» theological method

Interpretation is Theology All the Way Down

Posted on by Glen in bible, theological method | 1 Comment

Earlier today the great Andrew Wilson tweeted thusly:

Who knows the wealth and complexity of arguments that lie beneath the tweet – I don’t doubt that they are impressive. But here was my twitter length response:

Let me explain what I’m getting at.

It is very tempting to think of theology as a two stage process. First a pure biblical scholar simply reads off the meaning of the Bible through the use of objective interpretive tools.  Then a systematic theologian comes to co-ordinate these propositions into a logically cogent order. In this process, the Bible’s answers come first and then shape our questioning later.

But as Ben Myers says here: ‘It’s theology all the way down.’ Theological pre-suppositions and commitments necessarily guide and shape all Christian activity from exegesis to exposition to pastoral work, to evangelism to hospitality to everything.

And yet the idea that the Bible can be neutrally read is so tempting.  We would love to conceive of revelation as propositions deposited in a handy compendium simply to be extracted and applied.  Yet, eternally and most basically, the Word is a Person (John 1:1).  And His book is Personal (John 5:39).  It’s not something we judge with our double-edged swords – the Word judges us. (Heb 4:12)

Andrew is trying to honour this dynamic of Scripture judging us (not us judging Scripture) and that is vital. But precisely because Scripture judges us, we must allow it to judge our exegetical and hermeneutical presuppositions too. This involves a whole web of Scriptural interpretations and theological understandings that are not a one-way street – they are a complex web.

Let me point to an extreme example of where this goes wrong. It’s a million miles from Andrew’s position or intention, but consider the Socinians. They were “just being biblical” as they cast aside the creeds and became unitarians. They claimed to be clearing away the artificial edifice of trinitarian theology and getting back to the pure message of Jesus and the apostles. I don’t doubt that on some level they were sincere. I also don’t doubt that they were wildly mistaken about their own interpretive neutrality. They were children of their time (as are we all),  and instead of “just being biblical” they were “just being rationalists who were claiming to be biblical.” The trouble is that we’re all something-ists no matter how much we claim we’re only being biblical.

And that’s no bad thing. As I read Scripture I ought to be a believer, filled with the Spirit who confesses Jesus as Lord,  baptised in the triune name, a member of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church, reading the word in the communion of the saints – living and dead. Such dynamics are not the mere fruit of “Biblical Theology” – they are the result and the foundation of deep, christological and ecclesial reflections upon Scripture. It’s chicken and egg – and that’s the way it ought to be if I’m to read the Scriptures scripturally.

As I speak of the theological presuppositions inherent in Bible reading, I’m not trying to undermine the perspicuity of Scripture. After all, Jesus spoke of the Scriptures as absolutely clear. He never made excuses for theological error. He never gave even the slightest bit of latitude by conceding a certain obscurity to the Bible.  He never assumes that His theological opponents have just mis-applied an interpretive paradigm. If they get it wrong He assumes they’ve never read the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 21:16,42; Mark 2:25)!  

But we must go further. Jesus tells the Pharisees why they get it wrong: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matt 22:29)  And, again, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)  Those in error are are wrongly oriented to the Power of God and the One of Whom the Scriptures testify – Jesus. This is not simply a wrong orientation of the intepreter but of the interpretation.  Scripture reading must be oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God (i.e. by the Spirit to Christ). Within this paradigm – a paradigm which the Scriptures themselves give us – the Bible makes itself abundantly clear.

But this paradigm is an unashamedly and irreducibly theological one. It is the result of exegesis (e.g. studying the verses given above) but it is also the pre-supposition of such exegesis.  Theology is not the end of the process from exegesis to biblical studies and then to the systematician!

Methodologically, the Bible must come first. But that’s not at all the same thing as saying ‘Biblical Theology’ must come first. No, the Bible stands above both Biblical and Systematic theology. And the two-way interchange between both is what ensures that the Bible is read according to its true nature. If you’re a Biblical Theologian who wants the Bible on top – let systematics help you!

Religion ‘hijacking’ the word… and the world [repost]

Posted on by glenscriv in atheism, bible, culture, Dawkins, science, theological method | 11 Comments

Below you can watch Richard Dawkins speaking in advance of the 2011 KJV celebrations. He makes the case for being steeped ‘to some extent’ in the King James Bible.  If we don’t know the KJV we are ‘in some small way barbarian.’  But he ends by saying:

it is important that religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ej1auSuVM-M&feature=player_embedded”]

Notch it up as another Dickie Dawkins classic.  But before we laugh and point, let’s make sure there aren’t three fingers pointing back.

