Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Divine Meaning pt 1

I have now been in Aberdeen for a week and am trying to hit the ground running. My doctoral dissertation topic is (for now) T. F. Torrance's doctrine of scripture. This is not normally considered a major theme in Torrance's work, but I think his perspective on the topic, when he does occasionally tackle it, is quite helpful.

To get started, I'll be going through Torrance's book, Divine Meaning, which is a collection of essays on patristic hermeneutics originally published primarily in the 70's and 80's in various journals. The introduction is one of the few places I have found so far where Torrance addresses himself directly to the doctrine of scripture. There, he makes the following claims about scripture:

1. Because scripture presents itself to us as the written form of God's Word, and it is thus God who is in control of it, no formal theoretical argument can be made to prove that it is God's Word. Torrance says,
At no point can we bring God under the compulsion of our theoretical demonstrations or constrain him to yield answers to us in accordance with our empirical stipulations. Our inquiry will necessarily take a self-critical form in which we seek to allow the Word of God to be its own evidence in declaring itself to us, and to call all our presuppositions into question before it, so that we may listen to it and seek to understand it without imposing ourselves upon it. Because it is the Word of God that we encounter, we approach it in humility before its divine majesty, and with receptiveness before its divine Grace, thus yielding to it as is proper precedence and ascendancy over us in all our knowing and interpretation.
For Torrance, God's speaking in scripture, as is the case in all of His other acts, cannot itself be proved because whatever criteria one might set up to test it would necessarily be exercising a greater authority. Since there can be no greater authority than God, God himself must validate his own acts and they must be used as the criteria we employ to judge our acts; God's acts must be our starting point, not a conclusion we derive from other, prior data.

Is Torrance merely echoing Barth here, or is he saying something new?

2. The Bible is at the same time a human book and God's book. The Bible is a book written by men, yet in their words we hear God's Word. This union of human word and divine Word is thus analogous to the hypostatic union of human person and divine Person in Jesus Christ, though not strictly alike. Torrance sees the human word and divine Word as being united in the Bible only "through dependence upon and participation in Christ, that is, sacramentally," (p. 7). Dualism, Torrance's arch enemy, is thus overcome totally and solely through Christ's incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, and its overcoming is evident in the ability of a human book, the Bible, to bear God's Word to us. Penetrating deeper, Torrance says, "for Christians, the real text with which we have to do in the New Testament Scriptures is the humanity of Jesus Christ, for it is in the humanity of the Word of God incarnate in him, that we meet and are addressed by the Word of the living God" (p. 7).

3. Torrance next makes an interesting move. He begins with Christ's assumption of our fallen humanity in order to redeem it and applies this principle to scripture. First, a word about fallen humanity. Torrance is an outspoken advocate of this position because, operating under the patristic maxim that what is unassumed by Christ is unhealed, he perceives that if Christ had taken on only a pre-fallen Adamic humanity, then he would only be united with that humanity, which none of us possess. Since Christ has come to save us, he must take on the full reality of humanity, including its fallen nature, even its final consequence of death and alienation from God, and bend it back into conformity and unity with God by living a perfect life of obedience, love and sacrifice to the Father. By taking on our humanity, Christ simultaneously judges it as sinful and redeems it by living a sinless life.

Now Torrance draws on the analogy of scripture's dependence and participation in the person of Christ previously established to speak of scripture in the same way: we must think of the Word of God in the Scriptures not only as accommodating himself to us in our weakness and littleness but as condescending to enter into our alienated and contradictory ways of thought and speech in order to reach us with his message and to restore us to converse with God in truth. Thus the Word of God comes to us in the Bible not nakedly and directly with clear compelling self-demonstration of the kind that we can read it off easily without the pain and struggle of self-renunciation and decision,but it comes to us in the limitation and imperfection, the ambiguities and contradictions of our fallen ways of thought and speech, seeking us in the questionable forms of our humanity where we have to let ourselves be questioned down to the roots of our being in order to hear it as God's Word. It is not a Word that we can hear by our clear-sightedness or mastery by our reason, but one that we can hear only through judgment of the very humanity in which it is clothed and to which it is addressed and therefore only through crucifixion and repentance (p. 8).
This seems to me to imply an accusation of docetism to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Does inerrancy make the divine nature of scripture squash the human? Torrance's view of scripture does seem to help make sense of the constant arguments that go on over biblical interpretation even amongst the most conservative inerrantists - perhaps such difficulties should point us to the full reality of the Bible's dual nature, rather than challenge its divine origin.

4. Finally, Torrance applies to scripture the idea that in all of God's activities with humanity, revelation and reconciliation always accompany each other. Just as we cannot personally know Christ without being conformed to his likeness, so we cannot properly hear and understand God's voice in scripture without yielding to it and obeying it. Torrance here makes the unpopular (amongst some biblical scholars) claim that use of the proper exegetical methods does not guarantee proper understanding of scripture, though on the other side of this he does insist that because the Bible is a human book no less than a divine book, scientific hermeneutics must be learned and rigorously employed. He concludes with a discussion about the relationship between general hermeneutics and biblical hermeneutics, arguing that they must not be separated, that attending to God's Word in scripture will teach us how to interpret each other more faithfully.

