Karl Barth on the Old Testament

I am reading through what is so far an extremely interesting book in the Ashgate “Barth Studies” Series entitled, Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah (by Mark S. Gignilliat). (I will be reviewing it for International Journal of Systematic Theology.) I’m only just beginning it, but already Gignilliat alerted me to this wonderful little passage in vol I.2 of the Barth’s Church Dogmatics where Barth speaks formally about his view of the importance of the Old Testament as part of the Christian canon: 

Neither in the New Testament nor in the documents of the 2nd-century post-apostolic period do we find the slightest trace of anyone seriously and responsibly trying to replace the Holy Scriptures of Israel by other traditions of other nations, all those nations within which the first Churches sprang up, or to proclaim those traditions as prophecies of Christ and therefore as a more suitable introduction to the New Testament Bible. Yet this would have meant a great easing of the missionary task, and apologetics often tended in this direction, although hardly ever with reference to the problem of the Canon. Even Marcion never plunged in this direction, although he was near enough to it. We cannot plunge in this direction, we cannot even try to do what Marcion and after him the Socinians and Schleiermacher and Ritschl and Harnack tried to do, without substituting another foundation for the foundation on which the Christian Church is built. The Old Testament is not an introduction to the real New Testament Bible, which we can dispense with or replace. We cannot eliminate the Old Testament or substitute for it the records of the early religious history of other peoples, as R. Wilhelm has suggested in the case of China, B. Gutmann in some sense in that of Africa, and many recent fools in the case of Germany. If we do, we are not merely opposing a questionable accessory, but the very institution and existence of the Christian Church. We are founding a new Church, which is not a Christian Church. . . . Whether we like it or not, the Christ of the New Testament is the Christ of the Old Testament, the Christ of Israel. The man who will not accept this merely shows that in fact he has already substituted another Christ for the Christ of the New Testament. It was not to dissolve the Law and the prophets but to fulfil them that the real Christ of the New Testament came (Mt. 5:17; cf. Jn. 10:35).

–Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2,  488. (underlines my emphasis!)
As Gignilliat puts it, “For Karl Barth, the Old Testament is more than a red carpet rolled out to introduce the New Testament, that is, a corpus easily dispensed with once the New Testament has arrived.” (25)
At a personal level, I more and more lament just how woefully inadequate I am in reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. In this regard, I’m tempted to do a graduate degree in OT under the supervision of my friend and colleague Eric Ortlund  in whom I see an example of someone who knows the historical-critical world of Old Testament studies well, but who preaches from OT books (like Ecclesiastes!) in ways I’ve rarely heard in the evangelical world. (In fact, go over to Eric’s blog and pressure him to post his notes from his last seminary sermon delivered on Ecclesiastes…)
Disclaimer: At this point it is only a temptation for me to do another degree…I’m sure Maureen would have some things to say that! 🙂

Singularity or Unity of Truth?

I had this email come to me from an inquirer from the West Indies.

May I ask you a question about Christian Soteriology ?

With so many different denominations out there who insist that there are commandments which they keep that other churches do not keep (eg 7th day Sabbath) and with so many different interpretations of the bible, how does one know what the truth is and is finding the truth about every single commandment to be kept a matter of life and death?

Secondly, why is it that the indwelling Spirit doesn’t guarantee singularity of thought?

Here’s what I said:

1) You ask, “With so many different denominations out there who insist that there are commandments which they keep that other churches do not keep (eg 7th day Sabbath) and with so many different interpretations of the bible, how does one know what the truth is and is finding the truth about every single commandment to be kept a matter of life and death?”

Biblically, I think it is important to realize that “truth” is, first of all, most closely identified with the person of Jesus Christ. As he himself says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). One of the problems we have had in the modern period is assuming the “impersonality” of truth. But this is in contrast to the biblical assertion that God is grace and truth, and that he manifests that grace and truth personally in his Son Jesus Christ, who is also said to be full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Jesus is, in other words, the exact representation of God’s gracious and truthful being (cf. Heb 1:3). To know Jesus is to know Truth.

This leads me to conclude that no human individual (or denomination, for that matter) is able to grasp the truth in its fullness on her or his own. We know the truth analogously to how one knows another person. Thus, we would be better off thinking about “truth” in relational terms. In other words, to know, biblically, is to enter into relationship, not simply to grasp cognitively. To know means to know someone moreso than knowing something. While cognitive grasping of the nature of another person is an important aspect of knowledge, it is only a part of what it means to know.

To know the truth, therefore, means to know Christ personally in a growing way. It is what we call the walk of discipeship and following after Jesus. Consequently, differences of opinion on what Scripture means, how we are to keep commandments, etc. should not at all come as asurprise, given the fact that we (Christians) are all in the process of coming to know Christ more fully, and to becoming increasingly conformed to his image. Since we now only see dimly and only know in part, we are bound to disagree, especially because we continue to fall into sin and division. But when we see Jesus face to face, then we shall “know fully, even as [we are] fully known.” (1 Cor 13:12) Full knowledge in the kingdom of God will consist of knowing God the Father fully in and through the one mediator, Jesus Christ.  Though we cannot yet claim to know God fully in this life, we claim the Scripture that he does know us fully in Jesus Christ. Our knowledge of him is, in other words, in the process of “catching up” to how he already knows us.

