Saturday, September 22, 2012

Grudem: The Necessity of Scripture 1

Continuing my weekly series reviewing Grudem's Systematic Theology

This week is chapter 6, "The Necessity of Scripture."
Between last week and this week, I've done a little research on where Grudem gets his "four characteristics of Scripture" from.  Obviously there's no verse in the Bible that says, "Here are the four characteristics of Scripture."  This is the slightly insidious quality of Grudem's approach whereby he thinks he is simply following the Bible when actually there are Christian traditions significantly guiding his interpretive wand.

In this case, it is the Reformed tradition.  The four characteristics of Scripture are a Reformed interpretation of the Westminster Confession (1646).  I don't know if Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987) was the first to summarize its position on Scripture in this way, but one article started me in that direction. To reject some of his theology is thus to reject a particular Christian tradition, not to reject God or the Bible.

Here is what he means by the necessity of Scripture: "The necessity of Scripture means that the Bible is necessary for knowing the gospel, for maintaining spiritual life, and for knowing God's will, but it is not necessary for knowing that God exists or for knowing something about God's character and moral laws" (116).  In a footnote, he explains that a person can hear about this message orally, but that "these oral communications of the contents of the Bible are based on the existence of written copies" (116 n.1).

This seems a rather peculiar doctrine. What, for example, was the fate of Christians in the decades between Jesus' resurrection and the first bits of the New Testament?  The gospel had a fundamentally oral character during that time.  Here we once again see the embarrassingly literary orientation of Grudem (and perhaps the later Reformed) view of the Bible. No wonder Van Til hated Barth, who pulls down the curtain of such a post-printing press charade.

Barth rightly recognized that Jesus was the consummate Word of God, Scripture the witness to Christ as the word of God, and Christian preaching as a word giving witness to the witness of the Word of God. Grudem's approach, by contrast, can't see the history of revelation prior to the 400s when the Bible and Christian theology finally became a written package with an orthodox message. He is a typical pre-modern who can't see the historical development that produced his reading of the Bible.

We also see here why this sort of Reformed folk have been scrambling over the New Testament interpretation of the Old.  If we read the Old Testament inductively, we realize that the Old Testament books on their own terms did not have an understanding of Christ sufficient for the knowledge Grudem needs them to have had.  When New Testament authors see Jesus in the Old Testament, they are largely reading the Old Testament spiritually and figuratively rather than literally.

Genesis in context knows nothing of a coming Messiah, nor does Exodus, Numbers, or Leviticus. [1] The Historical Books don't want a king in the first place and then already have one. When early Christians saw Christ in the Psalms and the Prophets, they were again largely seeing spiritual meanings in words that had other original meanings. The messianic psalms were originally royal psalms, for example. And in so far as some passages may look to a future king, they understand only that Israel will one day have a Davidic king again.  They do not look for God to come to earth. The key text in relation to Jesus' death, Isaiah 53, would not have been understood by anyone to foretell the Messiah's death until after the fact, and of course this is a key element in Grudem's understanding of the gospel.

All that is to say that Jesus was a massive upgrade from anything anticipated by the Old Testament read in context. The Old Testament Scriptures meet Grudem's standard of necessity only when they are read through New Testament eyes.  They would not guarantee any Old Testament saint salvation on Grudem's terms. And of course we look forward to see what he will do with children who die before they reach the supposed age of accountability invented to circumvent such problems.

Grudem sees three ways in which Scripture is necessary: 1) It is necessary for a knowledge of the gospel, 2) It is necessary for maintaining spiritual life, and 3) It is necessary for a certain knowledge of God's will.

It is surprising to see someone who used to be involved in the charismatic movement have so little room for direct revelation. What if Jesus were to appear in a dream to someone deep in a Muslim country but who had never seen a Bible or heard of its contents? Is it impossible for such a person to be saved since he or she does not have the written word?

Indeed, even Grudem's key Pauline text, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17) is not a reference to Scripture but to preaching about Christ.  There is no scriptural text in Acts 17 and 1 Thessalonians has almost no Scripture. We can wonder if Paul used Scripture in his preaching when speaking to Jews, but probably didn't so much use Scripture when speaking to Gentiles who weren't associated with the synagogue.

The gospel was the good news about real events that had just taken place in history.  It was "live."  Scripture was brought in secondarily.  The living Jesus was the main event, not a book.

Is the Bible helpful for spiritual life?  Absolutely.  I consider it a sacrament of revelation, a divinely appointed meeting place.  By all means, eat the word for your nourishment.

Can God speak to you directly?  Absolutely.  Can God nourish you through other books?  Absolutely.  God can do whatever he wants. Again, it is fascinating to see how Grudem has chucked this part of his charismatic heritage.

Again, the word of God in Scripture is not primarily a reference to Scripture.  The "word become flesh" in John 1:14 is Jesus, and the background for this word is not the written word but the Logos of Hellenistic Judaism.  The word of God in Hebrews 4:12 similarly is not the Old Testament or the written word but this same logos which is the will of God in action in the creation. This fundamental and pervasive inability for Grudem to read the Bible in its historical context is embarrassing.

The necessity of the Bible for certainty in knowing God's will runs into the problems of the previous chapter. The Bible does not come inserted on our hard drives. It is an object of interpretation.  We have to define the words. We have to fit all the words together. We have to work out the potential difference between "that time" and "this time."  We have to do it.

