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Review: Four Views of Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology

Four Views of Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology is the 2008 addition to Zondervan’s Counterpoints series. The focus of this volume is to explore four models for taking the historically embedded revelation of Scripture and applying it to challenges, answer questions, and to instruct on issues never explicitly covered in the Bible itself. Veteran Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser defends the Principalizing method. Theologian and pastor Daniel Doriani defends the Redemptive-Historical Method. Systematic Theologian Kevin J. Vanhoozer put forth his Drama-of-Redemption approach. Finally, William J. Webb represents the Redemptive-Movement model. In addition to the primary articles and their respective responses, this volume includes three additional essays of reflection from Mark Strauss, Albert Wolters, and Christopher J. H. Wright.

Summary

Dr. Walter Kaiser’s principalizing method argues that, strictly speaking, we do not have to move beyond the Bible in order to apply its teachings to contemporary challenges. Biblical authority comes to bear on modern questions by the application of its universal principles to new concrete situations. This is done by asking what is the general teaching behind specific biblical injunctions. He actually boils this down to a four-step method. First, we must determine the central point of any text we are studying. Second, we should exegetically determine the internal reasoning process of the passage (noting links between phrases, clauses, and sentences). Third, the interpreter moves to see how each “paragraph (in prose genres), scene (in narratives), or strophe (in poetical passages) can be expressed in propositional principles” (23). This means also removing all proper names/nouns in the process to make the principle truly universal. Fourth and finally, we should present our principles and imperatives in present tense verbs. He then applies this method to studies cases on euthanasia, gender roles in the church, homosexual, and several other ethical issues.

Doriani’s Redemptive-Historical approach is one that fits with the thought of Reformed thinkers such as Gerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Richard Gaffin. Its emphasis is on the Bible as the unfolding redemptive story of God in Christ. It rightfully warns against an interpretive flattening of Scripture that ignores different redemptive periods. Doriani also advocates a sensitivity towards genre. How Scripture communicates is just as important as what Scripture communicates. Therefore, unlike some in the Redemptive-Historical camp, Doriani advocates receiving instruction from biblical portraits and character studies (where the actions of the character receive God’s blessing and implicit approval). Like Kaiser, he offers steps for implementation. Step one is close accurate interpretation of his text. Step two is a synthesis of biblical data, “paying close attention to it place in redemptive history” (85). Step three is application with a special emphasis on the principle of imitation of Christ. Finally, step four is “adjusting a tradition application” but focusing on narrative communication. How do we find a bridge to cross from text to application? Doriani advocates as return to casuistry, “the art of resolving particular cases of conscience through appeal to higher general principles” (100). His chapter closes with case studies on architecture, gambling, and the issue of woman in ministry.

Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter on the Drama-of-Redemption model of interpretation six to bridge the divide between theology, ethics, and the pastoral application. His goal is to fundamentally reorient his reader’s perspective on the view task of “using” the Bible. God is the divine director, with the Bible as the chief script. We are performers of the text, and moving “beyond the Bible” is akin to improvisation. The goal is the development of godly wisdom, knowing how to live in a way that is “fitting” with God plan for creation in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most controversial contribution is the Redemptive Movement method set forth by Webb. According to this view, Scripture at times does not present to us God’s final or ultimate ethic. Webb’s chief case study is the issue of slavery. Christians rightly, Webb argues, embrace an abolitionist ethic – though Scripture does not finally command the abolition of the institution of slavery. So how do we rightly and biblically ground this conviction? Webb says Scripture points us there through “movement meeting.” We determine this movement by observing a twofold movement. First, how Scripture’s ethic moves (in a humanizing direction) from its Ancient Near Eastern context (in the Old Testament) or it’s Greco-Roman context (in the New Testament). The second movement is the intra-scriptural development from the Old to the New covenant. Returning to the subject the slavery, we find the great humanizing contrast between Old testament slavery and it’s Ancient Near Eastern counterpart, and likewise once we move to the New Testament we read “…there is neither slave nor free… in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Webb clarifies that this is not a meeting over in against God’s intention, but rather the meaning implicit in the Scripture itself.

