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The Act of Confessing

June 2, 2016
Council of Chalcedon

In the act of confession, says theologian John Webster, “the church binds itself to the gospel” (119). Our confessional documents and creeds are intimately tied to this act, he says, but it would be a mistake to confuse these formal products of the church’s confession for the act of confession itself.  Thus “the creed is a good servant but a bad master: it assists, but cannot replace, the act of confession” (120).  To hold to one’s confession as “an achieved formula” risks quenching the Holy Spirit, who is living and active in the churches, and going one’s own way.

The essay is “Confession and Confessions,” published in the really excellent 2001 volume Nicene Christianity (ed. Christopher R. Seitz).  Here Webster models the sort of approach to theological inquiry that he was so good at, and in fact which marked all of his work: where lesser theologians might take a given topic and jump straight into the doctrine, its history, its biblical basis, and its functioning in the contemporary church (all good questions to pursue, mind you!) John tarries, pondering the topic on a more fundamental level and lingering on its relationship to the triune God and God’s gracious communion with God’s creatures.

Nicene Christianity (Seitz)So here, for example, instead of leaping to “What do we confess?” and “How do we confess?” and “What does confession do for our churches?” Webster has begun with the question: What is the act of confession in the economy of God’s self-giving?

This act can be expanded in three directions, Webster says:

(1) The act of confession originates in revelation (121).  Confessing is of course a human act, but it is one which takes its start (and therefore its content and its direction) from a prior act of God.  This act is “God’s communicative self-presence, the gracious and saving self-communication of God the Lord.”  And it is generative not only of the church’s confession, but of its very life.  And because this self-communicating of God is a movement, and because it is on-going, it is “a gift that cannot be converted into a possession” – as if Christians might now hear and take up and objectify the One whom it confesses.

(2) The act of confession is a responsive, not a spontaneous, act (122).  It is the church’s obedience to God the Lord, who has graciously addressed it and summoned it to listen and to speak.  This act therefore must be rooted in God’s triune life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, born not from the church’s creative speech about God but from the Father, the Son, and the Spirit’s dealings with creatures.  In this sense confessions are not even reducible to human speech that is uttered in response to grace; God makes the church’s confession and gives it as a gift, and the church trusts God to accomplish and bring to completion its own act of confessing.

(3) The act of confession is an episode in the conflict between God and sin that is at the center of the drama of salvation (122).  It does not stand apart from the drama of salvation.  The encounter between God and creatures is not just any encounter, but one in which God is confronting sin – sin, which is in part “the refusal to confess.”  And so the church’s confession of God is, more precisely, confession of the God who saves; and confession is itself an act of repentance.  It is rebellion against the disorder of the world, a joining in with God’s radical overturning of evil.


Perhaps most significant
in Webster’s theological account of confession is the conviction that confession is the mode in which the church exists, rather than the production of documents and doctrinal codes.  The church “does not convert the drama of redemption into a set of propositions to be policed” (130).  And so our creeds are binding, in a sense; but theologically we must acknowledge that this authority comes neither from the creed as an artifact nor from the church and its power to bind and loose, but from the God who is the object of its testimony.  The authority of the creed is not self-standing, separable from its own submission to the Word of God.  The creed “has the authority of the herald, not the magistrate” (130).

In sum, says Webster, “creeds bind because, and only because, the gospel binds.”  Any other sort of untethered propositionalism merely mistakes the structures of human reasoning – even if it be biblical reasoning – for the genuine article of God’s activity in the world.

Confession is finally a spiritual act, an act of worship, the result of God’s having “invaded and annexed” human life.  To remain a living act of confessing the church’s confession should be characterized by “astonished and chastened hearing of the Word and by grateful and afflicted witness” (121).  That is a tightly-packed and deeply beautiful statement, and a charge to our churches today: its confession of Jesus Christ and his gospel is born out of gratitude (Calvin), witnessing to the act of God on its behalf (Barth), but in so doing ever remaining astonished, chastened in its speech and afflicted out of its self-comfort.  To confess the gospel is to be drawn – forced – outside of one’s self.

