an obession with first principles

Sola Scriptura

Posted: Monday Jan 10th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, Early Church, Exegesis | View Comments

Caleb gives a good (if somewhat long) reflection on why he doesn’t abide by Sola Scriptura. His reasons are similar to mine, I must admit. To my mind the whole system just fails to be supportive and leaves one in the giant quagmire of denominationalism that Protestants are so fond of.

Caleb goes after it quite technically, first pausing to reflect on what precisely counts as Scripture. The resulting canon we posses (according to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura) is arbitrary. Sola Scriptura does not define the canon (nor do I see a way it could). And some of the books mentioned within Scripture are either lost, or not part of the canon.

His second point is a wonderful syllogism:

  • All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture.
  • Interpretations are by definition external and separate from that which they interpret.
  • Sola Scriptura maintains that any claim external to Scripture itself is necessarily uninspired and therefore fallible.
  • Therefore, all appeals to Scripture are fallible.

As he writes the major failure of the Protestant Sola Scriptura experiment is the failure to deal with the epistemology. I am no Luther historian, though I would be very interested to see how far he practically took this exercise. I know he himself did not want a radical break from classical Christian teaching. His thesis were given on the basis that his criticisms showed the practices of the day to be un-biblical according to his interpretation. I have read enough of Luther to know that he still exegeted allegorically and still had philosophical/metaphysical influences on his theology and writing. To take Sola Scriptura as far as fundamentalists have is against the spirit of Luther and the Reformation.

I see the only legitimate way to exegete is according to the way the greater church has done throughout her history. A process dependent on what the Church has taught (tradition), what we can understand about the life and times of the written Scripture (reason), and the life of the members of the Church (experience). Bringing these three together is the great difficulty of being honest to the text, to the Church, and to one another. Nor does there have to be one singular answer for all members – as if all members were one part.

More Than Textual

Posted: Wednesday Sep 22nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Early Church, Jesus | View Comments

In case you were thinking that cases of theology and critical study can be solved only by looking at the printed text, think again. Christianity must be looked at socially, not literally. Get out of your boxes.

Communion vs. Fellowship

Posted: Tuesday Aug 24th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Contemporary Church, Early Church, Exegesis, Philosophising, The Christian Life | View Comments

I know this is one of the main driving forces that has pushed me into a much more Orthodox/Catholic view of things.

My complaint, as I am raising it here, is that translations frequently mislead. The entire concept of Church as a fellowship of believers, meaning a free association of like-minded Christians, is simply not a Scriptural notion, unless your Bible happens to be one of the many that has bowdlerized the clear Orthodox meaning of Scripture. We are saved by union with Christ, by participation in His life. We are Baptized into his death and raised in His resurrection. We eat His Body and drink His Blood. We have participation in the life of one another such that we cannot say to one another, “I have no need of you.” Such examples can be multiplied from every page of the New Testament and not one of them will support the weak image of an associational fellowship. This sad translation of a powerful word has helped support a notion of the individual believer with a relationship with Christ (what sort of a relationship is fellowship?) and his Bible. This is not the language or imagery of Scripture nor the doctrine of the Church.

Is fellowship with God possible? I’m not certain how to answer the question. I’d rather have communion.
Father Stephen

On Scripture

Posted: Tuesday Jul 27th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Early Church, Second Temple Judaism | View Comments

We need to think about how we approach the Scriptures. If we are unable to recognize how we make sense of what we read with what we experience in the world we will misrepresent Christ and God. How can I make this claim? It is painfully clear that by looking at Jesus in the gospels he does not conform to the expectations of those around him. No matter what interpretive stripe of Jesus you follow they all agree his opponents, and Judaism in general, did not expect Jesus to be what Jesus was.

Jesus asserted that those around him were misrepresenting God. Jesus made this claim merely by going back and reading over the prophets. He took what he read there, combined it with his own personal experience and knowledge about himself (either as a prophet, the prophet, the Messiah, or God – take your pick) and came out with his conclusion.

