Monday, 5 October 2015

Christian Faith

  • A Christian should put the highest trust possible in the Bible alone as a contextual whole. This involves trusting that its contents should be paid the most attention to and trusted more than any other book, while being sensitive to the different forms of truth these contents may be presented in.
  • Because the Bible doesn't present itself as the main subject of focus, but refers instead to other subjects, the Bible is not to be trusted for absolutely anything, but only in what its words can communicate.
  • God is the one the Bible most focusses attention on: a Christian can trust that the Bible therefore indicates what subject needs to be considered the most. 
  • A Christian should put the highest trust in God for anything and everything - including God's omnisicience, comprehensive providence, and assembly of the Bible - out of trust that this should be done. This highest trust also involves trusting that God is the only one who should be trusted in this way.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A Simple Christology and Trinitarian Theology

There is only one true God (John 17:3). Jesus is the truth (John 14:6) and he is called God (John 1:1; 20:28). Therefore, he is the one true God.

How can this be? In 1 Corinthians 2:11 Paul makes a direct link between a person and the spirit of that person. In Romans 8:9-11 he speaks of the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ as being one and the same, and 1 Corinthians 12:13 emphasizes that there is one Spirit that believers are baptized into. It therefore seems appropriate to speak of an ontological unity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit: they are the same being, and yet exist simultaneously as separate hypostases, as seen in Mark 9:1-11.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Book review: 'Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism.' Part 3

 In Chapter Nine, 'Faithful criticism and a critical faith,' Ansberry and Hays sum up the need for those two things. They argue that historical criticism need not be a threat when we keep 'evangelical faith and interpretation within a stable set of orthodox, doctrinal affirmations that are essential to the identity of the Christian Church' (p.208). While emphasizing that they are not calling for a Roman Catholic-like elevation of 'T'radition as infallible authority, they do seem to be suggesting that the creeds of the church should be the beliefs which we simply can't allow historical criticism to deconstruct, while being open about how God may have conveyed other truths.

 It's here that I think the major flaw of the book lies: in its specification what should be the basis for evangelical appropriation of historical criticism. In chapter three, Ansberry believes that the exodus events' 'occurrence character is essential' (p,70) if the theology of the book, however developed, is to be valid. Likewise, Daling and Hays believe the literal occurrence of the the virgin birth and the resurrection to be essential for orthodox belief and hope. What's not clear to me is how they can ground these assertions other than by just saying 'because the church has always believed these things.' Fine - but if they're open to the writers of Scripture being mistaken about certain things (i.e. a historical Adam, cosmology), how do they know that the writers interpreted certain events correctly? If God can use errant concepts to teach an inerrant truth, how do we know that He isn't teaching, say, a general message of hope in the future through the apostles' mistaken belief of a physical resurrection? The church might have believed in a bodily resurrection for centuries, but that's by the by if it's not really what God wanted to convey. Similarly, who are we to say that God had to have brought Israel out of Egypt at all? Perhaps He just wanted an inspiring, entirely fictional story to be in Scripture as an illustration of his power.

 That's the problem when great faith is placed in humanly-determined probabilities, whether in theology, scholarship or ethics. All human knowledge is essentially made up of well-educated (and not so well-educated) guesses. The 'critically assured results' of historical criticism shift with each generation as assumptions changes and new evidence comes to light. It's impossible, from a  human point of view, to have absolute certainty on anything. The Jesus Mythicists' view, that Christ never existed, may be very unlikely, but it's a possibility by their presuppositions nonetheless. So the question is this: are we to place our faith merely on probabilities, that the exodus could plausibly have happened, that Jesus probably existed, that he probably rose from the dead, and so on? Are the contributors of the book believing certain things just because the church has always interpreted them in certain ways?