There is no self-confidence here.  There is no self-righteousness.  There is only joyful bewilderment, a public acknowledgement of the miracle that God has had mercy on me, a sinner.

John Webster on God’s Sustaining Presence

May 31, 2016

While John’s new essay volumes The Domain of the Word and God Without Measure are grabbing attention from theologians (and rightly so), another new volume of Prof. Webster’s work has recently arrived that you might not know about: last year Lexham Press published Confronted By Grace: Meditations of a Theologian.  This is a collection of 26 sermons from his career, most during the time he served as canon of Christ Church cathedral in Oxford.

On the day that I learned of his passing I found myself holed up reading these sermons, searching for some source of comfort.  John’s words of course pointed me to God and no one else as the source of our comfort.  As he said in the sermon titled “He Who Comforts:”

In this matter of true human comfort, we enter a sphere in which God alone is competent.  No mere human being can announce comfort of this kind; no one can take it upon himself or herself to declare what Isaiah declares.  God alone may do this, because God alone is savior, and therefore comforter.  With this announcement we’re placed in the middle of God’s work of salvation.  We listen to an announcement that the human situation has been entirely changed – not modified or gingered up or temporarily cheered, but re-made, re-created.  Salvation and its comfort are in the hands of God alone; all we may do in comforting is, as Isaiah does, testify to the miracle of God’s mercy. (p. 42)

God is the source of all our comfort, the one who provides relief and vindication, and who on the basis of this relief and vindication gives us the command, “Comfort, comfort my people …” (Isaiah 40:1).

As those who weep and mourn you and I are drawn by our frailty into God’s presence.  As those who are afflicted we seek comfort, and this seeking brings us inexorably to the true Comforter.  In God’s presence, John says in another sermon (this one on Psalm 121 – “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from?”), we are sustained.  God is the one who attends to us in our affliction, who will lift up your head:

God does not sleep through the misery of the world; God will shade us in the heats of the day; God will watch us as we journey; God will keep us.  It’s simple enough.  But to get to those affirmations, we have to climb over a lot of rubble inside ourselves.  We have to learn what is extraordinarily hard for us to learn: not to listen to our fears; not to be tossed around by whatever comes across our path; not to give credence to the lies that God has fallen asleep or just given up protecting us.

Those things take a lifetime to learn for most of us, because learning them involves overcoming some of our most basic drives and desires and foolishness.  But it’s only as we learn those things that we begin to live with a measure of Christian composure.  Christian composure is a very particular thing, however.  It’s an equanimity that is given to us, which we don’t make up from our own resources.  It’s given to us as we make our confession of the lordship of God, as we learn how to praise God, how to trust the gospel, how to see all things int he light of God’s mercy, how to keep our hearts by God’s promises. (p. 147)

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

 The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.

 The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 121:5-8, NRSV

Reading John B. Webster (1955-2016)

May 31, 2016

Series Introduction

By now most readers of this blog will be aware of the sudden passing of Prof. John Webster on May 25, 2016.  John was a mentor and a friend to all four of us who contribute to Out of Bounds (all of us having been supervised by him during our doctoral studies in Aberdeen), and so far we have chosen to deal with our grief privately.

What we would like to do here on the blog in the weeks and months to come, though, is to share John’s work and his theological insights with you.  Some readers may be intimately familiar with his oeuvre; others may have come across his work from time to time; and still others may be brand new to his theological project – one that unfortunately must remain unfinished.  John had a dozen or so books published (including three brand new essay collections on God and God’s Word) and countless essays, stretching from Eberhard Jüngel and Karl Barth to the doctrine of Scripture, ecclesiology, the idea of sanctification, and most especially the doctrine of the Triune God as the fountainhead of all theological thought.

