I Am Going to Enjoy This

Robert W. Jenson wrote the Brazos commentary on Ezekiel in 2009. I am really going to enjoy reading this commentary, even though he is not a conservative in his theological outlook. The reason I am going to enjoy this commentary is that he doesn’t hold with the prim and proper divorce of theology and exegesis. Instead, he refreshingly allows (even demands!) his doctrinal categories to determine the direction of his exegesis. Of course, everyone actually does this. In fact, the more that people protest that they don’t, the more viciously non-self-aware those scholars are. Jenson also injects his commentary with humor. He says:

The proposition that exegesis of the Old Testament might call up points of Christian doctrine of course offends the modern exegetical academy’s chief dogma. That, vice versa, Christian doctrine should shape interpretation of Old Testament passages offends it even more deeply. But the exclusion of the church’s doctrine from interpretation of the church’s scripture is after all a very odd rule on its face; and it is indeed as Christian scripture that the church reads what she calls the Old Testament. How the academic community came to be committed to an antidoctrinal, and thus in this case ironically ahistorical mode of exegesis, is an often told tale that need not be repeated here.

The present commentary, like the others in the series, thus offers alternatives to the modern academy’s prejudices. I will not often argue theoretically the legitimacy of christological or trinitarian or ecclesiological readings I present, but will mostly allow them to convince readers by their own sense and appropriateness to the text at hand-or not. I do ask for suspension of a priori incredulity-who knows, the church might be right about how to read her own scripture (pp. 25-26).

Lastly, Jenson issues a serious (!) warning about reading his commentary:

The purpose of a commentary is to assist readers’ involvements with the text. Perhaps readers should therefore take warning before going further. Attention to a text can turn into experience of its matter, and the judgments and promises of God as given through Ezekiel are so extreme that they can easily undo ordinary religiosity-to say nothing of the disastrous spiritual adventures that might be ignited by his visions (p. 30).

I find myself wishing that more commentators wrote like this.

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Conditional Prophecy or Unconditional Prophecy?

A very thorny question arises as to whether prophecies in the Old Testament are conditional or unconditional. Some of them appear to be one, and some appear to be the other. Problems arise whenever scholars seek to make one category that describes all prophecies. Hengstenberg, for instance, argues that all prophecies are unconditional. One wonders, then, how Hengstenberg deals with Jonah’s prophecy about Nineveh. Or, how does he deal with Jeremiah 18:7-10? I just finished reading Fairbairn’s chapter on this topic in his Interpretation of Prophecy. He has a taxonomy of prophecies that is well worth consideration.

Fairbairn has three categories of prophecies. Of these, one is completely unconditional, one completely conditional, and one that has aspects of both.

The first category he describes is one that has aspects of both. The prophecies of salvation that “disclose God’s purposes of grace to men” are unconditional with regard to their ultimate fulfillment. The only conditional elements have to do with “relations of place and time” (p. 63). The protoevangelion (Genesis 3:15) is an example of this type of prophecy. He writes, “[E]ven in this class of prophecies, as they do not proceed to their accomplishment in a lofty isolation from human interests and responsibilities, so the things belonging to them must be presented to men’s view as capable of being expedited or retarded by the line of behaviour they pursue; and while with God himself the end was seen from the beginning, and absolutely determined, yet particular issues might fitly enough appear to be suspended on the particular condition of the church or the world” (p. 64).

The second class of prophecies he mentions has to do with “kingdoms that stood in a rival or antagonistic position to the kingdom of God.” These prophecies “were mainly intended to assure the hearts of God’s people, that whatever earthly resources and glory might for the time belong to those kingdoms, all was destined to pass away; that their dominion, however arrogant and powerful, should come to an end” (p. 68). These prophecies were about the foreign kingdoms, but they were usually directed towards God’s people. These prophecies do not, as a general rule, address moral issues (see p. 69). Many, if not most, of the oracles against the nations, fall into this category (for examples, see Ezekiel 25-32).