You see, because he’s talking about the bible the stupidity of his position is obvious.  Of course it’s ridiculous to view the bible as first a cultural resource that religion then hijacks.  Any fool knows that the bible is originally, purposefully and most meaningfully a religious text (or if you don’t like ‘religious’, say ‘spiritual’ or ‘theological’ or even ‘Christian’).  It is evident (but not to Dawkins) that the essence of the bible is appreciated only when it’s treated according to its true theological nature.  And that to read it through atheistic lenses is the real hijacking.

But Dawkins’ inability to appreciate the bible according to its true nature is only one more example of his inability to appreciate the world according to its true nature.  The whole atheistic project follows exactly the same line.  It says that everything is most ultimately a physical, chemical, biological, historical or cultural artefact, let’s not allow ‘religion’ to hijack it.  But to pretend you are honouring the world by treating it non-theologically is just as ridiculous as pretending to honour the Word by treating it non-theologically.

The only reason we don’t see its foolishness is because we have, to some extent, bought the double-decker atheistic approach.  When it comes to the world around us we pretty much assume along with the atheists that there are brute facts that are perfectly understood in non-theological terms and that we then work with this raw data to make our theological (or atheistical) pronouncements.  And even if we do dare to wear some theological lenses to view the world, we have a slight guilty feeling that maybe we are hijacking a properly non-theological reality.

But no.  You’ve got to begin by treating the Word theologically.  And you’ve got to begin by treating the world theologically.  And it’s best you do so in that order.

It’s those who fail to see the world according to its essentially theological character who hijack it.

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What exactly does “theocentric” mean?

Posted on by glenscriv in Doctrine of God, theological method | 18 Comments

Adapted from a previous post…

What does it mean to be God-centred?

Three answers:

As a description of theology, it’s inescapable.

As a method of theology, it’s indispensible.

As a doctrine of God, it’s incorrect.

First, as a description of theology…

Simone Weil put our inescapable theo-centricity like this:

“No human being escapes the necessity of conceiving some good outside himself towards which his thought turns in a movement of desire, supplication, and hope. Consequently, the only choice is between worshipping the true God or an idol.”

Or Luther in his larger catechism had this to say regarding the first commandment:

What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart… That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.

We’re all God-centred.  The question is, which God?

It always bothers me when one Christian claims a superiority over another because they are ‘God-centred’.  As a description of someone’s theology, that’s a plain tautology.  Trying to shout “God” most loudly is not the way forward in assessing the merits of various theologies.  “God” is central.  But we should be much more interested in the question: “Who is this God who is central to our theology?”  Since we’re inescapably centred on this vision of ultimate reality, the identity of this God is the vital question.

But before we jettison the term “theo-centric”, let’s acknowledge a realm in which the term is useful.  As a theological method, theo-centricity is indispensible.  That is to say, as a way of knowing God, we must be God-centred.

Jesus said that the Father and Son are bound together in an eternal Family Secret (Matthew 11:27). Only the Father knows the Son and only the Son knows the Father.  If the verse ended there only God would know God.  But wonderfully the verse continues:

No-one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  (Matthew 11:27)

There is a way into knowledge of God.  But it’s not our way to God, it’s His way to us.  We do not know God, but God reveals Himself, through His Son and by His Spirit.  The trajectory is downwards.

When the Spirit reveals Christ as Word of the Father then we know God through God and by God.  And this is the only way to know God.  Therefore our method of theology must be theo-centric.  We must centre ourselves on where God has revealed Himself – in God the Word and by God the Spirit.

So theo-centrism is a useful term.

But… it can be a very misleading idea if we think of it as a doctrine of God.

You see we might grant that all people are focussed on some vision of God.  And we might determine to focus ourselves on God’s revelation of God.  But it’s an entirely different question to enquire whether God Himself is likewise consumed by Himself.

Of course we should have our hearts and minds fixed on the living God, and of course if we fixed our ultimate affections elsewhere that would be idolatry.  But I have heard philosophical arguments from Christians to say that God must fix His affections on Himself lest He be an idolater too.

Do you see how theo-centrism as a theological method gets confused with theo-centrism as a doctrine of God?

And, more dangerously, do you see how such a method is in fact anthropocentric? It’s an argument that says ‘We would be idolaters to set our affections on lesser beings, so God must be an idolater if He did that.’  It’s a theology from below.  And yet I find it on the lips of the very people who want to accuse all around them of man-centredness.

So let’s be clear – everyone is already God-centred in their theology.  The real issue is what kind of God we’re talking about.  And the question of theo-centric method does not at all settle the question of God’s own being.  While we must be theo-centric, we have to admit that God Himself is higher than the ‘musts’ that apply to us.  The theologian who says God “must” love Himself higher than the creature has actually followed a theo-logic that is less than God-centred.

God has actually revealed Himself in the Word who became flesh for all time.  If this God was the God we centred on, and if this revelation was the one to which we listened, we’d find no room for the self-centred God.

In this sense then, to be truly theo-centric means extolling the truly other-centred God.

