Friday, 10 May 2013

The Once and Future Scriptures - Change is the new norm (pt 2)

This post continues my look at The Once and Future Scriptures edited by Gregory C Jenks. You can read my thoughts on the into and first chapters in part 1.

Cathy Thomson - Chapter 2 Scripture as Normative Source in Theology
Thomson sets out to define her terms of "scripture", "normative", "source", "normative source" and "theology" carefully, because in postmodern thought "you have to be really careful about words" (p 25). She then says:
"theology begins somewhat improbably in seismology. Here, when the little that can be said to be securely 'denoted' is ascertained, there emerges to poetic subversion that is connotation, at once powerfully suggestive and poignantly insecure. Of cause, it has always been so." (p 25)
What a clear and careful choice of words to convey meaning... Anyway on to definitions:
  • Scripture "provides temporal expression of the eternal, through human witness reflecting on their experience of God" (p 25-26). Scripture "has sacred possibility only though" the "holy susceptibility of the reader" (p 26).
  • Normative "is claimed by those who wish to establish a norm." (p 26). "What is often found here are standards  patterns, types, or customs to govern a set of practices or behaviors" (p 27)
  • Source "is the word spoken", it "is God, or perhaps it is the point at which the sheer uncreated potential of God meets its own mysterious actualization in creation." (p 27).
  • Normative source perhaps could mean (because we have to be careful about words) "a source that establishes a norm or set of norms" or "a document that records the human experience of what it believes to be the originating mystery" (p 28).
  • Theology "is faith seeking understanding" (I think that is a Anselm reference, even though there is no citation, but that was years ago, so I guess it doesn't matter now). Theology is "an academic pursuit that recognizes human deficiency in understanding the divine." (p 28).
After all that are we clear? Just in case we are or aren't Thomson puts as a note:
"It is important at the outset to recognize anew that all discursive measure - whether of language, art, Scripture, theology or in any other symbol system - may be found to be self-subverting." (p 29)
I could quote her all day long, its like reading an artwork.

"Derived Methodology" (or "What to Make of the Above....")
Thompson sets out to show how we get truth out of the Scriptures, but points out that philosophers have questioned whether humans beings can apprehend truth (p 29). If they can't apprehend truth, then that is a truth which in turn means we can apprehend truth (solved!). We should not forget Jacques Derrid who "casts doubt on the capacity of language per se to convey truth" (p 30) who used language to convey this truth, of which Thompson also relays using, wait for it... language. So if language can not convey truth, then that last sentence isn't true, but it is... If all this philosophy sounds circular, don't worry, so is the truth claim that the Bible is inerrant:
"A faith community might choose to make truth claims about biblical inerrancy, but this often don through what are considered to be illogical circularities, such as using the Bible itself to determine principles for the interpretation of Scripture" (p 30)
But remember words can't convey truth, except for these words. Lets not look too deeply or we may find also that our reason is true because our reason says that is true...

When deciding what is true you have to stop somewhere and you can't avoid circular reasoning. What is important is where you stop - whether it be your own reason, someone else's philosophy or the Bible - and if that worldview aligns with reality (what is true). The philosophers of language don't line up with reality, if it did then we wouldn't have been able to understand them...

Thompson argues that the "postmodern theologian does no claim the Scriptures contains no truth" (phew!) but the act of it been written and disseminated renders "it impossible to make absolute truth claims out of the text" (p 31). Of cause that is an absolute truth claim, and one wonders if I can say the same about this chapter. Can I say that this chapter doesn't contain any absolute truth claims because it was written and published and therefore there are actually absolute truth claims...?

Thompson tries to locate where the Scriptures are considered sacred. It is in the words themselves or is it "located in the dynamic process of reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting them both in private and public sphere" (p 31-32)? Thompson argues for the latter "as the process of finding inspiration in Scripture is a complex one involving human engagement at every level" (p 32). It seems that God's Word is at the whim of human enterprise. If it wasn't for humans we wouldn't have sacred words from God, but lucky for God that He made us.

