a whole hermeneutic that ostensibly gets God in Christ more right than does the Trad of the Christian church (in ALL of its history thus far).

To be clear: I’m not saying there is no value in attempting to reconstruct history, ancient minds, etc; but it is dangerous to presume that that is the basis for establishing a robust hermeneutic. It is dangerous because it remains contingent upon you and others’ capacity to reconstruct the history, and as such is susceptible to winds and waves of the historian’s mind rather than the mind of Christ.

>>I would flip this on its head (your flip) and say: the concrete particularity of God’s life in Jesus Christ enfleshed and those in union with Him by the Holy Spirit is the ground of experience through which God is known, and by which all other historical particularities in regard to Israel make sense (moving from shadow to substance/telos). Why would you say that?

I think it would help a lot if you provided examples in support of the following statements:

What’s interesting, though, is that you don’t seem to hold the same view when it comes to the capacity that historical-criticism can and can’t do. Apparently historical-criticism does not attempt to reconstruct the “inner-history” within which the text of Scripture is located and written within.

Historians do just as much “smuggling” ostensibly as do the theologians…

How in particular, in your view, does a narrative-historical reading distort or misrepresent the meaning of a biblical text?

Can I also pick up on the use of the phrase “great cloud of witnesses” to support the argument that biblical interpreters should give proper weight to dogmatic tradition?

The “witnesses” (martyrōn) in Hebrews 12:1 are those figures in the Old Testament, listed in chapter 11, who lived and acted by faith but who died “not having received the things promised”. The chapter concludes:

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Heb. 11:39–40)

They are “witnesses”, therefore, to the certainty of the goal or destination that the writer has in mind when he urges his readers to “run with endurance the race that is set before us”. They are not exegetes or theologians, and the writer is not encouraging his readers to pay heed to the doctrines that these Old Testament heroes were promulgating. So it’s really not a good use of scripture to support the argument about the hermeneutical priority of dogmatic tradition.

What we have in this passage, ironically, is not theological dogma but a Jewish-apocalyptic narrative about Christ-like faithfulness in the face of suffering and humiliation, which has as its climactic vision Christ seated at the right hand of God having been “appointed the heir of all things” (1:2-3; 12:2).

It may even be that these two contradicting truths are nevertheless true simultaneously, and that 2,000 years of shoehorning theories onto the Text is finally unraveling into something new and unexpected. Or as you yourself say:

“Why? Why do we need “Christian dogmatics”? Are Christian dogmatics divinely ordained? Who says so?”

“Shoehorning?”

Okay now I realize why Adams hasn’t really been commenting here. Ridiculous!

Pax.

@Andrew thanks for the engagement, but we are worlds apart!

Bobby,
the desire is to understand the text, to do this one has to presuppose that the narrative wishes to inform, and two things become important, the meaning of words as they were used then, how were the concepts handled, and a recognition that the NT is primarily a collection of letters. To even be a Protestant (if indeed you are) is to acknowledge that Paul wasn’t lying when he complains that false teachers were attempting to creep in unawares, and that the ‘Church’ can be wrong; would you allow this some weight it might help you to see that most battles over doctrine were also battles over prestige and authority; is it wrong to question whether that same Spirit which insists it is made ‘perfect in weakness’ might disdain to use the traditional tools of Statecraft.
Hume rightly points out in his On Natural Religion (I think) that it requires a miracle to believe the bible, and from this miracle one who has truly been brought to believe never recovers, but this doesn’t mean that one can believe the productions of fallible men, even less so when they change their mind with the prevailing Emperor, ‘the hireling flees because he is a hireling’.
The desire to know the truth, by having a consistent understanding of scripture is surely more laudable than misreading scripture because of the blood from some broken Church beam in our eye. I find Andrew’s explanations make sense of the text, while not demanding that you leave the comfort of that ‘habit that like us and stayed and never gave notice’ (Rilke) if such is difficult for you. Perhaps though the time is nigh for the Protestant assemblies to put away childish things, which most dogma would be if it were not for the evil with which its always established.
Peace and Love from the ever living Jah

Great comment, Phillip.