What Makes Theology ‘Biblical’?

What is it that makes theology ‘biblical’? Is a chain of quotations from the Bible a more biblical theology than one that paraphrases the biblical text, or submits its concepts to scrutiny by the biblical text even though it makes use of other language? This conclusion of Wilhelmus G.B.M. Valkenberg on the “biblical theology” of Thomas Aquinas is quite a challenge to what is often said about his work:

The characteristic of ‘biblical theology’ is but loosely connected with the presence of many explicit quotations from Scripture; it is mainly based on the theologically primary function of Scripture as source and framework of theology. As the tests thus far have shown, Scripture has such a function everywhere in Aquinas’ theology; it is more or less clearly expressed in relation to subject-matter and literary genre, but it can be discovered anywhere in a theological reading of Aquinas’ theological texts. In this respect, the Scriptural character of his theology is expressed more clearly in the Summa, but it is present in his earlier works as well. The Summa theologiae may be described as a concentration on the heart of the matter in Aquinas’ theology, not only because it is a work for beginners in theology, who should know the basic auctoritates, but also because Aquinas lectured on Scripture and used Scripture progressively as normative source and framework in his theology. (Words of the Living God: Place and Function of Holy Scripture in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (Leuven: Peeters, 2000), 189)

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Ephesians 1:3-14 and Exodus

I just ran across this line from N.T. Wright, which agrees with what I have long thought: “Ephesians 1.3-14 is, among other things, a retelling of the exodus story” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p.236).

Repeating Abraham

In his Conferences, John Cassian relates the story of a monk who failed in his discretion. This monk, who remains unnamed, is tempted to repeat the sacrifice of Abraham, who was called to give up his only son Isaac:

Why also should I speak of one (whose name we had rather not mention as he is still alive), who for a long while received a devil in the brightness of an angelic form, and was often deceived by countless revelations from him and believed that he was a messenger of righteousness: for when these were granted, every night he provided a light in his cell without the need of any lamp. At last he was ordered by the devil to offer up to God his own son who was living with him in the monastery, in order that his merits might by this sacrifice be made equal to those of the patriarch Abraham. And he was so far seduced by his persuasion that he would really have committed the murder unless his son had seen him getting ready the knife and sharpening it with unusual care, and looking for the chains with which he meant to tie him up for the sacrifice when he was going to offer him up; and had fled away in terror with a presentiment of the coming crime. (Conferences 2.7)

This reminds me of the comments of Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling, a lengthy meditation on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac:

The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac—but precisely in this contradiction is the anxiety that can make a person sleepless, and yet without this anxiety Abraham is not who he is. (Fear and Trembling, 30)

What distinguishes Abraham from Cassian’s deceived monk? For Kierkegaard, the difference between Abraham and a murderer is faith. For Cassian, the difference between Abraham and the monk is discernment–or more properly, obedience to the discernment of the elders. But how would Cassian have counseled Abraham? Surely he would have counseled him that he had not heard God properly, that his act could only be murder, that such a sacrifice would not be in faith. For Kierkegaard, the counsel of others is impossible; it must be avoided because it cannot be undertaken:

But the distress and the anxiety in the paradox is that he, humanly speaking, is thoroughly incapable of making himself understandable. (Fear and Trembling, 74)

Perhaps there is something to both analyses. On the one hand, by the time God’s command comes to Abraham (Gen. 22:1), he had already had revelations from God on several occasions (Gen. 12:1-3, 7; 13:14-17; 15:1-19; 17:1-22; 18:1-33). We could say that he was accustomed to discerning the voice of God; he had developed a habit and virtue of discernment. So then when God comes to him with the demand to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Abraham recognises the voice of God and obeys.

On the other hand, Abraham has faith in the voice of the true God. Cassian’s monk, on the other hand, is deceived by a demon masquerading as an angel of light. In the grammar of Scripture, one can only have “faith” in the true God; to believe in false gods is not to have faith at all. In the case of Cassian’s monk, he fails to discern the voice of the true God, and so fails to have faith; thus his act is “murder” and not “sacrifice,” on Kierkegaard’s distinction.

Nevertheless, this leaves open the difficult question of discernment by individuals in the midst of the community. What happens when a single individual believes they hear the voice of God on a matter, and the “elders” of the community–the wise, and not simply the elderly (see Conferences 2.13)–disagree in their collective discernment? Kierkegaard has no space for yielding to the latter; Cassian, no space to yield to the former. What is the solution when an individual needs to adhere to the guidance of the community? Obedience. What is the solution when the community needs an individual to correct its discernment? Prophecy.