Assessment

As I read through each of the essays, I was struck by the fact that they were all so different and, as Wolters notes in his reflection essay, sometimes talking about very different things. In fact, I found it reassuring that nearly all of my questions, concerns, or critiques were voiced at one point or another by any one of the contributors. Furthermore, the reflection essays by Strauss, Wolters, and Wright were especially rich and added much to the discussion.

The greatest strength of Kaiser’s approach is that, by direct or indirect admission from the other contributors, principalizing is unavoidable. Unless we have grown comfortable with the idea of imposing extra biblical commands on the consciences of God’s people, there is to one degree or another no alternative sent to the principalizing impulse. But a looming danger to Kaiser’s particular brand of principalizing is its emphasis on propositionalizing, its narrow focus on ethics, and the danger of devaluing the diverse genres of Scripture. In what is perhaps an overreaction to the excesses of some of his colleagues, Doriani devotes too much time to what his approach is against, almost as much is what it is for. Furthermore, Doriani’s seven-page discussion on the attributes of Scripture, while appreciated, was simply too long in an essay that missed opportunities to positively develop his approach and clarify how his model is distinct and superior to the others. At times I found myself asking, “how is his approach more than a mere nuancing of Kaiser’s approach?” The quality of Wright’s reflection essay what such that I found myself wondering why he didn’t right the Redemptive-Historical essay, since it was a richer positive presentation than Doriani’s.  The Drama-of-Redemption model was a reminder of what a fun read Vanhoozer can be, but I his essay was heavy on theory with little practical emphasis. His theological and moral applications (on a theology of Mary and a response to transgenderism) relied little on his model. His applications were generically Protestant and Evangelical with minor theatrical analogies almost ornamentally thrown in. If this were the time for Vanhoozer’s model to shine (when he is given an unlimited range of topics to demonstrate the applicability of his model), the examples he chose fell flat and worked against him. Furthermore, his approach is too dependent on the dramatic analogy. It runs the danger of implying that the fullest use of Scripture demands a mastery of the analogy itself, with all of its points of correspondence (a proposition I am confident Vanhoozer himself would strongly reject).

Finally, Webb’s article was both fascinating and stimulating, though a number of concerns still plague me. First, and this is hard to completely capture in words, but several times Webb’s comments sound a lot of like the liberal disparagement of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.   Second, Webb appears to be too dependent on the values of most Western democracy, functionally putting them close to God’s ideal ethic than the inscripturated words themselves. Lastly, there appears to be inconsistency within Webb’s model. That is to say, given his views of “movement meaning” it would seem that writings closer to the closing of the canon would be further along the ethical trajectory than earlier portions of revelation.  But Paul’s more egalitarian sound passage in Galatians 3:28, was written before his more gender restrictive language in 1 Tim. 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet”). This is potentially devastating for his hermeneutic, but Webb leaves this objection untreated.

As many in the work note, this book is hardly the final work on the subject, and it is clear to me that each view would do well to heed the cautions and warning offered by the other camps. There is no clear “winner” is this kind of discussion, but the conversation itself is a rising tide that raises all ships.

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Review: Do More Better

Do More Better: A Practical Guide to Producitivity is the latest release from well-known Reformed blogger and co-founder of Cruciform Press, Tim Challies. In response to the question of why he produced the book, Challies writes,

I wrote this short, fast-paced, practical guide to productivity to share what I have learned about getting things done in today’s digital world. Whether you are a student or a professional, a work-from-home dad or a stay-at-home mom, it will help you learn to structure your life to do the most good to the glory of God.

God has uniquely gifted each person with the ability, energy, calling, etc to do certain things with excellence. The quest for maximal productivity is all about recognizing, organizing, and streamlining your responsibilities in such a way as to free you up to throw yourself at the things you do best with maximum effort. “God calls you to productivity, but he calls you to the right kind of productivity. He calls you to be productive for his sake, not your own.”

