The Battle for God – Part 5

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Volume 28, Issue 5, June 2022

In the previous “The Battle for God” article,” I affirmed general agreement with Classical Theism and its Nicene and pro-Nicene understanding of the Trinity. Yet I registered a concern that the trajectory of some supporting the Great Tradition is toward what has been termed a theological interpretation of Scripture (explained later),[1] which draws a  sharp distinction between Scripture and theology. While I believe the framers of the Nicene Creed got things essentially right, the Church Fathers were humans after all and not divinely inspired. I believe this distinction is where scholars promoting EFS (Eternal Functional Submission), such as Bruce Ware and Owen Strachan, part company to a certain degree with the classicalists such as Matthew Barrett, Peter Sammons, and James Dolezal. Simply put, does the Bible determine what we are to believe or do theology, philosophy, and metaphysics regulate what the Bible says? If it is determined that theology reigns supreme, then whose theology? Those who follow the Great Tradition argue that the Nicene Creed and the pro-Nicene Fathers, along with the six other ecumenical creeds of the early church, capture the fundamentals of the Christian faith and set the standard for orthodoxy.

With this view, I take little exception; however, I am troubled by two concerns. First, theology should not determine the meaning of Scripture to the point that Scripture is not allowed to speak for itself except through the lens of creeds. The classical theists tend to so honor the Church Fathers that they and their so-called Rule of Faith become the actual authority, even trumping Scripture. The classicalist would push back and claim that the Rule of Faith, the Great Tradition, and such compilations, are simply summaries of biblical teachings; they do not preempt Scripture. But in reality, they sometimes do, and any challenge or even inquiry into the ancient Church Fathers’ views is deemed to be heresy. This perspective does not bode well for serious theological debate and discussion.

My second concern has to do with the adoption of the hermeneutical methodology of the Church Fathers. We can be truly thankful that the Fathers got so much correct, especially in the area of theology proper, but their hermeneutical approach should give us pause.  We soon discover that, by-and-large, they minimized the literal-grammatical-historical interpretation of Scripture, which has deeply shaped the understanding of the Bible since at least the time of the Reformation. Yet the Fathers, who hammered out the Great Tradition, used a variety of allegorical/typological, Christocentric, and contemplative hermeneutics, not a grammatical-historical one. If we want to return to the thinking of the early, post-apostolic church, and thus be thoroughly orthodox, many classicalists urge us to adopt the hermeneutic used by the Fathers, steep ourselves in their writings, and interpret Scripture through the prism of the theology they developed using a metaphysical grid.  Metaphysics (defined as based on abstract reasoning, transcending physical matter or the laws of nature, and dealing with principles of first things) and tradition can ride roughshod over Scripture. Some classicalists dismiss authorial intent and sola Scriptura as emerging from the Enlightenment and out of touch with the pro-Nicene theologians and their adherents, and they ridicule those who adhere to these approaches as “biblicists” (more on this later).

Craig Carter writes, “What is known by revelation does not contradict what is known by philosophy, but it deepens, supplements, and sometimes corrects our mistakes in reasoning. Philosophy and theology work together in the task of speaking truthfully about the one, true, God.”[2] Carter’s quotation raises these important questions: are philosophy and Scripture two equal sources of truth? And is Scripture dependent on philosophy for right interpretation? Matthew Barrett admonishes, “All that to say, evangelicalism’s narrow outlook on history and striking ignorance of patristic and medieval theology has resulted in a neglect of orthodox trinitarianism, leaving evangelicals easy buyers for modernity’s novel sell of social trinitarianism.”[3] In other words, those armed with their Bibles, but lacking the medieval theology of the patristics, are at a great disadvantage when it comes to understanding the Godhead. Scripture alone is inadequate to arrive at an orthodox view of the Trinity; the metaphysical reasoning of those using an allegorical hermeneutic needs to be added.  This premise, at the very least, requires careful examination.

A recent issue of The Master’s Seminary Journal supporting Classical Theism includes a revealing interview with Matthew Barrett, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Seminary and author of Simply Trinity. Below is a portion of that interview:

Would you consider EFS a serious assault on Trinitarian dogma?

