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A Statement Regarding the Authority of Christian Scripture

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What do I believe with respect to the authority of Christian Scripture?

Well, here are my basic convictions:

  • I believe that the Christian faith is necessarily, intimately, and indelibly rooted in the God-authorized, God-breathed testimony of the prophetic tradition of the people of Israel and the apostolic witness of Jesus, the Messiah, as their testimonies have been preserved in the 66 canonical books of the Christian Bible.
  • Furthermore, it is my conviction that all that can be known about the one, true God with certainty is to be discovered only through this testimony (e.g., God’s nature, intention, will, activity in history, purpose, etc.).
  • Consequently, I believe that the contention of the writers and, where appropriate, editors of Scripture is infallible and inerrant with respect to their intention.

Now, permit me to delineate some implications…

The 66 canonical books of the Christian Bible are as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, The Book of the Twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi), Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1, 2, & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

I resist the idea that the contemporary authority of Scripture lies not in God, nor in the ordained authors, but primarily in the text itself, and therefore believe that though textual criticism is a necessary and useful discipline for Christian study, the authority of Christian Scripture does not depend fundamentally on such investigations.

I do believe that the testimony of the prophets and apostles as it has been preserved in the Christian Bible is rooted in events that must be presumed to be historical and provides a God-breathed, God-authorized (and for that reason, infallible and inerrant) theological interpretation of divinely selected segments and epochs of history as well as the God-revealed trajectory of human history.

Of foundational importance to me is the insistence that the authority of the Scriptural text is not an authority to be found in the grammar and vocabulary of the text itself nor is it to be found in the receiving and reading community.

Rather it is to be found in the authority that God entrusted to the prophets and apostles as they were elected, authorized, and inspired by God both to testify to specific historical events and to provide theological interpretations of those events for those who would accept their testimony and put their faith in YHWH (The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, the God who became flesh in the person of Jesus, the Messiah).  The authority of the Biblical text derives from its faithfulness to the testimony and teachings of the elect of Israel–i.e., the true prophets and apostles of YHWH.

Scripture's authority derives from its faithfulness to the testimony of the elect of Israel. Click To Tweet

I believe that though the early Christian community was tasked with recognizing the faithfulness of these writings to the testimony and teaching of the prophets and apostles, the community itself did not have the authority or responsibility to author or to authorize these texts.

I believe that the foundational conviction of Christian faith is a trust in the prophetic and apostolic witness to the Word of God delivered to them and entrusted through them to the Church by the Holy Spirit.  However, the interpretation of Scripture and the attempt to discern the intention of the authors and, where appropriate, editors of Scripture necessarily are subjective endeavors.

For this reason, I believe that theological disagreements are healthy and necessary components of Christian community.  What we must agree on, in my view, is not always the theological conclusions we draw, but the conviction that our task, in the Holy Spirit and in Christian community, is to understand and to apply the message intended by the authors and editors as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

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I recognize that reading and interpreting the First Testament may require a different set of presuppositions than reading and interpreting the apostolic witness of the New Testament.  There certainly will be debate over the nature and extent of those differences.

However, pertinent to this statement of faith is the awareness that First Testament prophecy sometimes predicted future events that, contextually, appear to have been outside of the original intent of the prophets themselves.  This does indicate the possibility of the Holy Spirit utilizing the Scriptural text to say more than the authors and/or editors themselves intended to say.

With that said, I believe that, canonically, this expectation seems unique to prophetic and/or apocalyptic passages.

J. Thomas Johnson – updated 11/02/2016

The Chosenness of Israel and the Authority of Christian Scripture

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I don’t publish manuscripts of my sermons routinely, but I consider the subject matter of this sermon to be of particular importance.  So, I have included the manuscript text below.  If you prefer to listen as opposed to reading, click the link below for the audio file.

The Root That Supports Us (Ruth 1-4)

The Root That Supports Us (Ruth 1-4)

Rev. J. Thomas Johnson

Heritage is profoundly important to most humans, isn’t it?  Whether we’re talking about ethnic identity or national heritage or family history or even the peculiarities of religious traditions.  In our context those of us who value the United States often communicate this in terms of being ‘proud to be an American’.  Those of us who herald from significant families might swell with pride in being related to prominent persons. And those of us who value our particular Christian tradition might speak of being ‘proud to be a Baptist’ or ‘a Methodist’ or ‘a Nazarene’ or ‘a Protestant’ or ‘a Roman Catholic’ or ‘a Non-Denominationalist’.

As appropriate as it may be to use these designations of ourselves, they also bring with them a danger shared by all contemporary Christians, but especially by those Christians today who herald from non-Jewish or Gentile ancestry.  So long as we are convinced that John Wesley read and interpreted the Christian Scriptures with faithfulness to the intentions of the original communities that produced them, then we can be pleased to call ourselves Wesleyans.  That goes for the labels Protestant, Lutheran, Arminian, or whatever else.  However, we should have no interest in approaching the Bible with the primary goal of supporting the particular interpretation of any post-Apostolic religious leader in the history of Christianity.

Why not?  Because, and I want to say this both unequivocally and carefully, neither the Church of the Nazarene nor John Wesley nor the Anglican Church from whence he came nor Protestantism nor Martin Luther nor Thomas Aquinas nor Augustine nor Francis of Assisi nor Gregory Nazianzus nor Athanasius nor Irenaeus nor any other significant theologian in the history of Christianity is the root that supports us, as Christians.

My particular ethnic or national heritage is not fundamental to who I am presently either.  I am not first and foremost American or Scottish or French or English or Swedish.  These may be some of the roots that sired me and nurtured me formerly, but none of these are the root that supports me as a follower of Jesus.

