Tag Archives: Hermeneutics

Luther, Scripture and Conscience

Scott Hendrix’s comment on Luther’s declaration at Worms is worth repeating:

Although Luther was aware that different interpretations of scripture could be valid, he did not waver. His answer to Von der Ecken was the long version of a blunt statement he had made to Cardinal Cajetan three years earlier: “Divine truth is lord also over the pope, and I do not await human judgment when I have learned the judgment of God.” For Luther, the issue at stake in Worms was not how to interpret scripture but who could interpret scripture and discern the timely truth it contained. His “incontestable arguments” were based on what a text said and not on who offered the interpretation, that is, not on the pope’s interpretation because he was pope. And that his ‘conscience was captive to the word of God’ was not an internal moral meter that measured right or wrong, but loyalty to the highest authority on which one depended for the truth. For Luther in 1521, that authority was the gospel found in scripture.

Luther was a theology professor at an institution that did not promise freedom of speech. He had sworn allegiance both to the Roman Church and to holy scripture, which he was obligated to teach. Initially he saw no contradiction between them. The indulgence controversy, however, forced him to choose, and he confessed to Cajetan that his loyalty to scripture was higher than his loyalty to the pope. His conscience was now captive to scripture and not to papal interpretations of scripture… (106).

Approaching 1 Samuel (1): The “Author”

Francesca Aran Murphy

When I began reading through the books of Samuel a month or so ago, I knew I had no commentaries on these biblical books on my shelves. I set out immediately to rectify this long-standing and obvious lacuna, and, although the bookshop did not have much to offer, I did find two to help my initial engagement with these texts. Both written by women—an added bonus, considering the somewhat marginal-though-critical role women play in these books—neither would be recognised as “real” commentaries by some scholars.

Mary J. Evans, former academic dean at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, and vice-principal of London School of Theology, wrote The Message of Samuel in the Bible Speaks Today series (2004). This work is self-consciously not a commentary in the traditional sense of the word, but an “exposition” that seeks accurately to expound the biblical text with a view to contemporary insight and application (9). Evans writes, however, “with the conviction that the books of Samuel are a vital part of God’s Word” (10), and so takes them “seriously as the word of God” (15). Like a commentary, her exposition pays close attention to details of the text, the narrative structure and flow, the historical context, etc. This is a useful and accessible introduction that would benefit any Christian reader of the books of Samuel.

I have really been taken, however, by Francesca Aran Murphy’s 1 Samuel in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series (2011). Murphy, professor of systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame, has written—if the first chapter covering 1 Samuel 1–3 is any indication—a remarkable exposition of this biblical book. The Brazos series “enlists leading theologians to read and interpret scripture creedally for the twenty-first century, just as the church fathers, the Reformers, and other orthodox Christians did for their times and places” (blurb, emphasis added). Thus the work differs from more typical commentaries which analyse historical, linguistic, semantic, and thematic matters associated with the text, or explore and utilise particular hermeneutical lenses in their reading.

Of course Murphy employs the fruits of research into such matters, and has her own hermeneutical lenses. In her introduction we gain a sense of her approach to 1 Samuel when she reflects on what constitutes an author—particularly the author of 1 Samuel, and so also on the nature and function of this biblical text. She appears to reject the idea of the book as the product of editors working with collections of ancient documents. But she also rejects the “heroic sole author” of romanticism. Both these images, she suggests, derive from seventeenth-century British and European culture. Rather, her view includes the figure of a prophet whose immediacy to the divine grounds their religious authority. However the shift from oral to written tradition (or, revelation), is not merely the work of the prophet alone. The prophet provides the moral vision of the work, but this work is also carried out communally. Murphy analogises: perhaps there are similarities to modern script-writing for television drama series; “the best television series have as their executive director a mastermind…[who] gives the series an overall moral vision” which is then worked out collectively by a group who crafts the vision (xviii-xix).

Murphy utilises this image again, in the structure of her commentary which is divided into seven “series” (we might say, “seasons”). Each series (“season”) is composed of a number of episodes. Thus “season one” is “Grace and Nature”; season two is “The Carnival of the Ark”, and so on until season seven, “The Death of the Brother.” Season one has six episodes: Two Wives (1 Sam. 1:1-10); The Political and the Personal (1 Sam. 1:11-20); Samuel Handed Over (1 Sam. 1:21-28); Hannah’s Song (1 Sam. 2:1-11); Worthless Men (1 Sam. 2:12-36); The Call of Samuel (1 Sam. 3). This structure certainly resonates with me: I can “see” each episode as though on television.

For Murphy, then, “we will term the anonymous script writer of 1 Samuel its “author” because the term retains the shadow of the prophet and his mantle. This is important for Murphy because it provides insight into the function of the text—for both ancient and contemporary readers—and so also provides an orientation to the text itself.