After writing about stewardship and our responsibilities to God, Challies instructs his readers to reflect on all of their responsibilities in life and to aim to organize them into no more than 5 major categories (mine are personal, family, church, social, and work/influence). Within those major categories are sub-categories. So, for instance, under the major category of Personal, there are the sub-categories of spiritual development, health, finances, education, etc.), under the major category of Family there would be the sub-category of marriage, parenting, etc.)

Once you have those Areas of Responsibility determined, you can come up with a brief mission statement for each, a simple statement that gets to what you want to be doing in those areas. Challies himself believes a single mission statement for all of life can be too overwhelming to a person to put together. I would add that if we have something to spiritual it will be too vague to inform actionable steps. And that the point of the mission statement: to focus on precisely what you want to do and accomplish in a given area of responsibility in your life. Once you know what you’re shooting for, you can accept certain addition responsibilities or turn down others as they fit in with your overall vision.

The remainder of the book (thus far) is structuring three key tools to help keep yourselves organized in those major areas of responsibility. The first tool is a task management system (a scaled-up version of a to-do list), a calendar, and an information storage system (he strongly advocates Evernote). Getting these systems up and running can take a little investment, but the payoffs are huge.

Do More Better is a great read for several reasons. Challies speaks of productivity under the rubric of stewardship. This is very helpfully places time management and producitivity under biblical and theological categories. The time he spends on this isn’t much, but his foundation is helpful and solid. Likewise, at points, and I mean this in the best sense possible, the book reads like a manual, guiding the reader with concrete examples and suggestions. For someone like me who is just wadding into the ocean of literature on this subject, it was helpful to have a guide hold my hand. But, finally, Challies strong argues that the goal of productivity is not for the glorification and advancement of one’s own agenda. “Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.

Book Review: The End of Apologetics

Myron Penner’s The End of Apologetics argues that much (if not most) of the practice of contemporary apologetics is hopelessly wedded to Enlightenment assumptions that undermine the very enterprise of apologetics (to commend the Christian faith). Penner is an priest in the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. As he states in one online interview, “I no longer see how modern apologetics (and by that I mean the attempt to give reasons for Christian belief that are objective, universal, and neutral) is really all that helpful – for me or anyone else.”

On the upside, he does present some stinging criticisms of apologetic neutrality and provides helpful reminders that apologetics should aim at more than mere acceptance of a few additional propositions like “God exists.” The kind of faith we hope to lead a person to is full blooded and thrives in community and is aimed at the flourishing of other image bearers.

This was also quite the frustrating read. In some parts I really agree with Penner’s thesis (that much of the modern apologetic project is in bed with modernism), but even in the places where I tend to be sympathetic, I still think he erects strawmen to make his debate partners looks more naive and un-nuanced than they really are. He writes as if [what we could call] evidentialists reduce the faith to a mere acceptance of propositions. I’m a Van TIlian of the Framean stripe, but even as I disagree with their method, Christian charity demands that I fairly present their position. Contrary to their representation in the book,  apologists such as William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland believe that true Christian faith flourishes (and needs) discipleship, community, etc. Instead Penner tends to present them as bald rationalists. Also, his (brief) discussion of presuppositionalism is superficial at best, downright uninformed at worst. If he paid closer attention to Van Tillian apologetics he wouldn’t (essentially) condemn the entire modern apologetic enterprise.

With the exception of one short section toward the end of the book Penner seemed more concerned with kierkegaardian categories of analysis than biblical and theological ones. And his painting of his debate partners in the worst light was a put-off. This is a helpful book in terms of presenting a contemporary argument against apologetics, but the book’s weaknesses  outweighed its strengths.

Review: What Would Jesus Deconstruct?