There is also problems with claiming normativity for Scripture as "claiming 'normativity' - with its tendency to suggest 'norms' and their 'enforcement' - may be over come by understanding the 'normative' as evolving through a process of 'traditioning'... a process that is not static, but ongoing" (p 32). So norms evolve, things are not static, even though Thompson defined what theology is by using Anselm's definition (p 28)... So how much do norms really change? You know who doesn't change? God (James 1:17). He also doesn't lie (Num 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb 6:18). Those two facts alone should help us set boundaries in our 'traditioning'; assuming we think God is smart enough to navigate the complexities of language and communicate something clearly (and absolutely) to us in the first place...

Again on page 33 Thompson makes the point that "there should be recognition of the poverty of language to convey absolute truth for today's Christianity and the Church... partly because of its innate capacity to both represent and usurp representation at the same time", failing to note she used language. If language can't convey absolute truth, then the first part of this sentence can't be absolute.

Despite all the above Thompson does argue that exegesis is important to find the original meaning of the text (p 34). I agree with this completely. I do wonder if Thompson would agree that the original meaning doesn't change (ie they are absolute) or how in exegesis it is even possible to get meaning from the complexities of language.

How the Scriptures Function as Normative Source for Christian Theology
Thompson then sets our to demonstrate her methodology and how it deters "the development of exorbitant claims to truth and inerrancey". She chooses Christology as an example to show that "Scripture is not a self-regulating system characterized by inner consistency, or self-interpretative possibility" (p 35).

Using Hebrew 1:8-9 as examples John 1:14 Thompson shows that:
"the earliest texts which could be interpreted as pointing to the divinity of Jesus were probably drawn from liturgical material that would have been used well before the gospels were written, can centuries before the divinity of Jesus was asserted in doctrinal statements such as those produced by the Council of Nicea in 325 CE" (p 35-36)
These two quotes "are intriguing but ambiguous, attributing 'sonship' to Jesus, but not necessarily divinity" (p 37).

Thompson first fails to note that John and Hebrews are not the earliest of the New Testament texts but are closer to being the last ones (Paul's writings were earlier).

Hebrews 1:8-9 is a quote from Psalms 46:6-7 showing that Jesus is greater than angels. At the start of that very section (and the whole letter) it declares that Jesus is God's Son, heir of all things who created the world (Heb 1:2), who is the radiance of God's glory and His exact image who upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb 1:3) (sounds a lot like Gen the guy in Gen 1:1) and is much superior to angels and has a greater name than then (Heb 1:4).

With the John 1:14 reference, the start of that section (as well as the whole book) Jesus is said to be with God and was God and all things were made through Jesus (John 1:1-4). All that doesn't sounds like the author of Hebrews or John is taking about "a devout follower of the God of Judaism" and "only that" (p. 35). Hebrew 1:8-9 and John 1:14 may ascribe sonship to Jesus "but not necessarily divinity" but the start of both those sections seem pretty clear that Jesus is God - assuming the written language has meaning and a context.

Thompson also quotes Colossians 1:15-20 again as evidence that Jesus was ascribed divinity because of past liturgical material which "may be read to imply divinity  but could be understood in the sense of a son and spirit derived from/by God, but not sharing divinity" and Jesus "is not portrayed explicitly as divine" (p 37). Now I haven't finished my Trinity subject this semester, but if Jesus and the Spirit were created by God (not begotten or proceeded), then that sounds a bit like Arianism... I want to tread lightly and carefully here, but I thought Arianism was heretical...

Colossians 1:16-17 ascribes to Jesus as the creator over all things in heaven and earth, and that he was before all things, and He sustains all things. That sounds a lot like God. If Paul has lifted these statements from some past liturgical material he must have know it was about God and here he is applying that to Jesus. The fact that Paul included this text and uses it about Jesus, shows that he thought Jesus was God

Thompson points out that "There is ambiguity in all of theses texts, which makes it difficult to 'ground' biblically any Christological claim of divinity" (p 37). If this is the end result of Thompson's method of reading the Bible, then I think there are big really big problems.