If any of these relations or designations were taken away, I would not be irreparably damaged.  Why not?  Because in becoming a Christian, I have been grafted into a new and unique heritage, and it is that heritage that is the root that supports me.  It is not that I am not these other things–e.g., an American, a Protestant, a Wesleyan/Arminian, a Nazarene, a Johnson.  But, those designations are peripheral.  None of these are the root that supports me, and if you have followed Jesus today, their like is not the root that supports you either.

Well, what is the root that supports us?  I’m glad you asked.  That question is the title of today’s sermon, and our journey to answer it is a central concern both of the book of Ruth and of the New Testament.  But, we are not going to begin this morning with Ruth.  Instead, we will begin by considering the events of Ruth through the eyes of the New Testament.

We’ll begin by looking at Matthew, chapter 1, verses 1-16.

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife, 7Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, 8Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, 9Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

12 After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, 14Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud, 15Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. [1]

Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ lineage is interesting for several reasons, but one stands out for our purposes today.  Matthew has highlighted the reality that the kingly line of David, as it culminates in the person of Jesus, is not ethnically homogenous.  Not all in David’s line were children of Abraham through the chosen lines of Isaac and Jacob.  There were non-Jewish people in the kingly line of David.  Matthew was led to point out specifically Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

Is it as interesting to you as it is to me that Matthew began his interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus by highlighting the reality that the genealogy of Jesus includes Gentiles?  Now, they are Gentile women and not Gentile men, and that is probably significant (we’ll get back to that a bit later), but Gentiles are present nonetheless.  And one of those Davidic Gentiles is Ruth, whose story we have been examining for nearly two months.

What is the inclusion of Ruth and the other Gentiles in the Davidic line meant to teach us, as followers of Jesus?  Well, to answer that question, we must situate our inquiry long before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and long before Ruth followed Naomi back to the town of Bethlehem.  We have to return to the days following the events of the Great Flood in Genesis 6-9.  We must begin with the special election of the nation of Israel in God’s plan of salvation, and that’s our first point today:  The Chosenness of Israel.

Genesis tells us in chapter 11 that all of the nations of the earth originally spoke the same language and that these nations eventually came together under a single banner in order to build a capital city of human civilization on earth.  At the heart of that city was to be a tower that would reach into the heavens and be a testament to human accomplishment and cooperation.

When God evaluated this cooperative effort to build what is now known as the Tower of Babel, He decided to inhibit human development by scrambling their one language into many and consequently scattering them across the face of the earth.  Then, out of those seventy dispersing and divided peoples, God chose one human person whose family had settled not far from where the Tower of Babel had originally been conceived.  That person’s name was Abram, and when God appeared to him, God made Him a promise that stands as the foundation of the history of the salvation of humanity.

We find God’s words to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3:

1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” [2]

Through Abram, God elected a line of descendants, beginning with Abraham’s son Isaac, extending through Isaac’s son, Jacob, and finding fulfillment in Jacob’s sons whom God chose to be the tribal beginnings of a nation–the nation of Israel.   Perhaps more significantly for us, the larger part of Israel’s election as a people was that God chose to reveal Himself to that nation over the course of thousands of years in unique and unrepeatable ways.

Even more, God chose to guide and to authorize the reflections and historical interpretations of that nation through their prophetic tradition and later through the witness of the Apostles of Jesus.  In other words, what I’m suggesting is that God has entrusted His revelation of Himself to the people of Israel, and He has chosen them to be His unique mouthpiece to the rest of humanity for all time.

Of even greater significance still, in the fullness of time God Himself elected to step onto the stage of human history in a quite unexpected way when He took on flesh in the Person of Jesus.  And as confirmation of His special election, calling, and commissioning of Israel, when God took on human flesh the flesh He took on was that of Israel.  The nation God had chosen to encounter in unique and unrepeatable ways, the nation that God had chosen as His unique witness and testifier to the rest of humanity, this was the nation that God entered into in the person of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah.

As Christians we may testify that apart from the name of Jesus there is no other name under heaven given to humans by which we must be saved.  But, Jesus was and is the embodiment of the people of Israel, the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and to confess Jesus as the only way to God is at the same time to confess the prophetic and apostolic traditions of Israel as the unique and only spokespersons for the God of all creation.  The root that supports all who follow Jesus are the prophetic tradition of Israel and the apostolic witness of Jesus as they culminate in the Person of Jesus, the Messiah.

Dr. Marvin Wilson, in his book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith has written the following:

The question of origins is a question of roots. Since the American public became absorbed with a moving television documentary called “Roots” a number of years ago, many people have been more conscious about their own roots. Considerable interest in tracing family, ethnic, and national ties has resulted in a recent flood of literature on this subject.

At the same time, however, many Christians seem to have little knowledge about their biblical roots. They have never really penetrated the inner world of biblical thought. Christians can converse intelligently about the latest automobiles, fashions, music, and sports, but too few give evidence of a deep understanding of their spiritual heritage. At best, their grounding in biblical soil is both shallow and shaky. Hence, they usually embrace an uncritical conformity to the prevailing spirit of today’s world. As children of Abraham, Christians should be asking, “What does it mean to claim spiritual kinship with Abraham and the Jewish people?”[3]

Because Israel alone is the elect of God, those of us who follow Jesus must necessarily seek to deepen both our understanding and our living in the rich soil of ancient Jewish thought and practice.  God’s elect, God’s chosen, the citizens of the Kingdom of God both visible and invisible, no matter where we live and no matter what our ethnicity are elect in and through the people of Israel.