Any thoughts?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Church Doctrine at Church: Introduction Part 2

I've had several Bible and theology professors over the years that went straight from getting their PhDs to teaching without ever doing any significant work in a church setting. I don't think there ought to be any hard rule against this, but it does seem to me kind of like getting a business degree and then turning around and teaching business without ever having run or even worked in an actual business. In retrospect, I can think of several OT, NT and theology professors I've had both in college and in seminary that fit this description who were far more prone to wander off into discussions that were either distractions or of only marginal significance to the life of the church than those professors who did their work from a primarily pastoral perspective.

This has become very important for me. A few years ago I heard the late Dr. Ray Anderson (what a loss!) say in a class lecture that there are certain theological truths in scripture that are only available to those who are involved in the ministry of preaching the gospel to real people. This rocked me. Since first switching majors to theology in college, I was horrified at the idea of becoming a pastor; I wanted to teach theology, not listen to people's problems. Dr. Anderson's words called me to repentance, but even more they opened up to me the real reason I was studying theology: to be, and to help others to be, more effective ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My academic interest is in systematic theology, dogmatics, Christian doctrine, not practical theology or spiritual formation or soul care. However, I'm approaching my doctoral work in systematics not exclusively as preparation for teaching, though I do want to teach, but as preparation for the pastorate. I intend this to be a controlling factor in the development of my own theology and therefore of this blog.


This blog will really get under way in a few weeks when I'm all set up in Aberdeen. At this point, however, I'd like to offer a brief introduction of myself and the intention of this blog in order to orient future readers to my theological background.

My name is Adam Nigh (hence the blog title). I am a theology student and this is a theology blog. For friends of the Nighs who want to catch up on our adventure in Scotland but are bored to death by the cumbersome profundities dispensed here, my wife Rachel has a blog you might like a bit better.

A bit of an introduction of my self: I am a father of two and a husband (of one). I have grown up and lived almost my whole life in the Santa Cruz, California area, a "weird" (liberal) beach and college community. I got my BA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Bethany College (now its Bethany University?) in 2002 and just finished my MA in the Theology from Fuller Seminary at the Northern California campus in Menlo Park. From 2002 through 2009 I was a Bible teacher at Monte Vista Christian High School. 5 days from now, I and my family will be traveling to Aberdeen, Scotland, where I'll be doing my PhD at King's College, University of Aberdeen, in Systematic Theology under Dr. John Webster.

My theological background is a little complicated. My church home since I was born is Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, California, a fairly large seeker-sensitive conservative Baptist church.
Early in college, whilst a business major, I discovered Reformed theology in the form of the book Chosen by God by R. C. Sproul while I was working stocking books at a local Christian bookstore. This triggered a major reading frenzy, mostly of Sproul, but also John Piper and a few others. I had been struggling with my conceptions of the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom since high school and hadn't encountered any satisfying answers or even discussion of the topic until then. I promptly became a vocal and belligerent "5 point Calvinist", arguing with all my friends and family.

I soon decided to switch majors to study the Bible and theology. At that point, I was married with no kids, but we didn't want to move away from the Santa Cruz area. I knew there was a Christian college nearby (Bethany), but I didn't even know where it was. Being that it was Pentecostal (AOG), I was hesitant as a good Baptist, but I went anyway. Virtually everything about my theology and spirituality was under attack at Bethany. My conservative Baptist background was unpopular with the highly experiential charismatic spirituality of the students, and all forms of Reformed theology (with the slight exception of Barth) were despised by all of my professors. My professors seemed to like me ok anyway since I was one of the rare students there who did their homework.

After graduating from Bethany, I spent 7 years as a high school Bible teacher and 6 as a masters student at Fuller. This was a time of more gradual, though no less significant and radical theological change for me. For the first half of this period, I was growing more and more influenced by the emerging church movement and my theology accordingly grew soft and squishy. After having repressed intuition and sentiment when I first became a "Calvinist", I now began to put reason in the back seat and let sentimentality run rampant in my theology. I read Donald Miller and Brian McLaren with bright eyed enthusiasm about how palatable the gospel could be made to our oh so spiritual postmodern culture.

In the last three years or so of that period, however, things started to change again. First of all, I took a course on christology by the late great Ray Anderson who introduced me to T. F. Torrance. Reading Torrance's The Mediation of Christ woke me up with a shock. Here was a robust, christocentric Reformed theology quite openly critical of the doctrine of limited atonement (I didn't even know that was possible!), but not lapsing into sentimentality in critique of harsh doctrine. Torrance was rigorously holistic, taking the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures of Christ as the starting point for all Christian thinking. This holism also brought back together mind and heart in my own theology, rooting love of God and of his image bearers in the profound rationale of God's love for us in the incarnation. I was hooked.

The other major influence on my theology in the last couple of years has been a reading group, called the Moot, made up mostly of other teachers at Monte Vista. Most of these guys go to a local Christian Reformed Church and are fairly hostile to the emerging church and postmodern Christian movements. This has had a healthy balancing effect on my thought. In all honesty, my theology was strengthened and challenged to grow more there, reading theologians as diverse as Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, David B. Hart, and G. K. Chesterton, and paying no tuition, I might add, than in the seminary classes I was paying more than $1,000 each for.

That pretty much brings us to the present. I guess I would now describe myself as a Baptist with significant Reformed leanings. I am very much looking forward to continuing my theological development in Aberdeen. I have been spending this summer reading more Torrance, John Webster, Athanasius, and Calvin. I'm thirsty for more. My current chief theological interests which I plan to devote myself to in my doctoral work are christology, doctrine of Scriputre, and the relation between the two as Word of God. Expect several future posts on these topics.