God Become Man: Toward a Richer Theology of the Incarnation

For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality. —St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

A Mistake

It has been common these past few years to speak of “incarnational theology” as a way of describing the Christian mission to the world: we ought to “incarnate” Christ to the world as Christ “incarnated” the Godhead to us.[1] There is much to appreciate in this sentiment. It represents an appropriate recognition that humans are God’s image-bearers. It pays heed to the New Testament’s assertion that Christians are the body of and ambassadors for Christ. It takes seriously Paul’s shocking language of “filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24). It rightly points to the synthesis of missionary activity and social activism that represents the best of evangelicalism.

Yet for all that, I think that applying the language of incarnation to believers is a serious mistake. It is not that this way of speaking is wholly wrong but that it tends to blind us to the uniqueness of the Incarnation of Christ. God becoming man was an astounding event, a greater thing than any of our philosophers or poets had imagined. Thus Lewis wrote, “It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about” (Miracles). When we speak of ourselves “incarnating” Christ, we begin to blur out the sheer shock of the event. When Jesus came, God was here with us, but now we stand in the time between the times, waiting for him because he is not—not as he was, and not as he will be.[2]

Moreover, incarnational language is a hermeneutical failure: it is a misapplication of the New Testament “body” metaphor for the church. Whenever the apostles use bodily language to talk about the church, they do so to point to the unity of the people of God, not to the evangelistic impulse. The authors of the New Testament chose other images instead: fishermen, or servants working in the absence of their master, ambassadors and representatives to name just a few. Indeed, at no point does the Bible use the metaphor of the body describe Christian witness to the world. So we would do well to set aside the idea that we “incarnate” Christ. We do not incarnate him, because we cannot—the Incarnation was unique—but that does not negate the instincts of which the theology of the last few years has been an expression. It simply means that we need to do better in expressing those ideas.

Important as these semantic issues are, though, there is a much more significant problem: namely, how much we miss when our incarnational theology is about us instead of about Jesus.

On the Incarnation

I have come to tears in a class only once in my life—a few weeks ago, listening to my theology professor exult in what Christ did for us in the Incarnation. In evangelical churches, we often discuss Jesus’ death on the cross, and sometimes his perfect life or his resurrection.[3] Rarely, however, do we speak of the Incarnation. It usually only gets a mention at Christmas—usually when we talk about how the Virgin Birth was necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy, one of many confirmations that Jesus was indeed the foretold Messiah.

But the Incarnation means more than this. It always has. That God became a man is bigger than paying for our sins—marvelous though that alone would be. The language is there throughout the whole New Testament:

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

—Luke 1:76–79

Zechariah’s prophecy includes salvation from sin, yes, but it points to something more: light coming into the world, death’s power ending, and peace reigning. How does Christ’s work accomplish those? It seems to be at least partly in his coming into the world.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

—John 1:11–18

John couples the Incarnation of Christ—not his death or resurrection, but his becoming flesh—to our becoming children of God once again. His description of the Incarnation points to our adoption.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

—Colossians 2:9–10

Paul goes on in Colossians to talk of the penal substitutionary aspect of Christ’s work in very definite terms—but he starts here by showing how we are filled in Christ even as the “whole fullness”[4] of deity dwells in him.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

—Hebrews 2:14–18

Hebrews shows us Jesus as propitiation for our sins—hallelujah!—and it also shows us his help for us because he has suffered under temptation just as we have. More: his death delivers us not only from the penalty from sin, but also from death and the power of the devil.

We could go on, and on, and on. The Incarnation matters, and it matters as more than a means of getting Jesus to the cross so that he could die for our sins. We evangelicals too often reduce everything to penal substitutionary atonement. Yes, the atonement is incredible and amazing. It is one of the central affirmations and joys of the Christian faith: our sins are paid for! Glory to God! But Jesus did more than that, and he is worthy of yet more praise. He did not stop at paying the price for our sins while leaving our bodies subject to corruption. He did not content himself with performing a judicial act while leaving our wills broken, certain to turn again to the same sin that led to our death in the first place.

Redemption is not less than substitutionary atonement, to be sure—but it is more, much more. Redemption is the forgiveness of sins. Redemption is the cleansing from unrighteousness—not only from its guilt, but from its corrupting stain on our souls. Redemption is our wills being unchained from the power of sin. Redemption is partaking in the divine nature. Redemption is resurrection from the dead—not a rescuscitation from which we will only die again, but being raised to immortality. Redemption is the mending of our communion one with another. Above all, redemption is the restoration of fellowship with God: Jesus took up our flesh that he might unite humanity once again with the Triune Godhead.

As we were in the beginning, so shall we be again—but better.

Saint Athanasius said it best long ago:

For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father….

He took pity on our race, and had mercy on our infirmity, and condescended to our corruption, and, unable to bear that death should have the mastery— lest the creature should perish, and His Father’s handiwork in men be spent for naught— He takes unto Himself a body, and that of no different sort from ours….

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father— doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

—Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation

If Christ did not unite every corner of what it is to be human with his divinity—without the Incarnation—we remain guilty, foolish, wicked, common, enslaved, indebted, dead. But with the Incarnation, we have everything. We have been transformed from guilt to innocence, folly to wisdom, wickedness to righteousness, commonness to holiness, slavery to freedom, debt to heirdom, death to life. All of that in the Incarnation, where the God-man remade us as humans-with-God. Hallelujah.


If you have not read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, you should. It is one of the most important books in the history of the church, and therefore in the history of the world. It is also short. Do yourself the great favor of getting a copy and reading it well. For my part, I have made a commitment to read it on March 25—the day on which the church has traditionally celebrated the Annunciation of Christ to Mary—every year for the rest of my life. I think it is that important.