But, what is the relationship of non-Jewish people to the elect nation of Israel?  Well, this is where our study in Ruth bears much fruit, and it seems likely to me that this question is one of the reasons that Matthew has highlighted the Gentile members of the line of David.  Our first point was The Chosenness of Israel.  Our second now is The Incorporation of the Gentiles.

We recall that early in the book of Ruth, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, wished to return home to the region of Israel.  Since Ruth’s husband was dead and she herself was a Moabite, Naomi saw no reason for Ruth to remain with her.  But, do you recall Ruth’s response to Naomi?  This is Ruth chapter 1, verses 16-17:

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”[4]

These words brought Ruth into the nation of Israel, no longer as a Moabite, but now as an Israelite.  She altered her family, religious, and national allegiances.  She forsook her own roots, and sought to be grafted into Naomi’s roots–the people of Israel.  All of the Gentile women in Matthew’s genealogy of the line of David did the same, and it is important that they were all women.

Only women in the ancient world became a full part of the families into which they married.  When Gentile women married into Israel, they were born again into Israel.  And the pattern that Ruth and her compatriots followed has blazed the path that all Gentiles must walk in order to become a part of the kingdom of God.

The Apostle Paul describes this reality poignantly in his epistle to the Christians in Rome.  I’m reading from Romans chapter 11, beginning in verse 13:

13 I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. 15 For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree![5]

As Gentiles, we have been grafted into the olive tree of Israel, and Israel is the root that supports all who follow Jesus.  We are not to find meaning and purpose and value in our peculiar Gentile heritages, nor in our national affiliations, nor in our particular religious traditions.  Our roots are in Israel as God has been gracious in Jesus to graft us into the olive tree of His election.  As Paul observed just a few verses later in Romans 11:26:  “26 and in this way all Israel will be saved.”

What does this mean for us, and, perhaps more importantly, why speak of this on Father’s Day?  Our first point was The Chosenness of Israel, and our second was The Incorporation of the Gentiles.  Our third and final point this morning is this:  The Embracing of Our New Heritage.

When God determined to make Himself known to humanity, He did not interact haphazardly or comprehensively with the nations of the earth.  God chose to make Himself known to and through a particular people, and, it seems to me, the Christian Bible insists that God has refused to make Himself known through any other means.  God has chosen Israel as His unique spokespeople, and all who wish to come to God, to learn of God, to encounter God, must come to the God-breathed and God authorized prophetic and apostolic tradition of Israel.  This is, for me, the foundation of canon, and what we need to mean to say when we say that the Christian Bible is authoritative.

We, today, feel quite superior to ancient peoples, don’t we?  I mean our scientific understanding of the universe is far more sophisticated and accurate; our comprehension of medicine and biology is vastly improved; our technological advances are light years ahead; and our levels of literacy, education, and access to information have reached unprecedented levels in recent centuries and decades.  If any people in the history of the world have a shot at comprehending the truth of reality, it is us, isn’t it?  In many ways, I expect that that is true.

However, we don’t get to choose to whom God, if there is a God, might reveal Himself.  We don’t get to decide when or how this Being might choose to encounter us.  And, despite our scientific and philosophical and educational sophistication, our access to God and our ability to speak intelligently about Him or to evaluate Him is limited because He has not chosen to encounter us in the midst of history nor has He chosen to reveal Himself to us.  He chose an ancient people and, from our perspective, a people ignorant in many ways.  And that drives us mad.  In fact, it has driven many contemporary people away from God altogether.

The contemporary atheist, Richard Dawkins, has written the following in his book The God Delusion:

“The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal—God is the Omnipotent Father—hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.” —GORE VIDAL

The oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, and the clear ancestor of the other two, is Judaism: originally a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe. During the Roman occupation of Palestine, Christianity was founded by Paul of Tarsus as a less ruthlessly monotheistic sect of Judaism and a less exclusive one, which looked outwards from the Jews to the rest of the world.[6]

Do you hear the disdain?  “A barbaric Bronze Age text…” “Anti-human religions…”  “a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God.”  The first step that we must take in order to learn of God and to begin to follow after Him is to lay down our arrogance as a people.  We must embrace the reality that the prophetic tradition of Israel and the apostles of Jesus had experiences that were unrepeatable and unique to them alone.

Despite our present sophistication and intelligence, they have experienced something we have not; they have encountered a Being in real time and space that we will not encounter in the way they did until Jesus comes again; and they have been authorized by this Being to speak on His behalf in a way that no one since the death of the Apostles of Jesus has ever been authorized to speak.

The writer of 2 Peter put it this way in 2 Peter 1:16-21:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [7]

I do believe that God confirms the truthfulness of these witnesses today through His Holy Spirit.  However, I am also convinced that, in the end, the truthfulness of Christianity rests on our faith in the claim that Israel is the unique God-breathed, God-inspired witness and testifier to the reality and truth of the God of all creation for all of humanity for all time.

The theologian T. F. Torrance has said it this way (from The Mediation of Christ):

. . . .In his desire to reveal himself and make himself knowable to mankind [sic], he selected one small race out of the whole mass of humanity, and subjected it to intensive interaction and dialogue with himself in such a way that he might mould and shape this people in the service of his self-revelation. [8]

And if we are to encounter this God, if we are to know Him in any fashion, if we are to become citizens of the world He is creating, then we must speak the words of Ruth to the ancient prophets and apostles of Israel:

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”[9]

This is the root that supports us, and this is the heritage which we must investigate, in which we must envelope ourselves, in which we must take pride, and of which we must teach our children, both our natural children and our spiritual children in the faith.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also consider:

J. Thomas’s Statement Regarding the Authority of Christian Scripture

Jews, Gentiles, & the Remnant in Romans 9-11

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture series – Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7


 

[1] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Mt 1:1–16.

