Archive for January, 2012

Doyley’s an odd fish. For someone who disagrees with Gunton’s thesis, he sure sounds like someone who agrees wholeheartedly with it. In some ways he even makes Augustine seem worse than Gunton does.

For example: He objects to my paraphrase of Gunton saying that Augustine ‘accepted the doctrine of Trinity, but not very warmly’. Yet he starts his point about persons with this:

The use of ‘Person’ has not been without its ancient critics.  Augustine was strongly conscious of the inadequacy of persona for its theological task.  Famously, he said:

But the formula three persons has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent (The Trinity, 5. 9.10).[1]

I can’t imagine a better expression of accepting the doctrine but not warmly than this.

And then the description that follows this opening is a detailed elucidation of Gunton’s point – that while heretics were clear in their antitrinitarian teaching, Augustine is more of a problem.   For his anti-trinitarianism is not on the surface.

Augustine insists that ‘The oneness is not something anterior to the threeness.’ Exactly. Yes, he develops his analogies ‘in a warm atmosphere of prayer to the triune God of grace.’ When Augustine develops “non-personal ‘modes of being’ of the one divine ‘substance'”,  certainly “Augustine hardly intended this outcome”. Of course he didn’t. All of this is the point Gunton is getting at. The surface orthodoxy hides the problems in the deep structure.

Gunton is not claiming Augustine was a modalist or Arian: ‘what has to be examined is not simply his statements of doctrine but the underlying presuppositions which give the doctrine the shape it has’ (p.32). The question is does Augustine ‘take away with the left hand what had already been given with the right, to undermine the doctrine of the God known as triune even while it is being stated?’ (p.33)

It is a nuanced theological critique, which, as RD knows, is not countered and may even be strengthened by isolated pro-trinity quotes from St A’s writings, or references to his piety.

But Doyley gives us both: the statements of pro-Trinity doctrine, and the analysis that underlying that is a conception of God that is essentially impersonal. Just like Gunton says.

Gunton’s ultimate question is ‘whether [St A] has the conceptual equipment to avoid a final collapse into something like [modalism]. And the answer must be that he has not’ (p.55). Doyley seems to be saying the same thing. But saying it as a critique of Gunton!?!

Am i missing something? Where’s the bit where Gunton’s thesis is inaccurate, his conclusions strong and not well supported,  the result of impatient reading??

Maybe it’s coming in part 3.

Robert Doyle continues…

Posted: January 31, 2012 by J in Church history, Theology

Robert had three points in response to our review of Colin Gunton on Augustine. Here’s the second.


The use of ‘Person’ has not been without its ancient critics.  Augustine was strongly conscious of the inadequacy of persona for its theological task.  Famously, he said:

But the formula three persons has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent (The Trinity, 5. 9.10).[1]

In Book 7 of The Trinity, working on the Cappadocian understanding of “hupostasi” (and only partly understanding it) Augustine defined the three members of the Trinity as ‘relations.’  Note though that he is careful to keep the notion of persons/relations together with the notion of God’s oneness of being:

[I]n God to be is not one thing, and to be a person another thing, but it is wholly and entirely one and the same (The Trinity, 7.6.11).[

The oneness is not something anterior to the threeness.

Augustine is seeking to understand what it means for the Persons to called ‘God’.  Can ‘God’ terms or attributes, like ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’, be used for each Person separately or only ‘when the Trinity itself is understood’?[3]   The conclusion he comes to is that we can only understand the Persons relatively, that is, in their relations to the other Persons.  So, we can rightly say of the second Person of the Trinity that he is ‘Son’, ‘Word’ and ‘Image’, of the Father.  We cannot say of the second Person of the Trinity that he is in himself ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’, for those attributes may only be applied to all three Persons together as the one Trinity, that is, they may only be applied to the one, undivided essence of the triune God.  If we applied the attribute ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ to the three Person separately we would be implying that there are three essences in God, that is three gods.  This is so because Augustine, alone with other Latin and Greek theologians (like Gregory of Nyssa), understands God’s essence as simple, and undivided.  ‘Essence’ is of course the most foundational aspect of what it means for God to be God, and so any further thinking must not be allowed to compromise this.  In appealing implicitly and explicitly to the ‘one simple essence’ as he seeks to understand what it means for the God of Holy Scripture to be triune, Augustine safeguards the unity of God (i.e. there are not three gods), and the divisibility of the Father and the Son and Spirit in their operations, and also the equality of their essence.  For, if the notion of  ‘essence’ could be entertained in thinking about the Son, because the Son is (eternally) begotten of the Father, it could be implied that his essence as Son was inferior to that of the Father.