 I think the answer lies in having an even stronger doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, not a weaker one. But it must be one that holds that God has already inerrantly indicated what type of testimony He has given us in the various parts of Scripture -  and also where He hasn't, as I've explored before. Luke claims that the gospels are based on eyewitness testimony: therefore, while keeping in mind the ways in which the events and speeches have been sculpted and edited in different ways by the gospel writers, I think we are to see a '1:1' correlation between the events reported and the theological interpretation of the events. Therefore, the virgin birth, the miracles and the resurrection happened as reported. Conversely, we are not told what sort of evidence the reports of the exodus are based upon, and so should be open to how God may have guided the addition of legendary material to express the full significance of the events. But our confidence in the factual nature of the exodus should not be based on our own feelings of what grounds are necessary for theology to be valid - it is based on what God has directly said He has done through the prophets (Bryan Hodge provides a very nice example of this approach here). Only such an approach - trusting the voice that comes from outside our own judgements and opinions - will prevent us from making false assumptions about what kind of texts we're dealing with, which ironically is the mistake both traditional evangelical scholars and critical scholars have made.

 Secondly, the implications of canonicity could have been explored more fully. If there's anything critical scholarship tends to do, it is to atomize the text. So various sources are posited for the Pentateuch, each with its own theology that conflicts with the others. Now, that may be the case for such supposed sources in their original (separate?) form, but it ignores the fact that when sources are put together as one piece of literature, they inevitably affect the meaning of each other because a new context has been created. So scholars such as Mark S. Smith may well be right that for the author of Deut. 32:8-9, the Most High and YHWH were considered separate deities. But in the context of Deut. as a whole - particularly chapter 4 - and the context of the whole Bible, the meaning of those verses is affected so that we see the Most High and YHWH as the same being, regardless of what the person who originally wrote the verses may have thought. Likewise, perhaps in some earlier form of the law the Israelites did understand Exodus 22:29-30 to mean they should sacrifice their firstborn sons (Ezekiel 20 gives the reasoning for why God would let this happen), but in the current context of Exodus 13:11-13 and 34:20, it's not what 22:29-30 means anymore. If we're to believe that God has spoken through every part of Scripture, we need to believe He has provided the correct context to understand the individual parts in. Now, that doesn't mean there won't be certain historical discrepancies and seams that indicate where varying traditions have been joined together - but that just helps to identify what sort of literature is being used and hints at what processes were used to assemble it. By faith we trust that God has spoken His flawless message through His word and has not left us without guidance in how to interpret the individual parts of it.

 To conclude: this book provides much food for thought, and raises issues that evangelicals can't ignore. The writers never claim to present a final answer on the issue of inerrancy (which these issues inevitably bear on), and so I can't criticize them for that. Nevertheless, a fully convincing account of the doctrine in light of the issues raised remains to be written. I know that Bryan Hodge has been working on a project incorporating the ideas I've outlined above, and I have high hopes that it will be the book to truly reconcile evangelical faith with historical criticism.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Book review: 'Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism.' Part 2

 Continued from Part 1.

 Chapter Four, 'No Covenant before the exile? The Deuteronomic Torah and Israel's Covenant Theology' is by Ansberry and Jerry Hwang. Most of the chapter is an overview of the standard critical view that Deuteronomy is not a historical record of Moses' words from shortly after the conquest, but a product of the late eighth century, late seventh century, or even from after the exile (and any combination of those if multople revisions and additions were involved). The discussion, even in overview, is complex, and would be confusing for anyone not already familiar with the issues involved.

 Ansberry and Hwang address the theological implications resulting if many - if not all - of the deuteronomiclaws (i.e. temple centralization) were late innovations ascribed to Moses. Would this make the entire book a 'pious fraud'? In light of ancient conventions of ascribing authoritative instruction to foundational figures, they think not: the Deuteronomist(s), guided by the Holy Spirit, narratively ascribed their innovations to Moses to emphasize the authority of the teaching. Once more, while I would have liked to have seen examples of other cultures using this device, I think this is a valid possibility.