Taking scripture seriously means acknowledging that there are texts that have been used in dangerous and harmful ways to subjugate women, legitimate violence against gays and lesbians, foster suspicion of other religious traditions, commit violence, and support barbarous ancient practices such as slavery. Taking scripture seriously means trying to understand what the original authors intended and, through literary, linguistic, or historical criticisms, either redeeming these texts from modern misinterpretations or, in the most extreme cases, condemning them. HT: HuffPost

Jesus took Scripture seriously, and threw down the edifices created by the institutions which were corrupt. Christianity after Jesus looked seriously at the biblical texts in an attempt to create an understanding of themselves in the story of God. These are all things we must do in our time. We must take Scripture seriously in combination with our experience and traditions. And we have to be open to talk about it. We have to be open to learn from one another.

Natural Theology

Posted: Monday May 31st | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Contemporary Church, Early Church, Epistemology, Philosophising | View Comments

I am, by and large, shocked that Protestant theology has refused natural theology a place. I’m reading De Visione Dei by Nicholas of Cuza right now, and I love every chapter. I am so taken up by this neo-Platonist natural theology. I find it so very compelling. It makes so much sense out of our experience, Scripture, and the place where both meet. I can’t ignore it’s argumentative force, I am compelled to agree with so much of it.

But Protestantism has gone hand in hand with the “Enlightenment” ideal of rational objective Aristotelian proofs. And correspondingly they’ve got no natural theology. The best they can do is the best Aquinas could do – God in the uncaused causer. Neo-platonism is capable of so much more.

I don’t understand why we’ve given it up. I really don’t.


Kind of elucidates my point. Reading over that seems to be far less than what my, admittedly, cursory readings of Augustine, Bonaventure, and Cusa accomplish.

DH and Memory

Posted: Saturday Jan 23rd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, Early Church | View Comments

James McGrath shows his displeasure with the Documentary Hypothesis. I wonder how many will come out of the woodwork with an agreement. Here is what I said:

I agree that the Documentary Hypothesis seems far too “ideal” to be true. The degree of reliance on the written word in the 19th century just doesn’t exist the ancient world. The pesky evidence needs to be accounted for: if they weren’t copying, are you positing that the memory of the words/construction was *that* widespread and in agreement? Is that consistent with ancient writing and storytelling? Furthermore, if the early memories were retold in such precise forms how then did we get four different gospels and what implications does that have for their relationship?

Is Everything a Nail?

Posted: Thursday Oct 22nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, Early Church, Epistemology, Jesus | View Comments

So, an aquantaince shared a PDF written by a certain Charles Dickenson in 2007 titled A Proposed “Paradigm Shift” in Christology. The thrust of the argument is to offer historical Jesus methodology as a way to understand Christology, since all previous methods of understanding Jesus and trinitarian ideas have always had their problems. I think this basic thesis suffers on two points. First, we should be careful to think that we can propositionally, without problems, understand either God, or Jesus (regardless of whether it is the historical Jesus or the Jesus of faith, or even if those distinctions are proper). Second, that a historical methodology is applicable to a resurrected and exalted Jesus. All arguments concerning resurrection aside – everyone is in agreement that a crucified messiah-claimant does not start a Jewish offshoot group. To work based on a method that aims to get behind the proclamation of the early Church is precisely to set aside the Christological question as it has come down to us today. On to pointed reflection, I only aim to talk about the interesting points, not offer a full review, so this is going to be choppy.

It seems to me that making a Christological problem out of the crucifixion of the incarnate Jesus Christ by linking it to the Death of God movements put forth by Nietszche is an incredible non-sequitur. The language borrowed has no bearing whatsoever on the concepts behind the train of thought.