Further, in his famous analogies for the divine members (in Book 8 following), Augustine treated the Persons or ‘relations’ as ‘modes’ (memory, understanding, will) in which the human self (conceived of as ‘mind’) is present for itself.  Memory, understanding and will are in themselves events or states of affairs, and in that way are non-personal.  Thus we see here the development of non-personal ‘modes of being’ of the one divine ‘substance’.  Augustine hardly intended this outcome, for the analogies developed are only provisional, and to aid our understanding of God, are philosophical illustrations if you like, and they are developed in a warm atmosphere of prayer to the triune God of grace.   Nevertheless, the effect of these striking analogies can be to produce a less than fully personal understanding of modes of being of the one being of God.

This tendency towards ‘depersonalisation’ is heightened, when as outlined above, Augustine in Book 7 of On the Trinity in order to secure trinitarian thought from tritheism, conceives of the relations logically more than ontologically or ‘essentially’.  That is, when for whatever good reason we are reluctant to understand the Persons in terms of ‘essence’, which is the most foundational aspect of God’s godness, ‘Person’ tends not to be the most fundamental category, and therefore less personal for it is the lesser than what is ultimately real or essential.

Thanks Robert for taking the time to share your understanding with us here at The Grit. It is refreshing to hear your opinion of the original book review stated so forthrightly.

Perhaps I should clarify at this point that the strong opinions about Augustine in that review were largely those of Colin Gunton, not mine. I don’t really have many opinions about Augustine, except that he seems to have trouble writing a clear sentence. But the review did attempt to describe Gunton’s views and in particular his critique of St A. The statement ‘He accepted it [the Trinity], though not very warmly’ – that’s me paraphrasing Gunton. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear. I was probably just over-relying on the genre of ‘book review’ to provide that sort of context.

It’s also the task of a book review to assess the effectiveness of the writing. So when I described Gunton’s article as ‘persuasive’ I wouldn’t want anyone to hear anything more than a provisional response. It’s just an opinion about the writing, not an opinion about Augustine, of whom I have read little. I did hint that we would like to hear other points of view…

Hope that clarifies.

And now onto your response:

Having heard your views about Gunton given without explanation back at college,  I think it’s great that now you’re making them vulnerable to public consideration in this way.

Here at The Grit we think free and open discussion and debate is a good thing. We try to give everyone a voice. Holding up someone’s work for consideration, contrasting it with other opinions, inviting and provoking response and comment, this is the stuff of every day for The Grit. We are aware that The Grit in the Oyster can cause irritation at times. But it’s worth it for the pearls. I’m confident that, despite any impression given to the contrary, you would really want to encourage this practice.

Having read very little Augustine, I will confine my comments to the process. I like that that you take the time to examine Gunton’s critique in your first point. That quote from Augustine is seriously disturbing. You make the problem seem worse than Gunton suggested.

It would help us here if we could get some explanation of the difference between ‘logical’ and ‘ontological’ relations. Ontology is about being, about the real godness of God as he exists. But how does ‘logic’ come into a discussion about the persons and relations of the Trinity? What does it mean to say their relation is logical?

I notice, Robert, that you begin your response with a personal, generalised criticism of Gunton’s character: impatient etc. But this does not encourage readers to assess the argument without bias. At The Grit we prefer to play the ball, not the man – even if he’s a dead man!

(Grit readers are invited to comment on this Augustine debate without fear or favour…)

Robert Doyle responds…

Posted: January 29, 2012 by J in Church history, Theology

We have received a full and somewhat robust response from Robert Doyle, complete with footnotes. That’s what we like! You may remember that we dragged RD into the discussion about Augustine following his intriguing comments in a Doctrine 3 lecture at Moore College. He asserted that Gunton was barking up the wrong tree in his critique of Augustine on the Trinity. I invited Doyley to explain his position.

We will post RD’s response in three parts. Be warned that this is slightly technical, I am struggling with some of the concepts and terminology myself. But if you read it slowly, it kind of starts to come clear.