Evangelical Functional Subordination of the Son is a serious assault—a novel, modern one at that—on biblical and orthodox trinitarian dogma.

 

Biblically, it is an example of exegesis that is uncanny in its resemblance to the fourth century hermeneutics of Arianism and semi-Arianism.

 

Theologically, it is a cancer that eats away at the foundation of theology proper by collapsing the immanent life of the Trinity into the economy of salvation, allowing Christology to swallow theology proper whole.

 

Historically, it is a blatant contradiction to Nicene orthodoxy, one that reads modern, social categories back into historic, Nicene metaphysics, positioning evangelicals outside the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy.[4]

How should seminaries help future generations of pastors better understand the Trinity?

 The first step forward involves a recovery of theological theology, as John Webster called it in God Without Measure. The Protestant Scholastics, for instance, used to distinguish between theology and economy. By theology, they referred to God in and of himself, the object of theology, the reason theology is theological in the first place. Unfortunately, seminaries that limit themselves to a focus on the economy of salvation alone and by consequence have little patience for metaphysics and those fathers who were careful to consider the proper relationship between God and the world [sic]. In some cases, seminaries so prioritize the economy of salvation that they project what occurs in the economy back into theology, that is, God in himself. Here is the death of theology, as the Protestant Scholastics defined it.

 

The second step forward must be a step backward. Theological priorities are conspicuous in the books seminaries assign. How many professors teach class after class occupying their students’ minds with contemporary books and therefore a contemporary outlook? Meanwhile, legions of seminarians graduate, and they have never read Gregory’s On God and Christ, Augustine’s On the Trinity, Anselm’s Proslogion, or Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae?… What I am proposing then is a radical rehaul of seminary curriculum, one that gives the church catholic (universal) priority of influence. Such a curricular change will not happen, however, until the leadership of seminaries recognize what they risk by commissioning graduates untrained in the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy, a risk that should scare them enough to take institutional steps towards infusing classical Christian theology within the bloodstream of their schools.

How have the Patristics helped shape your Trinitarian doctrine? How faithful do you find their hermeneutical method?

They have shaped my trinitarianism in a profound way. First, the patristics gave to the church a hermeneutic [my comment: the Patristic hermeneutic was primarily allegorical as will be demonstrated below] and grammar for how to: (1) interpret the text of scripture without violating the whole counsel of God and its teaching on the Trinity and (2) draw out the good and necessary consequences deduced from all of scripture for the sake of fortifying the metaphysical building blocks of theology proper. It was the Arians and Semi-Arians who read scriptures in isolation from the entire canon and at points adopted a literalistic hermeneutic that could not account for the New Testament’s Christological reading of the Old Testament [my comment: Barrett seems to promote Christocentric hermeneutics, which finds Christ on every page of Scripture, much as the Church Fathers did].

 

Also, the patristics have opened my eyes to the many ways trinitarian theology informs theological method, soteriology, Christology, the Christian life, and especially eschatology.[5]

Back to the Bible

Barrett’s passionate plea exposes two fault lines on which the Trinitarian debate focuses: that of ultimate authority and that of hermeneutics. First, the issue of authority. As in asking if the chicken or the egg came first, we are forced to question whether Scripture or metaphysical theology is dominant. Bruce Ware reminds us that since “the Bible is our sole ultimate and only absolute authority for knowing rightly who God is, we must [therefore] listen carefully to how it speaks and only then seek to understand how this way of speaking may fit with how many of the early church fathers understood the divine will and actions.”[6] In other words, while Ware is a world-class theologian, he has come to some different conclusions from those of the classicalists, conclusions for which he has been strongly criticized. His defense, however, is that the classicalists have planted their theological flag in the pro-Nicene documents and the reasonings of the Church Fathers.  Ware appreciates the Church Fathers but wants their conclusions to be subservient to the Scriptures, rather than interpreting divine revelation through the metaphysical philosophies of the early church. This does not mean that Ware’s conclusion concerning the EFS issues are correct, but his concerns over the ultimate source of truth are well-taken.