The author of 1 Samuel was not only an independent historian, but also a writer who put his historical gifts at the service of the church. Independent but not autonomous, he wrote as one responsible for a religious community. His task was more like that of a bishop writing a pastoral letter or like that of a prophet, than that of a scholarly historian. For an individual scholar, history is a piece of the past about which he writes, perhaps imposing a philosophy of history upon it. For a people, on the other hand, “history is the remembered past,” the past as it belongs to us. One over-dramatizes the contrast if one says that the author of 1 Regum was a liturgist not a historian: and yet, there is something in it, since our “prophet” was sowing the seeds of a communal memory (xx, citing Lukacs, Historical Conciousness: or, The Remembered Past new edition (1985), 152).

Over the years I have read commentaries that approach the biblical text simply as “history” – or ideology or legend, etc., and some which certainly impose their own philosophy onto the text. Some will argue, and correctly to an extent, that it is impossible to do otherwise; we cannot help but bring ourselves and our own experiences and philosophical perspectives to the text. And it is often the case that these readings illumine and inform us in fresh ways.

But Murphy’s approach tends to viewing 1 Samuel not merely as “history” but as scripture, and so as a word that continues to speak. Its function is not simply an etiological account of the Israelite monarchy, but has religious, liturgical and prophetic functions, and to be read most fruitfully, must be read in account with its nature as such, its prophetic dimension continuing to inform the contemporary reader open to listening to it as such.

I will give some indications of how this plays out in Murphy’s exposition in a follow-up post.

The Blood of His Cross (11) – Anthony Thiselton

The more I read of Anthony Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine the more I appreciate it. His three chapters on the atoning work of Jesus and the interpretation of the cross provide additional cause for appreciation. The first chapter is inelegantly titled “Hermeneutics and Linguistic Currencies of Theologies of the Cross,” with Thiselton developing a quite simple analogy and making a quite straight-forward point. The analogy: “In financial currency-markets hard currencies are those that do not readily fluctuate with time or with changing conditions in other economies” (320). The point: biblical language is like a hard currency; it must be understood against the historical-linguistic contexts in which it emerged, but holds its value in the face of different contexts and “economies.” He cites Wolfhart Pannenberg with approval and emphasis:

The fact that a later age may find it hard to understand traditional ideas is not sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation, and thus keep their meaning alive. The problems that people have with ideas like expiation and representation (or substitution) in our secularized age rest less on any lack of forcefulness in the traditional terms than on the fact that those who are competent to interpret them do not explain their context with sufficient forcefulness or clarity (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 2:422; cited Thiselton, 312).

The chapter progresses in four moves. First, Thiselton argues that Christian interpretation and proclamation of the cross must begin with two interpretive horizons in view. First, the interpreter must deal with human pre-understandings, those points of contact in common human experience which may function as a bridge to understanding doctrinal truth. Second, the interpreter must deal with the subject matter itself in its own historical-linguistic context. He illustrates this opening contention with three examples.

The first concerns the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Thiselton suggests that while the jury is still out with respect to the best way to understand the nature of first-century Judaism, and so also Paul’s doctrine of justification (the second horizon), the old perspective at least has the advantage of linking the work of the cross to the experience of the human condition and plight (the first horizon). That is, “a human experience of struggle, guilt, or alienation from God” is “ingredient in the revelation of the self in relation to God” (315), an experience addressed by the cross of Christ. In a pointed conclusion Thiselton writes,

We cannot exclude a horizon of understanding, then, that responds to questions about human plight in terms of the saving work of Christ. While Sanders’ work invites respect in exploring a horizon of understanding in the second sense, its validity is by no means self-evident or beyond criticism, and Käsemann rightly warns us that if we press such approaches, we may end up replacing Paul’s core concerns about justification by grace with issues of ecclesiology (316).

Far more important for Thiselton is his insistence that any discussion of atonement theology must begin with the New Testament emphasis on the grace of God. As such, we understand the atonement best not by starting with ideas of human fallenness or divine wrath and judgement, but with the love of God toward humanity. Further, objections to atonement must likewise deal with Old and New Testament contexts of the teaching.

Finally Thiselton notes that the variety of metaphors and images used in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ all provide horizons of meaning and points of access for understanding that work.

In the next two sections of the chapter Thiselton explores the “hard currencies” of the biblical language for redemption, salvation, reconciliation, and mediation. He insists that these terms must be understood against their Old Testament usage, with an eye, consequently, to the way in which they are modified in the New Testament. This usage then provides the initial hermeneutical horizon within which the meaning of these terms is to be understood.

Thus in his discussion of redemption, he notes that the term “usually denotes transference from a state of bondage or jeopardy to a state of well-being by a costly act” (321). In the Old Testament the pre-eminent symbol of this work is the exodus with its themes of political and social liberation.

