Archive for August, 2006

Theology: More Than Narrative, But Not Less

August 27, 2006

What is the relationship between theology and narrative? In recent decades there has been a turn toward narrative as the primary category of theology and the primary purpose of biblical revelation. I perceive this as a reaction to a form of systematic theology that abstracts timeless principles from Scripture and virtually ignores categories like redemptive history and narrative. Any theology that marginalizes narrative is a poor theology, because narrative is embedded into the canon. By the same token, I would also argue that any theology that marginalizes doctrine falls into the opposite error, because doctrine is also embedded into the canon. Theology depends on the biblical narrative, but it also depends on the doctrinal interpretation of that narrative. To adapt a saying from Immanuel Kant, narrative without doctrine is blind; doctrine without narrative is empty. We must not be forced to chooe one or the other.

I imagine narrative as the skeletal structure of theology. And by this I don’t mean just any narrative. I mean the narrative of redemptive history, the story that runs from creation through fall and then to new creation. It focuses on Israel, then centers of Christ, and then radiates outward through the age of the Spirit and the church to the final consummation. This is not the narrative I was taught in Sunday School as a boy. Unfortunately, what I most often learned from godly, well-meaning Sunday School teachers were individual narratives abstracted from their canonical context and probed for moral lessons. Slay your giants like David. Answer the call like Moses. Pray like Elijah. There may be moral lessons in all of these stories, and these lessons may be important. But abstracted from the whole story of creation, fall, and new creation, they do not communicate the gospel as God intended. They do not tell us of Christ, and that is the primary purpose of Scripture.

I am thankful for the turn toward narrative. Actually, it has many historical antecedents in Reformed theology. Covenant theology, which arose during the Puritan age (if I am not mistaken) represents an attempt to view Scripture and theology through the lens of redemptive history. I don’t agree with all of the details of it, but I like the approach. The same goes for Dispensationalism, which arose quite a bit later. Jonathan Edwards left unfinished at his death a treatise entitled A History of the Work of Redemption, which was an approach to theology via history. Geerhardus Vos, of course, is a major figure in this tradition, and his work has been followed by a number of others. In our own day, Graeme Goldsworthy has published some excellent material on the unfolding plan of God through the ages, culminating in Christ.

All of these figures represent an approach to biblical narrative that is not afraid to probe the details of doctrine. Without doctrine, redemptive history is naked and unintelligible. It must be interpreted, and Scripture provides us the interpretation. Doctrine is the flesh on the bones of narrative. How can we understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ if we do not have some grasp of concepts like original sin, the hypostatic union, the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, imputed righteousness, and justification by faith? I fear that a turn toward narrative that results in a marginalization of doctrine may be a veiled attempt to refuse to deal with details and cover over significant areas of disagreement within the Christian tradition (and outside of it as well). Paul and the Judaizers had the same narrative, but they worked with it in different ways. Their disagreement over doctrine was the difference between the true gospel and a false one that provoked Paul’s most vehement response (the letter to the Galatians).

We cannot afford to marginalize either doctrine or narrative. They go together like blades in a pair of scissors. Either one, without significant attention to the other, will distort Christian truth and ultimately to harm to the church. But when held together under the authority of Scripture, they bring blessings untold.

Thoughts on the Spirit

August 18, 2006

I used to think that cessationism (the view that some spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and apostleship were given by God for the foundational period of the church and then ceased) was based on a severe misreading of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10:

“Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part an we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.”

Some cessationists argue that “the perfect,” which eliminates the need for these spiritual gifts, is the completed New Testament canon. That dog won’t hunt. I think that reading is completely unsustainable. The context obviously points to the Second Coming of Christ as “the perfect,” and Paul’s point is not to lay out a scheme for various phases in the age of the church but rather to show that love always endures. If that were the only argument for cessationism (as I used to think it was), then it would be an untenable position.

However, I have come to see that arguments for cessationism have been derived from other biblical teachings, particularly the link between apostles and prophets in Ephesians 2:20 (and other passages) and the eschatological significance of Pentecost and the early period of the church’s life. Richard Gaffin’s book Perspectives on Pentecost is the best thing I have read on the subject, and he has gone a long way toward convincing me that a moderate form of cessationism is true to the flow of Scripture. He also addresses 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 and agrees that “the perfect” is the Second Coming, but he shows how this text is basically irrelevant to the issue, since Paul did not have in mind distinctions within the present age but simply made a contrast between the partial, mediated knowledge we have now and the perfect knowledge we will have when we see face to face in the coming age. I won’t rehash all of Gaffin’s arguments here, but I will commend the book to you for your consideration.