 Chapter Five, 'Problems with prophecy,' is by Amber Warhurst, Seth B. Tarrer and Hays. This essay, for me, was the best in the book. The authors give an overview of the many times prophecy was not fulfilled in both the Old Testament and the New. They argue that prophecy was never seen as something inexorable, but an expression of God's will that could be averted by repentance or the lack thereof. Ultimately, they apply this to Jesus' prophecies of his return, which do seem to suggest a time before the apostles' death. I think they're correct, and it's good to see that Hays is to release a book developing this concept more fully. Also covered is the issue of 'vaticinium ex eventu', or prophecy after the fact, which is also handled convincingly.

 Chapter Six, 'Pseudepigraphy and the canon,' is by Ansberry, Casey A. Strine, Edward W. Klink III (best name in the book!) and David Lincicum. The authors cover similar ground to chapter four, arguing that the ascription of Moses' name to the Pentateuch is not to be seen in terms of modern conventions of authorship. They also address the issue of Deutero- and Trito- Isaiah, the Gospel of John, and Paul's epistles.

 Chapter Seven, 'The historical Jesus,' is by Michael J. Daling and Hays. It offers thoughts on Jesus' self-understanding, and the historicity of the supernatural elements in the gospels. For theological reasons, the authors conclude that the virgin birth and the resurrection must be affirmed as factual, and probably the miracles, too.

 Chapter Eight, 'The Paul of Acts and the Paul of the Epistles' is by Aaron J. Kuecker and Kelly D. Liebengood. It discusses the varied emphases of Paul's theology and trips to Jerusalem in the New Testament, presenting various views on how to think about theological variation within the canon.

 These last three chapters provide a good overview of scholarship on the issues at hand. Nevertheless, I find their attempt to construct an evangelical theology from Scripture problematic. Not in terms of the theology itself, but because of the basis on which they seek to build that theology despite certain critical assumptions. But I will go into that more in the last part of this review while looking at the final essay in the collection.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Book review: 'Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism.' Part 1

Christopher M. Hays and Christopher B. Ansberry, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism (London: SPCK, 2013)

 Reading this book was a strangely personal experience for me. Almost every essay in the volume addresses an issue that I've been wrestling with ever since my somewhat traumatic discovery of historical critical approaches to the Bible a few years ago (as touched on in my first blog post, although my views on certain things have developed even since then). It's for this reason that I've posted so many links in this review to my own thoughts on the issues at hand, not in an attempt to steal the limelight, hopefully, but just because these sorts of problems have occupied much of my time and thought. In fact, I'm so interested in these matters that it looks like this is going to have to be a multi-part review! Hopefully there are some readers equally as interested who will stick with me as I present my thoughts on what has proved to be a very stimulating volume.

 Overall, I consider this book to be quite significant, and it seems that the editors do as well. In Chapter One, 'Towards a faithful criticism', Hays, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, outlines the need for evangelical scholars to engage seriously with historical criticism. While acknowledging the dangers of the approach - and crucially affirming that no scholarship is without its presuppositions and/or biases - he exhorts evangelical scholars to not see historical criticism as a threat, but a potential ally, that actually 'enhances our our apprehension of God and his self-revelation in Scripture' (p.19). Hays speaks for all the contributors to the book when he suggests that 'we feel that we should examine the Bible inductively in order to to figure out in what way God has inspired his written word' (p.6). In other words, it cannot simply be assumed that the type of history relayed in the Bible necessarily corresponds to a modernistic 'video transcript' standard. I agree - and will have more to say on this later - but for me the book's significance does not lie in this suggestion. There are plenty of well-known theologians and scholars who have explored such an approach and held on to a theologically conservative faith. The significance of this collection is that a large group of evangelicals are making a unified statement that they're not willing to hold on to certain presuppositions that evangelicals have traditionally held to. It's a move that the evangelical world can either support or put down, but certainly can't ignore, and that's really what the contributors want to do - not to draw any final conclusions, but to demonstrate how certain historical-critical conclusions aren't necessarily damaging to Christian faith if they are true in the hope of provoking discussion. By that standard, the collection succeeds admirably. By the end of this review I'll have outlined both my agreements and misgivings and given my own thoughts on where things need to go. I get the feeling that's exactly the kind of response that Hays and Ansberry wanted to provoke.