[2] Ibid, Genesis 12:1–3.

[3] Wilson, Marvin R. (1989-04-01), Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (pp. 4-5), Eerdmans Publishing Co – A, Kindle Edition.

[4] NIV, Ruth 1:16–17.

[5] Ibid, Romans 11:13–24.

[6] Dawkins, Richard (2008-01-16), The God Delusion (p. 58) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kindle Edition, 4).

[7] NIV, 2 Peter 1:16–21.

[8] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 7.

[9] NIV, Ruth 1:16–17.

Demons: Myths, Misunderstandings, or Menaces? Part 1

If an innumerable number of Christmas-themed songs are to be believed, apparently the Christmas season is a time for telling ghost stories.  I don’t know that I’ve ever partaken in this particular Christmas tradition, but it’s very existence was enough to encourage me to begin a series of blogs on the topic of demons or, more commonly in some contexts, unclean spirits.  More particularly, I’ll be discussing the role of demons/unclean spirits in the Gospel according to Mark.

I suppose the first question to be addressed is this:  Why pursue a study of demons or unclean spirits exclusively in Mark?  Permit me to explain my reasoning in four points.  First, Mark is the shortest of the Gospels, which allows for greater comprehensiveness in this venue.  Second, Mark seems particularly interested in Jesus’ confrontations with these beings–more-so, to my reading, than any of the other Gospels.  Third, I have recently completed an extensive study of Mark, and my engagement with the material is fairly fresh.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I am convinced that Mark’s treatment of this subject matter is fairly representative of what we find in the writings of the New Testament generally.

So, demons/unclean spirits in the Gospel according to Mark…  In my opinion, this is perhaps one of the more challenging discussions to initiate in my own context–that of 21st century America.  Why?  First, centuries of presuppositions and mythological development in European cultures, combined with very little overt teaching in the Gospels contribute to this difficulty.  Second, despite a fair amount of consensus regarding the existence of differences between Jewish and Gentile perceptions of unclean spirits/demons, it is often easier to identify Gentile presuppositions than it is the beliefs of their Jewish contemporaries.  Finally, contemporary secular understandings of illness, psychological maladies, evil (both personal and structural), and other such concerns tend to appear irreconcilable with any suggestion of the existence of these sorts of things.

I suppose we might avoid the topic altogether by simply highlighting broad literary themes in the Gospel according to Mark in which these things play a narrative part.  Approached in this way, the passages discussing demons/unclean spirits are not overly complicated.  These episodes emphasize Jesus’ authority over sin and evil; they trade on the irony of who did and did not recognize Jesus in the Gospel; they underscore the question of what kind of spirit was animating Jesus; they help us to explore the ways in which Jesus’ authority corresponds to that of His followers; they testify to the reality of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the realm of evil; they raise the concern of Jesus that He choose those whom He would have testify on His behalf; and perhaps the list could go on.

However, when we begin to explore more basic issues that seem essential to understanding the broader implications of these events, things become a bit more complicated.  Several critical questions come to mind.  What is Mark’s basic anthropology–i.e., his understanding of what it means to be human?  How has Mark interpreted Jesus’ behavior and its relationship to evil in the human realm?  How does one know, according to Mark, if a person is possessed by an unclean spirit/demon?  How does Mark’s anthropology and understanding of evil communicate to our humanistic, materialistic, contemporary understanding of these issues?  What in Mark should be taken as an overt teaching–and hence, inspired, inerrant, infallible–and what should be considered as cultural assumptions of the day which may be inaccurate technically?  I’m sure you could think of some others, but those are the ones that come immediately to my mind.

This week’s blog is intended to flesh out extra-canonical (outside of Christian Scripture) presuppositions and assumptions regarding these sorts of passages and these types of issues.  In next week’s blog, I’ll attempt to lead us through an exploration of the Bible’s allusions generally and  Mark’s teachings specifically (and perhaps Mark’s assumptions) in these respects.  But, this week, my hope is to place a number of proverbial cards on the table.

Let me begin by delineating some foundational presuppositions that I bring to the discussion of these sorts of issues.  First, to my reading the Bible presupposes the existence of beings that are not part of the narrated creation in Genesis 1 and 2–e.g., angels (in the sense of non-human messengers), unclean spirits, demons, Satan, etc.  I believe this can be demonstrated in the observation that several historical events in the canonical Christian Bible have been interpreted as being in some way related to these creatures.  With that said, however, apart from the historical necessity of their existence and the historical-narrative importance of the events in which they take part, the Biblical authors and editors provide very little information as to the historical background or the essential natures of these creatures.

Secondly, I presuppose that to ask about the nature of these creatures is, in many ways, to step outside of the intention of the Biblical authors/editors and possibly even to step outside of their knowledge (whether we are speaking of inspired knowledge or otherwise).  I would argue that the Biblical authors/editors have been inspired to interpret the events which they have recorded and reflected on, and that they have even been inspired to identify correctly the principal actors in those events.  However, short of finding a Biblical author/editor whose intention was to preach the pre-history or essential nature of these sorts of beings, what exactly they are connects merely with a presumption of the Biblical contributors and may not be entirely accurate.

All that is to say that when we attempt to explore what precisely these creatures are, when, how, and why they were created, why they do what they do or want what they want, and so on, we are leaving the realm of inspired Biblical teaching/testimony, and we are engaging in pure conjecture.  For these reasons, this blog series  represents only my best guess as to what precisely these beings might or might not be.  I do, of course, believe these blogs represent educated estimations based on the scant information provided to us by the Biblical contributors.  Nevertheless, in the end I am merely exploring the historical circumstances narrated by these authors/editors and trying to piece together an undisclosed, unrevealed mystery.  For these reasons, in my opinion these blogs do not properly belong in the category of Bible study.