It is true that the conclusions of the early Church created problems – they experience these problems. I would sense that any talk of God that did not create problems to be entirely vacuous, making no claims of interest whatsoever. Let us not suppose any construction of God – as they are all constructions – will be without fault. Rather one ought to recognize that our constructions are mere devices, whether those devices be around another individual you know, or around God. Both constructions are faulty, but they are necessary. The better question is not “are there problems with the construction?”, but “is the construction effective?”. Dickinson answers in the negative, as is fair to do.

I find that the true issue at stake here is a failure to grasp the larger picture of the task of theology, and perhaps the nature of truth and worldview.

…only sharpens the question whether they do not presuppose conceptions of divinity and humanity which must now be abandoned as ultimately mythological.

To claim that the very worldview of the Greek Fathers is mythological, seems to me, to be incorrect. At this point, I wonder if I am in possession of a hammer – and consequently see everything as a nail – because the viewpoint that appears to be presupposed is that our Enlightenment, or even post-Enlightenment, worldview is inherently better than the Greek Fathers worldview. Granted they are both different, but if Naugle’s Worldview is correct, worldviews are neither inherently “better” than another. To resort to calling their view ‘mythological’, while ours is depicted as truer is inherently false based on the very function of ‘worldview’. Let it be known that our own worldview is also mythological – just on different terms and it different ways.

Rather, we ought to recognize (again Naugle) that truth is contextual. The truths of (however much is contained in) the early Church belong to the presuppositions, and questions of the early Church. Their answers that they claimed as truth are for themselves. What one ought to recognize is the referent to which those answers point, what considerations in light of their presuppositions did they make, why, and what could they not do? I find more and more that I am persuaded by this maximalist approach:

Third, there is the principle of what may be infelicitously called
Christological maximalism: every possible importance is to be ascribed to Jesus
that is not inconsistent with the first rules. This last rules, it may be noted,
follows from the central Christian conviction that Jesus Christ is the highest
possible clue (though an often dim and ambiguous one to creaturely and sinful
eyes) within the space-time world of human experience to God, i.e., to what is of
maximal importance. Lindbeck

That is to say, if Christ is the perfect depiction of God to us, and the perfect depiction of us Godward, on what appropriate grounds ought anything be denied him? And surely this is absolutely a referent which both the NT and the Greek Fathers point at. This is not to say, however, that everything we accord him must be perfectly congruous as we shift between each of these perspectives. If there is a consistent mistake made, it is one of harmonization, smoothing out the edges for our own mental well-being. Again, truth is contextual. The perspective approached determines the validity. When bringing together perspectives there is no reason they wouldn’t conflict! This is a very human truth, and we are human. The creation of a pure, clean, objective, rational, and paradox-free truth is a hoax. We do not experience that in our lives lived. Why do we create another world in which we apply this strange principle to?

It is at this point if I wonder I am missing the forest for the trees. Is the de-mythologization program exactly what I’ve pointed out? Going behind the worldview and finding the referent? On one level I think I am saying the same thing. However, whenever I’ve seen it executed, no care is taken to our own presuppositions as being equally mythologized as where we’ve gotten this new piece of data from.

So likewise for us today: the very fact that ancient world-views allowed for and even expected the divine to incarnate itself in a human being, but that we today no longer share those world-views, makes it
more probable for us that ancient stories of such incarnations are products of those world-views than of anything that actually happened.

First, the issue is that the Jewish world-view in no way whatsoever allowed or expected YHWH to incarnate himself. This is the standard history of religions approach without taking any sensitivity to the context in question. That is the large origins question that needs answering, in Hurtado’s words “How On Earth Did Jesus Become God?” in the first century according to Jews! Furthermore every formulation comes directly out of one’s worldview and resulting experiences. Those experiences recount things that are perceived to have actually happened. I don’t have to understand the reasons behind the east coast blackout during the summer of 2002 I was caught in, but I experience it and it created a formative experience. The incredible interdependence of our society is just a part of my worldview – and it might not be shared by another reader in another time and place, yet that experience does in fact state that something happened.