It was very kind of RD to reply, especially since, as you will see, he was considerably annoyed by our inquiry… 🙂


Hi J,

Herewith my response to your blog.  


Disappointed to see strong opinion advanced without evidence. Why assume Gunton has made his case and it is up to others now to answer it?  Gunton himself had somewhat more humility than is operating in your assumption.  “He accepted it, though not very warmly” – pure tosh, suggest you read his De Trinitate.  Gunton was an outstanding theologian, but as is acknowledged in an otherwise highly commendatory reviews of his work, he was impatient in reading others and would rush on to strong, not well supported conclusions.  Suggest you read the relevant sections in John Webster’s, Systematic Theology after Barth: Jüngel, Jenson, and Gunton (2005).  

Returning to your main point, Gunton’s use of Augustine has undergone severe criticism.[see footnote 1]  

My own considered opinion is that  although his criticism of Augustine is at least in part inaccurate, it is not without point, for it has highlighted unhelpful tendencies that do exist in western theological thinking about the Trinity that in part arise from tensions in Augustine’s thought, and offered a better way forward.

More specifically, my analysis runs along three lines: 1. Gunton’s criticism and evidence; 2. the notion of ‘person’ in Augustine, and 3. the place of the ‘one essence’ with respect to the ‘three persons’ in Augustine.  What follows is abstracted from an unpublished MA (Theol) lecture.


Gunton views several statements of Augustine from the point of view of Gunton’s understanding of Cappadocian theology. For the Cappadocians, the three persons are what they are in their relations, and therefore the relations qualify them ontologically, in terms of what they are.  But in the following statement Augustine uses relation as a logical rather than an ontological predicate:

The particulars in the same Trinity that are properly predicated of each person are by not means predicated of them as they are in themselves (ad se ipsa), but in their relations either to one another or to the creature, and it is therefore manifest that they are predicated relatively, not substantially. (De Trinitate, 5.7.12)

The idea occurs again in Book 7.2.3, where Augustine says that with predicates like ‘begotten’, ‘the essence is not revealed, since they are spoken of relatively’:

And therefore He is not the Word in that He is wisdom; since He is not called the Word in respect to Himself, but only relatively to Him whose Word He is, as He is called the Son in relation to the Father; but He is wisdom by that whereby He is essence. And therefore, because one essence, one wisdom. But since the Word is also wisdom, yet is not thereby the Word because He is wisdom for He is understood to be the Word relatively, but wisdom essentially: let us understand, that when He is called the Word, it is meant, wisdom that is born, so as to be both the Son and the Image; and that when these two words are used, namely wisdom (isborn, in one of the two [words], namely born,629 both Word, and Image, and Son, are understood, and in all these names essence is not expressed, since they are spoken relatively; but in the other word, namely wisdom, since it is spoken also in respect to substance, for wisdom is wise in itself, essence also is expressed, and that being of His which is to be wise. Whence the Father and Son together are one wisdom, because one essence, and singly wisdom of wisdom, as essence of essence. And hence they are not therefore not one essence, because the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father, or because the Father is un-begotten, but the Son is begotten: since by these names only theirrelative attributes are expressed. But both together are one wisdom and one essence; in which to be, is the same as to be wise. And both together are not the Word or the Son, since to be is not the same as to be the Word or the Son, as we have already sufficiently shown that these terms are spoken relatively.

That is, as Persons they cannot or are not known in their being.  The relations are logical rather than ontological.


[1] Refer Michel René Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56 (1995); Michel René Barnes, “Rereading Augustine’s Theology of the Trinity,” in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, ed. Stephen T.  Davis, Daniel  Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Lewis Ayres, “The Fundamental Grammar of Augustine’s Trinitarian Theology,” in Augustine and His Critics: Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner, ed. Robert Lawless George Dodaro (London; New York: Routledge, 2000); Neil Ormerod, The Trinity: Retrieving the Western Tradition (Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 2005).

“1 + 1 + 1…hmm, where’s my abacus?”

…is Gunton’s article on what Augustine did to the Trinity (in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). If he’s right (and I suspect he is) then our troubles are deeper than we realise.

Think of this: the big A is our main man in the first millenium post-apostles. The whole Western Church tradition is steeped in his theology and thought in general. Especially Protestants! Augustine was the Reformers’ hero. He was the church father they could count on in defining their faith over against the RC tradition. It’s arguable that we owe more to Augustine than to Luther or Calvin.