  1. The use of the adjective as a verb is annoying, but perhaps tolerable in light of the lack of a suitable alternative.  ↩

  2. Yes, the Spirit indwells us, and yes, God is everywhere. But the picture we have in the consummation of all things is God with us in a deeper way—and we do not have that yet.  ↩

  3. Though we spend far too little time on either Jesus’ life or resurrection.  ↩

  4. What a phrase!  ↩

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Literally?

Last week, Justin Taylor highlighted an article on the history of the interpretation of Genesis 1. I almost posted a rapid response, as the history of biblical interpretation is my big specialty. But I feared the appearance of posturing for traffic, and I strongly dislike origins debates. They tend to be clear as mud, sticky as pitch, uncivil, and arrogant. And I’m not just talking about the conventionally dreaded young-earth set. The days of creation and the age of the earth are not tier-one issues, but they are hardly minor technical points. We must not rank theological disputes by how agreeable we find the topic, our conversation partners, or what those who overhear us will think.

Taylor’s post touched on points that need to be raised if we want to have a real, productive debate. For now, I’ll limit myself to the post and not the underlying article, which was not easily obtainable by a general audience when he posted it. His list of conclusions looks unhappily similar to a list of common misperceptions and oversimplifications in the use of historical interpreters. Mere variety of approaches does not exclude the possibility of clear truth, as I’m sure Taylor would agree on other matters. The use of, and accommodation to, science by Augustine and Calvin was a two-way street. They often modified received science to suit their theological and hermeneutical purposes. Likewise, to modern ears their insistence on adherence to scientific reason seems inconsistent with their actual interpretations of Genesis. Likewise, “theological” interpretation and “literal” interpretation are not mutually exclusive. One can find the theological significance of creation to be more important than duration and means, and still be “literalistic” when directly addressing the latter. Calvin certainly was, and Augustine had his moments. Too often, old-earthers (including theistic evolutionists) claim the “spirit” of Augustine or Calvin, while young-earthers claim their direct statements on the points in question. Continue reading

Basil the Great: A Theology of Reading

When I taught humanities at a Christian secondary school, I spent the first week or so of the fall semester exploring how Christians should read because I anticipated that the pagan literature of the Greeks and Romans would chafe against my students’ delicate sensibilities and trigger reflexive habits. Select passages were read and discussed from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book, C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, and Alan Jacobs’ A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love––books that have forever changed the way I read.

The goal that I have set for myself, as a teacher and book reviewer, was also set for my students: to be known as a charitable, equitable, and just reader. Such a goal humbles me because I am aware of my shortcomings. Nevertheless, I pray––and I mean pray earnestly––that God will give me the grace to earn this reputation.

Alan Jacobs helped me to realize that Jesus’ command to love the neighbor applies to the author who is often treated like an abstraction rather than a human being: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). The hermeneutics of suspicion––a peculiar development of late modernity––prevails just as much inside the church as outside it. Therefore, we desperately need Christians who read in a counter-cultural way, whose faithful presence will make its mark in the world by their charitable reading.

The first passage below is from Basil the Great’s sermon “To Young Men” and the second passage is from Jacobs’ book. I have repeatedly camped in the latter passage since I first encountered it, finding an equally liberating and challenging exhortation. Here’s the kicker: the loving reader––and, by implication, the loveless reader––is an “ecclesial, not a personal, achievement.”

BASIL THE GREAT

It is, therefore, in accordance with the whole similitude of the bees, that we should participate in the pagan literature. For these neither approach all flowers equally, not in truth do they attempt to carry off entire those upon which they alight, but taking only so much of them as is suitable for their work, they suffer the rest to go untouched. We ourselves too, if we are wise, having appropriated from this literature what is suitable to us and akin to the truth, will pass over this remainder. And just in plucking the blooms from a rose-bed we avoid the thorns, so also is garnering from such writings whatever is useful, let us guard ourselves against what is harmful.

ALAN JACOBS

[Basil the Great's] favored opposition between oikonomia (economy) and akribeia (scrupulosity) inherits and develops the older distinction between equity and the rigidity of the legal statutes. But as [Kathy] Eden explains, what really governs Basil’s continual employment of this distinction is its link with the Pauline contrast between the spirit and the letter. For Basil, the spirit (which gives life) is linked with “economical” and “equitable” reading: thus his argument that young Christians can benefit from the reading of pagan literature, but only if they do not read according to the killing letter of the law. By the strict terms of God’s law these works can but be condemned––not because they are thoroughly erroneous but because their command of the truth is limited, defective.

We need to pause over this for a moment. Werner Jaeger writes that in Basil’s oration on Greek literature “the moral and religious content of ancient poetry is rejected, [whereas] the form is praised,” but this is manifestly wrong. Basil says quite explicitly that not only the great Homer, but indeed almost every pagan author with a high reputation, pursues wisdom and virtue. He is glad to be able to say this, because the education available to Christians in his time and place was largely pagan. As Edward Maloney, who edited Basil’s oration, writes: Though the Roman Empire was officially Christian, pagans still controlled the “institutions of culture” and hence the texts in which young students were trained. Basil, therefore, advises Christian students to learn the skills of discernment that will enable them to recognize when the pagan writers are teaching wisdom and virtue, so that they may eat such good fruit as is available. In a pre-Mandevillian “fable of the bees,” Basil encourages Christian students to follow the example of those insects by taking away, not whole flowers, but only the nourishment the flowers offer. And, in an ironically deft touch, he tells them that when the pagan writers teach sin or falsehood, the students should follow the example of Odysseus in the presence of the Sirens and stop their ears. As Eden points out, Odysseus is for Basil a recurrent model of prudence and good judgment.