 

God and 'the Good' by Paul Blackham

Posted on by Glen in christocentric panapocalytheism, Doctrine of God, theological method, trinity | 6 Comments

From Paul’s brilliant Frameworks papers.  Check them all out here:

Let’s begin with the question in the form that Socrates asked it in Plato’s Euthyphro.

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Forgetting these pagan gods, we ask of the One Living God, do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love goodness because it is intrinsically good… or is it that whatever they love is defined as good because they love it?

Do they define goodness or justice or truth or mercy or love… or are they defined by universal concepts of goodness, justice, truth, mercy and love?

Many people, at first, think that the Trinity love goodness because it is good.  However, where did that definition of goodness come from if even the Father, Son and Holy Spirit follow it?  It sounds as if there is a definition of goodness that ‘exists’ before and above the Living God! All qualities or ‘universals’ would then exist prior to [in a logical sense] the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We would need to first determine these ‘universals’ if we were going to get an accurate idea of the Trinity.

If we thought about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in this way, then we would have to find out which of these universals apply to the Divine Three.  We would build up a ‘jigsaw’ picture of God by finding out which of all these ‘universals’ fit the Living God.  God would then seem to be a collection of qualities or attributes.

This is not a solution that seems to do justice to the utter freedom and sovereignty and glory of the Trinity as revealed in the Bible.
Robert Reymond says that this makes God look like a pincushion full of pins.  God would be a sort of cosmic bag full of eternal qualities!

How can the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be defined by these other things?

How can anything stand over or define the Living God?

How can the Living God be described as a collection of attributes? Read more

God and ‘the Good’ by Paul Blackham

Posted on by glenscriv in christocentric panapocalytheism, Doctrine of God, theological method, trinity | 5 Comments

From Paul’s brilliant Frameworks papers.  Check them all out here:

Let’s begin with the question in the form that Socrates asked it in Plato’s Euthyphro.

The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.

Forgetting these pagan gods, we ask of the One Living God, do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit love goodness because it is intrinsically good… or is it that whatever they love is defined as good because they love it?

Do they define goodness or justice or truth or mercy or love… or are they defined by universal concepts of goodness, justice, truth, mercy and love?

Many people, at first, think that the Trinity love goodness because it is good.  However, where did that definition of goodness come from if even the Father, Son and Holy Spirit follow it?  It sounds as if there is a definition of goodness that ‘exists’ before and above the Living God! All qualities or ‘universals’ would then exist prior to [in a logical sense] the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We would need to first determine these ‘universals’ if we were going to get an accurate idea of the Trinity.

If we thought about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in this way, then we would have to find out which of these universals apply to the Divine Three.  We would build up a ‘jigsaw’ picture of God by finding out which of all these ‘universals’ fit the Living God.  God would then seem to be a collection of qualities or attributes.

This is not a solution that seems to do justice to the utter freedom and sovereignty and glory of the Trinity as revealed in the Bible.
Robert Reymond says that this makes God look like a pincushion full of pins.  God would be a sort of cosmic bag full of eternal qualities!

How can the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be defined by these other things?

How can anything stand over or define the Living God?

How can the Living God be described as a collection of attributes? Read more

Not the god of philosophers

Posted on by Glen in devotional, Doctrine of God, theological method | Leave a comment

Today is the anniversary of Blaise Pascal’s night of fire.  He turned decisively from the god of the philosophers and found Jesus Christ, the true and living God:

The year of grace 1654
Monday, 23 November.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight. 

Fire
‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
‘Thy God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
‘My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.
I will not forget thy word. Amen.

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Bacon, Bible and the Boys 1 – Jesus Shaped in Everything

Posted on by Glen in christocentric panapocalytheism, sermons, theological method | Leave a comment

I’m holding four Men’s Breakfast type things on the Saturdays in November.

We began last Saturday determining to begin our thinking again with Jesus.

Handout below.

The audio isn’t crystal clear but it has an unplanned detour into Acts 17 that provoked good discussion afterwards…

Read more

My mind’s made up by the way that I feel

Posted on by glenscriv in apologetics, atheism, theological method | 9 Comments

Last month the Times’ front page screamed: “God did not create the universe” – reporting on the new book co-authored by Stephen Hawking in which he asserts a spontaneous creation.  What I most enjoyed about the piece was a ringing endorsement from Richard Dawkins.  Among other things he made this revealing comment:

“I know nothing of the details of the physics but I had always assumed the same thing.” (ht)

Isn’t that brilliant?!

Actually that’s how we all reason.  All of us.  All the time.  But it’s hilarious to see it so plainly in Dawkins.

Here’s a guy who claims to be a child of the Enlightenment, he doesn’t know the details, he’s in no way qualified to pass judgement, it’s not even remotely his field, but he’d always assumed something like this must be right because it fits with some other stuff he also believes and is very much committed to… so… it floats his boat and he gives it his full assent (whatever it is, he’s not entirely sure) and, carried away by the necessity of its truth, he wants you to be carried away by it too, that we might all give allegiance to this grand vision (whatever it is, let’s not get too hung up on the details).