In regard to whether finding the truth about every single commandment to be kept is a matter of life and death, I would say this: God alone is the one who holds life and death in his hand (Deut 32:39). As important as it is to ensure that we are living in obedience to God’s commands, we do so recognizing that it is only as God gives his Son and his Spirit that there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1-2). Those who think that a particular interpretation of a commandment is the key to life and death are still stuck in the idea that truth has something primarily to do with cognition, or even with right action, rather than right relationship. As disciples, we seek to do everything that Christ commanded (Matt 28:19), but we do so knowing that we do nothing to save ourselves. So we continue to debate over how best to live in obedience to Christ, but we do so recognizing, again, that our knowledge is still incomplete and dim.

2) You ask: “Why is it that the indwelling Spirit doesn’t guarantee singularity of thought?” Hopefully, the above begins to answer that, but I will expand here. Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to think of “unity” as “uniformity of thought” or “singularlity of thought” rather than “cohesion of thought around a common centre.” I use the example of a large group of people standing around a very large and complex architectural structure–like a Great Pyramid of Egypt or the Taj Mahal. Singularity of thought would mean that every observer sees the architectural wonder from exactly the same perspective and using exactly the same set of words.  But such uniformity wouldn’t likely even begin to capture the fullness of what is to be “known.” In contrast, “unity of thought” would accept that while all the people encircled around the object are viewing the same thing (i.e., they have a common centre of focus), they by no means will see the same thing. Thus, someone viewing the Taj Mahal from the north side will see very different things from the person viewing the Taj Mahal from the south side. But it is still the same central focus informing both. That is, I think, what it means to have unity of thought over against the idea of singularity of thought.

If in fact we all thought in uniform ways, the Christian pursuit of the knowledge of God (in the biblical sense) would be in danger of ceasing. Uniformity of thought would mean we would all agree on everything, and once we agree on everything, down to every possible minute detail, we would be tempted to set aside our pursuit of God and the fullness of his glory. We would be tempted by that great temptation which tempted Adam and Eve: You shall be like God, with the ability to know good and evil in the way that only God knows (Gen 3:5).

Furthermore, Scripture makes it clear that it is the Spirit of God alone who knows the deepest thoughts of God (1 Cor 2:11). In order for us all to know God in uniformity of mind, and to be agreed 100% on every minute detail of theology would require that all of us would know all things. And that, of course, would again, by definition, make us equal to God. Rather, it is as a fellowship of believers, the Church, the body of Christ made up of many members (1 Cor 12:12ff) that we come to know God. There is, in other words, no individual member that can claim to “know it all,” lest that individual be tempted to say, “I have no need of you.”

The Scripture teaches that the Spirit is a Spirit of unity (Eph 4:4), not a spirit of uniformity. (By the way, such a spirit of uniformity is what leads people into deception, especially in cults, and indeed, in all kinds of fundamentalisms where diversity of thought is discouraged). This is why the apostle says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). If the Spirit ensured uniformity, the moral imperative to us to make the effort to maintain unity would be negated. Instead, to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit means that we as Christians are called to recognize the spiritual unity that we have in Jesus Christ, in the unity of our baptism, and the oneness of God the Father, even in the midst of disagreements. It means working hard to remember that even when we disagree at various doctrinal points and in matters of practice, we still share a common confession of faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in whose name we were baptized. Technically speaking, then, the only appropriate cause for a break of fellowship with those with whom we disagree is when we disagree about the identity of the God whom we worship. 



Hegel on Exegesis and the Biblical commentary

An important reminder to me as I engage in my own commentary work. This is from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion:

[S]o-called [pure] thinking turned against [the doctrinal content of the Church’s teaching] in the name of “Enlightenment.” It left the doctrinal system in place and also left the Bible as foundation, but arrived at its own divergent views and sought to interpret the word of God in a different way. This took place in the guise of exegesis. Because exegesis draws upon reason for counsel, what happened is that a so-called rational theology came into being, opposed to the doctrinal system in the form established by the church. In part, this was the church’s own doing, in part it was the doing of [the thinking] to which the church is opposed. In this rational theology it is exegesis that plays the primary role. Here exegesis takes over the written word, interprets it, and professes only to make the understanding of the word effective and to remain faithful to it.

But where interpretation is not mere explanation of the words but discussion of the content and the elucidation of the sense, it must introduce its own thoughts into the word that forms the basis [of the faith]. There can only be mere interpretation of words when all that happens is that one word is replaced by another with the same scope. [DG: i.e., ‘translation’].  If interpretation is elucidation, then other categories of thought are bound up with it. A development of the word is a progression to further thoughts. One seemingly abides by the sense, but in fact, new thoughts are developed. Bible commentaries do not so much acquaint us with the content of scripture as with the mode of thought in their age. [Underline added]

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Edited by Peter C. Hodgson. Vol. 1, “Introduction and The Concept of Religion.” Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1984, pp. 122-3.

First John in Canonical Context (1)

WARNING: Very long!