Basil readily acknowledges that everything one can learn from pagan literature one can learn better still form Scripture; but why not take every opportunity to grow in wisdom and virtue? The problem is to learn how to do so; and here we return to Eden’s description of Basil’s terminology. It is precisely a less “scrupulous” and more equitable reading of the pagan writers that releases them for our use. The pagan writers can, when read in this way, be used even if they cannot strictly speaking be enjoyed––their dependence on false gods and inadequate understandings of human beings must not be ignored or minimized, but rather overcome by the determination to love God and neighbor better through reading them. For a certain kind of politically minded critic,  the only proper response to a morally deficient text is to condemn its deficiencies: Basil’s model provides a liberating alternative, in which even seriously wrong-headed books can provide some nourishment, nourishment for which we can be grateful.

Perhaps the most important point of all is that to read in this way is an act of charity to the works one reads and to oneself––an act of charity that includes and supersedes justice. In the Confessions, it is precisely this model that undergirds Augustine’s reconfiguration, through memoria, of his literary education: The pagan scrupulosity that once had imprisoned him in Virgil’s inadequate moral world is, after his conversion, replaced by an equitable, “spiritual” re-interpretation that can make even the reading of Virgil and other pagans useful and beneficial. When Augustine talks as though the only valuable thing he learned from his literary education was how to read and write, he seems not to realize this point; only in the discussion of memoria in Book X does he approach the freedom and confidence of Basil.

So far, so good. But… these questions cannot be fully explored without reference to the social and ecclesial context of interpretation. It is practically impossible simply to decide to read for justice and the charity that surpasses justice––to read for shalom. Thus Basil, knowing that the schools are pagan, assumes that the students to whom he writes will be nurtured by the counter-institution of the Church; it is the sound teaching of the Church that provides the students with the resources necessary to reconfigure, properly and healthily, the ideological world of the pagan writers and teachers….

Comprehensive and just charity can be achieved only in the life of the Church. The Church is the school for virtue––for charity as the architectonic virtue––and it is within the communal practice of the Church that equitable, “economic” reading makes sense. Though rejecting scrupulosity in interpretation, Basil insists that the local congregation be scrupulous (he uses just that word) in its obedience to Scripture and to the dictates of the Catholic Church. As Eden points out, it is no accident that the argument for equitable interpretation flourished in the age of the great ecumenical councils, which had the function of prescribing the boundaries beyond which orthodox believers may not go. For Basil, it is this framework of faithful obedience to the Gospel witness that liberates the reader to read more generously, according to the spirit rather than the letter. Absent such faithful obedience, such reading would exemplify license rather than liberty, antinomianism rather than the freedom of Christian charity.

The lessons are, I believe, clear, though daunting; no justice without the precedence and governance of charity; no charity without the guidance of the faithful and obedient church; no church without the Gospel that constitutes and inspires it. Charitable readers, equitable and just readers, will always be found here and there––one hopes––but a potent and fully articulated hermeneutics of love will arise only from a healthy community of believers. “Our kindness to ten persons” can be made righteous only in that context; only that context can teach us how to make our “circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself.” In the life of the Church these become the common and quotidian elements of justice. Such fully charitable reading, in a just association of persons, will be an ecclesial, not a personal, achievement.

Works cited:

  • Kathy Eden, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition
  • Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia
  • Edward R. Maloney, St. Basil the Great to Students on Greek Literature


The Body of the Word: Louis Gaussen’s “Theopneustia”

While most evangelicals have never heard of Louis Gaussen, his Theopneustia lurked in the backdrop of evangelical discussions of inspiration for the better part of a century. (For the argument for this, see Kenneth J Stewart’s “A Bombshell of a Book: Gaussen’s Theopneustia and its Influence on Subsequent Evangelical Theology, Evangelical Quarterly July 2003). In many ways, Gaussen framed the evangelical position, and consequently evangelical attempts to rehabilitate that position.

Gaussen’s work emphasizes the divine aspect of Scripture, to the extent that Gaussen had to write a follow up work (Le Canon des saintes écritures au double point de vue de la science et de la foi) arguing that he does not subscribe to a mechanical theory of inspiration. Gaussen argues forcefully that all of Scripture–the thoughts and the very words themselves are inspired.

Along the way, he emphasizes his disdain for the burdgeoning liberal German theological tradition of which Schleiremacher (who argues for the primacy of religious experience) is representative. He also rejects the notion that there are degrees or types of inspiration, arguing that such distinctions are a priori and non-Biblical.

Additionally, he is adament in his position that inspiration is about the text, not the authors. He dismisses inquiry into the mechanics of inspiration as interesting, but not material to the question of inspiration. Gaussen argues that communication in texts are similar to communication between persons: just as souls need bodies to transmit information, so meaning needs words. Questioning the inspiration of the words themselves undercuts the possibility of revelation itself, which, of course, is what the Bible is all about.

The emphasis on the inspiration of the words, however, poses problems for Gaussen. He is forced to do backflips to resolve the Bible and science, a problem that still lurks for many evangelicals.

Additionally, he is forced into the position that all genres of Scripture are “prophecy,” as it is prophecy in which God speaks in, through, and for man. Such a reduction of biblical types is interesting, but ultimately seems rather difficult to defend.

Gaussen’s work is important for more than just its historical influence. While the scientific arguments are probably outdated, Theopneustia is a stirring work of devotional theology. Gaussen is passionate in his reverence of Holy Scripture, and even those who disagree with his conclusions can’t help but be moved by his pleas to honor God in His Word.

Meaning and Intention

My brother’s recent puzzle spawned this response and subsequent discussion. The discussion continued that weekend for me–I spent a three hour car ride working through the issues with another member of this blog.

To be brief, I’ll point out four things:

1) Meanings are something that texts have and authors intend. In other words, they are a textual property, not an authorial property. When I say something like, “I am writing on Mere Orthodoxy,” the statement itself has a meaning apart from what I intend it to mean, a meaning that inheres in it because of its adherance to the rules of syntax and speech. In other words, if I say “I am writing on Mere Orthodoxy” and intend it to mean “I am riding a purple tricycle,” it won’t have that meaning. I will simply have failed to properly perform my intention.