Let’s put it plainly: like it or not, realise it or not, Augustine is inside your head. He’s in mine too. Actually I think I can feel him in there now…

So anyway, any distortions in his account of the Christian faith are going to have massive, massive implications for the Western Church.  Even small ones could lead to big problems down the track, like ripples spreading out in a pond.

But the way Gunton tells it, there’s nothing small about the distortions Augustine brought in. It amounts to this: Augustine steered the Church away from belief in the Trinity.


Augustine certainly didn’t criticise the doctrine of Trinity overtly. He accepted it, though not very warmly. But to see where the problem is, you have to realise that Augy is a hugely systematic thinker and theologian. His project was about the entire structure, the core structure of the Christian faith. And here is where Gunton’s critique is aimed: he claims that the basic structure Augustine established for the faith was non-Trinitarian.


No matter then if Augustine pays lip service to the doctrine. If it’s just an overlay, a veneer on a monadic (single-person God) substratum, it won’t save us from this underlying heresy. What the Church has inherited from Augy is the core structure, the fundamental concepts, the intellectual commitments and assumptions. And these, says Gunton, owe more to Plato than to Jesus or Paul.

If this is true, you should be able to trace streams of thought from this source carrying distortion down through the long history of the Western Church. And this is exactly what Gunton does. Right down to today. Perhaps the most disturbing is the question, why is ours the only society where atheism has flourished? Gunton analyses it as the inevitable outcome of the instabilities and distortions enshrined in the Western religious tradition since – you guessed it – since Augustine. What we inherited from the big A had too many internal tensions, it couldn’t possibly last. The tradition fragmented in the c.16th, (RC church exploded) and then collapsed altogether in the c.18th (Enlightenment). In the Eastern Church, these things simply didn’t happen.

OUCH! Is this really true? If it is, how do you come back from something like that? How do you unearth 1500 years of thinking, and rethink it along the right tracks? The project is just too massive to imagine.

Robert Doyle from Moore College says that he doubts Gunton’s critique of Augustine. (And to give him credit, it was Doyley who put us onto this book, recommended it. And it does indeed sizzle). Doyley says Gunton is on the wrong track. Good news, no? But here’s the catch: he never told us why. I’d like to know.

So here’s the challenge: I’ve sent this post to RD, inviting him to explain.

We’re throwing down the gauntlet here Doyley. What have you got? We’re listening: where does Gunton go wrong? Now’s the time to put up or shut up. Gunton was pretty convincing – can you persuade us that he’s barking up the wrong tree, and reinstate Augustine as Western hero no.1?

I hope you can. Cause otherwise we’ve got a truckload of work to do on ourselves…

So I’ve found a problem: can I give a solution?

To start with here’s an alternative translation that I’ll argue is better:

“I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John (though the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he!).  And when all the people heard [John], including the tax collectors, they took God’s side by being baptised with his baptism.  30 But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s plan for themselves, by not getting baptised by John. 
31 “So then, to what should I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?  32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to each other: “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance;we sang a lament, but you didn’t weep!”  33   For [the children of this generation are complaining to one another other] “John the Baptist did not come eating bread or drinking wine, and you lot say, ‘He has a demon!’ But now when the Son of Man comes eating and drinking, you lot say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”35 [In this way] all Wisdom’s children take her side.

A few things to notice about this translation. The whole passage is Jesus’ teaching, no parenthetic interruptions. This is in itself a good sign – interruptions are often a sign that the translators haven’t been able to follow the flow of thought.

The stuff about John’s baptism forms part of Jesus’ argument. It speaks of a division in Israel – exactly what the rest of his teaching here is about. So we’re getting coherence.

Also, for Jesus to introduce Pharisees and lawyers into the discussion at this point is natural, even though Luke hasn’t mentioned their presence here, because they had interacted with John, and people’s varied reactions to John is what Jesus is talking about.

And with that hint that division is the theme, the rest of the passage falls out fairly simply.

The ‘So then’ of 31 is responding to Jesus’ comment in 29-30 that the pharisees and the people took opposing sides over John. ‘So then, what can we say about this division?’ In other translations, this ‘So then’ is a bit out of place.

