New-fangled Christological Ideas

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In this place my friend Tim Bayly takes my friend Peter Leithart to task for what he wrote here. What are we to take away from all this, besides “my, what interesting friends you have”? I read through Tim’s piece a couple times, and did the same through Peter’s, and here are a few preliminary thoughts on it all.

Tim is pretty severe with Peter, but if Tim is correct in his reading of what Peter is saying, then the severity is not misplaced. If Peter really is saying Calvin’s “maneuver” parallels Paul’s “maneuver,” and they are both equally suspect, then all Tim’s subsequent criticism rightly follows. At a minimum, I think Peter is confusing and needs to clarify whether Paul is an advocate of what he identifies as a problematic “atonement theology.” He also needs to clarify if the Pauline treatment of the events of Christ’s life really is a second order narrative.

In reading these posts, a possible defense of what Peter is writing occurred to me, and it is a defense that does rescue him from Tim’s censures. But in order for that defense to work at all, Peter has to be seen as abandoning our long-shared project of letting the Bible teach us how to read the Bible. In other words, there is a problem in both directions.

Peter says this:

“Allegorization of the Passion narratives isn’t a mistake. Paul does it, at least when he writes about our participation in the cross of Jesus. But one wonders if the allegory hasn’t moved too hastily from the literal to spiritual senses.”

Tim is reading Peter as saying that Paul has moved too hastily. Peter could reply that he explicitly says that Paul is making no mistake, but that followers of Paul (unnamed atonement theologians) do make that mistake. I will get to that shortly, but want to address another oddity first.
My initial concern is the idea that Christ dying for His elect is an “allegory.” Peter points to the fact that in the gospels, Jesus literally stands between the authorities and His friends, His disciples. If we come along later, as King Tirian did, and apply the death of Aslan for Edmund to a death that was for “all Narnia,” are we not adding a second layer to the text? Well, actually, no, not if Lewis wrote all seven books, not if all Scripture is breathed by God.

For example, when Jesus lifts His eyes and takes in more than the Twelve, is He really doing “allegory?” Or is He telling us what the story is actually about, from the midst of the story?

“For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (John 10:16). “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).

Classic atonement theology is very much present in the gospels, and not simply as a mere narrative of the facts as they happened. Those narratival facts are an inspired part of the gospel story, certainly, but so is the explicit theological meaning declared in the midst of that story. And if that explicit meaning from the midst of the story is authoritative, then why not the divinely inspired commentary on those events after they happened? If an aside in the gospels can tell us what it is all about (e.g. “a ransom for many”), then so can the book of Romans. Now of course, if we all rush to Paul, and forget all about the crowing cock, the 30 pieces of silver, the Roman governor washing his hands, and so on, then we are committing the error that Peter is apparently pushing against. And he is right to push against it. But to take everything God says about the gospel as equally authoritative is not committing that error.

Peter concludes his piece with this puzzling statement: “The good news is the gospel narrative, not a second narrative running slightly above the events of that history,” emphasis mine. But shouldn’t this rather have been: “The good news is the gospel narrative, along with every other narrative that the Spirit inspired about that history”?

So Tim picks up on Peter setting Mark and Romans at odds on some level, which Peter’s concluding statement does in fact do — at least on a verbal level. Peter can point to the fact that he explicitly says doing what Paul did was “not a mistake.” But he says this while warning us away from imitating Paul, and therein lies the possible defense. This is what I meant by saying there seems to be an implicit abandonment of our hermeneutical project. In other words, Peter may not be doing anything heterodox here at all. He might be returning to a pretty standard evangelical interpretive move. I don’t agree with it, but at least we are all used to it.

Years ago I read a very fine book on how the apostles interpreted the Old Testament — very fine except for the very last part. Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period by Richard Longenecker really was a very fine book. But then, after he showed us all how the apostles handled the Old Testament, the lesson at the end was “now don’t try this at home, kids.” The way the apostles handled the Old Testament should not be taken by us, the uninspired, as setting any kind of example. This would be an instance, I think, of what Tim would describe as letting the assured results of modern scholarship trump apostolic example.

Let me give three quick samples of what I think we ought to be doing in our hermeneutical discipleship. We have been given the whole Bible, and we cannot approach one portion of it in isolation, forgetting what we have learned elsewhere. This is the mistake of the uptight school of scholarship — they call it historical/grammatical, but I don’t think that is what is happening at all. I had an instructor once, taking us through Galatians, who said that Paul was “wrong” in how he interpreted Hagar and Sarah. But if you use historical/grammatical interpretation to set Genesis and Galatians at loggerheads, then you are doing it wrong.