Before embarking on the “theommentary proper” of 1 John, I want to comment in a series of two or three posts on the canonical context of 1 John. Those familiar with the “canonical approach” to Scriptural interpretation (particularly as espoused by the late Brevard Childs) will know that as we  do exegesis on a book of the Bible, we obviously seek to understand it in its original historical context,  but that we must also seek to discern the significance of a book’s location in the biblical canon, i.e., its canonical context.

One of Childs’ important challenges to the biblical studies guild was to think about the ‘goals’ of interpretation and how various types of criticism contribute (or not!) to those goals. Childs thus suggests that attention to the shape and form of the canon is in fact important for biblical exegesis, particularly when preaching and teaching is in view. This is because it is this canon from which we preach and teach, not the supposed sources or even original texts underlying the biblical books. Thus, we preach and teach from the book of 1 John as it comes down to us in its present form, not from any other historical or conceptual sources that the author may or may have drawn upon in its writing, as important as they may be to reconstruct the history of the formation of the text leading up to its final form. We preach and teach from the canon as it comes to us, not from the pre-canonical sources to which we no longer have access to. 

In my concern that biblical exegesis and theology serve the needs of the Church in its preaching and teaching, I therefore regard 1 John’s canonical context as having theological priority for exegesis over the question of its historical context for three reasons.

First, the historical context in which the letter was written is very difficult to discern and any reconstruction of that historical context will always be a matter of probability. No matter how much we wish that the historical context could be certainly clarified, we will likely always need to admit that we know very little of the book’s background and original context, and any historical reconstruction will be exactly that: a reconstruction only. Consequently, we must be careful that the findings of our exegesis, while relying upon whatever historical insights we may garner, cannot finally rely upon such historical insights as the lynch-pin of our exegesis. So, when it comes to the book, generally speaking, we can gather that the author is dealing with some kinds of false teachings and schism within the Christian community, but beyond this very general knowledge,  we have no names, places, or events mentioned to locate with any degree of certainty the original historical context of the book. First John, in other words, comes to us somewhat “out of nowhere” (like Melchizedek!) with no specific progenitor (author) noted, nor even a specific audience. But even as a “book out of nowhere,” 1 John cannot be categorized as a book of “timeless teaching” or “myth.” For unlike a myth (i.e., “an anonymous story designed to explain the mysteries of life”), the book of 1 John is a testimony based not simply as a retelling of an old story, but on the basis of what has actually been seen, examined, and touched by the author (1:1) (i.e., a first hand acccount–the stuff of history).   

Second, I see the canonical context as having theological priority because it identifies the nature of the book as it is received in the Church–as a concretely located portion of the biblical canon, as God’s Word to us. The book of 1 John, in other words, is theologically to be viewed first and foremost as Holy Scripture (not merely as a “text.”) As Webster puts it, “To talk of the biblical writings as Holy Scripture is ultimately to refer to more (but not to less!) than those writings [“texts”] per se.”  (Webster, Holy Scripture, 5). The “more” to which Webster refers is that while 1 John is undoubtedly a “text,” it is not only a text, but a portion of an ordered canon of texts which functions for the church, not merely as a “library” of authoritative texts, but as divinely ordered “Spirit-shaped/church-shaping”whole–the written Word of God, Holy Scripture. Thus, the inclusion of 1 John in the canon means its interpretation must not be restricted to an investigation of its historical origin, nor even to an internal analysis of its own words and sentences. Rather, the interpretation of 1 John, while not ignoring these aforementioned elements, must be seen both in theological continuity with the organic canonical whole and as contributing uniquely to the whole. It is as we examine the book in such a canonical context that we can dare then to “use” the book in the Church preaching and teaching because it speaks concerning the church’s one catholic faith as coming from one Lord and Spirit.

Third, in saying that 1 John is primarily read as Holy Scripture and only secondarily as a historical text,  I am not saying that i think that the book is historically contextless or “timeless,” but that the historical context of the book is not a given  to the Church (i.e., historical context is always in need of being reconstructed); rather, the canonical inclusion and location of 1 John in the Bible is a given, even if in the end we might disagree as to what the significance of that given canonical inclusion and location is. That 1 John is included and specifically located in the canon as it is is really all we have to work with, even if continued historical research may help us better to understand the particulars of what is said. So rather than a historical situation underlying the text as the common denominator for interpretation, I argue that the canonical position of 1 John is perhaps one of most significant common denominators for theological interpretation. 

WIth that rather technical introduction out of the way (I hope I haven’t bored you to death yet), the questions which remain are: What is the canonical context of 1 John? And how might this canonical context inform the theological exegesis of this text which I hope to undertake? In order to answer these questions, I see three important elements of canonical context which need to be dealt with. In the remainder of this post, I will deal first of all with observations on (1) 1 John’s canonical inclusion and location. In the next post (or two), I will then deal with (2) 1 John’s canonical catholicity (i.e., how it coheres with the rest of canon and so preserves the unity of the canon) and then finally with (3) 1 John’s canonical contribution (i.e., what would be missing theologically from the canon if we didn’t have the book).

