Sunday, July 31, 2005

Knowing Christ

There is a genus of quotes and attitudes out there in popular culture, the church-at-large, and in various websites that, possibly without being conscious of the fact, attacks the centrality of scripture in Christian revelation and praxis. One such example is Kevin D. Johnson's latest post, titled A Thirst For Living Water.

I will interact with KDJ's post in the usual PP idiom. His post will be blockquoted and italicized. My comments will follow in the usual font.

We make a mistake if we think that our central concern as Christians should be to properly exegete the text of Scripture. Nor should we be entertaining the idea that such should be the primary concern of the Christian minister. Bible study of course is important but our central concern should be Christ. Men thirst for the Living Water, not how we ought to practice hermeneutics. Catholicity is based on our identity in Christ, not our ability to agree with one another on the meaning and interpretation of the biblical text.


(1) The seemingly obvious reply here is to just as how one's central concern can be Christ apart from the proper understanding of scripture?

(a) The local liberal churches have their cuddly Marxist Jesus who would cheer on the pregnant girl as she goes to the Planned Parenthood center in her electric car to "have a medical procedure done" --- after all, her career comes first. Jesus wants her to make as much as the men down the street after all, since He was a feminist at heart. Also, she should be able to pursue those rock-my-world orgasms in a consequence-free manner to enjoy the, ah, pleasures of God's creation.

(b) The commie Jesus of liberation theology would cheer on the revolutionary who seizes the private property, and possibly the life, of others.

(c) The Arian Jesus of the Watchtower, far from fully sharing in the divine nature, is a "little-g god," functionally not being much more than a trusted associate of Jehovah, the one true God.

Barring some sort of special revelation outside of what we already have, namely, scripture, how are we to know and ascertain our "identity in Christ," whatever that fuzzy term means? Do we go at this playing colour-by-numbers? Do we await a light on the road to the local Quickie Mart where the resurrected Jesus reveals Himself to us in full?

Apart from special revelation, I know of know other way to confidently learn what God wants us to know about Christ apart from what is revealed to us in the canonical writings. Perhaps KDJ has a more direct line of revelation than I do.

KDJ continues:

There are men who have advocated that men should be overly trained–and trained well–in the so-called science of biblical hermeneutics. Oddly enough these are men who advocate sola scriptura and turn a blind eye to tradition–except of course the tradition they value. Where does the Bible say that men should be trained so? Not only did the original authors of the New Testament generally avoid the sort of historical/grammatical method of interpreting the Scripture they had available to them, they often employed methods that today would be declared unacceptable by those who feel free to call biblical hermeneutics a science.


Sweeping statements such as these are exceedingly poor. It is not that they might be true but no evidence for their truth is provided; it is rather that the statements themselves are blatantly false. Consider Archbishop Trench's Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord or his corresponding Parables volume. These 19th century classics are chock full of historical considerations as to what others have said. Confer also Cranfield's two-volume ICC Romans Commentary, where a full range of patristic opinion is cited relative to problematic portions of the Greek text. Confer most of the volumes in the NICNT series as well.

Where does the Bible say that men should be trained as KDJ illustrates, he then asks. Some subpoints:

(i) KDJ seems to forget about the Rabbinic culture!
(ii) The people in Jesus' day were contemporaries of the culture and idiom employed in the sacred texts. We study things in seminary today so that we can better read the text as did the contemporaries.
(iii) Again, not having been eyewitnesses or intimates of Jesus, how are we supposed to know about Him what it is we are supposed to know apart from some preserved written record?

And so, I must ask, what sort of training did the original twelve Apostles have in interpreting Scripture? How many years of seminary did they get under their belt prior to our Lord’s death? A common divinity degree these days takes three years, sometimes four. Do you really think it is reasonable to argue that Jesus spent three years teaching them how to be exceptional exegetes of Scripture before he turned the entire Church over to them? I don’t remember the text of Scripture telling us that Jesus was engaged in such things in any explicit way. Perhaps it is it more likely that Christ taught them about other more central concerns.


The first question of the above quote is the same sort of line I heard in grad school when talking to the liberal Christians at the campus quadrangle. When, say, it was pointed out that the Greek text meant what we conservatives have said on a hot button issue, say, homosexuality, the obscurantist line about being too detail-obsessed was put forward by the liberal, and then I would be treated to what the liberal's version of the fuzzy eco-friendly Savior would've thought, which, coincidentally, happened to always [without exception] conform to the spirit of multiculturalism and the militant tolerance-ism espoused by the liberal.