We’ll begin this week with a brief survey of demons/unclean spirits outside of Christian Scripture, and we’ll complete our conversation next week with an exploration of these beings in the context of the Christian Bible.

The concepts of unclean spirits, demons, and/or angels have received varied treatment in recent decades.  In popular Christian fiction, several authors have envisioned a spiritual battlefield which exists around us and has only been hinted at in the Scriptural texts.  The most notable among these a few decades ago was the author Frank Peretti.  The following description of a demon preparing to enter a church comes from his book, This Present Darkness.

It had arms and it had legs, but it seemed to move without them, crossing the street and mounting the front steps of the church.  Its leering, bulbous eyes reflected the stark blue light of the full moon with their own jaundiced glow.  The gnarled head protruded from hunched shoulders, and wisps of rancid red breath seethed in labored hisses through rows of jagged fangs.

It either laughed or it coughed–the wheezes puffing out from deep within its throat could have been either.  From its crawling posture it reared up on its legs and looked about the quiet neighborhood, the black leathery jowls pulling back into a hideous death-mask grin.  It moved toward the front door.  The black hand passed through the door like a spear through liquid; the body hobbled forward and penetrated the door, but only half way. . . . (Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness, 11-12)

This sort of a view of spiritual creatures and spiritual warfare still persists outside of the world of fiction in many contemporary contexts.

In the arena of contemporary psychology, on the other hand (even among Christian psychologists), the idea of demon possession is treated largely as a pre-scientific, superstitious and/or mythological understanding of various psychological ailments.  David G. Myers, the author of a best-selling introductory textbook to psychology and a Christian professor at Hope College, described the conflicts in the following way in his book, Psychology through the Eyes of Faith.

For many religious people the ultimate threat of science is therefore that it will demistify life, destroying our sense of wonder and with it our readiness to believe in and worship an unseen reality.  Once we regarded flashes of lightening and claps of thunder as supernatural magic.  Now we understand the natural processes at work.  Once we viewed certain mental disorders as demon possession.  Now we are coming to discern genetic, biochemical, and stress-linked causes.  Once we prayed that God would spare children from diphtheria.  Now we vaccinate them.  Understandably, some Christians have come to regard scientific naturalism as “the strongest intellectual enemy of the church” (David Myers, Psychology through the Eyes of Faith, 41).

In the realm of theology, some conservative Christian scholars, such as D. A. Carson, have sought to explain the apparent discord between our contemporary experience and knowledge and the testimony of the Christian Bible with a suggestion which I have termed, eschatological clustering.  In his book The Gagging of God, Carson writes the following:

Now let us take up a question that in most circles in North Atlantic countries would scarcely be a burning issue, but that in many parts of sub-Saharan black Africa is vital and pressing:  What does the Bible say about demons, and how are Christians to beat them?  In the semipopular Christian literature, patterned after a certain systematic mold, one trawls through Scripture and examines, in the first instance, the exorcisms practiced by Jesus and pulls out texts mentioning “demon” or “demonization” and gradually constructs first a theology, and then pastoral counsel, to help Christians address these matters.  But if one places these texts within the Bible’s plot-line, and asks fundamental questions about the nature of the conflict in which we are engaged and the nature of the victory that Christ has won, one soon perceives that there are other themes that are being overlooked.  How much of the presentation of demonic activity in the Synoptic Gospels [i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke] is bound up with the dawning of the kingdom and the coming of the King?  How is such activity related to the End?  How much of the proper confrontation of the demonic is bound up with gospel solutions–as in Ephesians 6 and Revelation 12?  This is not to say that there is no place for explicit exorcism.  It is to say, rather, that the framework of the discussion and the priorities that emerge look rather different when the Bible’s story-line, climaxing in Christ and his cross-work, resurrection, exaltation and reign, are taken into account (D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God, 546-547).

If I am understanding Carson correctly, he appears to be suggesting that the conspicuousness of demonic activity in the Gospels was clustering around the arrival of the Day of the Lord and the ministry of Jesus, the King.  Though Carson does not dismiss contemporary demonic activity, he does seem to encourage us to anticipate far less of such things in contemporary experience than one finds in the testimony of the Gospel writers.

So, from Frank Peretti’s demons on every leg to psychology’s suspicion that demon possession is a misunderstanding of psychological ailments to Carson’s suggestion that demonic activity is most prevalent in the wake of significant eschatological inbreakings of God, the question of what precisely the language of unclean spirits/demons might be referring to remains a difficult one to address.

The issue is complicated even further by the influence of what has been called syncretism.  When we speak of syncretism in Christian practice, we are talking about the beliefs and practices that result from a combining of Christian teaching and non-Christian religious beliefs and practices.  To my study, I would suggest that this was happening even in the earliest periods of the Church, particularly as the Christian communities were becoming more and more Gentile and less and less Jewish in their fundamental assumptions.  Even so, this syncretistic tendency has continued to entice Christians throughout Church history, first in Europe and then through the world as Christianity has spread.

However, for the sake of time, I will focus my attention on conceptions of angels, demons, and/or unclean spirits in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, beginning with the wider Roman/Gentile cultures and concluding with those of more Jewish communities.

(Most of the following material has been gathered from Werner Foster’s article on demons in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 2, pages 1-20.)