1) 1 John’s Canonical Inclusion and Location

First question: Does the inclusion and location of 1 John in the canon in the form in which it has been delivered to us reveal anything at all significant about how it ought to be understand relative to the rest of Scripture? Admittedly, this is not a question we are usually ask in the first steps of exegesis, especially if we have been trained in the methods of grammatical, historical interpretation and criticism. But I think it is an vital to the task of moving beyond historical exegesis to doing theological exegesis.

But first a few brief comments on the “form” in which 1 John has come to us. The epistles of John  (1, 2, and 3 John) are grouped together in what is traditionally called “the Catholic” or “General” Epistles, comprised of Hebrews, James, the epistles of Peter, the epistles of John, and Jude. Yet it is interesting to note a few things about this canonical sub-group by comparing and contrasting the form of each “part.”

 First, Hebrews lacks the expected authorial saluations at the beginning of the book, but does end up with many of the expected blessings, personal greetings and exhortations at the end (Heb 13:18-25). James, the second in the group reverses what happens in Hebrews: it has an initial saluation and intended audience (James 1:1), but has no closing blessings, greetings or exhortations. The epistles of Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude all fit well within the classical definition of an epistle (with both opening saluations and closing greetings, blessings, and/or exhortations). However, though 1 John is usually spoken of as the first of three “epistles,” it has no opening greeting, and does not have a typical epistolatory ending. In fact it ends with a rather abrupt imperative: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” While it is true that the author repeatedly addresses his readers as “dear friends,” there are otherwise no contextual/geographic/personal clues (as in most of the other Catholic Epistles) as to who these “dear friends” really are. They are literally without face and without location. So in many respects, 1 John does not really “fit” in the “catholic epistles” as an epistle per se, but reads more like what in Roman Catholic circles might be called an “encyclical”–a letter intended for broad distribution and addressed to all the churches. So in that sense, to play with the category in which the book is found, 1 John is prima faciae more “catholic” (or “general”) than it is an “Epistle”! This, I think, means that 1 John cannot be read flatly as merely “another epistle” alongside even the two other so-called epistles of John with which it is grouped. There is some material difference, and perhaps even some material priority given to the book amongst its “canonical peers.” 

Furthermore,  as we think about 1 John’s canonical location (i.e., where it finally ended up in the NT canon), I wonder if in some respects, 1 John (with the trailing 2 and 3 John and Jude) is related to Hebrews in a way that analogously 1&2 Timothy (along with the trailing Titus and Philemon) is related to the book of Romans in the Pauline Epistles. For as you look at how the Pauline and Catholic Epistles are arranged, there appears to be at least some striking similarities. For the sake of our description, I’ve organized the Pauline and General Epistles under these four categories and in this order: (1) Theology; (2) Ecclesial Theology and Wisdom; (3) Pastoral Theology; and (4) Occasional Pastoral Epistles. Now I realize those aren’t likely the only (let alone best) terms by which to describe this pattern, and I also fully realize the  danger of imposing something that isn’t there. (Just remember that this is an experimental blog meant more to provoke new ways to think about theological exegesis than as a definitive statement). But consider this scheme as outlined below in which I compare the canonical ordering of the Pauline Epistles with the canonical ordering of the General Epistles in which 1 John is found:

                                              Pauline Epistles                                           General Epistles

Theology                              Romans                                                      Hebrews     

Ecclesial theology
and wisdom
                         1 Cor – 2 Thess                                         James – 2 Peter

Pastoral Theology                1 & 2 Timothy                                           1 John

Occasional Pastoral
                                Titus, Philemon                                        2-3 John, Jude

Now I realize the scheme isn’t entirely perfect, but consider the following canonical comparisons and analogies:

1) If Romans stands at the head of the Pauline Epistles as its “theological foundation,” is there a sense that Hebrews stands at the head of the Catholic Epistles as its theological foundation? In what sense, then, should the rest of the General Epistles (including 1 John) be read at least partially in light of Hebrews, even as we might read the rest of the Pauline corpus at least partially in light of Romans?

2) The books 1 & 2 Corinthians through to 1 & 2 Thessalonians are categorized here as “ecclesial theology and wisdom.” What I mean by this is that the Pauline Epistles in this second grouping commonly present themselves as theological letters written to churches to deal with specific theological and practical issues which the churches were facing. They are not “encylical” letters  in the sense that they were meant to be widely circulated (even if Colossians seems in content to be close to an encyclical, it is still directly attached in its prescript to the Church at Colossae), even if that is how they all ended up being read. But these letters are instances where the fundamental Pauline theology is brought to bear and expanded upon in the context of specific ecclesial issues where apostolic wisdom and guidance was needed. By analogy, it seems to me that the letters of James through 2 Peter function in a similar way: each seems to address theological and practical issues which originally, at least, were tied in to particular churches or groups of churches.  

3) If the letters of 1 & 2 Timothy pertain specifically to the theology of pastoral care, ordering, and protection of the flock for overseers, is there a sense in which 1 John may also be viewed, by canonical analogy, as the “pastoral theology” of the Catholic Epistles? It is difficult to ignore that the content of 1 John seems to commend something of this kind of reading; for throughout, it seeks to address a number of theological challenges arising within the community (this is Bultmann’s view of the essential nature of 1 John, by the way) in order more generally to care for and protect the flock.  If this analysis is plausible, then a theological exegesis of the text may need to guard against individualistic readings that pertain primarily to the individual Christian in favour of a more communal (John’s prefered term for the church is koinonia (“fellowship” rather than ecclesia  “congregation”) reading that addresses the care and protection of the Christian fellowship. I am becoming convinced that this is necessary and I will seek to follow this out in my own exegesis to come.

