Able to Understand

In Luke 14 we find Jesus enjoying a sabbath meal in the house of a ruler. The ruler was a Pharisee and as Scripture tells us, the Lord was being watched. The Lord heals a man with dropsy and instructs those around him on the lawfulness of deeds of mercy on the sabbath. This is apparently something not well understood in his time: that the sabbath is for salvation, the ultimate divine deed of mercy.

Two things are going on in this scene. Because Jesus has been invited, it is more than just a normal banquet scene. It is a place of life of death. The uninvited man with dropsy finds life. The invited guests, however, are treated to a series of parables which adumbrate their situation, and this is in contrast with the man who pushed in seeking life.

Jesus proceeds to tell a first parable—and it is called a parable though it is framed in terms of advice. The parable concerns humility and not seeking status. Because it is a parable and not friendly advice (which would not be one of the purposes that God gives us his word anyway), we are to understand that salvation is not for those who are seeking eminence and status, but for the humble and undeserving. In the same vein comes the instruction that Jesus gives to his host: you should invite people who can really benefit from your hospitality and not really repay you. Again, that is what God does. Salvation is for the needy, those who can repay nothing, who can in no way benefit their benefactor.

I love the guy who seems uncertain of Jesus’ meaning and so says something rather obvious just to get the Lord to converse in ways that were less strange. The Kingdom of God is going to be some banquet! Jesus is not diverted, but he does seem to me to take the blurted-out platitude as a question: Who can expect to eat bread in the Kingdom of God?

What follows is the parable of the great banquet. A man invites his friends, then he sends his servant to remind them when the day comes. The servant gets a bunch of excuses which demonstrate that real desire to come to the banquet is not what characterizes the expected guests. So he is instructed to go into the streets of the city and gather up the poor, the lame, the maimed, and the blind. Because there are not enough of these, he is ordered out into the highways and hedges. Jesus is saying that it doesn’t matter if you’re a bum off the street; you are invited, you can come.

The answer to the question is that anybody who accepts the invitation can expect to eat bread in the Kingdom of God. And the point he was trying to drive home to those who were watching him, but not hearing him with sufficient care, was that those who refused the invitation never would.

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How Time and Customs Fly

Summer is summering on Philadelphia. Summer is like a tedious sermon, a thing to be endured.

I’m teaching English: listening, speaking and pronunciation. Why is it that last year’s students seemed more stoical than this year’s? Perhaps it’s that way every year, and it is I who need to endure. I work for one of the calmest and most reasonable persons ever. She reminds me of a man I managed with at McDonald’s. He’d been deployed; none of the stresses and shocks of fast food phased him. And she, when chaos comes, also manages it unperturbed.

The Romans had an affinity for the Stoic approach. Managing chaos was what they did. They also had an affinity for law, for ordered relations. It is interesting that we get the word ‘romantic’ from Rome. They were not romantic on the whole: they gave us concrete and order at all costs. Romantic were the chaos-loving barbarians, those who were exhilarated by disorder.

There are those who are afraid of chaos and those who are not afraid of chaos and manage it. Moreover, I think, it is important to realize that while there are those who welcome chaos for its own sake, there are also those who welcome it for an opportunity to master it. At least, so I gather from listening to that wild man from the north, Jordan Peterson.

Things which make me wonder

That when God creates he takes on new properties.

  • But properties are not relations. Besides, what new properties are needed? Omniscience, omnipotence, wisdom, goodness, justice . . . what more is required of one who creates by way of properties?
  • And (though here I’m wondering, with less certainty) does an eternal being—not in the sense of endless duration but in the sense of timelessness—take on anything at all, including new relations? It would seem not.

The Creator-creature distinction used as a boundary on God, something God has to penetrate by imposing limits on himself, as if he were outside of it.

  • It cannot function as a boundary that we set on God. God is infinite in his being, he has no limits, no boundaries. He is therefore incomprehensible. Were he to be comprehended, he would have a boundary. He is undefinable, because a definition would be a boundary.
  • Nor is God outside of his creation just because creation is not-God. Creation depends on God for being, participates in his absolute being to subsist, has no existence that is separate. In him we live and move and have our being.
  • When God condescends to reveal himself to his creatures, he does not limit his being, he limits his expression. He adapts his speech to our limits, but he does not himself change or become mutable.