As far as we can tell, the basic understanding of “demons” in the popular Greek culture of Jesus’ day was that they were the spirits of the dead.  Furthermore, they could appear in varied places, but especially in desolate areas and at night.  They often appeared in the form of beastlike creatures.  They could possess people, and they were seen as responsible for travesties both in nature and in human life.  It also appears that most presumed that these creatures could be controlled, to some degree, by magical means.

The Greek philosophical tradition of Jesus’ time, on the other hand, thought of demons primarily as divine beings.  The term was used at times to describe gods generally, but it was more often associated with lesser deities.  The main tasks of these beings, according to many philosophers, were to be messengers between gods and humans.

As popular beliefs intermingled with philosophical speculation, demons became associated primarily with misfortune and distress.  Relatedly, there was some speculation that these deities occasionally possessed human hosts for their own ends.  And some, primarily among the Neo-Platonists, argued for a hierarchy of spiritual beings in the heavens in which the ones which were closer to the earth were more evil than those that were further away (and by ‘further away’, we mean further away from the earth upwards into the heavens).  Interestingly, there is no sign of Greek belief in angels until after the influence of Jewish thought becomes apparent.

I trust that you might notice how many of these Roman/Gentile presumptions have informed Peretti’s description of the demon in the quotation I provided earlier.

Jewish culture seems to have approached this subject matter a bit differently.  Even though almost all Jewish beliefs regarding spiritual beings find their origin in the language of angels and such in the First Testament, our sources for most popular Jewish beliefs about spiritual beings come from the groups of books known today as the Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha.

The work of demons in popular Jewish belief of Jesus’ day was primarily to seduce humans–e.g., they tempted humans to forsake or to disobey Torah.  The beginning of their fall was usually connected with the events just before the Flood, which are described in Genesis 6.  In popular Jewish belief, demons were already being viewed as subordinate to a larger figure called Satan.

As opposed to the Roman/Gentile beliefs, Jews did not appear to understand demons as souls of the dead.  They did, however, assume that there were demonic forces at work in Gentile nations and governments.

The rabbis seem to have understood demons in slightly different ways than the general Jewish populace.  (This tradition is sometimes called Tannaitic Judaism.)  Here, again, the Jewish conception of spirits is based on that of angels.  However, for the rabbis, the main function of demons was to do harm to life and limb.  For this reason, the rabbis often attributed sickness to demons or demonic activity.  Occasionally there were references to demons of seduction–e.g., leading men to lust.

Unlike popular Jewish speculation, there is no hierarchical connection in the teaching of the rabbis between demons and Satan, nor was demonic activity something the Torah observant need fear.  One was protected from demonic activity by God, His angels, and the study of Torah.

Contrary to the Greek philosophical tradition, the rabbis did not view demons as intermediaries between God and humans.  The spiritual world, for the rabbis, appears to have been divided sharply into good and evil–i.e., angels and demons respectively.  Only rarely is there any reference to the idea that an angel could become a demon, and these ruminations were associated primarily with the events of Genesis 6.

In summary, in this blog we have explored some popular manifestations of unclean spirits/demons in contemporary fiction, the tensions that persist between the Scriptural witness and contemporary psychology, and the contemporary evangelical tendency to relegate the activity of unclean spirits/demons to the events surrounding the ministry of Jesus, as well as the muddying of the waters, so to speak, that syncretism has contributed to this topic.  Finally, we explored the beliefs surrounding the demonic which were present in the wider Roman/Gentile culture of Jesus’ day as well as those more particular to Jewish communities.

In next week’s blog, we’ll examine the treatment of angels, demons, and/or unclean spirits in canonical Christian Scripture, including our central text of the Gospel according to Mark.  My intention is to conclude that blog with my own suggestion as to how these beings might be understood by contemporary Christians.

Blessings,

J. Thomas Johnson

The Chosenness of Israel and the Interpretation of Scripture – Part 5 (Davis & Hays’s “The Art of Reading Scripture”)

Summary of the Four Previous Blogs in This Series

Essentially, in this series of blogs I have been arguing, in accord with T. F. Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ, that the chosenness of Israel extends to more than simply understanding Israel as a repository of salvation history or sacred texts.  Rather, I have maintained that the living, thought, and narrative world of Israel, as it had been shaped by Israel’s unique history with God, is as necessary for the revelation of God to humanity as the texts that have been preserved in what is now called the Scriptural canon.

As I brought these observations into conversation with George Lindbeck’s “The Story Shaped Church” in the second part of the series, I noted that Lindbeck argued that the Church should be understood to be Israel in the time between the times.  I disagreed with Lindbeck on that point and concluded instead that the Christian Church may appropriately be understood as a believing remnant within Israel.

In part three of the series, I attempted to bring Brevard Childs’s Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture into the discussion.  With Childs I maintained that the First Testament should be recognized as the theologically interpreted history of the Israelite people that has been worked and re-worked as a multi-generational endeavor for which God gave Israel a unique responsibility.  The First Testament is the nation of Israel and the nation of Israel is the First Testament–the two grew up together, interpenetrated each other, and cannot be understood apart from one another.

Finally, in last week’s segment I began a series of interactions with the compilation The Art of Reading Scripture which has been edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays.  That was the first of a series of blogs in which I intend to critique constructively a selection of theses from the introductory article “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” by The Scripture Project–namely, theses 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9.

In the last blog I interacted with thesis number 3, which read:

3. Faithful interpretation of Scripture requires an engagement with the entire narrative:  the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the Old, nor can the Old be rightly understood apart from the New (The Scripture Project, “Nine Theses on the Interpretation of Scripture,” The Art of Reading Scripture, 2).