The third class of prophecies is completely conditional. They are the prophecies about which Jeremiah 18:7-10 speaks. This class bears directly “upon men’s responsibilities” (p. 70). These are often directed towards the foreign nation. Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh is a good example of this kind of prophecy. Jonah prophecies destruction, but Jonah obviously knows that this prophecy is conditional, because he did not want to give it to Nineveh, lest they repent, and then God would not bring upon them the destruction promised. Fairbairn comments on its seemingly unconditional form: “[T]he very absoluteness and precision of the form was the best adapted, it may be the only one actually fitted, to arouse slumbering consciences, and lead to serious repentance” (p. 73, emphasis original).

This taxonomy helps us to avoid three particular problems with Old Testament prophecy. One is that of open theism. God doesn’t change his mind. With the prophecies that have conditional elements, God immutably carries out His complex purposes, such that if the people change (of which outcome God already and immutably knows), then the outcome changes, humanly speaking. Secondly, this helps us to make sense of prophecies like that of Jonah that seemingly do not come to pass. As we know, one of the criteria for true prophets is that their prophecies must come to pass. Of course, liberals tend to use a very literalistic heremeneutic in order to “prove” that Old Testament prophecies are not fulfilled. This is another subject that Fairbairn addresses in this same chapter, incidentally. Thirdly, it also helps us to avoid the problems associated with extreme positions, like that of Hengstenberg, on the one hand, who argues that no prophecies are conditional; and other opposite positions, that argue that all prophecies are conditional. The problem with the latter position is that the criteria for prophecies coming true would be meaningless if the prophecies were always conditional. The prophet whose prophecy doesn’t come to pass could then conceivably always use the excuse, “Well, it was conditional.” I commend Fairbairn’s careful taxonomy. There might be tweaks that would be necessary to his categories (although I can’t think of any right off). But this is a helpful way of making sense of enormous swaths of Old Testament prophecy.

Seeing Christ In All of Scripture

I received in the mail a copy of this little gem from my alma mater. It is a fast read. I read it this morning.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to have about 35 endorsements on a book that is only 87 pages long. However, in this case, what you get is actually a snapshot of scholars who agree with the trajectory that WTS is establishing (and has established in the past). I found these statements interesting and, in some cases, revealing (see John Frame’s puff, for instance).

The book has four essays, by Vern Poythress, Iain Duguid, G.K. Beale, and Richard Gaffin, Jr, all preceded by a good little introduction by Peter Lillback. Also included are three appendices. The first is Machen’s essay on the purpose and plan for the Seminary. The second is the document of affirmations and denials that the seminary promulgated in response to the recent debates at the seminary. The third is Dr. Gaffin’s short piece on biblical theology at WTS.

Dr. Lillback can now say that there is a “harmony among the theological disciplines at Westminster” (p. 1). This wasn’t the case when I was attending. The exegetical departments were, in general, at odds with the ST, AP, and CH departments. I, for one, am grateful for the present unity among the faculty and disciplines.

Dr. Poythress’s point is that true biblical hermeneutics is a spiral, not a circle, that needs to start from a self-consciously Christian perspective. In this context, he says that God’s “presence and his special work in inspiration do not make human beings less than human. Rather, he transforms sinful humanity toward humanity as God originally designed it” (p. 13). Some advocates of other hermeneutical approaches seem to suggest that if God had anything to do with revelation at all, then that “interference” would make the humans automatons, and thus less than human.

Duguid’s point is that Christ is the whole point of the Old Testament. Period. It is a book about Christ (p. 17). Against the Christotelic interpretation, Duguid writes, “It is not that the New Testament writers were creatively assigning new and alien meanings to these old texts. Rather, the force of Jesus’s statement that it was ‘necessary that the Christ should suffer these things’ (Luke 24:26) suggests that a proper reading of the Old Testament expectation of the messiah necessarily compelled them to recognize Jesus Christ as its true fulfillment” (p. 21). While the OT prophets were not fully aware of the complete meaning of what they wrote (p. 20), we must not overstress their ignorance (p. 21). Again, taking direct aim at the Christotelic view, he says, “In other words, our astonishment will not be because the fulfillment differed from the promise, or because some parts of the promise proved to be dead ends, but because we had not begun to grasp the height and depth of the wisdom of God that is at work for our salvation in Christ” (p. 23).