But you know what?  That’s how we all “reason”.

And it’s not just inconsistent atheists.  It’s just how human beings work.  Our hearts are captured by a bigger vision and our minds catch up.

Christians tend to hate the Wet, Wet, Wet line “My mind’s made up by the way that I feel” – even as much as the song itself.  Many times I’ve heard preachers denounce such an idea – Our minds aren’t made up by our feelings!  Or at least they shouldn’t be.  Feelings don’t boss us around.  Our minds need to tell our feelings where to get off.

Really?

Now “feelings” are indeed fickle things.  Perhaps even as fickle as thoughts!  So let’s substitute “heart” for feelings.  And let’s also acknowledge that our hearts should not be given free rein.  Something certainly needs to control our hearts.  But that the something is God’s Word.  That’s what shapes the heart.  And the heart shapes the thinking.  (Gen 6:5ff; Prov 4:23; Matt 12:34; Matt 15:19; Heb 4:12).

That feels right to me anyway.  What do you think?  And why?

.

My mind's made up by the way that I feel

Posted on by Glen in apologetics, atheism, theological method | Leave a comment

Last month the Times’ front page screamed: “God did not create the universe” – reporting on the new book co-authored by Stephen Hawking in which he asserts a spontaneous creation.  What I most enjoyed about the piece was a ringing endorsement from Richard Dawkins.  Among other things he made this revealing comment:

“I know nothing of the details of the physics but I had always assumed the same thing.” (ht)

Isn’t that brilliant?!

Actually that’s how we all reason.  All of us.  All the time.  But it’s hilarious to see it so plainly in Dawkins.

Here’s a guy who claims to be a child of the Enlightenment, he doesn’t know the details, he’s in no way qualified to pass judgement, it’s not even remotely his field, but he’d always assumed something like this must be right because it fits with some other stuff he also believes and is very much committed to… so… it floats his boat and he gives it his full assent (whatever it is, he’s not entirely sure) and, carried away by the necessity of its truth, he wants you to be carried away by it too, that we might all give allegiance to this grand vision (whatever it is, let’s not get too hung up on the details).

But you know what?  That’s how we all “reason”.

And it’s not just inconsistent atheists.  It’s just how human beings work.  Our hearts are captured by a bigger vision and our minds catch up.

Christians tend to hate the Wet, Wet, Wet line “My mind’s made up by the way that I feel” – even as much as the song itself.  Many times I’ve heard preachers denounce such an idea – Our minds aren’t made up by our feelings!  Or at least they shouldn’t be.  Feelings don’t boss us around.  Our minds need to tell our feelings where to get off.

Really?

Now “feelings” are indeed fickle things.  Perhaps even as fickle as thoughts!  So let’s substitute “heart” for feelings.  And let’s also acknowledge that our hearts should not be given free rein.  Something certainly needs to control our hearts.  But that the something is God’s Word.  That’s what shapes the heart.  And the heart shapes the thinking.  (Gen 6:5ff; Prov 4:23; Matt 12:34; Matt 15:19; Heb 4:12).

That feels right to me anyway.  What do you think?  And why?

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He who loves his wife loves himself

Posted on by Glen in Doctrine of God, marriage, theological method, trinity | Leave a comment

I’ve just been at a wedding and was reminded again of one of my favourite marriage verses: “He who loves his wife loves himself.” (Eph 5:28).

It occured to me that Paul could not have said this the other way around.  He who loves himself does not actually love his wife.  In the marriage covenant, other-love is self-love.  It’s the only self-love allowed.  But the reverse is not true: self-love is not other-love

Now think of God.  If you really wanted to, you might want to talk about “God loving Himself.”  But of course you’d only do so in the same way you’d talk about a husband loving himself.  How does a husband love himself?  He lays down his life for his wife.   How does God love Himself?  The Father commits all things into His Son’s hands.

Any talk of self-love in God must be explicitly talk about triune relations – the Father loving the Son in the Spirit.  You simply can’t talk about God loving Himself without emphatically underlining the multi-personal, other-centred nature of this God and this love.  Otherwise you make Him like the selfish husband.

In trinitarian theology there’s an old argument about how you should proceed.  Should you “begin with the One” and then show how there are actually three Persons in this One God.  Or  should you “begin with the Three” and show how those Three are the One God?

Well surely we must acknowledge from the outset the tri-personality of this God.  Or else all that you say under the category of “The One God” will start to sound like the selfish husband who, from the overflow of His self-centredness, manages to love another!  So wherever we ‘begin’ three-ness must be on the table.  (More on this here).

There is a way from Trinity to aseity.  But there is no way from aseity to Trinity.

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