The old denial of divine impassibility.

  • God does not change; he is therefore impassible. A denial of one is a denial of the other: impassibility is a subset of immutability and each implies the other. God does not undergo series of emotions; God does not suffer; God does not respond; God is not surprised by anything. God, rather, determines; he has decreed every event and understands it fully, so that nothing can provoke a reaction in him. God is constantly angry at sin, it is the permanent wrath of absolute holiness. Sinners must change, because God never will. He will never cease being indignant and never be satisfied until justice is met. One of the problems passibilists are going to run into in the long term is the need for a substitutionary atonement that propitiates the unchanging wrath of God. What needs to change is not God, but the sinner.
  • God is always kind and full of mercy, and he is not mutably so, but impassively so. His love for his own in unchanging, unrelenting, unwavering, undiminished. There is no shadow, not even the preliminary shadow of turning in God. The mutable world spins around him, and he may seem to rise and set like the sun. But it is really God who is steady and constant, unmoved and unmoving.
  • Calvin, commenting on Jonah 3:10:

Now as to what Jonah adds, that God was led to repent, it is a mode of speaking that ought to be sufficiently known to us. Strictly speaking, no repentance can belong to God: and it ought not to be ascribed to his secret and hidden counsel. God then is in himself ever the same, and consistent with himself; but he is said to repent, when a regard is had to the comprehension of men: for as we conceive God to be angry, whenever he summons us to his tribunal, and shows to us our sins; so also we conceive him to be placable, when he offers the hope of pardon. But it is according to our perceptions that there is any change, when God forgets his wrath, as though he had put on a new character. As then we cannot otherwise be terrified, that we may be humbled before God and repent, except he sets forth before us his wrath, the Scripture accommodates itself to the grossness of our understanding. But, on the other hand, we cannot confidently call on God, unless we feel assured that he is placable. We hence see that some kind of change appears to us, whenever God either threatens or gives hope of pardon and reconciliation: and to this must be referred this mode of speaking which Jonah adopts, when he says that God repented.

We hence see that there is a twofold view of God, — as he sets himself forth in his word, — and as he is as to his hidden counsel. With regard to his secret counsel, I have already said that God is always like himself, and is subject to none of our feelings: but with regard to the teaching of his word, it is accommodated to our capacities. God is now angry with us, and then, as though he were pacified, he offers pardon, and is propitious to us. Such is the repentance of God.

My Table

Two heavy trestles, and a board
Where Sato’s gift, a changeless sword,
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato’s house,
Curved like new moon, moon-luminous,
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where ’twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul’s beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
Me soul’s unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven’s door
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country’s talk
For silken clothes and stately walk,
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno’s peacock screamed.
-Yeats, The Tower, 1928

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern Exegesis by Craig A. Carter

Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Premodern ExegesisCraig Carter’s argument in this book is that modernity has changed our attitude toward Biblical interpretation, and if we wish to interpret as the church whose doctrine and practice we inherit interpreted, we need to recover the premodern attitude toward biblical interpretation. He explains that originally he set out to write a book on the classic theism of Nicene Trinitarian doctrine; but then he found that before he could do so, a preliminary volume on the interpretive practices that gave rise to that theology was required.

I think his argument is sound. Carter begins with Isaiah 53, posing the interpretive problem of whether we can legitimately see Christ in that text. He points out that modern hermeneutical procedure goes against it. He also points out that Christian homiletics nevertheless harvest Christ from that classic text, having the example of Scripture to guide them. What he wants to show is the inconsistency between our actual practices on the one hand and the hermeneutical approach we get from the academy on the other.