I just finished reading John Caputo’s What Would Jesus Deconstruct?. Below is the posted book review that I put up on my Facebook account. My opening comments are referring to this review:

Caputo’s other books have been light in a dark place, and this series of books looks promising. But this particular volume strikes me as poorly written and poorly reasoned, surprising for Caputo. He rails against an undefined “religious Right” in a way that Brian McLaren, in the preface, describes as “hospitable” but which I can only describe as straw-man hostility. He takes Derrida to have something to say about religion, which is fair enough and true, I think. But he never here makes the case for why we should listen to Derrida, or why Deconstruction is a desirable Biblical hermeneutic. In the end, he has very little to offer other than his opinion. I say this as one who usually finds his opinions interesting and his philosophy worth reading. This time, however, I think Caputo writes sloppily. He either does a disservice to the views he espouses, or else exposes them as largely empty of _theological_ content. When he talks about the key themes in Derrida’s work, he’s lucid; when he talks about what they mean for us, his wordplay seems to mask a lack of argument. This is unfortunate

The review above is superb and right on target. I read this work because I do believe that deconstruction can be appropriated in useful ways by Christians. When Caputo is explaining what deconstruction is and it’s concerns, the work is insightful and helpful. The 2nd half of the work is nearly useless (at least to me). Rather than writing a long of a review, allow me to bullet point my areas of concern:

  1. Caputo seems to have a difficult time speaking specifically of Christianity without the discussion soon degenerating into a discussion of ‘religion’ in general.
  2. His disgust with the ‘Christian’ or ‘religious’ right is evident on every page, while he has nearly nothing to correct on the Left.
  3. He pits Paul against Jesus, and nearly always isolates Jesus from the overall biblical narrative, especially the Old Testament (i.e. the Hebrew Bible).
  4. Many of his arguments aren’t arguments at all but not-so-subtly hidden biases against traditional Christian views (on human nature, homosexuality, abortion, penal substitution, etc).
  5. He, at least in this book, shows no familiarity with discussions on his chosen topics that come to conclusions other than his own.
  6. Most of his arguments against the “Christian right” are aimed at a straw-man fundamentalism. I kept asking myself, ‘who believes that!?’ The classical Christian position on abortion and homosexuality, for instance, should be represented by it’s best thinkers, not by extremes…if Caputo doesn’t appreciate it when this is done against Derrida (and I agree), then he shouldn’t do it against Christianity.
  7.  The audience of the book isn’t completely clear. Baker academic is primarily an evangelical Protestant publishing house. Caputo slips back and forth between attacks on Evangelical views, and then attacking Roman Catholic views (many attacks of which Protestants would agree). The lack of focus is very frustrating.
  8. Tying in with point 4, Caputo’s writing also suffers from the ‘saying it’s so doesn’t make it so’ fallacy. Saying that Jesus would probably endorse homosexual love if he lived today (while ignoring Jesus high view of Scripture with all that it approved and condemned) doesn’t make it so.

So many logical and theological problems plague this book that i’ll have to stop here, lest I go on for several pages. There are paragraphs here and there are that so good that they push you on to finish the entire work, but overall i’m a little surprised that Baker decided to go ahead and publish a book like this. Eerdman’s I’d expect, as well as Brazos (Baker’s more ‘radical’ imprint, but not Baker Academic. James. K. A. Smith’s first volume in this series was fantastic. Smith endorses much of postmodernism, but is nevertheless critical. Caputo, on the other hand, would change the very face of historic Christianity if he had his way.

Summary: This book is for the discerning. Read it with care. But, if you believe the Bible is the actual verbal revelation of God Himself, brace yourself for a pretty high dose of frustration as you trek through it.