In very broad terms the Exodus paradigm remains a founding model for a horizon of understanding within which to perceive the meaning of redeem and redemption. However, the New Testament writers qualify the salvific model with a sociological one. This is the model of release from slavery to an oppressive master to the lordship of a new master or Kurios. … The transaction in Paul’s theology involved a price not for freedom but for change of ownership (322).

Hopefully the theological, pastoral and homiletical implications of that final sentence are clear. Christian salvation involves not liberation in an abstract sense so that now one is free of all limitation, restraint, authority, and responsibility. Rather, it is liberation from an oppressive master to become dependent upon and responsible to a new Lord.

Although there is no explicit linguistic background in the Old Testament to the language of reconciliation and mediation, Thiselton argues that the New Testament imagery is grounded in and develops ideas and images present there.

The final section of the chapter returns to the fact that the New Testament uses multiple concepts and images when discussing Christ’s saving work on the cross. Again his point is simple: these multiple approaches to understanding the work of the cross serve as models and qualifiers. That is, each of them communicates an aspect of the truth, and so they also complement and condition each other, as well as provide imaginative avenues for appropriating and participating in the work of the cross (331). Thus Thiselton discusses the work of the cross utilising ideas of sacrifice, forensic approaches, Jesus’ obedience, and the theme of victory. Of particular interest in this series of blog posts is his comment with respect to forensic approaches:

Some writers concede that it is legitimate to speak of substitution in these two passages, but reject the traditional Reformation term penal substitution. Yet…the cross and crucifixion belong to the conceptual domain of punishment for crimes. The antipathy toward using penal is understandable if or when this one aspect is overpressed, as if no other concept qualified it. Equally the term penal substitution becomes misleading if it is abstracted from its proper hermeneutical horizon of divine grace as an overarching understanding. Vincent Taylor judiciously observes, “Everyone desires a better word than penal, but until we find it we ought not to abandon it [simply] because it has been used in ways that revolt the conscience…” (334).

On Hermeneutics and Ethics

reading group 2In her essay entitled “Christian Character, Biblical Community, and Human Values” Lisa Sowle Cahill includes a discussion of the pluralistic nature of the biblical text and implications for interpreters.

Many interpreters point to the pluralistic, internally dynamic structure of the biblical canon itself as a model for theological reflection, and Newsom herself is sympathetic to this approach. She advocates ‘dialogic truth and the polyphonic text,’ in which the different voices in the text are brought into intersection at the level of practical engagement and conversation among interpreters. Similarly to Newsom, Werner Jeanrond calls for a new form of interdisciplinary, reading-centered biblical theology that is both critical of ideologies in the text and resistant to any final systematization, especially one that is ‘ecclesially imposed.’ “Biblical theology encourages all nondogmatic models and paradigms of describing continuities and discontinuities in the complex development and religious challenge of biblical monotheism. It calls for an ongoing ideology critique of any systematizing attempt.” (see Brown (ed), Character & Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 10-11).


That was my response as I read this paragraph. All and any perspectives are welcome, but don’t try to say that a particular biblical passage means something, or that it has a particular message. Is there really no place in biblical study for normative theological instruction and ethical admonition? Does acknowledgement of multiple voices and perspectives in Scripture mean that the drawing of conclusions is thereby somehow proscribed?

While Cahill acknowledges and appreciates the “Bible’s internal pluralism” and sees in it a model for a dialogical theology and ethics, she remains dubious about this approach to Scripture:

My own conviction is that sheer pluralism is not adequate as a Christian moral response to injustice in the world. Christian morality requires some more determinate understanding of what it means to begin to live in the reign of God, to form a community as body of Christ, or to be transformed by the Lord’s Spirit. . . . Although the celebrators of diversity eschew the . . . interest in something substantial as the working material of theology, I find it essential to Christian character ethics to define at least a few desirable characteristics (11, 13).

To that end Cahill argues that Christian morality “can and should be centered in virtues like repentance, reconciliation, love, compassion, solidarity, mercy, and forgiveness” (11).

Although overly confident specific extrapolations of biblical ethics can and have been unjust and oppressive, complete deconstruction of normative meaning is not an acceptable alternative. It is not enough to say Christian character will be formed in a number of quite disparate communities that have in common only that they have read Scripture idiosyncratically. The general virtues Christian character should exhibit are evident enough from the standpoint of even a historically oriented and critical biblical hermeneutic (14).

A Sermon on Sunday

Harmony BCI am preaching again at Harmony Baptist Church today. Last week my message from Psalm 77 was centred around the devotional practice of meditating on the Scriptures. Today’s message is also focussed on the reception and use of the Bible in the Christian life, this time in terms of study rather than meditation.