4) If Titus and Philemon are specific “occasional theological letters” to specific individuals or small groups, addressing them more individually, yet with the overarching Pauline theology and pastoral theology preceding them, is there also a sense in which 2-3 John and Jude are also more specifically occasional letters which are specific instances of applying the broad theology of Hebrews and the pastoral and ecclesial theology of the letters preceding them?

Now, I realize that this canonical analysis goes far beyond the immediate concern of dealing with 1 John. But this brief exercise was necessary, I think, to set the book in its NT canonical location and derive some implications for theological exegesis from that. So to recapitulate, I want to suggest that 1 John may be best read not as primarily an epistle, but rather as “pastoral theological encyclical” meant to inform, exhort, and encourage the fellowship of churches facing challenges of division and schism within, rather than as specific apostolic directives meant to deal with specific issues of discipleship with which individual Christians faced–even if there is no doubt that much can be learned even at this level. My point here, I think, is to suggest that perhaps the interpretation of 1 John has simply been too narrow both in exegesis and application. This also means that it may be necessary to take some care not to allow the claims of the book to be applied too rigidly, but rather to see the book as outlining a more general pastoral theology which must be, under the guidance of the Spirit, be applied in a discerning way to the various specific ecclesial locations. Thoughts or reactions to this? 

A second major point on the canonical location and inclusion arises from an analysis of the the “pre-script” (i.e., the first verse) of the book. (Again, I am indebted to Childs’ work here, especially the way in which he analyzed the prescriptions of the Psalms as being significant to understanding how the Psalms work together as a structure, even though for most us, we “blip over” them to get to the “good stuff”). In the case of 1 John, I’ve been thinking about the canonical significance of the first line: “That which was from the beginning. . .” (ho hen ap’ archês){sorry for the lack of a Greek font here…can anyone help me figure out how to include it on WordPress?} Of course, we have here a well known parallel/allusion to the prologue of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word (en archê ên ho logos), which is itself is a strong allusion to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created.” This is obviously nothing new here which has not already been observed many times before. But I do wonder whether an analysis of what I will call the three “in-the-beginning prescripts” will reveal that they are strategically located within the canon and say something theologically important relative to one another. 

The first canonical occurence of the “In-the-beginning” prescript, Genesis 1:1, speaks of what I would call the “fundamental ontological relation” of God to creation. To speak of “the beginning of the heavens and the earth” is to speak of their essential and total dependence upon God the Creator. “In the beginning,” in Genesis 1, reveals to us the sovereignty and lordship of God over all that there is, whether “things in heaven or on the earth” (cf. Col 1:16). It sets God and creation in a vertical relationship, with God over Creation, and with God as fundamentally “other” than Creation. Thus, this first canonical “in-the-beginning presrcipt” functions, to use the Kierkegaardian/Barthian phrase, as an assertion about the “infinitely qualitative distinction” between God and the world.

The second canonical “in-the-beginning” prescript, John 1:1, signals a canonical and historical shift of perspective of the relation of God and creation as a  relation of ontological difference to a relation of God and creation in terms of “presence.” (As a sidenote, I think this sense of the “presence” of Yhwh-Elohim in creation is already anticipated in Gen 2 in contrast to the vertical transcendence of Elohim spoken of in Gen 1, but I digress!). Whereas up until John 1:1, the relationship of God to creation was primarily seen in terms of God’s transcendence, it is through this new “in the beginning” assertion that we discover that, from the beginning, there always has been a “horizontal presence” of God with his creation, most specifically in and through the agent of his creation who has always been with him, the Word.  Found as it is in the context of the canonical Gospels, the John 1:1 prescript introduces us now not only to a God who is over all as its Creator and Lord, but to a God who, by his own divine Word-agent, creates a world for the purposes of entering into the world in the flesh. This second canonical prescript thus signals to readers of the canon as Holy Scripture that the God who is revealed in Genesis 1 as the one who creates all things “anew” (i.e., ex nihilio), is also none other than the one who by the agent of his Word is the Light which comes into the world, right from the beginning–a light which is not merely a conceptual or existential idea (as if this light were nothing more than a “philosophical illumination of the mind”), but a Light which does its work of illumination through taking on, paradoxically, the flesh of humans.

Read against the backdrop of the first two canonical instances, the third “in-the-beginning” prescript of 1 John 1:1 speaks of yet one more repetition of the relationship of God to the world,  but again, with a new perspective and with added information. As I observe the canonical flow of these prescripts, I see this:

If the first “in-the-beginning prescript” of Genesis 1:1 speaks about (and I steal a construction from Barth’s doctrine of election here to aid in my explanation) the “beginning of all the ways and works of God,” it is the second “in-the-beginning” prescript of John 1:1 in which we find out about “the beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ” (Barth, CD II.2, 94). If the first prescript speaks about God’s sovereign lordship over creation, the second prescript speaks of the Agent of God’s creative activity who, from the beginning, intended to take up residence in and alongside the very creation he has created. Canonically, the move is from the sovereign transcendence of the Creator God of the Old Testament to the humble immanence of God’s own fully divine agent of creation, Jesus Christ, who appears as the central actor of the New Testament Gospels.  So far so good…(I hope).