Grudem's reading of Scripture is that of a pre-modern who can't see himself in the mirror.  His Reformed tradition has already done the defining, the joining, the time-shifting for him and he doesn't even know it.  The clarity he sees--and the certainty he sees--is the clarity of his tradition. His Bible is as certain as attending a Reformed church and the assumption that the people here are elect.  Walk down the street to the 40 other denominational churches reading the same inerrant Bible and we'll see how certain and clear it is practically speaking.

Part 2 to come...

[1] The wonderful Genesis 3:15 was originally about why snakes and humans don't get along. I omit Deuteronomy so as not to get into debates about what Deuteronomy 18:15 was originally about.


Dick Norton said...

What if someone gets a "direct revelation" from God that contradicts Scripture? It's pretty evident to me that the standard is the Scripture.

Ken Schenck said...

That's a matter of content, though, rather than medium, wouldn't you say?

Dick Norton said...

Yes, but it's the only content that is authoritative. "If I or an angel from heaven teaches any other gospel than I have taught, let him be accursed." A Christian witnessing on the street is the medium, but the only content that counts is Scripture. If an angel appears to the Muslim guy, the angel won't be telling the Muslim anything different from Scripture.

Dick Norton said...

Paul told Timothy that the Scriptures (must have been the O.T. Scriptures) were able to make him wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Perhaps there was more of "Christ Jesus" in the O.T. than you imagine. Really there, really prophesied by the prophets; not just spiritually imagined by the N.T. writers. And all those "heros of the faith" in Heb. 11 were certainly counted righteous by God without any N.T. writings. They were "made perfect" by God because they "looked forward" to a city (kingdom?) that God told them about through their Scriptures.

Ken Schenck said...

I do think there is plenty in the OT on its own terms to make one wise to salvation--Love God and love neighbor pretty much does it.

But even apart from the that, you're assuming again that the way in which the Scriptures would make Timothy wise to salvation is by the literal meaning. This is exactly what the issue is--does Paul limit the way in which the Scriptures make one wise to the literal mode? You're assuming your conclusion in your argument.

Bob MacDonald said...

Ken - thank you for the many delightful bits in your presentation, but I wonder about your metaphor of "Jesus was a massive upgrade", an I-Phone better than the I-Phone 5?

Massive upgrade would seem to imply that Jesus would not himself have learned within the culture of the OT. I admit I have not had time to do a close reading, or a historical reading of all TNK. It has taken me 6 years (since St Andrews 2006) to 'do' the Psalms and I have but scratched the surface. I could easily rest here.

But I am 'here' in the 'culture' of this Scripture, with its encouraging and life-supporting microbes, proteins, and fibre. And I find 'Jesus' here with me, the same Spirit that informs the NT.

I do not need to dispute that Moses wrote the Torah or David the Psalter because culture such as this textual deposit represents is a historical phenomenon.

God incarnate needs to be in these (OT) texts also - not as a simplistic prediction, but as deep as the incarnational heresies of say the Sufi dancers. I am not sure that the upgrade metaphor will stand in the culture. Equally I believe that historical criticism is part of that same culture that dissolves the falsity of Grudem's assumptions. (E.g. the rewriting of the Torah regulations for living in the land versus living in the desert.)

How do we 'read' the NT and live the 'OT' in contradistinction to fundamentalism and literalism? How do we distinguish a 'massive upgrade' from say 'the seal of the prophets'?

Ken Schenck said...

Bob, my upgrade metaphor was very limited in meaning. Those Jews that were expecting a Messiah at the time of Christ were looking for a king to restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. What they got was God himself literally coming on earth and taking the cosmic throne of the universe, never to die, never to pass on his throne to another after his death. That's what I meant by upgrade.

That's all under the hood. When we close the hood and read the OT as Christians, we can experience him on every page!

John Mark said...

I'm confused as to your use of the term pre-modern, which I have assumed was pre-Enlightenment, or even earlier- which in my mind is "pre-rationalist" in the way one approaches scripture. I'm thinking that before the Enlightenment or the Renaissance (I can't always clearly differentiate the two in my mind) there was much room for mystery in how we viewed the world and therefore the scripture.
But you seem to be using the word in a way that contradicts this.

Ken Schenck said...

Pre-modern is an imperfect term, but I use it to refer to an un-self-reflective perspective on a particular topic. Grudem cannot see the glasses he wears when reading Scripture. He is unable to get into the heads of the biblical authors and audiences but reads the words in his own world.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

If one "reads self reflectively" then one is aware of the Tradition one uses to interpret scripture. This is self awareness, not dependence on mystical revelation. Since the New Testament was the "Christian revelation", then self reflection means that Americans, for the most part read scripture with christian lenses, though those lenses have various understandings, just as any Tradition does. The Church has been the "formative foundation" of one's understanding, though the Reformation opened the way for fundamentalist framing of "faith", which depends on personal subjectivity, not communal judgment. Geographical distinctions, as well as familial distinctions make for how a particular person comes to terms with "faith claims" in America.

If one determines how one understands scripture in history or as history, then one has to understand a Traditions historical context, within World Historical context. The difficulty of determining historical reality lies in postmodernity that makes claims for everyone's position based on certain biases. Diverse views about historical realities is what has made for the conflict in the world based on religious claims.

All of us are biased, even within American culture, because we have been raised with certain environmental influencers. Denominationally, one can read scripture to support many views, much less when one view scripture within a broader context...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Fundamentalism is a reaction to the Academy because of a fear of knowledge that might undermine "God's pre-eminence". Fundamentalism is what is wrong with the world today, IMO. While the Reformation gave us "enlightenment" via the printing press and education, the Enlightenment opened man up to scientific exploration of understanding the universe.