2) With respect to Jim’s puzzle, he intended that it would have no meaning. If Jason had found one, it’s quite possible Jim had created something with a deep underlying structure that he hadn’t noticed–which means Jim, the author, would in fact be wrong about his meaning. When authors create texts, they release them into the world to be interpreted. The interpreter doesn’t make the meaning–he discovers it, or not. Either way, the locus of meaning and the criterion for meaning is the text itself, and not the author’s or reader’s interpretation of the text. To claim so is to confuse the epistemology and metaphysics of meaning.
3) This doesn’t mean we should do away with authorial intent, however. Rather, the author’s interpretation of their own text is in a priviliged position. Not because he is the author, but because as author it seems likely he is most familiar with the matter, the idea, the meaning of his text. This familiarity allows him to have a helpful and guiding voice, though again it is the text itself that is the criterion for truthful interpretations.

4) “Meaning” seems to hinge upon the “form/matter” relationship. If I typed gibberish–apsodinfapsioerhasperhzdv; nzpdifjapeorija opifjaopfnseprq–it has the matter (letters) without form. But this sentence is meaningful because the letters and words are arranged in such a way that they convey information. If a wave washed up stones that spelled, “Everyone should read Mere O all the time,” they would convey meaning, but only in a context where the governing laws for that sentence were understood, that is, where people understand the syntax. In other words, the rules that govern meaning are prior to, and determinitive of meaningful statements, and meaningful statements only occur within certain rules.

There are more thoughts to be had, of course, but these are what come to mind right now.

We are the Meaning Makers

If I were Jason Kuznicki, I’d be irritated.

Here’s Jim’s explanation of his “puzzle”: It’s all about trying to find a pattern that isn’t real–when pathological, the condition is called apophenia–by relying on human design intuitions. All of the strategies are possible, even probable, modes of uncovering the structure of the puzzle–if the design is in fact designed.

It was, and it wasn’t. In the vague, meaningless sense of “design,” one often trumpeted by Salvador Cordova, an intelligent agent crafted the pseudopuzzle, first by noticing an instance of a possible pattern, then by combining words with similar endings, finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible. But the design was essentially random. Words were chosen using associations in memory (for all the -eese words, of which “Edwin Meese” is my favorite) and from a list of -ary words found here. There was no leitmotif other than “hmm, this word sounds nifty.”

In other words, if I understand him, Jim created a puzzle with the appearance of design that was, in fact, “essentially random,” leaving Jason to discern an order that wasn’t really there. Jim’s point is, as always, provocative: Pope Benedict XVI, soon to head a debate on the theological importance of intelligent design, has said, “We are not the accidental product, without meaning, of evolution.” Indeed, for even if evolution is an accident, it has birthed creatures that are meaning-makers, able to fashion order out of randomness, for better or worse. This requires tentativeness and skepticism, for we see meaning everywhere, even where it isn’t.

The notion that we can create meaning where it isn’t is itself fascinating. It demonstrates, I think, the connection between evolutionary theory and the agression of reader-response hermeneutics. After all, there is no meaning in Jim’s puzzle–it’s up to the reader to determine the meaning for himself. Which, thankfully, we’re hardwired to do.
But if that’s the case, then Kuznicki is right and Jim is wrong. If Jim is right, then he has unfortunately ceded his authority as author to determine the meaning of his own puzzle. He has given over the right to say that it has no meaning, since it is the brute facts of the world and Kuznicki is the meaning maker. The fact that Kuznicki failed to find meaning doesn’t matter at all–perhaps a greater genius (if there were such a thing) could have found a coherent meaning. Or a trivial meaning. If we are meaning makers, what does it matter?

But Jim’s puzzle still rests, if I may, on a theistic view of the world. Jim is the author, and he has intentionally created his puzzle to confuse. It is, then, a text with a meaning, but not the meaning Jim led us all to believe it had. As an author, Jim has played the Cartesian demon, “finally deceptively claiming a solution was possible.” The puzzle itself rests upon a theology that demands a malevolent God out to trick the reader.

In sum, Jim is caught in a contradiction. He tells us we are meaning makers (a la Kuznicki) but then rejects the meaning we might make out of this particular nonsense in favor of his authorial intent.
The post certainly teaches a lesson, but ironically not the lesson Jim wants.

Jesus’ Meaning

Mere-O friend Rick Radcliffe recently wrote one of the most thorough and detailed explications and critiques of Marcus Borg’s Christology (as elucidated in The Meaning of Jesus that I’ve read.

Of course, Dr. Borg’s apparent view is that the gospels cannot credibly record any supernatural explanations for events. For example, the virgin birth does not comport with the modern understanding of procreation, so therefore, it must have been a mere “metaphor” or a subsequent creation or gloss administered by exuberant followers. Then, to save the faith somehow, Dr. Borg resorts to creating a “Christ of faith” to explain the matters that he has explained away beforehand. Again, this inconsistent approach leaves one with nothing, except perhaps an experiential faith that operates on a psychological level for the benefits of its followers.

Borg (and his ilk) counts as fringe NT scholarship whose views are often heralded by the major weekly publications every Christmas and Easter. Radcliffe’s critiques are straight to the point, decisive, and worth knowing by heart.

Also, he’s been hanging out with Justice Scalia recently.

Justice Scalia reported that Democratic strategist and fundraiser James Carville (ostensibly in error) sent him a fundraising letter during the last election cycle with the envelope emblazoned with the words, “Can you imagine a Chief Justice Scalia?”

Oops.