Introduction: What is the Bible?
The Bible is the written Word of God; Jesus is the living Word of God (John 1:1, 14; John 5:39-40).

For Christians, the Bible is an inspired text, a divine-human book requiring divine-human interpretation. As a human book it is interpreted just like any other book: we have to read it carefully seeking to understand what the human authors sought to communicate: what was Isaiah saying? What was Matthew on about? So we pay attention to their context, their choice of words, the images and literary devices they use, the themes they develop, etc. As a divine book, however, we acknowledge a hidden author and a surplus of meaning.

Many Voices, Multiple Meanings
One of the confusing things for many Christians, one of the things we seem to know intuitively, is that the Bible is capable of many meanings. Perhaps we have heard some weird teachings in our time, or met some weird Christians with wacky interpretations of Scripture. As a result we might get anxious: what does the Bible mean? What is the right meaning?

The assumption here is that there is only one possible interpretation to the various passages in the Bible. Is this a legitimate assumption? Without succumbing to postmodern relativism it is possible to understand the Bible as a book with many voices and multiple meanings. This is not to suggest that the Bible can mean anything we want it to mean, that we can use the Bible to justify beliefs or behaviours we are already committed to, whether capitalism or socialism, militarism or pacifism. Nonetheless there is already an apparent plurality of interpretation in the Bible itself: two creation narratives, two infancy narratives, four gospels, five resurrection accounts, two accounts of Israel’s monarchy. Add to this the multiplicity of metaphors and symbols used to describe the character and work of God, the person of Christ, the achievement of the cross, the person and work of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Christian life: is it any wonder different interpretations, different emphases arise from our study of Scripture? The Holy Spirit has given a surplus, even an excess of meaning in his inspired Word. Why? In the awesome wisdom of God he knew that multitudes of believers in multitudes of different times and climes, would need a word that addresses them.

Some Helpful Lenses When Reading Scripture

Read: Genesis 16:1-16

What do we do with a passage like this? What does the passage mean?

  1. A historian might be intrigued by the cultural practices of the day
  2. A doctoral student might focus on the origin of the Arabs in Ishmael
  3. Some might suggest that the passage teaches that the God of Islam and the God of the Jews are one and the same—and so then also, the Father of Jesus Christ
  4. A mildly feminist scholar might be concerned about the social structures that oppress powerless women
  5. A radical feminist might see further evidence of the irredeemably patriarchal nature of the biblical narratives, and argue for a wholesale reappraisal of Christian faith and practice
  6. An existentialist evangelist or a therapeutic preacher might see it as a call to authentic existence based on ‘where have you come from and where are you going?’
  7. Perhaps a Mormon would find legitimisation of the practice of polygamy

All these and more might be seen as the ‘meaning’ of the passage. When we add devotional ‘meanings’ possibilities are exponential.

  1. One person might be challenged to support a young woman with an unexpected pregnancy
  2. A male reader might find himself questioning why he persists in being a ‘wild donkey’ of a man
  3. A married woman might find herself convicted for being a grumpy wife!
  4. Another person might be encouraged to reach out to their Muslim neighbour or colleague
  5. Someone else might wonder whether the troublesome youth at work has had a rough ride
  6. A person in difficult straits may find comfort and hope in the knowledge that God cares

Lens #1: The Historical Meaning

The question to ask here is, “What did this text mean for its original audience?” Try to understand the passage in its original context: why has the biblical author included it? Before God’s Word is his Word to us it was his Word to another generation. Understanding something of what his Word meant for them will help us understand how to interpret it in our time and place. Accepting the tradition that Moses wrote the early books of the Bible, it would be an encouragement to the people of Israel not to go back to Egypt. Their future is not in Ishmael (an Egyptian mother and wife); their inheritance is in Isaac. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture: this seems to be the meaning Paul saw in the passage when he interprets Sarah and Hagar as two covenants. We are the children of the free woman, not the slave woman!

Lens #2: The Doctrinal Meaning

We can ask further: what doctrinal content is found in this text? What does it teach us about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, humanity, Christian life, etc? This passage teaches us some rich things about God:

  1. he is a God who hears the affliction of those who suffer,
  2. who sees us, especially in our need
  3. God cares about the lowly, the disenfranchised, poor, outcast, etc
  4. God comes, God speaks, God promises;

We also see a challenging pattern about God and his activity: he sees Hagar and comes to her, asks her a leading question, commands her with a difficult command, and makes a promise of blessing. His command is part of his grace, even though it is so difficult. This is a paradigm for the work of grace.

Lens #3: The Cultural-Redemptive Lens

The question to ask here is, “How does this passage challenge the way we see the world? What better vision of the world does it present?” This passage could challenge us to consider the way traditional social attitudes and structures impact others. It might challenge us to think about actual people we know in impossible or vulnerable circumstances. We might question the assumptions we have about those in minority cultures.