The children in the market place are ‘this generation’, i.e. everyone in Israel at that time. The two groups of kids represent the two groups split over John’s baptism. The point here is  that they have also split along the same lines over Jesus’ ministry. The children complain that no matter what tune they play their friends are not content to join in. This corresponds to the complaint that the Pharisees and their lot rejected John for his ascetism, and yet rejected Jesus for not being ascetic! They wouldn’t join in no matter what the tune. The other children of this generation did join in both times – being baptised and also following Jesus –  and so they are the ones in a position to make this complaint of hypocrisy or double-standards.

So it’s most natural to take 33-34 as the decoding of the parable about the children calling out. Jesus is picturing the people of Israel complaining to their leaders.

It’s worth noting that at this time, literally thousands of people were flocking to Jesus to hear and see him. The common people were firmly on his side at this point, in spite of their leaders (Read Luke 6 and 7, you’ll get the idea).

Jesus’ concluding comment is a summary of what has just been described. Wisdom (= God’s purposes) is justified (defended, argued for) by her children. They stand up and take God’s and wisdom’s side, embracing both John and Jesus over against their inconsistent leaders. This concluding comment  forms an inclusio (or envelope) with v.29, where all the people take God’s side. But in this version, both comments come from Jesus – he’s not interacting with the narrator!

So the theme of the passage is the division that has ocurred between the common people (especially the outcasts like tax-collectors) and the respectable religious establishment types, a division over their response to John and Jesus. Everything Jesus says here about his generation is about that one thing. It’s pretty simple in content, actually.

And this theme of division will continue to develop through Luke-Acts.

I reckon it’s an extreme measure to introduce an authorial insertion anywhere in Luke’s writing. You’d need to have a really good reason to do it. Here, there’s a good argument for leaving it out. So why do all the translations stick it in there and muddy up the sense of the passage?

I’ve seen enough of how the world of bible scholarship functions, to have a pretty good guess why they all do it. It’s a bit shocking though.

They do it because the previous translation did it.

Violent translators take Luke 7:24ff by force

Posted: January 24, 2012 by J in Bible

I don’t like it when people get up in church gatherings and criticise bible translations. However there need to be forums where the successes and failures of our translations can be discussed, and I think that fits within The Grit‘s (admitted broad) brief (see our tagline!).

I’ve been trying to write a sermon on Luke 7: 24ff, where Jesus teaches about John the Baptist. It’s been hard going. For one thing, few of the commentators makes any sense of it, and also they all disagree with each other. Especially problematic is v.31-35. Here they are in NRSV (a generally excellent translation, I think):

“To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like?  32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,

‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.’ 

33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’;  34 the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’  35 Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” 

Hardly anyone seems to get this. (Bill Dumbrell’s commentary I would say is an exception, his reading seems coherent, but his comment is very brief.)

I think the cause of the trouble starts back in the preceding verses:

28 I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”  29 (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.  30 But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) 

This is where things start to go wrong, I think. The King James translators decided to make 29-30 a narrator’s insertion, a kind of parenthesis interrupting the story.  And every translation since the seems to have followed suit.

Having spent the past three years immersed in Luke-Acts, when I get to that bit, it jars. It just sounds so un-Lukan. Luke doesn’t do that sort of thing, inserting lengthy theological explanations of people’s attitudes. My feeling is, if he’s doing that here, it’s unique in his writing. So that gets me off-balance to start with.

Then, of course, greek has no brackets, nothing sets v.29-30 apart from its cotext. So that’s been added in. Also, when it says ‘And all the people who heard this’, it makes the thing they’re hearing to be the previous words of Jesus. But ‘this’ is not in the greek, it just says, ‘And all the people, hearing, justified God.’ ‘This’ has been added. Nothing wrong with that, but the ‘this’ is the main word which makes 29-30 sound like a narrator’s insertion. Without the ‘this’, it could be a continuation of Jesus’ teaching.

Also the complex grammar of ‘they had been baptised’ and ‘they had not been baptised’ is not required. The aorist participles here could just as easily read ‘they were baptised’ and ‘they were not baptised.’

Now also, there’s this thing about the pharisees and lawyers hearing Jesus teahcing about John and rejecting God’s purpose for themselves. For one thing, we didn’t even know there were pharisees present in this scene. Strange (almost unheard-of) to introduce them in this way! But worse, how on earth do they manage to reject God’s will for them at this point. What will? Jesus isn’t talking about God’s will for Pharisees: he’s talking about John the Baptist, and his greatness. How they can hear this message and reject something quite different is beyond me. The comment about the Pharisees seems quite out of place here, if it’s refering to Jesus’ audience.