Discovering Biblical Equality

Like so many trips into the library, my recent excursion had me leaving with books I did not intend to find. In this case, I stumbled upon Gordon Fee’s Listening to the Spirit in the Text (review below). My real reason for perusing the BS 680 section of our beloved library was to find Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. Edited by Biola’s own Ronald Pierce and (not Biola’s) Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, this collection of essays is intended to be a positive explication of “biblical equality” (a biased term) that counteracts the CBMW’s own massive tome.

Discovering Biblical Equality (hereafter DBE) attempts to maintain a healthy balance between liberal feminist understandings of Christianity (those that attempt to change divine language to Mother/Father God, etc.) and strict patriarchal (or as they term them, hierarchical) understandings of Scripture. It attempts to distance egalitarianism from theories of feminism that lead to homosexuality and abortion (and seems successful in doing so). However, as a whole, the work is rather disappointing. As an encyclopedia of “egalitarian” viewpoints, it is immensely helpful. As a contribution to the gender discussion, it seems to fail to add anything noteworthy or new.

That said, I will follow the format of my last review and highlight several interesting points and articles in the book, only I will follow these with more substantial critical analysis. There is much in DBE that I agree with, and yet I think as a whole it suffers from an inadequate hermeneutic (more below) and from some conceptual difficulties that I will underscore in my specific critiques. The substance of these critiques will ignore DBE’s actual exegesis of the 10 or so “problem texts.”

  1. One of the most balanced and helpful articles is Ronald Pierce’s “From Old Testament Law to New Testament Gospel.” Pierce points out that many of the problem areas of the Old Testament Law (i.e. it’s acceptance of polygamy) actually had beneficial effects on women in Old Testament society. Additionally, in the case of suspected infidelity, husbands were required to test their women in a trial–they could not execute punishment without confirmation. Furthermore, restrictions on divorce protected women from whimsical or capricious abuses by men. In his summary, Pierce writes: “Thus it can be argued that the law neither created nor perpetuated patriarchy but rather reflected a progressive and protective attitude toward women. It was beneficial to women in its time, bringing order to the society in which they lived.” This pattern of improving conditions for women (as we’ll see later) is repeated in the New Testament. Many of the articles are concerned with demonstrating that women had leadership roles in Scripture, that they were able to pray and prophecy in the assembly (NT), and that Jesus’ attitudes toward women treat them with dignity and respect. I have nothing but cheers for this!
  2. Additionally, though more controversially, numerous authors appeal to “gifting” as the basis for ministry, not “office.” Fee (“The Priority of Spirit Gifting for Church Ministry”) is the main advocate for this position, and is (of course) quite persuasive in arguing for it. Combined with the (obvious) availability of spiritual gifts (including leadership?) to women, it serves well with opening up church leadership positions to women.
  3. However, I register strong disagreement with Fee regarding his interpretation of Galatians (“Male and Female in the New Creation). Fee argues that the issue in Galatians is more sociological than soteriological. It is about “the people of God”–who they are and how they are composed–rather than “justification by faith.” As a result, “new creation” is a new (social) order that God inaugarated with the giving of the Spirit that destroys the values (if any) of sociological status–men/women, slave/free, Jew/Gentile. “New creation” as a Pauline motif has much more to do with anthropology than sociology–hence Paul’s earlier autobiographical emphasis on being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-20). Additionally, Paul’s retort to those who are troubling the Galatians is decidedly anthropological–he is not seeking man’s approval, but God’s (1:10). This point parallels the boasting language in 2 Corinthians 5:12-15, which comes directly before 2:5-17–”If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Fee’s thesis regarding Galatians 3:26-29, then, is that it sounds a “death knell to the old order, even though its structures remained in the surrounding culture.”
  4. The book suffers from repeatedly lumping patriarchy with slavery and consequently treating patriarchy as simply a social institution, rather than a theological position. For instance, William Webb (and on this point Fee is equally guilty) argues that we should employ a “redemptive hermeneutic” to Scripture. The X-Y-Z principle that Webb argues for is fairly simple. In the original culture, the words of Scripture are redemptive. One thinks of Paul raising the status of slaves in Greek culture by destroying the significance of the institution. However, we look back at the “concrete words” in the text and see them as regressive. Consequently, we should find the “redemptive spirit” in the text and treat that as the meaning. However, while this answers many problems, it is fundamentally misguided. An intended social effect is not a meaning to a text, but rather a goal that an author hopes to accomplish. To use speech-act theory, it is to confuse the illocutionary act with the perlocutionary act. Hence, Webb’s argument that the same sort of effect is at work in male/female roles rests on a misguided hermeneutical principle. Additionally, his lumping of homosexuality and male/female roles is also misguided, for reasons I give below.
  5. To broaden my critiques to the work in general, it is on this that the whole question turns. Throughout the book, the appeal to the distinction between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” claims is made. The distinction is valid—however, DBE reduces the hermeneutics of gender to simply prescriptive claims. It seems there is agreement throughout the book that (a) men and women are actually different, (b) the Bible assumes patriarchy and consequently, but (c) does not prescribe patriarchy. In fact, the ethics of gender relations becomes the entire issue for DBE. Two chapters deal with anthropology—“Equality With and Without Innocence—Genesis 1-3” and “God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor”—and the rest are concerned with hermeneutical method, ecclesiastical or social life, and marital life. In this way, it seems DBE are doing sociological work, rather than theological. This becomes obvious in Judy Brown’s “God, Gender and Biblical Metaphor,” who argues that God is “beyond gender” (including metaphysical gender) and that our metaphors about God is culturally bound construct. She avoids referring to God as “Father-Mother God” (though somewhat wistfully remarks that the arguments in favor of this “could be” compelling), but her reasons are wholly unsatisfying—the possibility of the rise of fertility cults and the fact that “Throughout Scripture God has reserved the right to name himself and to reveal his names.” However, to treat the language of Scripture as simply sociologically constructed is to miss Scripture. We do not call God “Father” because we have human fathers—rather, we have human fathers because God is Father—see Ephesians 3:15. Theology is a discipline separate from sociology, and the meaning in the Scriptures is theological, not sociological. This, however, raises questions about whether egalitarianism without changing the language about God is even possible.
  6. For this reason, it is possible that the NT can abolish the significance of slavery (and abolish it from existence) and yet abolish the significance of male/female social status without abolishing masculinity and femininity themselves. To treat masculinity and femininity as being in the same category as slavery is to make a category error—slavery is not an intrinsic property of being human. Yet the preponderance of Scripture suggests that patriarchy is an intrinsic property of humankind—hence the fact that DSB only deals with those problem prescriptive texts and not with the fact that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The “redemptive spirit” in Scripture is not to redeem society from patriarchy, but from its abuses.
  7. And this leads to my final critique, which is more of a sense than anything. From the beginning, it seems DBE responds more to a misguided, overemphasized notion of patriarchy than anything else. If Scripture is true, then the patriarchy it demands is one that is submissive (see Christ on earth) and loving (see God’s pouring out of Himself in Christ). This doesn’t entail egalitarianism—it just means patriarchy has not yet been perfectly manifested. The Kingdom is already and not yet. It also means that DBE is right about many of the “problem texts.” They are not prescriptive norms, but rather norms given in response to particular situations. However, this doesn’t entail that the NT authors would be as comfortable doing away with patriarchy as they would be with slavery, as the writers of DBE continually postulate.