Beale’s essay addresses New Testament hermeneutics. Context is king in Beale’s hermeneutics, but that context has to be defined as including more than the immediate literary and historical context. It also includes its canonical context (p. 26). Biblical Theology is given a thoroughly Vossian definition (pp. 27-28). New Testament interpretation of the Old is the correct way to read the Old Testament.

Gaffin’s article addresses the place of Systematic Theology in relation to Biblical Theology (a hallmark of his entire career). Some money quotes: “Systematic Theology, accordingly, does not have a ‘special’ hermeneutic of its own but one it shares with all other theological disciplines (p. 39). “Negatively, the difference (between ST and BT, LK) is not, as is too often maintained, that biblical theology considers the Bible purely in terms of its humanity and historically diverse make-up, leaving systematic theology to attend to whatever may be said about its divinely qualified unity (p. 49). Instead, biblical theology always presupposes the unity of God’s speech (ibid.). “At any one point in actual practice, the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology is reciprocal” (p. 50). I might add something here to Gaffin’s remarks, and note that it is always reciprocal, whether the interpreter realizes it or not, and even if the interpreter denies that it is reciprocal.

It is clear that Machen was a Vossian. No doubt this quotation is why the essay was included: “[A]n error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is” (p. 57). This is pure Vos.

The affirmations and denials are available online here, but it is good to see them in print, as well. They are extremely sophisticated, and yet very clear. I commend them to your perusal, especially the parts about private interpretation (p. 68, for example). It has some very important things to say about Ancient Near Eastern background, as well (see p. 71, for instance).

Gaffin’s last piece is a response to Clair Davis’s lament over the supposed fall of biblical theology at Westminster Seminary. Gaffin says that the reports of biblical theology’s death at WTS have been greatly exaggerated. This is the money quote from that piece: “There can be no objection to ‘Christotelic’ in itself. But Scripture is Christotelic just because it is Christocentric. It is Christotelic only as it is Christocentric, and as it is that in every part, the Old Testament included. Or, as we may, in fact must, put the issue here in its most ultimate consideration, Christ is the mediatorial Lord and Savior of redemptive history not only at its end but also from beginning to end. He is not only its omega but also its alpha, and he is and can be its omega only as he is its alpha” (p. 86).

This short book clarifies the doctrinal issues surrounding the recent debates at Westminster like no other resource of which I am aware. Get a copy of it.

God at Your Right Hand

Psalm 16:8 has always been comforting to me. However, it just became even more so when I understood the imagery involved. One commentator has explained that this is military imagery. To be at someone’s right hand infers that the shield a soldier holds is in his left hand. He holds the sword with his right. This means that he is vulnerable to attack on his right side. However, if you have a good partner at your right hand, his shield (held in his left hand) can protect you from attacks coming from that direction. In other words, the Psalmist is saying that God protects you in those very places where you are most vulnerable to attack. This is immensely comforting to me, and should be comforting to all Christians.

This is especially relevant in terms of those sins that are habitual in us, to which we are most prone to fall. We need to stop thinking of God as adversarial to us in this struggle, and start thinking of Him as our greatest (and first!) resource to fight the sin. He is at our right hand. I know that I have had trouble thinking the wrong way about God in these kinds of situations. I am tempted to think of God only as accusatory, or disappointed. Now, God our Father does not like our sin, and He wants it gone from us. And he can be a stern Father, allowing us to face the consequences of our sins for our good through discipline. However, there is more to the situation than that. After all, there must be a reason why these sins are not completely conquered at conversion. There must be a reason why God does not wave a magic wand and all our sin is gone. There are so many layers to our self-reliance that God strips away throughout our Christian lives. A realization that all power to conquer sin comes from God is the goal here. Until we stop thinking of God as a last resort, we will still fall prey habitually to those sins. It is only when we run first to Jesus at the first sign of temptation that we can make any progress in fighting these sins. Run first to your Shield-Mate. When we run away from Him, our entire right side is exposed to the attacks of Satan. It is not wise, but it is all too often what we do.