After highlighting some points of agreement, I went on to argue that it is not simply the First Testament which must be the context in which Jesus is understood.  We must situate Jesus within the First Testament as it had been interpreted by the larger Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  I maintained that this implies, at the least, that we read and interpret Jesus in the context of the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, Jewish writers even of the like of Philo, the portions of the Talmud associated with the time periods prior to C. E. 70, and so on alongside of the First and New Testaments.

Wrestling with Thesis #4

So, that’s where we’ve been.  For this week’s blog I will wrestle with the language of The Scripture Project‘s thesis #4, which reads as follows:

4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author.  In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama (The Scripture Project, 2).

When I read this sort of a contention regarding Christian Scripture I get a bit unsettled.  Now, it’s not that I disagree with the language precisely or even the underlying conceptuality.  For instance, it seems hard to argue that the idea of God becoming flesh and entering the human world through the womb of a virgin was what Isaiah had in mind when he prophesied:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (New Revised Standard Version, Isaiah 7:14).

The Hebrew of Isaiah, as many have observed, did not necessarily refer to a woman who had never had intercourse.  It more naturally referred to a woman who had not yet given birth to a child.  And, furthermore, the ensuing context of Isaiah indicates that this prophesy was fulfilled in the context of Isaiah and King Ahaz’s immediate future.  The natural reading of Isaiah indicates that this was a near prophesy volunteered by God in response to King Ahaz’s refusal to do as he was commanded–that is, God had commanded him to ask for a sign.  The fulfillment of the sign was intended to be for Ahaz.  In all likelihood, Isaiah seems to have been satisfied with the fulfillment he witnessed.  There simply is no reason in a plain reading of the text to believe that this prophetic word had any other meaning or any other referent.

However, once the events of Jesus’ life had unfolded, the Gospel writers seem to have returned to Isaiah–this time probably relying on the Greek translation which used a word that usually did mean virgin.  It would appear that it was only in hindsight that the Apostolic writers realized that Isaiah’s prophecy had another, somewhat hidden meaning.  As I have said, it would be difficult to argue that Isaiah intended this Christological implication.  In these sorts of instances, The Scripture Project‘s insistence that the meaning of Scripture cannot be discovered solely in the intention of the author but that Scripture has multiple possible meanings, some of which have been incorporated by God, makes a good deal of sense.

However, again, it is the way in which this statement seems to fail to appreciate the distinctions between texts in the Christian canon that makes me somewhat uneasy.  I have already revealed my affinity for Brevard Childs and his canonical approach to the reading and interpreting of Scripture.  However, the recognition of canonical priority must not be permitted to homogonize what is really a diverse collection of writings, particularly as we dissect the very different histories that gave rise to the First Testament and the New Testament respectively.

I hesitate to get into a discussion of genre for a couple of reasons.  First, I fear that the Western European/American dependence on genre distinctions for literary criticism may introduce quite a number of foreign assumptions to the more Hebraic writings of Scripture.  And second, once the issue of genre is introduced a great number of scholars seem convinced that a text can’t even be read without first discovering which literary category each pericope should rightly be indexed under.  I see value in these conversations to a degree, but I am not attempting to bring those debates into this context.

Instead, I want to sketch some slightly broader ‘genre’ strokes, here.  I should probably begin by saying that there appears to be quite a large distinction between the First Testament and the New Testament in regard to the apparent openness to multiple meanings that go beyond what might be called a plain reading of a given text.  And I’ll return to this substantial distinction momentarily.

However, let me begin by arguing that even the First Testament is not treated simply as a respository of possible hidden meanings generally by the Apostolic writers.  In fact, with very few exceptions, the texts that the writers of the New Testament seem to have re-interpreted were nearly always either prophetic texts in which the final form of the text in question implied that the words recorded were nearly dictated to the speaker by God or they came from poetic texts (like the Psalms) which, by their very nature, are quite open-ended in their details and applications.

In the context of the Isaiah passage that we discussed earlier, Isaiah simply said what God told him to say to Ahaz.  There’s no need to hypothesize an intention for Isaiah, since the words were not his and the intention was that of the God who told him what to say.  Those passages are the most common ones in which we find New Testament writers uncovering concealed meanings which found their fullness in Jesus.  All one needs to make room for in such instances is that God intended more than Isaiah or the other characters could comprehend.

The New Testament’s various uses of the Hebrew Psalter are somewhat more difficult to quantify.  Certainly the Psalmists had intentions when they wrote, but then again, these are poems, songs of praise, theological attempts to wrestle with or to confess Torah sometimes in spite of the evidence.  Furthermore, though the Hebrew scribes often tried to guide our readings by associating Psalms with various writers and circumstances, for the most part the occasion of the writings of many Psalms have been obscured.  The Jewish culture of Jesus’ day seems to have embraced the idea that many of the Psalms functioned in ways similar to prophetic sections of the First Testament.  It would appear that the Apostolic writers had similar interpretive presuppositions.

Genesis is perhaps another exception, but I’m still convinced that the New Testament’s use of Genesis is more tied to the events themselves that we often find in prophesies or Psalms.  Paul certainly believed, for instance, that the language of Genesis which used a singular descriptor for Abraham’s offspring was a veiled prophecy of Jesus.  That certainly qualifies as a veiled meaning which is quite hard to believe was in view of the author(s) and/or editor(s) of Genesis at any point of the book’s historical development.  But, again, the particular language that Paul was discussing referenced words that proceeded from the mouth of God directly.  Paul may have simply been arguing that God chose His words carefully so as to be faithful to what He intended to do.