Careful explication of patriarchy treats it as anthropological—built into the very structure of man. This can be argued from the creation narrative, the language regarding God, or the structure of grammar (in Scripture, but also in every other culture—the masculine pronoun has been treated as inclusive in almost every language group). By focusing on sociological concerns, DBE fails to provide a careful alternative. Some social institutions are more easily adapted to Christianity than others—feminism is not one such institution. Sociology depends upon anthropology, and anthropology is a derivative of theology (even moreso after the Incarnation). The question is theological, not sociological, and DBE’s attempt to revise our sociology without revising our theology is ultimately incoherent.

DBE is an excellent compendium of fair, balanced scholarship. It has changed my mind on several issues—most notably, it argues quite persuasively that the “equal in being, different in role” description is problematic when applied to the Trinity. Yet it does not persuade, for in the areas that touch the whole witness of Scripture and not simply the problem texts, it is found badly wanting.

Book Review: Beyond the Bible

Since I’ve been away from computers this summer, I’ve spent more time reading. One of my main priorities was I. Howard Marshall’s Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology. Beyond the Bible is actually only 60% Marshall (three essays)–it also contains responses from Kevin Vanhoozer and Stanley Porter.

In essence, Marshall’s book is an outline that attempts to answer how we move from the Biblical text to doctrine and application. If we are going to move “beyond” the Bible, then we must do so “Biblically.”

Marshall spends his first essay outlining the state of evangelical theology with respect to hermeneutics, and endeavors to show that areas of interpretation and application where there is no longer consensus poses problems for our method of theology. He primarily interacts with JI Packer’s approach to application, who contends that the practice of exposition involves detaching timeless principles from their contingent situations, and reapplying them in our own situations. In essence, Marshall contends that this approach to hermeneutics suffers from being too simplistic. In many cases there simply are not specific scripture passages that produce principles that are applicable to many of our situations (see bioethics). Additionally, there is widespread disagreement about the principles (see the role of women in the Church). Additionally, the stress on finding what the human author intended doesn’t adequately account for the senus plenior, the fuller meaning that can result from the inspiration of the Spirit.

In his second essay, Marshall identifies two approaches to Scripture–one conservative, and the other liberal. The conservative approach is to take the plain sense of Scripture as “authoritative unless it is manifestly not universifiable.” The second approach is to treat Scripture as contextualized and its commands as relative. This means that we need to move “beyond” the Bible. In the case of ethics, the New Testament gives commands to slaves within the context of slavery, yet the Christian tradition has been overwhelmingly against it. Again, in worship the same two approaches exist. The Anglicans permitted what Scripture did not explicitly condemn. The Puritans permitted only those practices that had Biblical justification.

In the case of doctrine, Marshall contends that we all go beyond Scripture when we formulate doctrines. The Chalcedonian Formula represents a development of doctrine, in that it is not found in Scripture. Contemporary issues of development in doctrine involve the question of Open Theism. Perennial contenders for their status as developments include infant baptism and universalism. Everyone moves beyond the Bible, Marshall contends, but we have no criterion for determining which moves are permissibile. How do we decide which developments (in ethics, worship, or doctrine) are legitimate?

According to Marshall, doctrinal developments are (generally) of four kinds: progress in knowledge in areas that need Biblical guidance (science), the need to explain various statements in Scripture on a subject, texts that are in tension with each other, and the tension between what Marshall calls “insights of minds nurtured on the Gospel” and some Scriptural passages. For instance, Marshall rejects the unending punishment of hell on the grounds that it conflicts with a “Biblically based, christian understanding of love and justice.”

Marshall then engages in a tough task–showing that Scripture develops itself. He argues that the New Testament represents a development of Old Testament theology in that it moves concepts that are on the fringes of Jewish thought (like Yahweh’s interest in other nations and the afterlife) to the center. These shifts radically transform Jewish theology. Additionally, Marshall argues that there is development in the expression of the teachings of Jesus and also in the apostolic interpretation of Pauline theology (here his case rests on the Pastorals, which he does not think are Pauline). There is continuity within these developments, “but also there are shifting emphases with corresponding shifts in character. Thus, they exhibit a certain untidiness in which not everything is cut and dried.” Here we get the first hints of Marshall’s plan: “The closing of the canon is not incompatible with the nonclosing of the interpretation of that canon.” The canon is fixed, but interpretation is not. But we must go beyond the Bible Biblically. Hence, we must identify a canon of interpretive principles from within Scripture. This is the task of his third essay.