In other words, Ware declares the Bible as the final authority, not the Church Fathers, not philosophy, not metaphysics, and not theology.  Orthodox theology must emerge from Scripture, not the other way around. If not, then the evangelical church is in real danger of drifting from the truth of inspired revelation and losing its way. Classicalists such as Barrett see the very opposite and believe the evangelical church is drifting from the Great Tradition because scholars and seminarians are not absorbed in the writings of the Cappadocian theologians, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. The issue is not whether at least a basic knowledge of the writings of the Church Fathers is valuable (of course Barrett is advocating for much more than a basic knowledge—he is pushing for a thorough immersion in these works). The issue is what is the primary determinate in our understanding of God, theology, and the Christian life—the writings of the Church Fathers or the Bible?

Bible Scholars vs. Theologians

Is it a realistic danger that the metaphysical reasonings of the Church Fathers could replace Scripture as the ultimate source of truth? To parse this subject, I will turn to two recently published books that address this very issue: Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew by Scot McKnight, and Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew by Hans Boersma. Boersma is an Anglo/Catholic who strongly defends the priority of theology over Scripture.  McKnight is a evangelical Bible scholar who disagrees with Boersma in principle but, as will be seen, capitulates in the end.

Hans Boersma is the Order of St. Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. That InterVarsity Press chose him to represent theologians, and the trajectory he presents, is alarming. He believes the task of theology is “mystagogical,” meaning that the purpose of theology is not to unearth truth but to “attend to Scripture as a sacramental means of entering into the mystery of God.”[7] Playing down the intellect, Boersma claims, “It is through intuition rather than induction that the soul has immediate communion with God.”[8] It is for this reason that “historical exegesis plays a legitimate, but subservient and secondary role to the sacramental function that Scripture plays in the divine economy.”[9]

To come to the conclusions Boersma draws, he insists Christian Platonist metaphysics is required. He goes so far as to write, “The sacramental hermeneutic of the Scriptures is dependent on… a Christian Platonist metaphysic,”[10] thus no Plato, no Scripture (the title of chapter two). Boersma’s contention is that the early church read Scripture through the metaphysical lens of Platonism; without Plato and his metaphysics we could not retain the teaching of Scripture.[11] We need metaphysical scaffolding to interpret Scripture, Boersma insists.[12]

Closer to contemporary evangelical debates, Boersma leans on the “rule of faith,” the Creeds and ecumenical councils, for authority, even exceeding Scripture. He writes, “A Sola Scriptura approach that rejects creedal guidelines as authoritative for interpretation” [goes astray],[13]  and “over time [the] councils attain authority.”[14] The issue of creedal (and council) authority is alive and active in conservative theological scholarship today, and participants would do well to observe where creedal authority ultimately lands, as per Boersma’s example of a sacramental/mystical form of Christianity. Boersma is arguing for what he calls a theological interpretation of Scripture. Scot McKnight, who admits he is not really certain what theological interpretation means, writes, “In the last two decades or so something has arisen that is called the theological interpretation of scripture, that reading the Bible isn’t simply about authorial intention… Boersma’s theology is at work in advocating for a kind of theological, christological reading of Scripture in a sacramental sense.”[15]

Scot McKnight challenges Boersma’s theological approach in his companion book, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew. He calls for theologians to begin with Scripture rather than creeds, confessions, and systematic theology. The indictment is that creeds have become more authoritative than Scripture for many theologians who read Scripture through theological lenses rather than forming their theology through exegesis. “I am convinced,” McKnight writes, “that we must begin with the Bible, and we must let the Bible speak on its own…there you have our problem: Bible versus creeds versus confessions versus systematics.”[16] In the introduction to his book, he drives in a stake: “All theology must start at the exegetical level. At times theologians occasionally toss in some Bible references to decorate their theology rather than let the Bible form their theology.”[17] The first chapter opens with the claim that “biblical scholarship begins with the Bible, systematic theology somewhere else.”[18] McKnight is not discounting the value of systematic theology; rather, he is emphasizing the imperative of beginning with Scripture and forming our theologies from exegesis rather than metaphysics.