Lens #4: The Missional Lens

What does this passage call us to, in light of the overall story of God, his purpose, and his people? How does this passage call us to act in light of who God is and what God does? As individuals and congregations take seriously the challenge of reflecting on Holy Scripture we become a people who may be ‘caught up’ into the story that God is continuing to write in the church and in the world.

Conclusion: All the World is a Stage

Interpreting Scripture can hard work, but it is necessary work and even joyful work. God has given us his Word, not simply to help us find a comforting life verse every now and then, but to renew our minds, to shape our vision, to stir our will, and so to transform our lives (Romans 12:2).

Imagine … you are a Shakespearean specialist and come across an original unfinished manuscript. How incredibly excited you are. You begin poring over it and find it incomplete – several initial acts, but the final climactic act remains unfinished. What will you do? You gather other specialists, actors, etc and begin to think through how you would write and perform the missing act. You study the existing text until you know its inner coherence, its trajectories, its emphases and problems so well that you can begin to anticipate how the action of the missing segment will proceed. You improvise…

This is the situation of the contemporary Christian. In the bible we have an incredible five-act drama, stretching across millennia, with hundreds of characters. It is an immense epic which will come to completion in a sudden burst – sixth act when everything will come to resolution. The problem, however, is that the fifth act is incomplete: the story is still being written, the actors—you and I—are still on the set, the director—the Holy Spirit—is still orchestrating the drama. We have the script—the Bible as Torah—to form and inform us. True meaning is that which we enact on the stage of history, guided by the story that has so far been written, looking for the ultimate resolution and consummation yet to come.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (6)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:51-63, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Of the four possible foundations for the doctrine of election detailed thus far, the final two excite Barth’s interest for in their own way they identify—inadequately to be sure—the elected man and the electing God. “Because of their incorrect form we must reject them as answers to the question of the basis of the doctrine, but we must keep their substance in so far as it indicates the two poles of the problem, God on the one side and man on the other” (52).

It is the name of Jesus Christ which, according to the divine self-revelation, forms the focus at which the two decisive beams of the truth forced upon us converge and unite: on the one hand the electing God and on the other elected man. It is to this name, then, that all Christian teaching of this truth must look, from this name that it must derive, and to this name that it must strive (59).

When Barth asks about the election he insists that “from first to last the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus Christ” (53):

If we would know who God is, and what is the meaning and purpose of His election, and in what respect He is the electing God, then we must look away from all others, and excluding all side glances or secondary thoughts, we must look only upon and to the name of Jesus Christ, and the existence and history of the people of God enclosed within Him (54; cf. 58-59).

To ground the doctrine of election and to speak of elected humanity, Barth turns to the Old Testament, using a narrative and typological approach which shows God’s electing work as God continually narrows his choice from amongst all people to the particular person who is the elect—Jesus Christ. His treatment moves from Adam to Jacob to David to Jeconiah to Zerubbabel and finally to Jesus; four movements in the Old Testament in which each individual named is intended to function as a witness to Jesus Christ who is the fulfilment both of God’s judgement and the promise of God’s grace (55-58).

The Word—that Word which created Israel, and accompanied and directed it as prophetic judge and comforter—the Word itself became flesh. The Word Himself became the Son of David. Now at last there had come the special case for which there had had to be all those others from Adam to Zerubbabel, and for which Israel had had to be separated out from the whole race, and Judah from Israel. This coming was to the detriment of Israel. Face to face with its Messiah, the Son of David who was also the Son of God, Israel knew no better than to give Him up to the Gentiles to be put to death on the cross. In so doing, they confirmed the rightness of God’s dealings with them from the very first, when He cut them off and destroyed them. And yet because the righteousness of God stands fast like the mountains against the unrighteousness of man, this coming was also to the benefit of Israel, and of the Gentiles, and of the world. In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ the world was shown to be a co-partner in guilt with Israel, but only in order that it might be shown a co-partner in the promise with Israel. … Jews and Gentiles were in the same guilt of disobedience. But now they could hear the same words: You, my people; I, God, in the person of David’s Son, your King. Those who are called by this King, and hear this King, whether they are Jews or Gentiles, constitute the people whose existence was envisaged throughout the whole of that long history (57-58).