Watch for an on-going series of posts in this blog’s future, and please share in the comments about how John’s work has impacted you.  One idea for the future is for us to host an online reading group through one of John’s books.  If that is of interest to you please post below.  (In the meantime the folks at Mere Orthodoxy are currently talking about a group read-through of Holiness [Eerdmans, 2003].)

Together we continue to engage John’s ideas, to give them a wide hearing, to give thanks for his decades of ministering the gospel, and to remember together that it is only by the grace of God that each of us has the privilege of being a working theologian on the earth for still one more day.

Continue: Posts About John Webster

Going Paperback: Karl Barth’s Christology

March 10, 2016

Karl Barth and the Incarnation (Book)We’ve known each other long enough now that you shouldn’t be surprised to know that I have no qualms whatsoever about shameless shilling for my book.  I’ve been forced to hold back since it was first published a little over a year ago, thanks to the price tag putting the book out of reach of the average reader.

Well, those days are over.

Karl Barth and the Incarnation hits paperback this month, and you can pre-order it now on Amazon for under $30 bucks.

The book puts the twentieth-century Swiss Reformed theologian in dialogue with the classical tradition with respect to the doctrine of the incarnation.  Chapter 1 traces the development of the doctrine of Christ’s person from the fourth century to the eighth century and beyond (with particular attention given to Athanasius, Cyril, and John of Damascus), suggesting that the tradition has rendered a Christology that in places stands in tension with itself.  Four problems in particular are diagnosed with respect to God’s immutability, impassibility, kenosis, and identity.

Chapter 2 surveys Barth’s response to this so-called “Logos Christology” of the ancient and medieval church, with a focus on his lectures at Göttingen and Münster in the 1920s, and Volume I of the Church Dogmatics (published in the early 1930s).  Chapter 3 then examines the Christology of CD Volume IV, drawing out several thematic pairs that help us to understand what Barth was doing in his Christology – and why this ended up being so foundational to his theological project taken as a whole. (Those pairs are covenant and election, time and eternity, the divine and human essences, and humiliation and exaltation.)

The fourth chapter takes up the somewhat controverted question of whether Barth’s understanding of Christ’s person – which is in many respects creative and distinctly modern – qualifies as orthodox or “Chalcedonian.” I affirm that it most certainly is, and along the way explore Barth’s vital understanding of the nature of confessions, ecclesial authority, and metaphysical language.

Chapter 5 puts all these pieces together by returning to the four problems identified in Chapter 1, bringing the christological themes from Chapter 3 to bear on the topics of divine immutability, impassibility, kenosis, and the identity of the incarnate Christ.  The book advocates, finally, that Barth’s Christology is a rich and rewarding help to Christians seeking to think critically yet faithfully about the person of Christ in the modern world.  Along the way it carefully engages a number of ongoing controversies within Barth studies.

I do hope you’ll give the book a look now that it isn’t going to cost you an arm and a leg!

Book Review: Sanctified by Grace

January 25, 2016

When I was finishing seminary and513r3mwtg8l-_sx332_bo1204203200_ applying for Phd programs in systematic theology, I had several fellow students and a few professors express surprise that I would want to pursue that particular field. Others at my seminary considering going on to doctoral work were mostly interested in either biblical studies or ethics, excited about getting the church to face either the hard historical facts behind the biblical text or the hard moral requirements our faith makes of us. The conceptual study of doctrine seemed to them “rationalistic”, detached and irrelevant. I had one pastor acquaintance who really didn’t know anything about my theological leanings tell me I like systematic theology because I want to “chop the Bible up into little bits.” Clearly a certain brand of systematic theology, the kind given to an encyclopedic style and proof-texting method, had come to define the whole field for most of the people around me.