The sad thing is that KDJ is, reportedly, on my side of the fence, and yet he asks just what sort of training the twelve apostles had in an attempt to bolster his previous assertion that our central concern should be Christ as compared to knowing the scriptures.

The answer to his query is, once again, obvious upon a moment of thought:

(i) The apostles had two to three years of intimate social intercourse with Jesus, having him directly for teaching, the witnessing of wonders, and such. The apostles could always ask Jesus just what he meant. In contradistinction, we moderns don't get that sort of intimacy, so we have to make do with the text. It would be nice if, say, Jesus materialized by my desk and said this is what the "righteousness of God" in Rom 1:16 *really* means...". It would save a lot of work! Alas, I'm not expecting that sort of special treatment.

(ii) Is KDJ once again forgetting about the Rabbinic culture that existed in Jesus' day? Does he think that the apostles merely sat around and emoted with Jesus instead of consulting the very OT scriptures that point to Jesus?

KDJ continues:

Perhaps catholicity would be easier for us if we stuck to those things that are central to the gospel of Jesus Christ–namely, knowing and obeying Him. Did the Apostles pour over the Scriptures during their tenure with Jesus? Were the Scriptures even available for their use as they went from town to town (of course, we forget that the Genevan Study Bible was unavailable to them at the time!)? Or, did they learn from their Master “the way, and the truth, and the life”? Not that learning how to study the Scriptures or properly interpret them is unimportant–but what is more important than obedience and devotion to the person of Christ? I’m not saying that we ought to be producing uneducated ministers or somehow that a seminary education is useless. Far from it. I’m speaking to what ought to be central.


Who cares about catholicity if it isn't founded on something objective? Hays puts it even more strenuously: "Catholicity is Kevin's idol, not mine."

Again, let it be noted that KDJ seems to think that knowing and obeying Jesus are somehow independent of the text --- we on the other hand say that the text is logically prior to knowing and obeying Jesus in the light of some special revelation.

After questioning the role of hermeneutics and caricaturing those who hold to sola scriptura a paragraph or two ago, KDJ states Not that learning how to study the Scriptures or properly interpret them is unimportant.... The problem here is, once again, that without some special sort of revelation, we need the scriptures to know and obey Christ. This isn't a matter of degree, where we can say we know and obey Christ and view scripture's importance on some sliding continuum with one endpoint meaning "not important at all" and the other meaning "totally important." We're dealing with a binary affair for somebody without special revelation: scripture is either logically prior or not logically prior to understanding, knowing, and obeying Christ.

More from KDJ:

With Christ as our center, catholicity becomes an easier task. Catholicity ought to be based on the person of Christ at least as much–if not more–as it is based on a common understanding of the faith and how we view the Scriptures. 2 Timothy 2:15 tells us to be diligent to present ourselves approved to God but even those who advocate strict grammatical exegesis on this passage must admit that such diligence is about so much more than merely properly interpreting the text of Scripture through diligent study. “Accurately handling the word of truth” is about properly putting forth the person and gospel of Christ and not merely how we ought to be studying Scripture.


I'm really not sure that KDJ understands grammatical-historical exegesis, which is nothing different than reading any other document from antiquity. In my experience, I've never seen the dichotomy over 2 Tim 2:15 that Kevin presents in conservative evangelical circles.

Anything I say here in response to Kevin's other dichotomy between interpreting scripture and "putting forth the person and gospel of Christ" will be repetitive, already being found in the above material. Like a vinyl long-play 33 on the turntable that causes the needle to skip back to the same point so that the same part of the tune is played repeatedly, so it seems that this artificial "centrality" issue is the scratch on the KDJ record.

Proceeding, KDJ writes:

It is a common mistake for those who advocate a strict solo scriptura view to think that their read of Scripture is decidedly the correct “one interpretation” and that it has little to do with tradition. Unfortunately, that usually isn’t the case. For tradition exists wherever men exist. they will say. Or, “…everyone of us needs to know how to gain an accurate knowledge of the Word of God”. Never mind that seminaries didn’t exist during the New Testament era and that men and women were often enrolled into service in the New Testament era quite rapidly after their conversion with little or no training in anything at all let alone training in the proper use of the Scriptures. Never mind that what each of us need is Christ first and not merely a way to accurately understand the Scriptures.


O the outrage of somebody asserting that they have ascertained the meaning of the text! Is there no end to the pretensions of men?

Again, KDJ comes off here like some Unitarian liberal sitting in a booth at the campus quadrangle who passes out literature that is meant to be understood, but at the same time denies that the Bible can be understood. Logocentrism for thee, but not for me.