The point of this post is to draw out an argument from Gaffin’s book and relate it to a new issue that confronts the church today. Cessationists have been accused of putting God in a box, limiting the freedom of the Spirit to blow where he wills by a rigid theology. Whatever you think of the debate between charismatics and cessationists, this issue confronts us in another form today. Pluralists and inclusivists argue that the Holy Spirit is at work in revelatory and salvific ways apart from Scripture and the preaching of the gospel. The distinction between common grace and saving grace has been blurred to the point that God’s revelatory and salvific work has been discerned pretty much everywhere and in everything. Critics of this theological trend (like myself) have been accused of putting God in a box, limiting the freedom of the Spirit to blow where he wills, illegitimately subordinating the Spirit to the Word. Does this criticism hold any water? Gaffin provides a solid answer in his defense of cessationism, which I believe applies to this debate as well:

One frequently voiced objection to the view that tongues and prophecy have ceased is that it denies the freedom of the Holy Spirit (“puts the Spirit in the confining box of our limited theologies”) and conflicts with the biblical teaching that the Spirit distributes gifts “just as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). The weight of this objection is more apparent than real. At issue here is not the sovereign right and power of the Spirit to do what he pleases, but the pattern by which God chooses to reveal his Word to the church, the structure or order which the Spirit has set for himself in his freedom.

No doubt the Spirit is like the wind, which “blows wherever it pleases” (John 3:8); much about his working we find incalculable and mysterious. As the Spirit of the living God, truly his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts, just as the heavens are higher than the earth (Isa. 55:9). But the impenetrability and incomprehensibility of the Spirit’s work must never be stressed one-sidedly or absolutized, so that the bounds of his revealing activity, definitely indicated by the Spirit himself in Scripture, are obscured or denied. Those bounds, as I have tried to show, provide the church with a foundational, apostolic revelation, adequate and complete for every need and blessing, permitting no additions, until Christ’s return–an event which when it takes place with its precursors, the New Testament suggests, will not be the occasion for widespread division and uncertainty within the church about whether or not it has occurred.

My purpose is not to stir up debate between cessationism and continuationism. There are adherents to both sides who would agree with my general concern about inclusivism and pluralism (on the continuationist side, John Piper and Wayne Grudem would probably be good examples). But I do see Gaffin’s argument as applicable to our modern situation, where it has become unfashionable to “test the spirits” by the Word of God. I believe the Spirit is at work in all of creation, but this does not mean we can identify his revelatory and salvific work wherever we think we see something good. All things must be tested by Scripture. This is not limiting the freedom of the Spirit; it is, rather, affirming his freedom to fulfill his purpose not to speak on his own initiative, but to testify to the revealed, incarnate Christ (John 15:26; 16:12-15). In a world where many antichrists have already come (1 John 2:18), Scripture is our guide to test the spirits and hold on to the truth of God while disregarding that which is false. This is an indescribable gift of God, not an unwarranted limitation.

Foundationalism, Certainty, and Faith

August 8, 2006

I would like to see more clarity on the issue of “foundationalism” by those who use the term. These days it is something of a pejorative term, a misguided, outdated relic of a past age that has been supplanted by an emerging epistemology and theology. One way to undermine someone else’s position these days is to label it “foundationalist,” and then you have already scored major points against it. My concern is that the term is being thrown around without much regard for what it means, what important distinctions should be made between various positions, and how foundations are, in a sense, inherent to knowledge itself.

I have often read that Christian fundamentalism (whose origin lies in the theology of the old Princetonians) operates according to a foundationalist paradigm because the inerrant Bible serves as the foundation for epistemological certainty. Certainty as such is often maligned as arrogant, unrealistic, or both. However, I think this charge is unfair. There is a massive difference between philosophical foundationalism and the doctrines of biblical authority and inerrancy. Philosophically speaking, foundationalism represents an attempt to ground all knowledge on universal principles of reason (“foundations”) and not on divine revelation. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was the starting place, the foundation, upon which his epistemology was built. It was a universal principle that all people could affirm in their own consciousness. Descartes, who represents the beginning of the Enlightenment, represents an epistemological shift in Western thought from revelation as the ground of knowledge to the unimpeachable assumptions of the thinking subject. In other words, foundationalism (in the narrow, philosophical sense) began when man turned to himself as the foundation.