I had, thankfully, been exposed to theologies of far greater substance than this, ones centered especially around the being, character and work of God and imbued with a deep appreciation for the history of Christian doctrine, a holistic integration of conceptual and moral dimensions, and a penetrating critique of modern and postmodern biblical hermeneutics. Taking classes at Fuller Seminary from Ray Anderson and Jeannine Graham exposed me to the work of Karl Barth, T. F. Torrance and John Webster. That trio of influences has changed my theology, faith and life forever and led me to Aberdeen to study with John Webster. There I encountered a community of theological study and spiritual life that offered a profound demonstration of what systematic theology can be. I am forever grateful for that experience.

kent-eilers4_web_300_375

Rev. Dr. Kent Eilers

I am also grateful to Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel for compiling and editing this book, Sanctified by Grace: A Theology of the Christian Life. Both having done their Phds in Aberdeen, the book they have produced offers an excellent introduction to the kind of theology I’m talking about, featuring a good smattering of theologians who either presently teach at Aberdeen or did when we were there – John Webster, Don Wood, Tom Greggs and Phil Ziegler – but also a host of others from across the US and UK who represent the best of the field and demonstrate the rich benefit it has to offer the church today.

One of the great strengths of this book that the editors set out in the preface and introduction is the rejection of any dichotomy between theological reflection and Christian practice, between the intellectual and the moral, between doctrine and life. That is signified in the title: not just our initial justification but the whole scope of our lived faith needs to be understood by reference to the being, character and gracious work of the triune God.

kyle20strobel_full

Dr. Kyle Strobel

The first essay of the book, “The Triune God” by Fred Sanders, is an excellent example. You couldn’t find a doctrine seen as more abstract and irrelevant by most Christians than the Trinity, but Sanders skillfully demonstrates how an understanding of God’s eternal triune life and the connection between its eternal “processions” and the saving “missions” of God the Son and God the Spirit in time is the key to understanding what salvation really means for the Christian: adoption into God’s life.

And the hits keep on coming. Suzanne McDonald’s essay on “The Electing God” is another example of a doctrine most Christians avoid like the plague being used as an entryway to understanding the peculiar power and beauty of the triune God revealed in scripture. Ian McFarland’s “The Saving God” is another highlight, relating a richly biblically informed understanding of God to a proper understanding of Christian salvation and vice versa.

Another great value of this book is its accessibility and usability. The chapters are fairly bite sized, most running about 15 pages or less, organized around the chief doctrines of Christian faith and practice so that each chapter offers a succinct and well written introduction to the topic, current debates and relevance to lived faith. I’ve already tagged several essays for use in undergraduate and seminary classes I teach. My hope, however, is that this book might find readers outside the academy in the church, where a revived interest in theological reflection is most needed. Lay readers would likely be somewhat challenged by many of these essays, but only to their great benefit. In a time when the church growth movement has produced consumer congregations tolerant of only the easiest encouragements, a deep doctrinal book is always a hard sell, especially one that threatens to stretch our vocabulary and make us ponder the reality of God without immediate “action steps”. But a book like this could be perfect for church reading groups led by energetic seminarians. The impact on the life and culture in such churches would be invaluable. 

Wherever this book finds its readership, Eilers and Strobel have done the church and theological academy a great service in bringing together this outstanding group of theologians together. This book is a solid demonstration of unique benefit systematic theology has to offer and the freshness of the current state of the field.

The 2016 L.A. Theology Conference: ‘The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture’

January 13, 2016

Between you and me, the West Coast doesn’t have a whole lot of exciting events that fall into the category of theology conferences — at least for those of us who specialize in doctrine, its history, and its ongoing relevance to the church. That’s why I get so excited for the annual Los Angeles Theology Conference, which is now in its fourth year.

This year’s even takes place on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California at the end of this week (January 14 and 15). Five plenary speakers and a batch of concurrent session papers will fill two days on the topic of Scripture and/as divine speech.