Another disturbing feature of the translations is the way they make Jesus pick up on the terminology of Luke’s insertion, in v.34-35. “All the people” becomes “All her children”. “Justify God” becomes “justify Wisdom” (a figure standing for God in Jewish thought). “Tax-collectors” are mentioned in both places. These two paragraphs are clearly interacting with each other, and the impression given is that the second (Jesus in 34-35) is responding to the first (narrator in 29-30). But it’s a bit weird when a character in the story starts interacting with the narrator! Shades of Sophie’s World?

Tomorrow I’ll suggest a different translation, and argue that it helps make simple sense out of the whole passage.

CRITIQUE (continued)

There are other serious method problems. In the middle of a discussion about apostolic authority, Ridderbos slips this in: ‘They were [God’s] instruments and organs in the continuation of revelation.’ We’ve been talking ‘authority’, now suddenly we’re talking revelation, a somewhat different category – but with no explanation of the term or of how it relates to authority. It’s just a one-liner, but it comes back later: God’s authority…is not limited to His great deeds in Jesus Christ, but extends to [the] writings of those he chose to be …instruments of divine revelation’ (p.24). Once again authority becomes revelation. Again, because the apostolic teaching can is authoritative like the OT Scriptures (Hebrews 2:2f) ‘their word is a revelatory word.’ Apparently authority = revelation. And this idea of the NT as revelatory features strongly from here on. But there is just no explanation of this concept of revelation, or of where it fits into a discussion of authority. The lack of clarity and development of this theme muddies the rest of the study. Part of the trouble is that Ridderbos, in examining the idea of Scriptural canon, has already decided in advance that canonicity means ‘Word of God’ (p.10 – This category is not explained either!). We are left feeling that what is supposed to be a redemptive-historical study is being compromised by seemingly random intrusions of doctrine which apparently contribute to the web of the argument. The conclusions end up seeming predetermined.

Another doctrinal idea that the bos brings in to further his salvation-historical study is really quite unusual, and perhaps the dodgiest aspect of the book. He borrows the idea from Abraham Kuyper that ‘God is himself the canon’. Amazingly, there is very little explanation of this assertion. (I’ve never read Kuyper, but I never yet heard an idea of his that I liked!). And this idea is then developed to create the following structure:

God as canon → Christ reveals canon → apostolic tradition transmits canon → Scripture encodes canon (p.24).

The canonicity of Scripture is apparently that of God himself. This aspect of God’s being has somehow been distilled onto paper! The Scriptures don’t just tell of God’s authority – they are that authority.

It is very unclear what might be intended by ‘God is the canon.’ I can’t quite get my brain around it. But the idea of the canon-transmission structure, I find quite disturbing… This might be unfair, but it somehow seems like we started off having to deal with God, then we had Jesus, then we dealt with the apostles, and nowadays we just have a book to deal with.  Bit of an anticlimax really…

Worse than that, when the story of redemptive history is told this way, it seems like what God was revealing in Christ was above all his authority. Is this how the gospel story goes? Really? Feels like authority (and indeed the idea of canon) has somehow got out of hand in this study and threatens taken over the world.

There are other problems with the theology of this study – in fact too many too document. He lumps in the kerygma or gospel announcement with everything else (eg all the pastoral stuff) the apostles wrote and treats it all as the tradition or deposit of faith, authoritative in an undifferentiated way. I judge this to be a mistake. 1 Corinthians 11 is surely not foundational for the church in the same way as 1 Corinthians 15. By making a maximal claim for every word of the NT, Ridderbos leaves himself unable to nuance or differentiate his view of the NT documents. Though he considers genre in the second half of the book, it is not really allowed to make a contribution to his understanding of how the documents function as Scripture. The category of divine authority proves to be too absolute, it overwhelms all merely human distinctions.