Marshall identifies three such principles. The first is that the Old Testament is always to be interpreted in light of the New, as the New Testament interprets the Old in light of the revelation of Christ. The second is that because Jesus’ teaching was before Easter, it has a limited range of application. The Easter-event changes how we interpret Jesus’ words in the gospels. Finally, Marshall contends that the concept of the gospel becomes fixed by the early Church–there is a real “apostolic deposit” that is used to detect and root out error. This is clear in Paul’s letters, and becomes explicit in the Pastoral epistles. The Marshall plan is twofold: (1) use this “apostolic deposit” as an interpretative grid for doctrinal developments. Marshall views “the gospel” as basically christological. The “apostolic deposit” is teachings about Christ, and hence Christ becomes the “canon within the canon.”

In order to avoid the nefarious problem of making Christ or the gospel in our own image, Marshall suggests the second principle for developing doctrine: (2) the canon should be “understood in light of our own Christian mind and illumination by the Spirit, and to recognize that this term ‘our own Christian mind’ uses ‘our’ inclusively to include other Christians past and present, near and far.”

In other words, the criterion by which we measure developments are the apostolic deposit and “minds nurtured on the gospel.” If we have these two in place, then we will be equipped to expose doctrinal error and to develop doctrine appropriately. This means that proper Biblical exposition is a matter not only of rigorous inquiry into the meaning of texts, but a matter of personal sanctification. We must actually have the mind of Christ if we are to properly “do theology.” This is the Apostolic position–the Apostles, Marshall contends, taught on the basis of the word and insights from the Spirit.

Marshall’s essays are instructional and engaging, but Vanhoozer’s is worth the price of the book itself. Though he does not fully develop his own criterion for going beyond the Bible Biblically (he agrees that this is the task and briefly suggests “the mind of the canon” as an alternative), he outlines relevant objections and questions for Marshall’s answer–”the mind nurtured on the gospel.” Specifically, he objects to Marshall’s claim that God’s judgement of the world through hell is “intrinsically wrong.” Marshall, Vanhoozer contends, “is bringing an already developed doctrine of God to the table” and this is coloring his approach to Scripture. Furthermore, Vanhoozer lists three other concerns: Marshall skips over what doctrine actually is, and more importantly fails to specify what it actually means to move “beyond” Scripture. Is the Chaceldonian formula actually moving beyond Scripture, or is it simply restating Scripture in a different language?

Marshall’s plan for moving beyond Scripture is compelling–the mind nurtured on the gospel, however, seems to need clarification and might also beg the question about how we actually know what the gospel is (this approaches Vanhoozer’s objection). What actually constitutes the apostolic deposit? For instance, Marshall writes: “In such ways the New Testament writers go beyond the apostolic deposit to combat error and to find fresh ways of expressing the gospel. Orthodoxy is not tied to specific vocabularies and forms of words.” Here he begs the question by assuming that the grammar of Scripture is not itself a part of the apostolic deposit–if the doctrine of inspiration obtains, however, then Marshall’s claim might be incorrect. Orthodoxy may be tied to some vocabularies–patriarchal vocabularies come to mind as the obvious choice. Here again we have a tension between the mind nurtured on the gospel and what constitutes the gospel itself. As such, I am not sure that Marshall’s principles for moving “beyond” the Bible are adequate.

However, the book is well worth the inexpensive price. It is readable and instructive, and brief to boot! Marshall, Vanhoozer, and Porter are learned men, and their writings indicate that. Beyond the Bible is well worth the little time and effort it takes to read through.

Egalitarian Histories and the Claims of Scripture

The next couple days I’m going to revist a couple recent posts where people have left insightful comments that I would like to fully respond to. I’m going to begin with this post regarding PZ Meyer’s post about giving “proper reverence” to everyone who has gone before us, rather than singling a certain tribal people (Jewish) out for special honor. Meyer’s post was a smash hit, as the comments indicate. It was featured in Carnival of the Vanities and made it to the new Smarter-than-I carnival (a creation of my brother) by “popular demand.”

Kevin Keith, who I am guessing is from leanleft, made the following quite lengthy and helpful comment. I would encourage you to read the whole thing and then peruse my comments at the bottom.

You didn’t understand the post.

[Myers] first evokes the immense temporal history of “human” or hominid species – extending back over 1 million years for Homo spp. and at least 4 million or more years for Australopithecus spp.. He then notes that the Bible, whatever else it might be, is essentially a record of the current Homo species over the most recent span of about 2,000 years (some quibbled with his dates, arguing it covers historical events as long as 3 or 4,000 years ago, but his basic point remains). Thus, the Bible – whatever it has to tell us and whatever it records – accumulates (some of) the human experiences and wisdom of only 1/75th to 1/50th of our species’s history, 1/500th or so of our immediate ancestors’ history, and 1/2,000th to 1/1,000th of what might reasonably be called “human” history. And, he notes, it is a profound and moving document – but one limited to only a tiny fraction of all that may have been known or seen in our history.

His observation is that if we are to hold the experiences – and what was learned from them – of people who lived 2,000 years ago in reverence, as he believes we should do, then it is almost heartbreakingly sad to note that the equally fraught, equally noble experiences of their ancestors, and those ancestors’ ancestors, and so on all the way back have been lost without any but the slightest record or remembrance. The experiences, hopes, fears, and beliefs of those earlier humans are as awesome and as worthy as those of humans in the time of King David, or today – and it would take thousands of Bibles to tell even the bare outlines of their stories, yet we have not a page or a line from them. The Bible – a record of the most ambitious and inspirational aspects of human history – covers only a hair’s-breadth of the span of the full story of human experience and belief. Pre-H. sapiens species had social rituals, including formal burials with flowers and artifacts, that speak of deeply-felt emotions and conceivably of religious beliefs, as well as of organized social structures. Their stories are part of our story, and they must be fascinating, but they are lost. The stories we do have of “early” humans are actually quite recent in terms of the whole span of human history, and given how moving those stories are, what is lost to us must be of incalculable value.