This is where the 1 John 1:1 prescript, “That which was from the beginning,” comes in as the third canonical movement of the “in-the-beginning” motif.  If Gen 1:1 speaks of pre-incarnation Lordship, and John 1:1 speaks of the humble visit of deity through incarnation, then 1 John 1:1 speaks of a post-resurrection/ascension expansion, yet again, upon “the beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ”–an expansion which is accomplished through the proclamation of the One whom the apostle testifies to have seen, examined, and touched. This too, is a “new” aspect of the works and ways of God in Christ, but is also something which has been intended from the very beginning. The book of First John, then, needs to be seen, not only as a practical pastoral book (which it is) but also as providing a significant theological insight into the nature of God’s relationship to creation given his lordship over creation, his involvement in Creation in the Son, and his present intention to extend that relationship through the means of spiritual (or Spirit enabled!) proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth, who though no longer is available to be seen, examined, and touched, is nevertheless being heard of and believed upon in the world as he is received as none other than the the Word of LIfe (1:1b) who was with God (John 1:1) in the beginning (Gen 1:1). 

This means, canonically, that he function of 1John is to speak of the “new beginning” of Christ’s involvement in the world in his post-ascension existence extended through the work of the Church in proclaiming him to be the atoning sacrifice not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). First John is ultimately, then, a book to help us to preach Christ. 

Ok, enough for now. Sorry for the length, but I hope you get the general gist. In the next post, I’ll discuss more briefly (hopefully!) the canonical catholicity and the canonical contribution of 1 John before I finally launch into the “theommentary proper.”

Did you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt. 2)

In my first post reflecting upon the importance of “public reading of Scripture” as part of the Pauline triad mentioned in 1 Tim 4:13, namely, reading, preaching, teaching, it was assumed that in the first instance, “public” reading meant reading Holy Scripture in the context of corporate worship. That is, “public” was assumed to mean “ecclesial” (literally, reading in the context of churchly gatherings). Now I have no doubt that Paul intended this at a very minimum. But is that the only implication? In other words, is the reading of Scripture necessarily an event limited to Christian gathering, or are there other ways in which Scripture itself can become part of a larger, decidedly, non-ecclesial public hearing? 

On the one hand, it may be possible to accomplish public reading of Scripture in a very direct way. Direct applications of public reading of Scripture might include reading the Bible to any and all who may listen (or even to those who do not) in public settings (e.g., on the street corner, over the radio waves, at the bus-stop, on the steps of Parliament, or who knows where and how else creative minds may accomplish this). Some evangelical mission organizations, like HCJB, have included public Bible reading as part of their ministry for years. Interestingly enough, Bob Seale (a good friend and theological father to me), pointed out to me today that in the coming week, the entire Bible will be read continuously over Italian state radio at the prompting of Pope Benedict XVI and at the outset of a synod of 200 bishops to discuss the place of Scripture in the world today. (Read more about it here and here and here.) Talk about taking the directive to being devoted to the public reading of Scripture!

On the other hand, as important and effective as these direct options for public reading of Scripture may be, I also want to suggest that public reading of Scripture may enter into the public hearing also in more indirect, and therefore somewhat more subversive, ways as well. When I was teaching my Truth and Method class a couple of weeks ago, we spent some time reflecting on the nature of ecclesial confession, guided in part by Eberhard Busch’s important lecture delivered on the 70th anniversary of the Barmen Declaration.

Now for those of you who are a bit fuzzy on what a “confession” is, let me simply say that it is not the same as a statement of faith, a doctrinal statement, or a creed, and certainly not the same as a “vision statement” or “statement of values” that so many churches seem to have adopted as of late. (You might guess that I’m not overly thrilled with these latter concepts, but that’s a whole different post!) As Busch puts it, a confession is first and foremost a confession of the Christ of Scripture (and not particular doctrines concerning Christ), and secondly, a confession is a declaration that “stands in the service of action, which is more powerful than the situation in which it is being confessed, and thus is not bound to it.” (182). This is in contrast to a reaction where a text is bound to the situation which gives the delcaration its impetus (and which therefore binds it more closely to that time and situation). Such texts usually appear as “statements” upon a particular issue and as such, usually are necessarily reactive in nature. In contrast, as Busch beautifully put it, a confession (such as the Barmen Declaration) is not timeless, but it is also not timebound. (182)  

As important as all that Busch says (and really, you have to read the article), what is crucial to this present discussion is to notice the structure of the Barmen confession (and many other confessions, for that matter). That is, as a genre, a theological confession has three essential parts: 1) a text of Scripture; 2) A positive affirmation following from the Scripture; 3) A denial or rejection as a corollary or follow-up of what is affirmed.  In this latter part–the rejection part of the confession–Busch notes that the “Yes” of a confession’s affirmation always brings with it, whether implicitly or explicitly, a “No” indicating that which must rejected. In other words, you cannot say “Yes” to something without explicitly or implicitly saying “No” to something else. The problem is, I think, is that we often want to say yes without saying no. Granted, our job is primarily to say Yes in Jesus (cf. 2 Cor 1:20), but we can never neglect to say the “no’s” that our “Yes” necessarily implies. You cannot, for example, eat of the table of the Lord, and partake also of the table of demons (1 Cor 10:21).