Barth finds this Christocentric focus of election in the New Testament, especially in Ephesians 1:4, though he also cites Ephesians 1:11 and 3:10, and Romans 8:29: “all these statements show us quite plainly that when we have to do with the reality indicated by the concept of election or predestination we are not outside the sphere of the name of Jesus Christ but within it and within the sphere of the unity of very God and very man indicated by this name” (60). So, too, the Reformers and their followers rightly focussed on Jesus Christ “as a bright, clear mirror of the eternal and hidden election of God” (Calvin; 61). We see in Christ, the mirror of our own election, the ground, prototype and essence of all election. Thus,

The elect must look always to Jesus Christ in matters of the election because whoever is elected is elected in Christ and only Christ. But if this is so, then it is settled conclusively that no one can ever seek the basis of election in himself, because no one is ever elected in himself or for the sake of himself or finally of himself. … It is not in man himself or in the work of man that the basis of election must be sought. It is in this other person who is the person of God himself in the flesh. It is in the work of this other person: a work which comes to man and comes upon man from without; a work which is quite different from anything that he himself is or does. Man and his decision follow the decision which is already made before him, without him and against him; the decision which is not made in himself at all, but is made concerning him in this wholly other person. And as he recognises this, he recognises in truth the meaning and nature of the divine election: that it is the essence of divine favour. He recognises, too, the meaning and nature of the doctrine of election: that it is the sum of the gospel (62-63).

This section is of particular interest, not only because Barth pre-empts his later discussion of Arminianism. His biblical orientation and hermeneutics are on clear display in his discussion of the Old Testament, and in his interaction with and extensive citation of the Reformers Barth skilfully identifies the main lines of the tradition, affirming where he can and also setting the framework for the critical question and observation he will go on to make.

A Sermon on Sunday

IWOK_widescreenToday I am speaking at Lesmurdie Baptist Church—my old stomping ground… The church and congregation hold a special place in my life; I was pastor of the church for five years, and an ordinary member for another two years, and in that time grew to love the people and the pastoral team with whom I worked. It is always a privilege and a joy to return. My topic for today is: “If We Only Knew: From Academia to Application.” My brief is to bring something from the world of academia which might otherwise take years to filter down into congregational awareness and life. I love the fact that senior minister, Karen Siggins, wants her congregation to be informed concerning important developments and trends in contemporary theology: may her tribe increase! She and the pastoral team have devoted the whole month to this series.

I have chosen as my theme a topic completely out of my comfort zone: the relation between science and theology, and exploring the particular issue presently experiencing vigorous debate in Evangelical theology—the historicity or otherwise of Adam. Here is the outline…


My own awareness of these issues has been stimulated by a BBC production The Incredible Human Journey and by the work of the Human Genome project. I recognised almost immediately that both these scientific projects would issue a great challenge to Evangelical Christianity. I was right. In the next few years a debate arose in evangelicalism around the historicity of Adam and Eve: did Adam and Eve really exist? Two books from evangelical biblical scholars spotlight the issue: C. J. Collins’ Did Adam and Eve Really Exist and Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam. As you can guess, the two books took opposing positions with respect to this question.

Of course, serious theological questions arise around this issue: not least the issues raised by common interpretation of Romans 5:12-21.

Lost WorldHuman Origins: How did we come to be here?
In the modern era many answer that question with the word evolution. Some Christians accept evolution as fact. Others reject it out of hand, and insist on a literal six-day creation by divine fiat. Still others adopt a position of theistic evolution. Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, is not comfortable with the term theistic evolution and prefers simply to speak of evolution by itself. Yet, as a committed Christian, Collins believes that God being almighty and all-knowing pre-loaded the evolutionary process so that it would result in his intended purpose.

Science and Faith: Must the relation be conflictual?
This issue raises the perennial question of the relation between science and faith. On the one hand, in the modern west science has achieved a kind of cultural status as the arbiter and final authority of truth and wisdom. That which is not ‘scientific’ is intellectually and possibly, morally, suspect. Yet Christians—and not only Christians—claim that there are other sources of truth and wisdom, the Bible in particular. How, then, are Christians to respond when it seems that science and faith come into conflict?

The response of liberal theology to that question was simply to re-interpret or even jettison those parts of the Bible which conflicted with scientific discoveries; they gave science the priority. Other Christians adopted a defensive posture, ignoring or attacking the science, or else developing their own supposedly ‘scientific’ programmes to insist that the Bible teaches precise and actual scientific knowledge, with the result that ‘true science’ agrees with the Bible. If it does not agree with the Bible it is not ‘true’ science.

A major part of the issue, however, concerns the question of biblical interpretation. Sometimes Christians fail to recognise that what we think is the teaching of the Bible is in fact our interpretation of the Bible, and the reality that the Bible can be and is interpreted in different ways by believers who are equally committed to a high-view of Scripture. And so the question comes to us: Can we be open to new ways of interpreting familiar
passages? And can we look for ways of interpretation that maximise the possibility of finding common ground between science and faith without compromising what we consider to be essential theological convictions? Note, here, Augustine’s wisdom:

In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it (cited in Collins, “The Language of God,” in Metaxas, Socrates in the City, 317).