These are excellent, thought-provoking statements. McKnight modifies his system a bit, however, by suggesting that, broadly speaking, there are three approaches (or models) that Bible scholars take:

  • The retrieval model, which seeks to retrieve theology straight from the Bible (pp. 17-18). It is a back to the Bible (sola scriptura or at least prima scriptura) approach. Theology is a commentary and exposition of Scripture.[19]
  • The expansive model, which insists that we interpret the Bible through the creeds and church tradition, developing new insights into the biblical text.[20]
  • The integrative model (which McKnight prefers), which begins with the Bible but expands what the Bible says. Respect is given to the creeds, but the anchor is tied to the Scripture itself.[21]

While McKnight calls for beginning with the Bible and forming theology on biblical exegesis, his hermeneutical approach becomes an issue, as the next section demonstrates.

Hermeneutics  

The second fault line is hermeneutical. Even if Scripture is given prominence over theology and metaphysics, what is the best approach to its interpretation?

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Hermeneutics is the guiding force in Boersma’s theology. He consistently belittles and criticizes grammatical-historical hermeneutics, the search for authorial intent, and sola scriptura,[22] replacing them with the sacramental hermeneutic of the Church Fathers and Catholicism.[23] This approach means that Scripture must interpreted allegorically[24] and christocentrically, since “Christ is present on every page.”[25] Boersma uses the early Church Fathers to support his views and recommends The Ancient Christian Commentary series, which demonstrates their allegorical interpretive methodology.[26] In order to comprehend Scripture rightly, one must employ the three-legged interpretive stool of Scripture, tradition, and the church.[27]

Boersma recognizes the inherent flaws in the allegorical hermeneutics of the ancients but sees it as superior to the grammatical-historical view: “The medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues, is false…the biblical text yields meaning not primarily as a result of scholarly insight (though this contributes) but through heavenly contemplation in the company of the saints.”

On the other hand, McKnight insists on beginning with the Bible, but he exposes his Achilles’ heel when it comes to hermeneutics. For example, he insists that he is a “Bible Guy,” but he wants nothing to do with the label of “biblicist,” which has recently become a term of derision. His definition of biblicism is a strawman position that virtually no one espouses and “means the bracketing or rejection of the church’s theological tradition to go back to the Bible all over again and begin all over again. To be a biblicist is to be a theological anarchist.”[28] To my knowledge, there are no biblicists by this definition. No one opens his or her Bible without a theological framework. But in the author’s attempt to expose biblicism, he turns to the Roman Catholic sociologist Christian Smith, of all people, who provides ten descriptions of biblicists. Most of these descriptions, while intended to be an insult to the “biblicist,” actually define one who holds to the sufficiency of Scripture and include:

  • The Bible is identical to God’s own words.
  • The Bible is what God wants us to know and all God wants us to know in communicating the divine will to us.
  • Everything relevant to the Christian life is in the Bible.
  • Perspicuity—any reasonable human can read the Bible in his or her language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.
  • Commonsense hermeneutics—the plain meaning is in the text.
  • All passages on a given theme mesh together.
  • The Bible is universally valid for all Christians, wherever and whenever.
  • The inductive method—read it and put it together.
  • The Bible is intended by God to be a handbook or textbook for the Christian life.[29]

It is at this point that the author begins to attack grammatical-historical hermeneutics and the search for authorial intent in the biblical text.[30] McKnight favors the allegorical, christocentric approach of the Church Fathers and medieval scholars.[31] It is instructive to note where this hermeneutic takes McKnight as he ultimately challenges and redefines essential doctrines. Below is a sampling:

  • He believes with N.T. Wright that “most theologians and Bible scholars have misunderstood the gospel.”[32] It is not God’s plan of redemption for sinners but a social rescue of the planet and all the ills of people, including poverty, ecology, government, etc.
  • Closely connected to the gospel is one’s understanding of the atonement, and McKnight apparently does not accept penal substitution.[33]
  • He redefines grace, claiming that it has never meant a free gift, for grace always required mutual reciprocity (pp. 80-88). “In the ancient world, nothing was free. Pure gift, then, cannot be assumed when the Bible communicates grace and gift.”[34]
  • He rejects a distinction between Israel and the church. To McKnight the “church does not replace Israel; the church expands Israel. That is, Israel expanded is the church…christocracy entails generations of mission to expand Israel/church into the whole world.”[35]
  • The author struggles with the “Holy War” texts of the Old Testament, ultimately resolving the dilemma by accepting William Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic (in which Scripture does not offer the final or highest ethic—that is found progressively. Scripture points to but does not provide the ultimate conclusion), with a bit of Greg Boyd thrown in (known for his open theism), and coupled with a metaphorical eschatology.[36]

Conclusion

Lost to many Classicalists in this theistic debate are the Scriptures as our ultimate source of truth and final authority. The attempt to define and cling to orthodox understanding of the Trinity has exposed the direction in which much of conservative scholarship is headed. Theology, especially drawn from the Nicene and pro-Nicene era, now dominates biblical exegesis for many scholars. It is no longer “the Bible says,” which they mock as biblicism, but “Gregory or Aquinas says….” While the writings of the Church Fathers and medieval scholars are of great value, we must begin and end with what God said in His Word.

Concerning hermeneutics, we are seeing theologians distancing themselves from authorial intent and literal-grammatical-historical-normal hermeneutics as simplistic, stilted, and overly cerebral. A return to patristic-allegorical-typological-contemplative hermeneutics is rapidly coming into vogue. The result of this two-pronged attack on Scripture is to undermine its authority and strip it of its obvious and plain meaning. This practice undermines cherished and biblically-clear doctrines, as the works of both Boersma and McKnight demonstrate. If the collateral damage of the debate on the Godhead is sacrificing the Scripture as God’s final and ultimate Word to His people, the price is far too high.  Let us honor the Nicene Creed and other orthodox documents, but let us begin with Scripture and let it speak for itself, rather than being muzzled by the fallible writings of the Church Fathers or anyone else.

[1] Hans Boersma, Five Things Theologians Wish Biblical Scholars Knew (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), p. xi.

[2] Craig A. Carter, “Denying Divine Eternity: Can Evangelical Theology Resist the Temptation?” The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol 33#1, Spring 2022, p. 155.

[3] Matthew Barrett, The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol 33#1, Spring 2022, p. 189.

[4] Ibid., pp. 189-190.

[5] Ibid., pp. 192-193.

[6] Bruce Ware, “Unity and Distinction of the Trinitarian Persons,” Theological Models and Doctrinal Applications, ed. Keith S. Whitfield, (Nashville: B&H, 2019), p. 28.

[7] Hans Boersma, p. 6.

[8] Ibid., p. 7.

[9] Ibid., p. 80.

[10] Ibid., p. 11.

[11] Ibid., p. 39.

[12] Ibid., pp. 51, 61, 63.

[13] Ibid., p. 19.

[14] Ibid., p. 95.

[15] As quoted in Hans Boersma, p. xi. (emphasis his).

[16] Scot McKnight, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), p. 3.

[17] Ibid., p. 10.

[18] Ibid., p. 15.

[19] Ibid., pp 17-19.

[20] Ibid., pp. 24-29.

[21] Ibid., pp. 30-34.

[22] Hans Boersma, pp. 8, 9, 21, 38, 93, 100, 111, 130, 137.

[23] Ibid., pp. 7-9.

[24] Ibid., pp. 29-37, 76-77, 92, 96-97.

[25] Ibid., p. 13.

[26] Ibid., p. 92.

[27] Ibid., p. 94.

[28] Ibid., p. 40.

[29] Scot McKnight, p. 42.

[30] Ibid., p. 33.

[31] Ibid., p. 44.

[32] Ibid., pp. 78-79.

[33] Ibid., p. 78.

[34] Ibid., p. 85.

[35] Ibid., p. 109.

[36] Ibid., pp. 112-114.

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/Teacher Southern View Chapel

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