This leads to two conclusions: (1) we should recognize our history and beliefs – including the Bible – not as unique or as some sort of culmination of an historical trend, but as a continuation of a long history whose prior inhabitants had their own stories, beliefs, triumps, tragedies, and hopes – equally valuable and equally inspirational as compared to ours; and (2) we should avoid over-exalting the Bible as the last word on anything, when in fact it is just the most recent word, dwarfed by the 98.67% to 99.95% of human history that it doesn’t mention. This is hardly a radical observation – it is simply the importation into social history of the obvious and well-known facts of biological history (i.e., that we are merely a continuation of a long evolutionary line, and not yet a very long-lived branch of that line as well). The import of this observation is to encourage us to remember and feel for the (almost always overlooked) truly human experiences and imaginings of our pre-historical and immediate evolutionary forebears, and to remember as well to keep our understanding of the Bible and its significance within its very limited historical context.

Your remark that “it’s ALSO the revelation of God of the Universe who happens to be nothing less than the source and center of all meaning” is irrelevant. Human history is (at the outside) over 4 million years long; the Bible covers a period of a couple of thousand years that ended almost 2,000 years ago. Even if there is a god who created this world and dictated the Bible (a god who, bizarrely, seemed to need to crib much of it from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and then set his followers to take a vote on which of its many versions was supposedly the one actually dictated), the fact can’t be changed that most of what has happened in the world isn’t part of the Bible, and virtually all of human history was lived before the Bible was composed. Those humans’ history and experiences are as valuable as ours; their joys and sorrows were surely as inspirational as ours, their events and doings surely as inspirational, their beliefs and aspirations surely as heartfelt. The Bible records none of it – which is to say that the Bible is not the pinnacle of human wisdom but merely the surviving fragment of a vast store of wisdom and experience that was (likely) never written down. And so we should value it for what it is, but not more than that, and take up the burden of trying to discern what else there is that might be known for ourselves. To believe the Bible is the first and last word on everything is to deny the obvious fact that there were hundreds of thousands, and indeed millions, of years of experience with, no doubt, every topic mentioned in the Bible that came before the first Bible story was conceived. The Bible thus can’t be the first, nor likely the last, word on anything. And so we honor it as a partial record of a tiny fraction of a noble history, but no more than that because it cannot, in actual fact, be and is not anything more than that – even if (some, a, the) god did dictate it. Somehow that god forgot to dictate the other 1,999 volumes, leaving us on our own to discover what else we might have – and may someday – know besides.

I appreciate Kevin’s tone and his engagement with us here at Mere-O. We’re always looking to welcome new readers.

I appreciate his attempt to help me understand the post, though I did have a good understanding of it when I wrote my original post. What I didn’t understand was why people were so impressed with it. I think I do now.

Myers’ post and Keith’s recapitulation rest on an egalitarian view of human history, a position that suggests all time-slices of history are created equal. They provide no grounds for this position, though they do assert it repeatedly and vigorously. They are particularly intent on defending the time-slice of “pre-history,” or the human experiences had before the time of the Bible that are (quite frankly) unknown to us. Claims about this “pre-historical” period are obviously tendentious and speculative.

However, it is interesting that they claim these unknown histories are “just as valuable as our own.” Let me grant this for a moment–what makes history valuable at all? My own philosophy is that history is valuable because it gives a sense of self-identity–it informs my perception of my self and my place in the cosmos.

Yet this account of history destroys any egalitarian notion of history. Certain time-slices of the cosmos have obviously been radically more influential on our self-understanding and sense of identity as human persons (which most philosophical naturalists are bent on unmaking) than others. I take it that the events of Scripture (even limited to ad.0-33) have shaped human identity immeasurably. The whole concept of a person, after all, began as category of Christian theology. There was no sense of auto-biography before Augustine began working out the Trinity, because there was no such thing as the self. What Myers and Keith call “pre-history” had no such effect on our human identity, at least not in any way that we might recognize. Why are we being asked to put on an equal plane experiences that we have no record of and that seem fundamentally the same as our own?

I’ll be more to the point. Keith writes, This leads to two conclusions: (1) we should recognize our history and beliefs – including the Bible – not as unique or as some sort of culmination of an historical trend, but as a continuation of a long history whose prior inhabitants had their own stories, beliefs, triumps, tragedies, and hopes – equally valuable and equally inspirational as compared to ours; and (2) we should avoid over-exalting the Bible as the last word on anything, when in fact it is just the most recent word, dwarfed by the 98.67% to 99.95% of human history that it doesn’t mention.

Keith presumes that there is something intrinsic about more data or more experience that contributes to wisdom. I’m at a loss as to even understand how that might be. I am curious to know what he means by “wisdom,” since I have doubts that it is the sort of “wisdom” that Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas might have appealed to.

Furthermore, Keith misunderstands the approach to Scripture that I and most other Christians have. The question is not one of time, but one of truth. Keith (and Myers) are so caught up in a garden-variety chronological snobbery–whereas chronological snobbery for Lewis meant veneration of things new, for Keith and Myers it means veneration of time above truth. Fundamentally, if Scripture is as it claims to be (namely, the historical record of the revelation of the God of the Universe), the length of the time-slice that it happens in seems utterly irrelevant. We as Christians (or as natural philosophers) are not interested in the first word, nor the last word–only the true word. Scripture claims to be the revelation of God to man–if true, then it is The Word and demands reverence and obedience. It does not merit this by virtue of anything other than it’s veracity. If it is true, then it is more valuable than any other history, for it claims to inform where Man comes from, who Man is, where He is going, and most importantly, who the Lord and Maker of the Universe is–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.