I come away from this book grateful for it, helped by it, and thankful that Gaffin did so much with the program suggested here. But also feeling that it needed a decent injection of methodology, and also of theological savvy to stop Ridderbos equating different concepts and categories without offering justification. Exactly the things Gaffin brought to the table, thank God. Biblical theology is demanding – you have to be good at bib studs and also at theology/doctrine. Not many people are…

CRITIQUE (continued)

My main disappointment about this book is how narrowly Ridderbos actually executes his main idea of using salvation-history to describe canonicity. A more carefully developed methodology would have been welcome. While he appears to be mining salvation-history to explore its connection to the canon, in fact the discussion is skewed towards the issue of authority. Here we run into one of the conceptual problems which limit Ridderbos’s study: he assumes that canonicity is primarily to be understood as a subset or type of authority. He often uses the two words, canon and authority, interchangeably. The concept of authority is not explicit in Ridderbos’s core question, quoted in Post 1: the question about the nature of canonicity and the canon. Yet ‘canonical authority’ is clearly what Ridderbos wants to examine, and this unexplored assumption compromises the results. The conclusions he reaches about the canon relate to the matter of ‘authority’, and the impression is given that this category is central to canonicity. Yet its centrality has not been demonstrated so much as assumed; the study has been selective in the aspects of canonicity it chose to explore. Thus the results are skewed. The possibility that canonicity might be a category that includes other elements besides ‘authority’, does not seem to occur.

In reviewing salvation-history, then, Ridderbos’s interest is largely limited to this issue. Trouble is, Jesus gets treated as primarily a priniciple of authority. That’s a bit narrow isn’t it. Would have thought there’s a bit more to say about the history of Jesus than that. Also the apostles –  Ridderbos gives a summary of how the apostles were called, trained, authorised and sent. But his use of the Gospel-story amounts to this: that ‘Christ established a formal authority structure to be the source and standard of all future preaching of the gospel’ (p.13, my italics), i.e. the apostolate. The focus is on the status of the apostles as representatives of Jesus. This status becomes the basis for their role as the foundation of the church and its gospel tradition, and is ultimately encapsulated in the NT Scriptures. Fair enough. But is this really all that the Gospel stories have to offer in shedding light on the canon? Is this all there is to be said about the apostleship in relation to Scripture? The almost exclusive focus on authority unhelpfully limits his use of the NT histories. In particular, it tends to produce a fairly static and institutionalising account of God’s action in salvation history. For authority is essentially a static (or status) category, and very useful in creating power structures! There is not much use of the flow, of the stories of salvation history. Not much narrative in Ridderbos’s redemptive history!

I am concerned that the logical conclusion of this approach to the NT would be its use as a tool to coerce conformity to the demands of a church institution. If ‘authority’ is the main thing to say about the canon, (and even about Jesus?), then I guess asserting authority is the main thing to do with the canon?

But really the whole project needs serious broadening by a big injection of NT story. As an example, I would suggest that the theme of ‘trustworthy witness’ would be fruitful in exploring the connection between salvation history and NT Scripture. For the thing which history requires above all is faithful reporting. And it is precisely this issue that the apostles make so much of. Jesus himself is the ‘faithful witness’ (Revelation 1:5) who brings the good news of God’s kingdom. Jesus testifies of the kingdom that he has been sent by his Father to bring in: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…’ Thus Jesus comes as a messenger or witness, so that his gospel can be called ‘the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (Revelation 1: 2).

His disciples have this same role; having seen the risen Jesus they are likewise sent: ‘As the Father sent me so I send you’ (John 20:21). Their role is to be witnesses and to bear witness: ‘Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’ (Luke 24:46-48). ‘You will be my witnesses’, says Jesus, and sends them out (apostello Acts 1:8). Ridderbos considers the basic role of the apostles to be that of representing Jesus; and the their witness is primarily to be thought of as legally binding on the hearers – authority categories. But this is not born out by the Gospels and Acts. Fundamental to their sending (apostleship) is that they ‘tell what they have seen and heard’ (I John 1:1-3). At its most basic, apostleship is not about representing Jesus but about reporting what they have seen God do in Christ: ‘This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses’. (Acts 2:32) John introduces himself as ‘his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw’ (Revelation 1:1-2).   Of course there is a representative role implied in apostleship, but this is not nearly so prominent in the narrative as is this role of witness.

Ridderbos brings in ‘witness’ later as an aspect or subset of authority, but authority is not the main issue in testimony. The main thing about this witness is that it is true. The apostles repeatedly emphasise their reliability. They do not readily play the authority card: they play the ‘faithful witness’ card again and again. This is part of the point of emphasising that are many witnesses: ‘of that all of us are witnesses’ (Acts 2:32 cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). The first thing to be grasped about the message of Christ is that it is true: ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16). ‘What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands… we declare to you’ (I John 1:1-3).