This year’s plenary speakers include Stephen Fowl (Loyola), John Goldingay (Fuller), Amy Plantinga-Pauw (Louisville), William Abraham (SMU), and Daniel Treier (Wheaton).  But I’m especially interested to hear a paper from my Out of Bounds colleague Dr. Adam Nigh, whose paper is titled “Hearing the Text: Scripture and Preaching as Sacramental Pair.”

The conference is co-sponsored by Fuller Seminary, Biola University (which hosts in alternate years), the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola, and Zondervan Publishers, which kicks out a book with around nine of the conference papers every fall.

Those who aren’t able to attend this year but are interested should put the LATC on their calendar for next January, when the theme will be Dogmatics.

Review: Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews

July 1, 2015

Christology, Hermeneutics, and HebrewsChristology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation. Edited by Jon C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier. T&T Clark, 2012. HB, $130.00, PB $34.95, 288 pp.

A newer entry into the increasingly popular spate of essay collections on the theological interpretation of Scripture, Christology, Hermeneutics, and Hebrews draws upon more than a dozen theologians and biblical scholars to trace the history of the interpretation of Hebrews and the letter’s significance to the task of Christian theological reflection. As a theologian I find projects like this especially exciting in that they tend to side-step formal questions that often preoccupy scholars in the guild of biblical studies (such as authorship), and instead jump straight into the epistle’s theological content. On the other hand, the collection is attentive to questions of method (i.e. the nature and tasks of theological hermeneutics) in a way that such reflection often neglects.

The Epistle to the Hebrews is fundamentally christological in nature, from the Son’s identification as “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (1:3), to statements about his being made “lower than the angels for a little while” (2:9), his being “tempted in all ways like us, except without sin” (4:15), his having “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8), his high priestly work of atonement on our behalf, his being “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (13:8), and more.

The volume collects 13 essays which attend primarily to a series of snapshots from the history of the letter’s interpretation – from Irenaeus and the church fathers to Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers, and other figures leading up to the place of Hebrews in modern systematic theology. The middle word in the title, hermeneutics, is key here: the focus is on how Hebrews has been used in theological reflection over the centuries, and also on the nature of ‘theological interpretation’ and the place it should have in the field of Christian biblical studies (which, methodologically speaking, remains oriented toward the sometimes anti-theological orientation of historical criticism).

Co-editor John C. Laansma opens things with a survey of the field of scholarship on Hebrews, and three essays conclude the volume – Harold W. Attridge and Donald A. Hagner providing responses to the project from the perspective of biblical scholarship, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight offering a theologian’s response. Other contributors include: Frances M. Young, D. Jeffrey Bingham (on Irenaeus), Charles Kannengiesser (John Chrysostom), Daniel Keating (Thomas Aquinas), Mickey L. Mattox (Martin Luther), R. Michael Allen (John Calvin), Kelly M. Kapic (John Owen), Bruce L. McCormack (Karl Barth), and Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood. (Laansma and Treier, of Wheaton College, did editing duties as well.)

I will comment briefly on several of the individual essays, and conclude with some overall thoughts on the volume.

~ ~

Frances Young’s essay is a reprint from a classic 1969 publication, contrasting Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical impulses with regard to the use of Hebrews in the commentaries and homilies of Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and Theodoret of Cyrus (as well as a little bit from Theodore of Mopsuestia). The brief chapter is teeming with insight, displaying why Professor Young is among the best in her field. Cyril’s Christology, for example, struggles with the limits of an instrumentalist construal of the relationship between the divine Logos and the flesh he assumed: though he affirms that the assumed humanity has a soul and a mind, “he has not fully grasped the implications of the condemnation of Apollinarius and still moves in the same general pattern of thought” (p. 36).

On the other hand, Antiochenes such as Chrysostom emphasize Jesus’ authentic experience of the human condition “to such an extent that he is obliged to separate the Logos from it; this is the only way he knows of safeguarding both the reality of Christ’s human involvement, and the divine nature of the Logos” (p. 41) – which hardly allows for the Logos to be incarnate at all. In both cases, these christological positions shape the ways in which Alexandrian and Antiochene thinkers exegete the themes of Hebrews.