The first example compares the two testaments. We know that the Old Testament should be read typologically because the New Testament does it. But is this New Testament example a “second order narrative,” layered on top of the Old Testament? Or is it teaching us, as I believe, what the Old Testament was actually talking about in the first place? In short, the Old Testament is not a blank screen upon which New Testament filmmakers projected their new-fangled Christological ideas. The Old Testament was about Jesus before there was any New Testament revelation on the subject at all. This is why Jesus could admonish His followers after the fact. They should have seen it coming; they had a responsibility to see it coming. “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26).

Here is a second example, a quick one. It might seem random, but I think it makes the same point. Some want to say that we ought to say Yahveh every time we are reading an Old Testament passage that contains the tetragrammaton. The problem with this is that the New Testament gives us a contrary example, one that I would take as the normative pattern. When Joel 2:32 is quoted, for example, the word Yahveh is rendered as Kurios, Lord. “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13). We should let the Bible teach us how to translate the name of God. And if Yahveh can be rendered as Kurios, then Kurios can be rendered Lord. We are disciples, and we should learn as we are taught.

And so last, we come back around to the question at hand — the relationship between the gospels and the epistles. I would want to say that the relationship is the same kind of thing that we see between the Old and New Testaments. The Spirit is inspiring it all, and so none of it is less authoritative. Is the divinely inspired account of the gospel that Paul gives in Romans and Galatians, say, really a “second narrative,” a deutero-meaning — even if it is a divinely inspired one? If we put any kind of true distance between the two, then that really is problematic. But if we say that the two can be held together in tension, but only if you are a certified apostle, then we have abandoned our hermeneutical project — which I have no desire to do.

When I read the New Testament, I am learning how I ought to have read the Old Testament. I am learning how I would have read it if I were “not far from the kingdom.” And when I read Romans, I am learning what I ought to have recognized as an essential part of the gospel as outlined by Luke. And so on. What Owen Barfield said about Lewis — that what he thought about everything was contained in what he said about anything — is true in an absolute way when it comes to the texts of Scripture. Whenever God inspires any passage of Scripture, He knows what He knows about everything else, and so it is all part of a harmonious whole.

And all of this is, unless I miss my guess, directly related to the “Christotelic” controversy currently occupying our friends at Westminster East. Many of the things we are discussing are really, at bottom, the same issue. And so I will likely have more to say about that anon.

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9 years ago

Wonderful assessment. Thank you.

Andrew Lohr
9 years ago

You link to Bayly worked, but “here” to Leithart didn’t. Here’s an alternative for Leithart: Feel free to make this easier to use. And if (my friend Dr) Leithart is pushing against atonement theologies that overlook details in the gospels and extend saint Paul’s unmistaken maneuver too far and too fast, coming up with theologies that are taken as what the Bible is really giving us and are thus taken a little more seriously than the Bible itself (FV critics???), he needn’t be critizicing Paul or Calvin or Bayly or Wilson, or abandoning the project of letting the Bible… Read more »

Anna Little
Anna Little
9 years ago

Isn’t atonement theology taught all the way back in Isaiah?
He was pierced for our transgressions…crushed for our iniquities…upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace (no uncertain terms I might add)
Wouldn’t that inform the gospel account and the epistles would be extending that?

Rick Davis
9 years ago

Regarding the name of God, I thought it was always the tradition of the Reformation to translate the Old Testament from the Hebrew and the New Testament from the Greek. The Tetragrammaton is Yahweh (or Jehovah depending on how you add vowels), and it only makes sense to translate it that way in the OT. When Paul was quoting Joel in Romans wasn’t he using the Septuagint? That would make sense given the language of his audience. I don’t think it was his own unique translation of the Hebrew that we are meant to take as the “correct” rendering of… Read more »

Dan Glover
9 years ago

Hi Doug, I once had a hermeneutics professor tell me that Paul’s use of the muzzling the ox passage was a Holy Spirit-inspired exception to the rules of hermeneutics, the cardinal rule of which was that there can be only one correct meaning or understanding of any particular text. I asked this professor where in Scripture that hermeneutical rule was recorded, and then asked if Paul’s use of Haggar and Sarah as two covenants was another exception or if we are to discern in these and other places (Peter on Noah and baptism) some apostolic examples of a God-given and… Read more »

Jeremiah Schroeder
Jeremiah Schroeder
9 years ago

It seems (to me) that Bayly misunderstands Liethart regarding Paul. When Liethart says, “Calvin provides another illustration of this maneuver,” it seems entirely probably that the first example of this “maneuver” is (non-apostolic) theologians in general. He seems to say that theologians commonly allegorize Jesus’ statement about laying down his life for his friends (The allegory seems biblical to me, but that is not my point). Likewise, when Leithart says, “But one wonders if the allegory hasn’t moved too hastily from the literal to spiritual senses,” he clearly isn’t talking about any of Paul’s allegories. He is referring to Calvin’s… Read more »