What do we do when somebody claims to have the correct interpretation? We don't faint in outrage, requiring smelling salts and state-sponsered therapists to help us recover from the shock to our modern sensibilities. Instead, we look at the text and the evidence for the interpretation, and we decide accordingly. Again, this isn't a novum among Evangelicals or those of us in the inerrancy and sola scriptura camps.

KDJ then seems to put a few quotes in the text regarding people on our side [it seems], and, for the life of me, I don't see what is so scary about those quotes.

(i) “We must have a trained seminary educated clergy–they must be able to handle the word of God accurately and without error!”

(ii) “…everyone of us needs to know how to gain an accurate knowledge of the Word of God”.

More scandal! Clergy who accuately handle scripture! What heresy will conservatives come up with next? A fourth person of the Trinity?

KDJ mentions then that there were no seminaries in the NT days. Again, we mention the Rabbinic culture for the multiple-th time. Also, we mention again the obvious reply that KDJ is comparing apples and oranges here. We are far removed from the time of the apostles and Jesus, and we therefore have to acclimate ourselves to knowledge of the culture, history, language, etc of those days. The people KDJ mentions were already part of the culture, history, language. And the fact that some of them "were often enrolled into service in the New Testament era quite rapidly after their conversion with little or no training in anything at all let alone training in the proper use of the Scriptures" doesn't do anything for his thesis either, because we're not in the same situation as those ancients.

Here's a throwaway paragraph:

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. The study of the Scriptures is important. Properly intrepreting them to the best of our ability is also important. But these things are not central to the salvation of men’s souls. We are called to be witnesses of Christ (Acts 1:8), not witnesses of just how we ought to be interpreting Scriptures.


After spending a good portion of his post talking about Christ and knowledge of Christ apart from its scriptural norming, and after spending some time caricaturing sola scriptura adherents as well as those who dare think that they can interpret scripture properly, KDJ, despite his disclaimer, rings hollow here.

This entire paragraph reminds me of an encounter I had with some environmental people while walking back from class. They hand me a leaflet promoting solar power and wanting to make things more difficult for oil businesses, restricting or forbidding the off-shore drilling of oil. They want to regulate business and make it harder to obtain oil. The group is supported by other Marxist groups and parties. Add a fair amount of "business, EVIL!" rhetoric. But at the end they'll say "We're all for business and low prices....," after promoting agendas that will reduce supply, cost businesses more money, and generally make it more difficult and expensive to reduce the supply. Classic throwaway line. And KDJ isn't much different here than the Birkenstock-wearing enviro-chick in this encounter, except that he doubtless bathes much more frequently and is part of the evil capitalist oppressor paradigm that she loathes!

We must preach Christ and Him crucified. Our job is not to call men to accurately interpret Scripture. Our job as witnesses is to tell forth Christ and the gospel that can set men free. Men thirst for Christ, not biblical hermeneutics. Men need Christ, not instructions on how to properly understand the Bible.


If I preach Christ and Him crucified, I'll turn to scripture, and hopefully I'll be accurate. But that's just me.

Remember that late-70's/early-80's TV show The Greatest American Hero, where the guy gets this superhero suit but somehow loses or fails to obtain the instruction manual for using the suit and the provided super powers? That's the image that comes to mind when I read the final quoted sentence above.

Calling men to Christ moves us to the sort of catholicity that we all need–union, obedience, and fellowship with the Son of God. A life defined by and obedient to Christ, not merely by our limited understanding of difficult texts in Scripture. Early Christians belonged to “the Way” (Acts 9:2) and not the “Society for Understanding Scripture Aright”. We need to recover an emphasis on what is central rather than continue to discuss matters that are secondary. That is how we will begin to recover a Reformational contribution to catholicity.


Kevin D. Johnson must be receiving special revelation on a regular basis to say such things confidently. He somehow knows Jesus apart from scripture. Perhaps I can move to Phoenix --- a city in which I'd dearly love to live --- and get a job at Areopagus Coffee helping my newfound guru KDJ make a lot of money, and then in the spare time I'd sit at his feet and he could expound his special revelations to me, and I could forego the centrality of scripture. Instead of reviewing Greek and once again forgetting a third declension noun paradigm or a principal part of an irregular verb, I could learn about Jesus along with the metaphysical differences between Sanka, Folgers, Sumatran Grade One Mandehling and Colombian Amanecer Santa Isabella. Everybody wins!

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