I have read Wright’s first three volumes, and am a supporter of his approach in general. What I don’t think my acquaintance realizes is what this actually entails. He supposes that such an approach a priori vindicates his own theological stance, before he has even handled the evidence, over and against the orthodox opinion. As for Dickenson’s essay, I am not sure why, in his estimation the third quest should offer him better prospects for a problem-free Christology.

I defy you

Posted: Monday Aug 10th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Early Church | View Comments

When John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) was brought before the empress Eudoxia, she threatened him with banishment if he insisted on his Christian independence as a preacher.

“You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house.”
“But I will kill you,” said the empress.
“No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God,” said John.
“I will take away your treasures.”
“No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.”
“But I will drive you away from your friends and you will have no one left.”
“No, you cannot, for I have a Friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to harm me.”

HT: Ray Ortlund


Posted: Monday Aug 3rd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Early Church, Exegesis, Historical Method, Jesus, Second Temple Judaism | View Comments

As a result of my Dallas paper there has been a huge discussion (which I’ve jokingly termed “theofighting”). And it seems that at almost every turn the point is being lost. I felt that the more important part of the paper, that I hoped people would be forced to deal with, was that a method sensitive to historical, social, and literary forms was being used. I come from a fundamentalist background where none of these sensitivities are given consideration largely because they are entirely unknown. Hard to do something you know nothing about. This is meant to be more of a re-cap of the situation with the hope of a launching off point for more fruitful discussion.

So let me re-cap my position for the sake of clarity. I wrote an appendix, in which I tried to present the crux of the method that I find to be incredibly fruitful. You can find it here. And in a post titled “He Gets It I wrote the following:

This is what is going on when we read a Scriptural text. The infusion of theological meaning into a cultural situation in order to present God’s take on the matter. Professors should ask their students to do this and show them the parallels with the texts they are reading. The students are doing exactly what the ancient peoples did. The only that remains to be discussed are the roles of prophet, revelation, and inspiration – but none detract from the basic principle of understanding religious texts.


He gets it too

Check out a post titled “Fallible Criteria” to see some comments about the traditional criteria used by the historical-critical method.

Disclaimer: I ask that anyone who wishes to chime in on these topics read these posts and their links before doing so. In order to have fruitful discussion this topic will be moderated so that we stay on topic. Rhetoric and debating tactics will not be tolerated. Understanding the issues at hand is the prime focus. If that is not your interest, do not comment

More On Method

The painstaking creation of a method which will be sensitive to the context of a text in all it’s historical, social, and literary requires lots of effort. If we are to be true to our calling to find our what is really going on in a text, in a historical situation so that those who in fact waked, talked, lived, breathed, and had faith in that situation are not silenced, we must do this. We cannot expect them to write for us. We cannot expect them to talk like us. We must immerse ourselves in their world as fully as possible. We cannot set up our own conclusions to which those writers must arrive. We must define a method, we must gather evidence, we must apply the method evenly, and we must live by the conclusions of that method. To argue that the conclusions are untenable is not allowed. One can only argue that the method is wrong, that we are lacking evidence, or that we are applying the method unjustly.

For me this is entirely fresh ground. I came from a fundamentalist community in which the method was practically non-existent. The method was to use our own frames of reference, with a literal reading of the texts. This is going to get your some strange results. The “defense” of our belief against others was often “your conclusions do not make sense with the Scriptures”. When you deconstruct that statement it really means, “your conclusions do not make sense with the conclusions I have already arrived at about the Scripture”. Since no one of us stands authoritatively outside the Scriptures. One always stands in relation to the Scriptures. It is the hermaneutical circle at work. I grant that the hermaneutical circle will always have an influence. However, we must cannot use it to defend a method. We can only use the circle within a method. We must recognize when our dialogue partners are using a different method. We must suspend our own belief in our method, and try theirs on for size, to see through their lens. Only then will we actually see what they are truly saying.