Daniel Keating focuses on what he identifies as Thomas Aquinas’ “two-nature exegesis,” i.e. framing the many and provocative christological claims of the epistle by the ancient doctrine of one person in two natures. In other words, Thomas unapologetically takes the Definition of Chalcedon as a hermeneutical guide for Scripture (p. 85). (Take note here – this is a contested idea that will resurface among other contributors.) Under the master interpretive theme of grace in Christ, Thomas interprets the Bible’s statements about Christ according to either Christ’s human nature, divine nature, or both – all while studiously avoiding the heretical extremes of both Nestorianism (an excessive stress on the natures’ distinction) and Monophysitism (an excessive stress on their unification).

For example: Hebrews states (to God the Father, regarding his Son), “You have set him over the works of your hands,” and Thomas concludes that this must refer to Christ insofar as he is human – since as God he is already over all things, and does not need to be exalted by his Father (p. 86). Christ’s office of priesthood, on the other hand, applies in different ways both to his humanity and his divinity: as human he makes proper satisfaction for the sins of human beings, and yet his priesthood is truly (and universally, and permanently) effective precisely because he is also God.

Keating shows that Thomas’ Commentary on Hebrews is a masterful deployment of the strategy of reduplication (reading the biblical text’s statements about Christ ‘according to’ one nature or the other) in the scholastic era. In short, ecclesial tradition is regarded as the proper means for interpreting Scripture (and, presumably, not vice versa): “Aquinas has allowed the clarity of Chalcedonian Christology to illuminate the text of Hebrews by drawing out the implications of the ‘Son’ being both divine and human and by showing how the two natures in Christ contribute (in distinct ways) to his high priestly role” (p. 95).

Bruce L. McCormack’s essay on the exordium (Heb. 1:1-4) seeks to extend Karl Barth’s theological interpretation of John’s Prologue to the Christology of Hebrews. What is the identity of the “Son” through whom God has definitively spoken, whom God has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe (1:2)? In his reading of John, Barth had concluded that the Logos is meant to be a “placeholder” pointing ahead to Jesus Christ (and having no identity apart from the God-human union in the Incarnation – a sort of reversal of the doctrine of anhypostasis). Though Barth wrote no extended exegesis of Hebrews, McCormack argues with good reason that Barth would give the same reading here: the referent indicated by the “Son” is Jesus (finally named in 2:9), and their identity is a red thread throughout Hebrews (p. 169).

This much will be familiar to those who follow McCormack’s work. His more notable claim in this essay is that dogmatics ought not say anything of God that is not clearly authorized by the text at hand. The question of the identity of the Son in the exordium illustrates this. The text creates a tension (e.g. between a Son who is the “exact representation of God’s being” and yet who must also be “appointed heir of all things” – as if they were not already his by virtue of his deity) which the theologian endeavors to resolve. In this case, McCormack insists that theologians refrain from speculating about the identity of a “Son” in ways abstracted from the relation of Jesus to God the Father in time, as narrated by Scripture. Simply because the author of Hebrews begins with the “Son” before identifying him as “Jesus” does not license speculation about a Logos asarkos. And later doctrinal considerations (such as the Son’s eternal relation to the Father in the immanent Trinity) are out of bounds for making sense of such passages, since the biblical authors offer the exegete no assurances that such a “Son” is anything more than a construct imposed upon the text.

McCormack would claim, then, that the content of the creeds derive from a careful reading of the whole witness of Scripture. But this relationship between Scripture and tradition cannot be reversed; while the creeds show how the Bible has been interpreted by the church, it should not be read back into the text in order to try and mitigate difficult passages.