Augustine on Christ as Wisdom

In light of the comments made recently by Amy Plantinga Pauw in her TF Torrance Lectures here at Aberdeen, I found the following from Augustine interesting:

The question then arises, why do the scriptures almost nowhere say anything about wisdom except to show it as either begotten or made by God? Begotten, that is to say, when it means the wisdom ‘through whom all things were made’; created or made as it is in men, when they turn to the wisdom which is not created or made but begotten, and are enlightened; then something is brought about in them which is called their wisdom…

Is it perhaps to commend to us for our imitation the wisdom by whose imitation we are formed, that wisdom in those books never speaks or has anything said about her but what presents her as born of God or made by him, although the Father too is wisdom itself? For the Father utters her to be his Word, not like a word spoken aloud from the mouth, or even thought of before it is pronounced–such a word is completed in a space of time, but this other Word is eternal; and she by enlightening us utters to us whatever needs to be uttered to men about herself and about the Father…

This then is the reason perhaps why it is the Son who is being introduced to us whenever mention is made of wisdom or description given of her in scripture, whether she herself is speaking or being spoken about. Let us copy the example of this divine image, the Son, and not draw away from God… For it does not imitate another going before it to the Father, since it is never by the least hair’s breadth separated from him, since it is the same thing as he is from whom it gets its being. But we by pressing on imitate him who abides motionless; we follow him who stands still, and by walking in him we move toward him, because for us he became a road or way in time by his humility, while being for us an eternal abode by his divinity…

Thus to conclude, it is not surprising that scripture should be speaking about the Son when it speaks about wisdom, on account of the model which the image who is equal to the Father provides us with that we may be refashioned to the image of God; for we follow the Son by living wisely. (On the Trinity, Book VII, §§4-5)

While it may be more difficult than the Church Fathers thought to identify Christ with the Wisdom of Proverbs 8, the New Testament and Augustine point us toward “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Augustine here is interestingly paralleled by Calvin as well: “…as God he is the destination to which we move; as man, the path by which we go. Both are found in Christ alone” (Institutes, 3.2.1).

Ephesians 1:1-14: Some Thoughts on Predestination

Yes, I really am wading into this debate. It is unfortunate “wading” in the pool is what is required, since for Paul, predestination is an ocean of grace:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus: grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, for he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be saints and unblemished before his sight in love, having predestined us for adoption into him through Jesus Christ, according to the good favour of his will, for the praise of the glory of his grace which he graced us with in his beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, according to the wealth of his grace which he caused to overflow into us, in all wisdom and understanding having made known to us what was the mystery of his will, according to his good favour which he purposed in him in the management of the fullness of time, to recapitulate all things in Christ, the things in heaven and the things on earth in him. We were also allotted [an inheritance] in him, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who carries out all things according to the intention of his will, for us to be to the praise of his glory those who are the first to hope in Christ. In him also we heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and having also believed in him we were sealed with the holy Spirit of promise, who is a first payment of our inheritance until the redemption of [God’s] possession, for the praise of his glory.

This passage screams Exodus. The redemption of a people through blood—the lambs’ blood on the doorposts; the fullness of time—430 years since Abraham (Gal. 3:17); the first payment of an inheritance—the tabernacle in the desert; predestination of a people—the choosing of Israel (Ex. 19:4); ruler over all things in heaven and earth—God’s rule (Ex. 19:5); and the praise of his glory—a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6). This suggests Paul is deliberately evoking the Exodus, the central history of Israel’s faith, to say that in Christ (which appears constantly in this passage) a new Exodus has taken place.

But this means that in no way is Paul talking about the predestination of individuals, but about a people: the “saints,” the “faithful.” What has happened in Christ is that predestination opens up from Israel to the whole world, all things in heaven and on earth in him. Never was “I” chosen from the foundation of the world, but “he chose us in him.” He “predestined us” (v.5), “we were also allotted an inheritance” (v.11), and the holy Spirit is “our inheritance” (v.14). The central divide is not between these and those individuals, but between the Church and those outside it (in John, the “world”); just as before Christ the divide was between Jews and Gentiles. Others passages would need to be examined to establish this as well (something NT Wright has already done in many places), especially Romans 9-11, a passage massively important simply for what it handles: Israel and Church, predestination, law, covenant and justification. Maybe in a bit.

N.T. Wright, “Justification”

I’ve just dipped into N.T. Wright’s new book, “Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.” And already something (as is usual when reading Wright) has hooked my attention:

Second, the question [of justification] is about the means of salvation, how it is accomplished. Here John Piper, and the tradition he represents, have said that salvation is accomplished by the sovereign grace of God, operating through the death of Jesus Christ in our place and on our behalf, and appropriated through faith alone. Absolutely. I agree a hundred percent. There is not one syllable of that summary that I would complain about. But there is something missing—or rather, someone missing. Where is the Holy Spirit? In some of the great Reformed theologians, not least John Calvin himself, the work of the Spirit is every bit as important as the work of the Son. But you can’t simply add the Spirit on at the end of the equation and hope it will still have the same shape. Part of my plea in this book is for the Spirit’s work to be taken seriously in relation both to Christian faith itself and to the way in which that faith is “active through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Amen and amen and amen!