 Now as important as all that Busch had to say in the article, it dawned on me during my class that the structure of a Churchly Confession corresponds, more or less, to the Pauline triad of reading, preaching, and teaching commanded in 1 Tim 4:13. That is, a confession moves from Scripture (=reading) to affirmation (=preaching, i.e., the “positive” proclamation of what Christ has accomplished) to negation (=teaching, i.e., distinction between truth and error in doctrine, and by which we properly live our lives before God. Notice the corresponding emphasis on “life and doctrine” in 1 Tim 4:16). So in other words, Paul is saying to Timothy that the church will not neglect its essential mission whenever she understands herself primarily as confessors in this threefold way: 1) Showing in every way possible that Scripture is our formal authority for all matters of life and doctrine, i.e., actually reading Scripture before and in the context of preaching and teaching and debating and wherever else questions about what a Christian  believes, says, or does arises; 2) Proclaiming in every way possible that Jesus Christ is our material authority–our actual authority and Lord, and not only ours (the Churches) but Lord of the whole world at every level, including the political; and 3) showing in every way possible that a “Yes” to Christ means a “No” to many other gods, that to confess Christ also means to reject and renounce those things which do not cohere with Scripture as that by whom we come to obey Jesus Christ. (This last part is probably the most uncomfortable notion of all, especially for us Canadians who tend never to want to reject anyone or anything for the sake of some kind of deference to universal notions of tolerance and respect.)

But how does “confession” accomplish the reading of Scripture “publicly” and indirectly and subversively? As I think of many of the “moral” debates which Canadians have and are facing in public policy debates, I want to suggest that as valuable as it may be to find a common ground with other religious groups, or even in political concepts such as freedom or rights, the Christian church must not fail to take her stance as a people who are 1) guided by a Holy authoritative Book, 2)  who are unashamedly willing to publicly identify herself with Jesus Christ; and 3) who humbly but firmly reject gods, ideologies, ideas, and ways of living that are explicitly anti-Christ.  That is, we fail to ensure that Scripture is heard publicly when our strategy for having a voice in the public forum seeks primarily a common ground with other non-Christians (as important as common grounds may be) rather than primarily and unabashedly affirming that we are who we are as people bound to obedience to the Christ of Holy Scripture. If we happen to have common ground, fine and good. But this is a consequence and a product, not a starting point for Christian speech in the political realm.  And perhaps one of the ways we can begin to learn how to do this is to recover and relearn and begin to call for a truly evangelical confession that is more concerned about proclaiming Christ than reacting to the situations in which we continually find ourselves. In so doing, we will likely not accomplish a “timeless” Christian confession, but we may also find that we are less “time-bound” to the winds of the endless political and public policy discussions which we find ourselves so often reacting to.

Let me also say that to its credit, evangelicals in Canada may actually be in a better position actually to begin to move toward writing such a series of confessions than any other Christian religious grouping. Evangelicals, we say? They can’t agree on anything, we are told. Well let me say (and I’m certainly not the first, but I will say it boldly): Balderdash!! This is a lie that we evangelicals are continually told about ourselves and which is simply not true. True, we can’t always agree on doctrine, but if there is a common commitment to Christ, this is no where better illustrated than in evangelicals’ ability to work together and cooperate when it comes to mission. Indeed, the whole “evangelical parachurch” culture (John Stackhouse, Jr. has been an important voice noting this), as quirky and theologically problematic as it may be, is nevertheless living proof that evangelicals, when it comes to confessing Christ, are able to look past many of our differences and act in as a unified way as any WCC ecumenist could wish. Why? Because evangelicals have always held Scripture up as our authority (even if our doctrines of Scripture are sometimes a bit contrived) and we have always wanted to point people to Jesus (even if our own following of him is also lacking and lukewarm at times), and we have always been concerned about right doctrine (even if sometimes we have allowed this to become the dominant issue even over following Jesus). Perhaps it is time to start asking, Will the evangelical Church in Canada fulfill her mission by a threefold commitment to reading, preaching, and teaching, particularly as we think about the important function that an otherwise largely unexplored theological genre among evangelicals–the confession–might play in making God’s Word (written and living and preached) heard in the public sphere?