Finally, Daniel J. Treier and Christopher Atwood set about cataloguing the manner in which Hebrews is used (particularly, the relative paucity of its use) in systematic theologies of the modern period, with brief glances at Charles Hodge, Augustus Hopkins Strong, John Miley, Franz (Francis) Pieper, Louis Berkhof, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Geoffrey Wainwright, Carl F. H. Henry, Thomas Finger, Thomas C. Oden, J. Rodman Williams, Stanley J. Grenz, Wayne A. Grudem, Millard J. Erickson, James William McClendon, Jr., Donald G. Bloesch, and Robert W. Jenson. The reader will immediately note how the names selected give this piece a parochial air: with the odd exception of Jenson they are all “evangelical” writers, and the explanation for this – Barth gets his own essay elsewhere in this volume, and other modern systematicians who are not American evangelicals tend to make less frequent references to Scripture (p. 174) – is unsatisfying.

Treier and Atwood proceed concisely to summarize the multitude of doctrinal themes on which Hebrews may be found to speak, and finally arrive at an account of theological exegesis that can only be called an apology for proof-texting. They suggest that this is simply the responsibility of theologians to “show their work’ (p. 195), but it would seem that McCormack’s charge that too often we read our theologies a-contextually into the biblical text is on display here. It is difficult to see how they propose to avoid historical-critical transgressions great and small by appealing to statements within Scripture in this sort of isolated fashion. Thus a remark from Attridge (said in regard to this essay’s survey of modern evangelical systematic theologies) seem no less apropos for Treier and Atwood’s own account of proof-texting: “The reverence for Scripture that supposedly undergirds such cherry-picking approaches in fact seems to cloak a disdain for really listening to what the words of the sacred text are saying” (p. 209).

~ ~

The final three essays of the book, and especially Kathryn Greene-McCreight’s critical entry, demonstrate what a peculiar collection this is. Each is oriented backward toward the preceding essays, with some summarizing (Attridge’s essay for a stretch reads somewhat like a standard book review) and a modicum of open-ended, critical engagement – much as one would see in response papers given at the end of a conference panel session. Greene-McCreight wraps up the conversation with a critique that almost undermines the whole project: rather than salient strategies for moving forward in the task of theological exegesis (particularly as it relates to responsible work in historical criticism) some of what is suggested here, she rightly observes, are symptoms of the very crisis the authors mean to address.

Without “fuller suggestions for a way forward” in theological exegesis, Greene-McCreight concludes, a ‘selective history of interpretation’ offers little of value (p. 225). If anything, that is where this volume comes up short: in the absence of any sort of unified program (or at least some shared definitions) the project as a whole may not be able to ascend beyond the level of a collection of interesting historical footnotes. (Did you know that John Owen wrote a 4-volume, 4,000-page work on Hebrews?)

There are pressing questions with which Greene-McCreight leaves us – both the reader and the volume’s editors. What is it that we mean by ‘theological interpretation,’ and what is it that we hope this will secure, which we do not possess without it? Can we read the biblical texts theologically – even as persons of faith who find that God speaks and makes claims upon us in the biblical text – without ceasing to be critical? Should we read traditional doctrine back into Scripture (per Thomas), or refuse this move as a transgression of sola Scriptura (per McCormack)? And what does it mean for our reading of the text to be critically responsible (e.g. reading Matthew for what Matthew means) and yet also governed by the regula fidei?

The challenge in reading Scripture at its intersection with systematic theology is to affirm the historical and the critical without privileging the text’s first-century witness over its contemporary witness. That God has spoken ought not blind us to the reality that God still is speaking. Of course these two, the historical-critical and the theological, are not in competition with one another, at least not where the Scriptures are confessed to be the working of the Holy Spirit – and so to be “living and active” words. If the Spirit continues to inspire the text in our hearing, then by faith the responsible Christian exegete can pray only that she may have ears to hear.

Thanks to Bloomsbury / T&T Clark for providing a review copy.

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