What Carter wants is a way to bring theory and practice together. He does this first by setting up the theoretical framework and second by vindicating his framework in historical examples. The theoretical framework, he argues, must be premodern. Modernity evacuates the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions without which Scripture cannot be interpreted coherently. He defines Christian Platonism as an adaptation of Platonism which took place in the early centuries of the church. Any historian reading this section is going to feel that the historiography is a bit thin. There is plenty of room for work to be done that will make a more solid case for the adaptation of ancient philosophy to Christian purposes. But we must remember that Carter is writing a preliminary book to deal with another concern. He cannot get lost in the endless regression that is the historian’s constant temptation.

Carter sticks to Lloyd Gerson’s analysis of Platonism (Gerson who argues that Aristotle was for all practical purposes a Platonist) and defines it as: antimaterialist, antimechanist, antinominalist, antirelativist and antiskepticist (79-81, for more detail). It is not a bad definition of Platonism, but it is hardly the most satisfying one. One of the weaknesses of the book is that since Carter is trying to make a case without provoking unnecessary fights about it, he thins Platonism out so much that he has no trouble calling Calvin a Christian Platonist, nor including Vanhoozer and Carson in his Great Tradition (Great Tradition = Christian Platonism). There is a good point to be made by this, but he is opening his thesis to criticism which will destabilize, I am afraid, some of what he achieves. Still, if he is read in the spirit of his argument, it is not altogether implausible.

Carter not only sets up a theoretical framework to explain his proposal, he then goes on to defend it from history, making a series of points about how his Great Tradition is a demonstrable tradition of interpreting Scripture Christologically, responsibly controlled by the literal meaning, though not limited to it, and rather than implementing typology—which he dismisses as a modern strategy and not a premodern one—is allegorical and prosopological. Prosopological exegesis, to risk being reductive, is finding the face of Christ in Scripture by hearing his voice in the Old Testament specially.

Carter’s explanation of prosopological exegesis demonstrates one of the strengths of this book: Carter is able to synthesize and assimilate diverse and large quantities very recent scholarship. It is a great shift in biblical interpretation, or perhaps the most unanticipated aspect of what is shifting (back—as Carter would remind us). It may be bewildering, but the bibliography is generous and more than competent. Skeptics should inquire before dismissing, because Carter gives every evidence of knowing what he is doing, for all that he does seem sometimes to be rushing ahead too fast. His bibliographical support ought to be considered carefully.

Carter concludes the book demonstrating from Isaiah 53 how the Great Tradition operates, using as his chief example Alec Motyer. It is a good strategy, calculated to allay suspicions. I think Carter knows that the terminology of Christian Platonism and of an exegesis continuous with the practice of Origen and Agustine is not calculated to allay suspicion, and so his exposition and argument endeavor to do so, though sometimes with perhaps too much zeal.

Carter is right. What is happening in this book is part of the ongoing recovery of a catholic approach to Scripture and a general attitude of ressourcement in protestant theology. He very helpfully lays out the cards of his influences and where his sympathies lie in the first chapter. We need books like this because we are finding that our doctrinal formulation has no stable meaning unless it is in the context of a theological culture. That means that a bare subscription to a confession without a culture of interpretation is not enough. A theological culture is a theological tradition, and if theology is Scriptural, then it is an interpretive tradition. Carter has opened a way, and much remains to be done and to follow. Christian Platonism requires better exposition, better understanding, better definition, and it deserves much more attention. But Craig Carter is opening the way. This book is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel, no doubt about it.

Hermeneutics

The present debates about the doctrine of God are, of course, not limited to that doctrine. There are several areas in play. One of those is obviously theological method, and another related one is the role of philosophy in competent theology. Not unexpectedly, because theology that is Scriptural is interpretation, a third is hermeneutics. That is why Craig Carter set out to write a book about classic theism in Nicene Trinitarian formulation and instead found he had to write about hermeneutics first.

The ground that is shifting in hermeneutics is moving away from an approach that controls for objectivity, reducing the interpretation to a single authorial intent, smuggling the rest that Christians have in the past retrieved in terms of meaning into the various applications. It is, of course, an epistemological shift as well. What can we know, you might ask, when we interpret? What are the objects of knowledge Scripture presents us with? The mind of God, is the answer.