Review: How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith

 Just a week ago, I finished reading Crystal Downing’s work, How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. The work represents a shift in Christian writing on the topic of postmodernism. Though Downing’s work isn’t the first in this trend, the trend is that of works that see postmodernism as a boon for Christian witness. Many books published 10-12 years ago have an us vs. them feel about them. Mostly noticeable of the “older” books on pomo is Douglas Groothuis’ book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity against the Challenge of Postmodernism (ironically, also published by InterVarsity Press). Groothius has many helpful things to say, but overall he find little helpful about postmodernism and links it to some of the strangest aspects of contemporary culture. What Downing brings in her book is a take on the issues from someone who’s actually read the key thinkers of this movement (and this isn’t meant as an indictment against Groothuis). Also, she moves (somewhat) beyond the typical impasse of so much Christian analysis, epistemology.

Positives

Clarity, flow, and readability. One of the greatest strengths of this book is Downing’s ability to take complex topics, like the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida, and explain it in a) concise terms, and b) in thought-forms that Christians are familiar with. For instance, in discussing Derrida’ notion of binary opposition, she uses the modernist binary of reason/faith, science/religion, and fact/feeling. Christians are used to hearing these oppositions in our culture, and for that clarification Downing should be applauded.

Familiar examples, and reoccurring stories and references make the flow throughout the book very smooth, and helpful. It’s a fun and easy read (of course, by that I mean about as easy as your can imagine given the subject matter!).

Sympathetic Approach. I will continue to use Groothuis’ books as an example. Personally, I found his book, Truth Decay, to be very helpful on a number of issues related to postmodernism. His appendix on television was alone worth the price of the book in my eyes. But, one thing that hurts the work overall is that he doesn’t seem to have any sympathy for postmodernists and their “plight.” Nearly everything in our culture that he finds disturbing is labeled as a result of postmodernism. But, as a scholar on Blaise Pascal, he should know that it is sympathetic analysis that’s most helpful. Imagine how he would appreciate a book on Pascal written from someone who’s worldview is radically opposed to that of Pascal himself (and I’m sure Dr. Groothuis has had to read more than a few of those)?

In How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith, Downing lays her chips on the table in the very name of the book! She finds pomo helpful to her faith, and believes that many of it’s teaching, understood at their best, can aid in developing a stronger Christian faith. Largely, I agree, though I have some strong disagreements with what she believes is a robust Christian faith (see part 2). Only be tracking along with a thinker’s concerns and arguments can we be opened to the way they perceived the world, even if initially it seems strange and foreign. If we do not do this, 9 times our of 10 we are prone to dismiss someone’s thought and find them to be crazies.

Next we’ll look at the negatives of this otherwise helpful book…

Review: Postmodernism 101

I’m now reading through Heath White‘s Postmodernism 101: A First Course for Curious Christians. Many books over the last decade put out in response to postmodernism, have, in my humble opinion, have been fairly reactionary. They usually have pointed all things perceived as wrong in the movement (if we call call postmodernism a movement), while acknowledging the “benefits” in an almost pat-on-the-head manner. in this work, White sets out to trace 7 themes in postmodern thought, while contrasting them with pre-modern and modern thought.

One of the benefits of White’s book is his charitable explanation of views he doesn’t hold. In laying out the postmodern position on a number of topics, White is careful to try to show his reader at least why people who hold these positions find them appealing. There is none of the flippant dismissals I’ve seen in other works.

Another helpful aspects of this book is it’s language. As can be gathered by the title, Postmodernism 101 is an entry -level book, and probably the most helpful one on the market today for laying out, in fairly popular language, what postmodern theorists are saying. So, with maybe 1 or 2 exceptions, in the entire book you rarely read White say, “According to Derrida,” or “According to Foucault, Lyotard, Rorty,” etc. He’ll just explain the themes that are most common among postmodern writers. This makes for clearer, and faster, reading.

I have about 2 chapters to go, and no major complaints. At one point, White seems to advocate an allegorical interpretation of some parts of Scriptural. I can understand how he may want to move away from so much of the literalism that pervades works like the Left Behind series. I would advocate a typological method to many of the parts White may apply allegory to, but that’s another issue for another day.

If you’re a Christian who’s ever wondered what exactly is thing phenomenon that is called postmodernism, pick up Postmodernism 101.