 Chapter Two, 'Adam and the Fall,' by Hays and Stephen Lane Herring, was a puzzling one for me. Hays and Herring give a brief overview of scholarship on Genesis 1-3, and rightly point out that the parallels with ancient Near Eastern creation myths suggest the chapters should not be read in terms of modern historiography. But their claim that historical criticism calls into question the existence of Adam and Eve left me scratching my head. As far as I'm aware, it's modern science that would do this, in terms of an original couple from whom the entire human race are directly descended. After all, it's logical that someone, somewhere, was the first to sin: the problem lies more with whether all people are descended from them.  To my mind, that problem disappears when seen against the background of the ANE conception of federal headship (as Bryan Hodge explains here).

 Hays and Herring do admit that possibilities like this exist, but make it clear that they are only pursuing a thought experiment in what it could mean for Christian theology if there was no historical Adam. To this end they address Romans 5:12-21 and argue against a reading which would produce a doctrine of 'original guilt' - i.e. that all mankind is born guilty of Adam's sin. Ultimately, they argue that Paul is really saying that everyone is condemned purely for their own - inevitable - sin, for which Adam's merely paved the way. Thus, they can argue that it doesn't matter if there wasn't a historical Adam, as Paul's use of him (even if the apostle believed in a historical Adam himself) merely serves as an illustrative foreshadowing of everyone's sin. I don't find this reading particularly convincing: if 'death spread to all because all have sinned' (Romans 5:12) and babies die in and out of the womb, that wouldn't seem to fit with the authors' contention that we are innocent until we sin, as those who are supposedly innocent clearly pay the penalty. A federal view would make more sense of that, no matter how uncomfortable the philosophical implications might be. If Adam - the federal head of mankind and therefore supposedly the best of us - could sin, it's inevitable that all of us would and will sin anyway, and are therefore justly condemned in his one act.

 Chapter Three, 'The exodus: fact, fiction or both?' by Ansberry, outlines the 'maximalist' view of the exodus - it happened exactly as written - and the 'minimalist' approach: as there's no direct evidence for the event, it's likely to be an entirely fabricated myth. But Ansberry is correct to say that 'If, in the final analysis archaeology cannot disprove the historicity of the exodus, neither does it seem that archaeology can confirm it' (p.62). All it can do is to suggest the plausibility of some sort of exodus-like event that you can believe happened if you're willing to trust that the traditions have some basis in fact.

 Ansberry moves on to discuss the concept of 'cultural memory', how the writers of ancient historiography were not merely interested in what 'actually happened', but the meaning of foundational events for future generations. To this end, new narratives would be created and layered on to the original traditions, using legend as a medium to express the great significance and implications of the first events. This, Ansberry argues is what we find in the accounts of the exodus, and throughout the Old Testament more generally. The fact that 'something happened' is vital for the story's integrity and for Christian faith, that God really did act to save His people as part of His plan. But that doesn't mean that He couldn't have guided the development of the traditions, using the medium of legend to reveal the full significance of the events in a way the people of the time would have readily accepted.

I think that Ansberry's approach is essentially correct. We simply can't assume that God wouldn't use such a literary approach to presenting His truth: the Bible makes no claim about the type of history portrayed in the Pentateuch, and so we should be open to such ideas. However, Ansberry's arguments as to why the essential historicity of the exodus must be maintained seems to me to be on shaky ground. There is a more solid way of rooting its importance, but I'll save that for my concluding comments.

Overall, this was a good chapter that will help many to think more creatively about the kind of history being relayed in exodus. I would have liked to have seen an example or two from other ANE peoples' histories of cultural memory at work - the bare assertion 'Ah, it was just the culture of the time,' is always unconvincing on several levels - but Ansberry suggests a good way forward, although perhaps not with the confidence and more solid grounding that I think is possible.

To be continued in Part 2.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A Simple Christology

There is only one true God (John 17:3). Jesus is the truth (John 14:6) and he is called God (John 1:1; 20:28). Therefore, he is the one true God.

Monday, 13 May 2013