Hard Teeth

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A friend recently sent me a quote from J.B. Skemp, writing about the liberal scholarship of the late 19th century. Skemp says:

“The excessive attention to patterns and typology is in part due to a fear of reasoned and systematic doctrinal teaching, which is thought to depend too much on an alien Greek wisdom simply because it is systematic. This arouses the desire in present-day theologians to find clues in pictures rather than in propositions” [From The Greeks and the Gospel (Carey Kingsgate Press, 1964), p.  9]

Which caused a couple thoughts of my own to come burbling up, unbidden. As I offer them, let me first say that I do so as a champion of responsible typological interpretation, and nothing said here should be taken as the back of my hand for that kind of reading. There is no way to reject typological interpretation without rejecting, in principle, Jesus and all the apostles. Which would be bad. But the fact that typological interpretation is a new covenant necessity does not mean that mistakes and blunders are impossible in that realm — indeed, we can count on such mistakes and blunders presenting themselves for adoption right off. Whenever we find a garden, we should be looking around for the dragon — a nice little proposition with a picture in it.

The first point is that the propositions are always in there somewhere. “Theology should deemphasize propositional content” is propositional content, and so why not start with deemphasizing that one? Every position needs to be able to digest its own cooking — and in order for the reading of pictures and patterns to be able to do that, there is an absolute necessity for dogmatic authority. No, let’s use all the bad words — we need systematics, doctrine, propositions, and dogma. We need the hard teeth before the soft stomach.


The second issue separates the men from the boys or, stated another way, pastoral governance from theological entertainment. What authority do the pictures have? Say you read the story of Hagar and Sarah — as Clement did — as being about worldly philosophy and godly wisdom, and that if Sarah said it was okay, you could sleep with Hagar by majoring in philosophy, and then come back to have a fruitful union with Sarah, having sown your epistemological oats.

There are two questions. The first is how much authority such a reading should have, and the answer is none, because it is a bogus reading. But how much authority should it have, even if it were correct? Should a typological reading (or in this case, an allegorical one) have decisive authority in, say, a heresy trial. I think so — but not without a security detail made up entirely of propositions recruited from Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology.

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