That is what I ask on the issue concerning Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel

The Issue at Hand

The issue is, I feel, appropriately framed and outline in my Dallas paper. I hope that those who might have already read it, in light of more discussion with me take the time to read it again. I feel the issue, and the time spent on it, demands that we treat each other with respect by studying the material before engaging in discussion. There has since been more discussion on the very same topic:


WIth this, I hope you read the paper closely, and the blog entries in order to properly participate in the discussion.

Fallible Criteria

Posted: Thursday Jun 25th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Early Church, Exegesis, Historical Method, Jesus, Second Temple Judaism | View Comments


Michael Barber is Singing about the criteria most often used by historians, and I am finding a lot of truth in what he says. At the moment I am reading through a critique of NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. And I just finished Michael Borg’s critique of Wright, which is basically a whole different set of presuppositions about how to do history. And they are all fair.

In discussing the parable of the Vineyard and its historicity, Michael shares the most common points for which this parable is assigned to the construction by the later Church, and not Jesus:

  1. That the “the son” is rejected and killed would seem to point to a post-Easter setting.
  2. The implications of the parable are that Jesus is the son of the vineyard, i.e., the Son of God. This is also said to most likely reflect the theology of the early church.
  3. In the parable the judgment on the tenants comes only after the “son” is killed. This highlights the unique importance of Jesus and thus also seems to point towards the early community’s view.
  4. The destruction that comes as a result suggests a setting after the destruction of Jerusalem.
  5. The son is depicted as the final climax, being sent only after other messengers have been killed. This is said to make little sense―why would a father send his son into such a situation? The language is only explicable if one sees Jesus as the climax of salvation history―as the one who comes after all the prophets, a view most see as more likely the product of the early church than Jesus himself.
  6. The image of the vineyard being handed over to others is said to point to a period after the “parting of the ways”—i.e., to some belief that God has rejected Israel in favor of the Church.

He goes on to answer those specific points, so if you are interested in those, please jump on over there for them. However, I wanted to step back, since this is exactly what Borg’s take on the situation is. He cannot, based on the probability, assign certain things as going back to Jesus. There is an inherent problem here.

The basic logic works as Michael has described, sayings are attributed to the early Church based on their proclamation of it. However, no one disputes whether or not the early Church said Jesus was the Son of God. Therefore, whether Jesus said it or not, there is always a reason, and it is a very good reason, to expect an at best even, often a higher probability of the Church saying it. If we are making decisions based on probability we are going to have a problem. Because Jesus could never have said anything the Church did say, according to this method. It is always better to err on the side of caution saying the “The Church put that in the Scripture, it did not come from the mouth of Jesus”.

Of course I am not saying anything new here, NT Wright went on about exactly these fallible historical criteria in his book. The strange issue is that no one is talking about the validity of his own criteria, specifically the criterion of similarity and dissimilarity – which would seem to do a much better job of highlighting whether or not Jesus did, or did not say something historically. Simply put, if the words are similar to Judaism, yet suggest a difference in interpretation, while at the same time being similar to the later Church, while being either never fully carried out/implemented or simply dropped to the extent spoken of, there is a high probability it was spoken by Jesus, rather than created by the Church. It would seem to me that this method would do far better justice to the evidence. With the other method you have, at best, a coin-flip: “It really could have been either one”, and at worst “That is exactly what the Church said, therefore I have no confidence Jesus said it”. It boils down to this. One would expect some continuity between Judaism and Jesus, and Jesus and the Church. If Jesus really did not say anything the Church proclaimed he said – well you really do have a big historical problem on your hands. How in the wide-world did the Church come to be? (And there are serious people working on this problem: “How did the Church come to exist given that miracles do not occur, Jesus never claimed to be the messiah, and was not resurrected”). That historical problem, I would think, should scare historians rather than a small chance of a false-positive that Jesus did not in fact say something we think he did.