In the story, authority comes in as a subset of witness. For the notable thing about this witness is its power. As the apostles testify to the ‘word of God’ (Luke’s term for the gospel), that word spreads and conquers. It is ‘the power of God for salvation’. It is ‘the sword of the Spirit’, the locus of God’s redemptive work amongst mankind. It is in this dynamic sense that the apostles so often insist their testimony is authoritative. ‘But the word of God was growing and multipying’ (Acts 12:24).

The Gospels, and to some extent the epistles, can then be seen as the encoding of that reliable apostolic witness in written form.

This approach would emphasise the authoritative nature of the gospel events, of Christ himself, as God’s revelation to the world. The authority of the apostolic witness would be seen to be derived and secondary, arising from faithfully declaring what they have seen.  I.e. not identical to God’s authority.

The NT idea of inspiration, so notably lacking in Ridderbos, would be a helpful compliment to this concept of witness, explaining how the apostles are able to explain and apply the meaning of the events they witnessed in a reliable and, yes, authoritative way.

These are really just a couple of suggestions or examples of how Ridderbos’s project could be carried out much more thoroughly and richly.

Last part of the Critique tomorrow.

What’s wrong with our music?

Posted: January 20, 2012 by J in Church, General

Last year I wrote (at the canterburychurchplant blog) a post about the weakness of our music in our Gatherings.

I’ve never felt very satisfied with this state of affairs. I can’t help feeling weak music in the church reflects badly on Christ. Surely we should be good at singing!

So I’m back gnawing at this bone again.

Part of our struggle with music is that it’s so hard to find songs that say the sort of things we’re wanting to say, with music that suits.

Here’s what I mean: we want songs that tell the story we want to tell – the Jesus story. We want songs that speak of the mission of Christ, of God’s heart for the poor and the weak and the outcast. We want songs that celebrate community. We want songs of rescue, release and restoration. We want songs that adore the Trinity. We want songs that express worship and joy and thankfulness towards our great God.

And we want good music (tunes) to sing them to.

Now for my confession:

The old hymns are generally good at expressing wonder and worship. But many of them don’t manage to tell the story. Or they tell a different story that ends up with death and heaven. In fact, much of the hymn tradition is shot through with Platonic distortions, and it’s so often a trade-off, singing a mix of rival and incompatible stories.

The kind of songs we sing in the Sydney evangelical scene, I find generally lacking in emotional depth, and not suited to the weighty task of drawing the people of God to the presence of the God of glory. They also have trouble telling the story. How many of our songs manage to celebrate the incarnation, or the resurrection of Jesus? Or the work of the Spirit? Only a few. In general the theology is truncated and formulaic in its expression. The songs massively overuse the metaphor of a price being paid – an image very rare in Scripture. There is rarely a clear expression of God’s Trinity. Also, the music is often bland and two-dimensional. No one is moved. No one goes away singing the tunes. And the words are – well, much too wordy. Too many words. Not enough poetry. Not much poetry at all. I often wince inwardly at the hamfistedness of the lyrics.

We’re terrified, too, of some of the things that music is best at doing. Like repetition, that most natural of all musical devices. You know, where you get a chance to meditate on an idea over time. Also we’re terrified of intimacy. We can just hear some alpha male in the congregation saying ‘So Jesus is our boyfriend?’ But friends, if we can’t get close to Jesus and have our hearts touched, and pour them out in love to him in music, then when on earth can we do it?

Then there’s the Hillsong stuff, and other middle-of-the-road Pentecostalish efforts. Overall I think it’s got the most to offer. Much of it is shallow, but there’s so much of it, and every now and then there’s a good one. They do God’s presence better than others. They do wonder and praise better too. They sometimes achieve an emotional depth that we can only envy. Also they sometimes hit on the story and bring it to life. And the music is usually not boring. Sometimes you even go away singing it to yourself. But it’s still pretty limited, overall.

The churches I’ve been to that do singing/music the best are largely skimming the cream of this last category. Hmm.

I’d love to discover that there’s a great source of songs that we actually want to sing, that express what we’re on about, and uplift and inspire us, and stretch and challenge us.

Can anyone help us with this?