Chapter 9 of Franke’s book is on “Scripture as Manifold Witness. This is where all the problems with this kind of thinking start to converge. Makes me think of the time the apostle Paul and I visited the town of Pomo, just south of Lystra, and after the inhabitants gathered the totalizing import of Paul’s preaching, they dragged us outside the city and pelted us with cotton balls.
Speaking of cotton balls, at some inevitable point in a book like this one, I feel like the author has piled a heap of those cotton balls in a bowl, poured maple syrup all over them, and then with an inclusive smile hands me a fork. “We read, confident that the Spirit speaks through Scripture in order to create a communal setting that bears contemporary witness to God’s future intentions for creation in the midst of present circumstances” (p. 84). And I got nothing to wash it down with.
Franke begins with the fact that there are four gospels in the New Testament, and not just one authorized account. He argues from this that one “master” account is both undesirable and impossible. The Church, he says, is committed to plural witness. And so it is, but not in a way that relativizes the actual historical events themselves. Harmonization of all scriptural accounts may not be something we are able to do, but the events recorded in the four gospels happened in one particular way, and all four accounts are infallible (although partial) accounts of those events. Therefore, the integration point of all four gospels is the way it actually happened. Franke denies opening the door to a thorough-going relativism, but please remember that is what people who open such doors always deny.
The other characteristic that consistently emerges from this particular village is the astounding inability of its inhabitants to apply what they are saying to what they are saying. The Scripture speaks “not in abstraction, but in the context of particular cultural circumstances” (p. 83). Okay. “Of particular significance is the implication that the purpose of the text is not to provide the basic materials for the construction of a theological or interpretive system” (p. 83). So why then, guys like me want to know, is Franke giving us an interpretive system? Why is he telling me, and all of you if you buy the book, how to read and not read the Bible?
Franke appears to believe that systematic theology only exists if you put it in three volumes and organize it under the headings of God, man, sin, salvation, and revelation. You know, old school systematics. He appears to believe that systematic theologies are absent if you ramble around a point that you never quite get to. But however muddled, his system is a system just like everybody else’s. So then, does his statement above apply to it? If so, then why should we continue to read this book? If not, then where and how did he get his magic exemption, and why couldn’t Charles Hodge get one? I am sure he asked nicely.
“Theological constructions and doctrines are not the meaning or the heart of the diverse stories and literary forms of Scripture” (p. 83). Including the doctrine contained in the preceeding sentence? Including the theological construction there? If so, then isn’t it time for him to stop writing? If not, then what’s his trick? These guys, for all the posturing about epistemic humility, write with a serene self-confidence in the self-evident nature of the TRUTH as they have set it forth. They write with all the confidence of Hegel on one of his insufferable days.
“Put another way, the goal of reading the Bible is not the attempt to identify and codify the true meaning of the text in a series of systematically arranged assertions that then function as the only proper interpretive grid through which we read the Bible” (p. 83). But this whole chapter is full of exhortations on how not to read the Bible. Moreover, Franke thinks he got this approach by reading the Bible — that’s how he found out there were four gospels instead of just one. He, by reading his Bible, came to the conclusion that the witness of Scripture is manifold, but he then pretends that the goal of Bible reading is not to learn how to read the Bible. Correction, the goal of your Bible reading is not to learn how to read the Bible. The goal of his Bible reading sheds a great deal of light on the whole subject.
“Hence, while Scripture is inspired by the Spirit and is truth written, it nevertheless remains subject to the historically and culturally conditioned character that attends to all human language” (p. 85). Oh, good. We have Spirit-inspiration, and we have enscripturated truth, but despite the good start, the whole darn thing got tangled up in that situatedness that we got going here.
Franke then quotes with approval a snippet from Kevin Vanhoozer, in which he says “the diverse canonical parts neither contradict nor cohere with one another” (p. 88). Without assuming anything about Vanhoozer’s meaning (not having enough of the context), let me interact with this snippet as Franke is presenting it. So, the different canonical parts neither “contradict nor cohere.” But the Bible teaches that all things cohere in Christ (Col. 1:17). It seems to me that if all things in the cosmos cohere in Christ, we ought to be able to arrange a little something, however humble, for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
In the background, it appears that he has abandoned a correspondence understanding of truth and has adopted a coherence approach to truth. Not surprisingly, when he does this, he loses everything, including the ability to make things cohere. It’s a sad thing to watch coherence disintegrate. Not supposed to do that.
But in order to keep coherence from disintegrating, it must be removed from its precarious position up there on that rickety idol shelf, and coherence must bow down before the Lord Jesus Christ. Further, it must do so on the basis of the correspondence between the preached declaration that Christ is risen and the raw fact that He is risen indeed.