The Reformers and their heirs (post-Reformation scholastics, leading up to the Princetonians and now modern conservatives) did not operate according to this paradigm at all. They took their starting point not from the thinking subject, but from divine revelation (i.e., Scripture). Michael Horton argues that Protestant Scholasticism, in contrast to the Roman Catholic Scholasticism that preceded it, was actually anti-foundationalist. Proceeding not from universal principles of reason or human speculation, the Protestant Scholastics started with the Bible as their primary criterion of truth. On the other hand, Steve Wellum has argued that this represents a position known as “revelational foundationalism,” since the Scripture does, indeed, serve as a foundation for knowledge. Whatever you want to call it, I think this distinction needs to be recognized, but the literature often blows right by it as though Warfield and Kant belong to the same epistemological family. In fact, they are very far apart from one another.

But as to the issue of “foundations” themselves, I don’t see why they should be considered such nasty things in the first place, so long as you have the right ones. If by “foundationalism” you mean one who starts with the thinking subject as the ground of all knowledge, then by no means am I a foundationalist. But if you mean simply one who seeks warrants for his beliefs, then count me in. To me, it is the height of absurdity to commend an epistemology because it doesn’t have anything to support it or to argue about who is less certain of what they believe. And I believe that, instinctively, we all understand this, whether we say we do or not. We live and operate this way in all aspects of life. Knowledge is inherently “foundationalist” (in a broad sense of the term). Just because the Enlightenment guys built their epistemology on the wrong foundation does not mean that all foundations are therefore wrong.

Taking divine revelation as the foundation of knowledge, therefore, I affirm that certainty is possible. This is not the certainty of a Descartes, who begins with the self and proceeds to establish a body of truth based on finite human reason. Rather, it is the certainty of faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. This is completely opposite of what the world thinks of faith. To most people, “faith” is belief in something that is absurd or at least not demonstrably true. This comes out in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where Robert Langdon tells Sophie that all religions are built on fabrications, but it is the nature of faith to believe in spite of these fabrications. The Bible does not ask me to believe fabrications; it asks me to believe the truth and the One who is Truth (John 14:6). So faith is not a blind leap into the absurd; it is trust in a reliable Person.

I think this is where our society’s understanding of faith goes wrong. For most people, faith has to do with facts. Certain facts are either true or untrue, but “faith” accepts them as true even when they are demonstrably untrue. I think this is misguided because it confines faith to mere intellectual assent to the truth of a fact. Biblical faith, while not excluding facts, is trust in a Person whose nature and character have been revealed to us as truthful, reliable, and dependable. I may not have seen Jesus rise from the dead, but I believe what God has said concerning that fact because I know God to be truthful in what he says. Therefore, even when I do not have access to scientific demonstration of facts (such as the resurrection), I trust in the reliable testimony of the One who certifies those facts for me. I think of it this way: when I get on an airplane, I don’t have to know how everything works in order to put my faith in the pilot to get me to my destination safely. It doesn’t mean that the “facts” about how everything works are wrong, it just means that I don’t have personal access to them. I have entrusted them to a competent, trained pilot, whose credentials are known. My faith, then, ultimately rests on him or her. So it is in the Bible. We don’t believe because we see; we believe because the testimony we have received comes to us from a reliable Source, the one true and living God who cannot lie. Faith, then, can take the form of certainty when it is directed to the promises of God. Doubt is not something to revel in or be proud of; every time I see it in the Bible, it is explicitly contrasted with faith. “Oh, you of little faith; why did you doubt?” It wasn’t that the disciples had to see with X-ray vision the inner-workings of divine power evident in Jesus’ command over nature in order to believe. It was, rather, that they should have trusted in the Man they knew to be the Son of God. That is what it means to walk by faith and not sight.

So, am I a foundationalist? Broadly, yes. Narrowly (in the sense of the Enlightenment paradigm stemming from Descartes), no. I hope that these distinctions will be more evident in this discussion in the future.