In any case, the point here is that many texts and passages of the First Testament do not appear to have had these sorts of ‘hidden meanings’ for the Apostolic writers–at least, not in the way we’ve been talking about to this point.  It seems that First Testament texts which were simply narrating or interpreting historical events rarely if ever were read in these ways.

What I’m suggesting is that it is the language of God in the First Testament that often proves to have been multifaceted for the Apostolic writers.  And it seems to me that it would be an oversimplification to say that the First Testament or the Apostolic authors present all the material in the First Testament as the language of God, specifically–that is, dictated words.  God may prove to have meant more than the original audience could comprehend, but that is not true of all of the writers and editors of the First Testament generally.  At least, that’s what I’m arguing here.

When we move to the New Testament, these distinctions become much more important, for me for a number of reasons.  First, let me observe that whereas the First Testament often obscures the kinds of details we might require to determine authors, occasions for writing, audiences, and so on, the New Testament often gives us precisely these details.  To approach Deuteronomy (see last week’s blog) in precisely the same way that we approach 1 Corinthians, for example, seems irresponsible to me.  1 Corinthians seems to intend us to have information that Deuteronomy has not–e.g., the author, the audience, some details regarding the occassion for writing, and so on.

To approach these texts in their final form (as Childs and The Scripture Project both seem to advise), must also imply that we should appreciate the distinctiveness of their respective presentations.  In other words, it seems to me that Paul’s intention in writing 1 Corinthians is both more accessible and more necessary for our reading than that of the writer(s) and/or editor(s) of Deuteronomy, precisely because Deuteronomy obscures these details where 1 Corinthians puts them on display.  I hope that makes some sort of sense.

Furthermore, and this is my primary concern with the language of thesis #5, I again want to insist that we need to distinguish between the election of Israel in terms of inspiration and revelation and that of the post-Apostolic Church.  I’m convinced that the cessation of the Covenant of Sinai that was precipitated by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C. E. brought the historic nation of Israel as a people endeavoring to be faithful to Torah to an end.  From that point on faithfulness to Torah, from a Jewish perspective, had to be radically reinterpreted.

I have suggested in this series of blogs that the election of the inspired community of Israel which God set apart to be the vessels of His revelation–a community that included Jesus and His Apostles–has come to a historic end.  The Jewish people still persist, of course, but their capacity as revealers of God who could live and write inspired texts was tied to Torah and to the presence of God in their midst in the context of Torah and Tabernacle/Temple, in my view, anyway.

What is important to me in this respect is the contention that the closing of the New Testament canon which seems to have prioritized the writings of the Apostolic era above all later writings of the Church might be seen to reveal a recognition of the Fathers of the Church that the elected era of God’s inspiration and revelation which gave rise to a community who wrote, re-wrote, edited, and generationally produced a set of texts now sacred for all believers had come to an end in the first century C. E.

The implication of this line of thought is that we are simply no longer free to speculate about God’s veiled intentions in the Church the way Israel was.  What that elected people has given to us, now must be read for what it appears to have contended–for its plain sense.  Certainly where the Apostolic or Prophetic writers saw veiled meanings, we should presume and embrace their authority to re-visit the words of God in authoritative ways, but I would suggest we should not presume that we have been given the authority or the inspiration to do likewise.  I believe a cursory survey of post-Apostolic Christian history should more than suffice to show the value and wisdom of this sort of a contention.

Now that, of course, is not to say that Scripture does not have multiple possible meanings.  Let’s face it, even attempting to exegete the plain meaning of these texts still often produces a multitude of possible meanings in many instances.  I am not here arguing that Christians will be able to say with certainty in every context what a passage meant or means.  But, I am convinced that our task is to wrestle with the plain sense of the text which in some circumstances necessitates that the meaning be limited to the intent of the original author–particularly in texts which intentionally reveal the author and that author’s credentials.

The Scripture Project goes on to write the following:

The authors and editors of the canonical texts repeatedly gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions, thereby initiating the process of discerning multiple senses within the text.  The medieval “fourfold sense” is a helpful reminder of Scripture’s multivalence.  The church’s traditions of bliblical interpretation offer models and guidance about how the fuller sense of Scripture should be understood (The Scripture Project, 3).

John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno in writing about this idea of the ‘multivalence’ of the text in the Patristic Fathers, wrote the following in their book Sanctified Vision:

Thus, for the church fathers, what Scripture does in any particular verse or episode, which may entail presuming reference to historical events or intentions or theological ideas, was very much a matter of debate.  However, Origen and the rest of the patristic tradition presumed, as their tacit theory of scriptural meaning, the importance of the words themselves.  To know the words is prior to and more decisive than knowing if they refer and to what.  Scripture is the center of reflection.  This assumption  is the foundation of patristic exegetical practice (O’Keefe & Reno, The Sanctified Vision, 12).

I have included both of these quotations because I think they get to the heart of what I am trying to warn the Christian community against.  I agree that the writers and editors of Scripture gave new contexts and senses to earlier traditions.  In fact, I have maintained that that was part of what Israel was elected and inspired to do.  However, I do not believe that this observation somehow authorizes the post-Apostolic, principally gentile, Christian community to do likewise.  Even in the wake of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Christian community, we should not confuse our inspiration with that of the historic people of Israel.  If O’Keefe and Reno are correct and the patristic Fathers allowed this presumption to be the foundation of their exegetical practice, then I would suggest they presumed too much.

I am much more sympathetic with Martin Luther when he wrote:

In my view, no theologian should waste time on allegories until he has become expert in the proper and simple sense of Scripture.  Otherwise, as in Origen’s case, he will endanger his theological reasoning (Martin Luther, “The Pagan Servitude of the Church,” Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, 343).

Staying engaged with the conversation…

J. Thomas Johnson