Have you read Scripture (publicly) today? (pt.1)

What was Paul was expecting of the young Timothy when he said, among other things, to “give attention to the public reading of scripture” [Greek, anagnosei ]? Most modern English translations interpret this word to mean “public reading of Scripture” (NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, NLT, ESV), even though the words “public” and “Scripture” are not in the original text. The  KJV and NKJV  simply translate the phrase more literally as “give attention to reading.” While there is no explicit mention in the text that this “reading” was in fact  to be done in a public manner, commentators seem generally to agree that the presence of articles in front of the three main words in 1 Tim 4:13 (“the reading, the preaching, the teaching” or “the reading, the exhortation, the doctrine”) probably indicate that Paul was telling Timothy to carry out the public tasks expected of an overseer ordained (cf. 1 Tim 4:14) to serve a congregation. This is not an exhortation to make sure Timothy kept studying on his own (even if that was and is valuable) nor is this an imperative to engage in “one-on-one discipleship” whereby he sought to engage a few here and there in exhortation and teaching (again, as important as that may be). This is, rather, an imperative to pastor Timothy to ensure, that amidst everything else he had to worry about, that Scripture (and let’s not forget that this was, at Timothy’s time, the Old Testament) was heard regularly by those in his care (reading), that Scripture’s import was delivered to the people (preaching), and that the people thereby were taught to discern truth from error (teaching/doctrine). False teachers of Timothy’s day (cf 4:1ff) were no doubt spreading their divisive didactic wares, and there is good reason to conclude, along with most modern translators, that Paul indeed was encouraging Timothy to carry on the practice of public reading of Scripture to those in the congregation–a practice likely already familiar to those raised in the synagogue. 

So how are we doing here? Evangelicals, oddly enough, for all our insistence about the authority of Scripture, haven’t necessarily done so well in carrying out this task of reading Scripture publicly–though I can happily say that I am seeing some signs of change here. I’m glad to see my own Church in the past few years dedicating time in our services to having increased public reading of Scripture. Nevertheless, do we evangelicals not have to admit that our brothers and sisters in the mainline traditions tend to hear much more Scripture read publicly than in our own churches? In fact, most traditional liturgies require an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Gospels, AND a reading from an Epistle in every service. No doubt, we evangelicals still pride ourselves on preaching and teaching from the Scriptures, but proportionally, we still publically preach from Scripture significantly more than we read Scripture itself.

Not that proportionality of reading to preaching is necessarily the point here. Five words of Scripture is greater than 5000 words of the preacher. As Karl Barth said, “Even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, sholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian.” (Evangelical Theology, 31-2). Yet the question still remains: Why have we sought to master the tasks of preaching and teaching, but have paid so little attention to the reading

Beyond this preliminary question, may I be so bold as to suggest that perhaps part of the reason we are so skeptical that the preaching of the Word is the Word of God is because we have failed to heed what I believe to be this deliberate, Pauline ordering of reading, preaching, teaching. Let me explain.

If we take the ordering of what Paul says to Timothy quite seriously, it may be that Paul is saying, Pay attention to READING, to PREACHING (Exhortation), and to TEACHING (Doctrine)–in that order. Or put in more stark terms, Don’t preach until you’ve read, and don’t teach until you’ve preached.  

Don’t preach until you’ve read, or at least, don’t preach without making it very clear that Scripture stands above and over our preaching. Preaching’s primary source, after all, is Scripture, and the public reading of Scripture helps to ensure that preaching, by itself, does not supplant the Word of God. Preaching in the absence of deliberate and attentive reading of the Scriptures is rootless. But by setting the reading of Scripture and preaching together, the Church invites those who are in hearing range to distinguish between the word of God and the word of man; by publicly reading Scripture, the Church invites the Spirit who inspires Scripture also to help hearers to discern the difference between God’s Word and the human word.

Furthermore, don’t teach until you’ve preached, or at least, don’t teach as if preaching is irrelevant to what it taught. If the Pauline ordering here is significant, Paul may be warning Timothy that teaching done in the absence of public reading of Scripture and of preaching is in danger of being demonically deceptive (cf. 1 Tim 4:1), not to mention the danger of the teacher him or herself being self-deluded.  Such teaching may even be in danger of falling prey to the falsities that the Spirit warns about in 1 Tim 4:2–teaching that proceeds from “hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seered as with a hot iron.” False teachers, after all, have often been characterized by their “lone ranger” style, desiring accountability neither to Scripture itself, nor to their overseers (elders, pastors, bishops, etc.). Moreover, teachers can sometimes view themselves as the self-appointed critic of the preacher. (I know I have to say, “Guilty!”) But the Pauline order may well set preachers and teachers into proper relationship.  Only as a teacher views him or herself as authorized by Word of God and the preaching of the Gospel will his or her teaching be safeguarded from didactic isolation. Granted, the teacher may at time need to serve in the very uncomfortable way of pointing out error to the preacher, but the teacher can never forget that his or her task is in service to the overall priority of the Church in public reading and preaching of the Word.

It is common to hear laments over the “biblical illiteracy” of the average pew sitter these days, and it can be easy for those of us with a theological degree (or degrees) in the theological disciplines, or for us as pastors and teachers, to complain about how we are constantly forced to “dumb down” so that people can understand what we consider to be the simplest concepts of Scripture. But perhaps a good part of the responsibility for the woeful biblical illiteracy needs to be placed squarely back into our court. Obviously a good reason to find ways to incorporate greater Scripture reading into our time of worship is simply to be obedient to this Pauline directive given to Timothy (and to us). But perhaps public Scripture reading may also be contribute in a significant way to reversing the biblical illiteracy we all seem so concerned about. Consider that many people in the pews never crack a Bible open all week. Perhaps we need to admit that they may not do it because they have not see it done regularly even in Church on Sunday morning.