Two Interpretive Moves
I want to suggest two interpretative moves that will assist us as we think about this particular issue. First, Millard Erickson’s view of progressive creationism. Erickson argues that God uses both the processive mechanism of micro-evolution—evolution within a particular species, and de novo creative events. There may well have been ‘pre-human’ creatures prior to the creation of Adam and Eve, but Adam and Eve were a fresh creative work of God (Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed., 446).

I note also, that Francis Collins, despite his insistence that God pre-loaded the evolutionary mechanism, also speaks of God ‘gifting’ humanity with ‘the knowledge of good and evil (that’s the moral law), with free will, and with an immortal soul. And Homo sapiens became Homo divinus’ (Collins, in Metaxas, 315). This sounds very much like a direct intervention to me.

The second interpretative move involves ‘re-thinking’ of Genesis 1:31: must God’s ‘very Time Cover God vs Sciencegood’ be understood in terms of some kind of metaphysical perfection, or might it be understood in terms of the value God the Creator places upon his work? English theologian Colin Gunton suggested that, “Rather like a work of art, creation is a project, something God wills for its own sake and not because he has need of it” (Colin E. Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, 142). Such an interpretation suggests that God’s work of creation was not the end of his purpose, but the beginning of a project playing out across history and moving toward a divine purpose and climax. In this view, the immanent God accompanies his creation, at times doing new things, providentially guiding the creation toward his appointed goals.

These two interpretive moves may help us find a place of common ground between contemporary science and biblical faith. The fact that we share 96%+ of our DNA with chimpanzees, the fossil record of pre-modern humanoids creatures, the idea that the complexity of the human genome requires a beginning population of not two but many thousands—all these and more may be addressed within this interpretive framework. Nor does this require the story of Adam & Eve to be a fictional story. Christians may still argue that God ‘instilled’ this distinctively human nature and spirit into an original couple so they were not simply pre-modern humanoids but ‘new creatures.’

But what about death? Does not this interpretation undermine the biblical teaching that sin entered the world through one man and death through sin? Not necessarily. It may be permissible to interpret death strictly as spiritual death, both in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 5:12. Adam & Eve died when they ate the fruit—but not physically. Prior to this special creation physical death was in the world but not spiritual death for God had not created the earlier creatures as spiritual beings in the same way as modern humans have been created.

Further benefits of ‘re-thinking’ our interpretation of Scripture include a greater awareness of our natural solidarity with other creatures, especially the animal kingdom, and so of our responsibility for their care. If God’s creation is God’s project, and God has created us in the divine image, it speaks to God’s intent that we participate in this project, that we ‘play’ and ‘paint’ with him, as it were, actively taking our place and playing our part in building the kind of world that God always intended, aiming always at the festivity and shalom of the Sabbath rest which is the climax of the first creation narrative.

Kevin Vanhoozer Sings “Sola”

Vanhoozer at Moore

When in Sydney last week I took the opportunity to head out for the first of this year’s Annual Moore College Lecture, to hear Kevin Vanhoozer address the theme, “Mere Protestant Christianity: How Singing Sola Renews Biblical Interpretation.” It was the first of six lectures and I would have liked to have heard the whole series which finished just this morning. At some point the whole series will be available online to download.

The lecture began with a question: “Should the church repent of or retrieve the Reformation?” Vanhoozer surveyed some recent opinions which suggest that the Reformation was responsible for the development of secularism (Brad Gregory), scepticism (Richard Popkin), and schism (Hans Boersma and Peter Leithart). I even learnt a new word during this section: fissiparous, which means—in a non-biological context—having a tendency to divide into groups or factions. Vanhoozer recognised the partial truthfulness of these charges though he also noted that (a) the Reformers never sought division or thought it desirable; and (b) that at least part of these unintended consequences of the Reformation were due to the revolution Luther instigated with respect to biblical interpretation, including allowing individual Christians to read and interpret Scripture. He cites McGrath at this point, suggesting that this is “Christianity’s dangerous idea.”

But, has the Reformation also set interpretive anarchy in play? What are we to make of the fact of “pervasive interpretive pluralism” (Christian Smith)? If the Holy Spirit is guiding our interpretation—as so many claim—why are we not led to identical or at least similar interpretations of Scripture? Here Vanhoozer displayed the intent of his lectureship: what is needed is a viable criterion by which we can arrive at a warranted interpretation of Scripture. For Vanhoozer, an over-reliance on sola scriptura when mixed with an individualistic understanding of the priesthood of all believers has resulted in interpretive pluralism. Thus he wants to rethink biblical interpretation in light of the Reformation solas, a corporate understanding of the royal priesthood of all believers, and a commitment to the catholicity of the church.