That last is Christian Platonism. I am afraid that is how people with whom I talk think, and it is largely due to ignorance of John Eriugena who would have told you that the objects of knowledge are not in the mind of God, they are in the image of God. How long before Eriugena appears on people’s radars? I have read a description of him as the greatest Christian metaphysician ever, you know. Will Christian Platonism mean that you should know your Eriugena? That would be a pleasant expansion on the Carolingean pause in Medieval Church on the way to the tenth century and Anselm.

Anyway, the answer that I now see being provided, curiously enough, is a return to the quadriga: the literal, the allegorical, the analogical, and the tropological. The hermeneutics of redemptive-historical preaching are allegorical hermeneutics, the difference is that since people today think allegory means irresponsibly imaginative interpretation, the term is avoided and Origen smeared. Which is silly. Origen was often incorrect, but he was seldom irresponsible. (That is a failure of church historians. I think a recovery of the Great Traditions, as Carter advocates, is going to involve speaking more accurately, more honestly in terms of how we present the past.) The Analogical is when we ask how does this passage help me orient my Christian life in terms of the life to come. Hardly something we can afford to suppress (2 Pet 3:11). And the tropological meaning is when you ask about present conduct: Christian morality, ethics, and such matters, which Scripture clearly addresses.

The return to a fourfold interpretation is first to recognize at least a twofold: human and divine. Can God have meant more than the human author intended? That is a question getting an affirmative. Is Scripture a book like other books? Negative. And the whole thing is not really that controversial, if what has been developing can be connected to the right terminology.

On the surface at least, much of what creates the confusion and controversy is a combination of bad historiography and careless terminology. Below the surface has been a whig approach to history (or a protestant triumphalist narrative) in which what we have gained is so prized that we are not reluctant to sever our connections altogether or dangle by the thinnest of implausible threads.

Premature Exultations

I’ve seen my twitter infoscope lighting up recently with comments on Craig Carter’s hot-off-the-press book on the interpretation of Scripture. I don’t actually often buy books, I hate to order from Amazon for several excellent reasons I shall not here go into, and I prefer to make sure of what I’m getting by looking at it in a library first. But I ordered Craig Carter’s Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition in violation of all the above strictures.

Then I saw the blurbs, three of which mention Christian Platonism. Then I started reading, and there is a whole chapter, apparently, making the case that the Great Tradition is Christian Platonism!

I am a little bit enthusiastic about that!

I should forebear till I see what he says. I should wait till this evening when I’ve actually got the argument of the book in hand, but who can do so?

The debate which simmered into a full boil in the summer of 2016, the Trinity debate, which James Dolezal then drove further in and further up with his challenge to Calvinist Theistic Mutualism, and the resulting confrontation over Classic Theism that is lighting up the radars everywhere has perhaps glimpsed a logical conclusion. It is, as was pointed out back in 2016, a problem of theological method, and that is a problem of hermeneutics, and Craig Carter, it seems to me, has put his finger on what needs to be addressed for everything else to be resolved. This is the heart of the issue, I think.

In the first five centuries of the church creeds were elaborated. Today, you cannot retain a healthy Christianity without acknowledging the authority of those creeds. They interpret Scripture accurately, and because of that have a very high authority derived from the absolute authority of Scripture. In the Reformation confessions were elaborated. To fail to acknowledge the authority of those confessions—within the ecclesial structures of Protestant Christianity—is to expose yourself to a diminished Christianity. So you need the creeds and you need a confession. But four hundred years on, we find that the confessions are being handled in the context of an alien theological and metaphysical culture, one that degrades and reinterprets them. So what is the next step?

That’s why I plan to devour Carter’s book. The Great Tradition may just be the thing. We need a premodern, hermeneutically continuous tradition. We need to be connected back to Origen folks! We need to examine the what and also the why of the philosophical assumptions of the church in its first 1500 years in order to make sure we are handing on what has been handed on to us.

Can you believe it? Hard for me to, but hence the enthusiasm. Creedal, confessional, and now Christian Platonical churches.