Nor does all this entail a traditioned interpretation frozen in time. Theology is not simply repetition of positions held in the past, nor repristination whereby previous interpretations are simply dusted off and dressed afresh for presentation in a new environment. Retrieving the gospel requires translation, a style of biblical interpretation and theology which not only looks back with appreciation to explore, understand and retrieve the tradition of the church, but which also looks forward, bringing the word of the gospel in present contexts in light of future hope. Overall the lecture was a great entrée, and I look forward to hearing the whole series to see how Vanhoozer works out these themes in detail.

But then in the question time a funny thing happened. In forums such as these my natural caution (pride issuing in fear?) often keeps me from asking a question. In this lecture, however, because I am familiar with Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible which Kevin addressed explicitly, I asked for his comment on Smith’s assertion that the Bible is inherently “multivocal and polysemous,” that is, inherently capable of various meanings and interpretations because it speaks with multiple voices. At this point Kevin, it seemed to me, back-pedalled. He did not answer my question but instead launched into a brief defence insisting that he did not think that Smith was claiming the Bible had “errors,” for if he had done so, that would be “easy to refute.” Rather, he was taking Smith’s critique to heart to make his own task more difficult. Perhaps Kevin misunderstood my intent, and conscious of his environment (Moore College), felt he needed to utter a defence of inerrancy. I had opportunity the next evening to chat with someone else who was there and who had wondered about Kevin’s response to the question, not understanding why he said what he did.

Nevertheless, the very fact that Vanhoozer seeks a “viable criterion” and is developing a sophisticated hermeneutic for the people of God suggests that the meaning of the Bible is simply not as plain as we often like to believe. It is precisely this kind of simplistic belief, so prevalent in some sectors of the church, that needs urgent redress, and I wholeheartedly support Kevin’s efforts in this direction. Biblical interpretation is an ecclesial rather than merely an individual practice, deeply respectful of Scripture’s provenance and authority, informed by practices of interpretation in the history of the church, and oriented toward a clear re/presentation of the gospel for the church and wider world in its present context, and robust Christian formation in the same context.

Reading Scripture Theologically

Expository Times 125-10Former Vose New Testament lecturer, Richard Moore has an article in the present issue of Expository Times (Vol. 125, No. 10 (July 2014)), together with a response from NT Wright. (There are other Perth links in the issue with a review of Matthew Malcolm’s The World of 1 Corinthians, and a review article of Bill Loader’s The New Testament on Sexuality: Attitudes towards sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman Era).

Richard’s article is sharply focussed on a particular issue: how Wright translates the Greek word dikaiosunē (“righteousness,” “justification”) and its cognates in Wright’s translation of the Greek New Testament into English (The New Testament for Everyone). Richard has two interests at work here: first, he has spent a lifetime exploring Paul’s use and doctrine of dikaiosunē, in the New Testament, in the history of the church, and English bible translations; and second, he has just completed his own translation of the New Testament Under the Southern Cross: The New Testament in Australian English, to be published later this year.

Richard finds fault with Wright’s translation because of the many different English words Wright uses to translate the same Greek word: “This can only confuse his reader, and, of course, prevent the reader from hearing what Paul is actually saying in this section” (485). A subsidiary concern is that Wright’s translation is idiosyncratic, illegitimately importing notions of covenant theology into Paul’s theology of justification, whereas for Richard, “Paul was not a covenant theologian” (485; original emphasis).

In his response to Richard’s article, Wright defends his translation by focussing on the covenantal context of the primary Old Testament passages from the Abrahamic narrative, and by using his own linguistic arguments to demonstrate that Paul has the Septuagint in mind as he writes, which links covenant and righteousness. Though Paul only infrequently uses covenantal language, the whole context of the passages he is citing from Genesis are covenantal in nature, where God’s gift of right relationship is grounded in God’s covenant. Wright therefore argues that his translation attempts to elucidate what he considers to be Paul’s theological perspective, and that it requires the kind of English language terms and idioms he has used.

What is evident in this minor dispute is that the two authors have two ways of approaching the tasks of exegesis and biblical theology. At the level of translation, Richard appropriately argues for consistency so that the English translation has strong linguistic connections with the underlying Greek text. His argument is not, I think, without merit this point, for it appears that Wright goes beyond translation to exposition by importing his particular understanding of Paul into the work of translation.

I am not competent, ultimately, to adjudicate this dispute about what constitutes faithful interpretation. My interest concerns the way these two theologians have read the biblical text, at least as that is represented in these two articles. At base, there is a fundamentally different understanding between the two authors, as to what, precisely, Paul means when he uses dikaiosunē language. It seems that the root of this difference are different ways of reading Scripture, with different weight being given to linguistic, grammatical, and narrative features of the biblical texts. Both authors read Scripture theologically, and both bring an interpretation to Paul. But since their method of engaging Scripture differs, so too do their resulting theologies.