Thompson lists lots of titles ascribed to Jesus by Himself and others, pointing out that Jesus didn't call himself "Messiah" even though Martha called him "the Messiah, the Son of God" in John 11:27 (p 38). And that Jesus never referred to Himself as God's Son (p 38) even though the people who insulted Jesus on the cross said He did (Mat 27:43) and the Jews also said Jesus set himself up as the Son of God (John 19:7). Paul also called Jesus the Son of God four times (Rom 1:4; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Eph 4:13). The explicit agenda of Mark and John is about Jesus being the Son of God (Mark 1:1, John 20:31), to miss this would be to miss the original intent of these authors. Jesus did call Himself "I AM" which was kinda big deal, that was God's name to Moses (Exd 3:14) and so people tried to stone Him for that (John 8:58-59).

Just last night for my Trinity readings I stumbled across these (which is only two of many) quotes:
"Serious reader of the four Gospels find it difficult to escape the conclusions that Jesus had a relation to God which is impossible to fit into regular human ways of describing the relation of a man to God" (here)
"In the Synoptic Gospels there is one passage that could imply that Jesus is God: Mat 1:23. In the Pauline writings there are three... Rom 9:5, Tit 2:13 and Heb 1:8. In the Johannine writings there are two passages in which Jesus is probably called God: John 1:18 and 1 John 5:20. And there are two passages in which He is clearly called God: John 1:1 and John 20:20" (p 27)
With the above quote I will conceded that Paul didn't write Hebrews and that there is a variant in Romans 9:5 which the RSV goes with. Still the Hebrew passage really exists and the case for Jesus being God doesn't solely rest on just Romans 9:5.

When dealing with the title "Son of Man" that Jesus frequently uses to call himself, Thompson doesn't mention Daniel 7 (p 39), which is kind of a big oversight.

Thompson points out that Arian was a respected leader and that "Jesus' divinity was not derived from scriptural material in an uncomplicated manner, as though it lay, a clear theological concept.. It was deliberated upon, thought about and prayed (and fought) over for centuries" (p 39). I would propose that the doctrine of the Trinity does not rest on one bit of scripture, but the underlying idea of the Trinity, including Jesus' divinity is derived from the Bible and all the historical thoughts, conflict and prayers was over the meaning of the Biblical text.

As for Jesus' divinity being a late addition to the Church's teaching, Ignatius of Antioch (died before 117 AD), the First Letter of Clement (before 100 AD) and Athenagoras (133-190 AD) were aware of the trinitarian structure of Christian salvation. Theophilus of Antioch (died before 185 AD) and Tertullian (160-225 AD) even use the term "trias" or "trinitas" in their writings about God. All these guys used as a basis of their reasoning the Biblical text. Arius (250–336 AD) came on the scene later and was shot down, based on reasoning from the Scriptures - whose original meaning hadn't changed in two hundred years.

Thompson concludes by saying that Scripture can be considered as the 'normative source' in theology "on the condition that 'normativity' is redefined in terms of 'suggestion of meaning' rather than 'enforcement of truth'" and that her system of reading the Bible may seem 'edgy' to some (p 41). I wonder if Thompson would like me to suggest we read her chapter in the same way, that is her norms are not static and that her method is indeed 'edgy' only if we redefine the term 'edgy' to be 'wrong'.

My concern as an Anglican is whether Thompson agrees with the Nicene Creed which says Jesus  is:
the only Son of God, eternally begotton of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made.
Or is that only a suggestion?

Again, thank you for reading to the end.


  1. Hey Andrew, great work here. I have found your two reviews really helpful in trying to understand what these guys are actually trying to argue.

    What do you think about Greg's comment in chapter 1 that if we follow his line of thinking that we will need to 'read the Bible differently, we shall need to rewrite so much of our creeds and liturgies.'?

    Wouldn't this conclusion require a complete change to the National Church's constitution?

    What do you think these guys are actually aiming for given their high profile positions within the Brisbane Diocese?

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks for posting.

    I do think re-writing some of the creeds and liturgies in light of a new reading of scripture is an issue. In fact I would probably content that creeds and liturgies have been put in place to stop new readings of scripture and to guard the historical faith.

    What do you think these guys are actually aiming for given their high profile positions within the Brisbane Diocese?
    I don't think there is some grand conspiracy behind what these guys are saying. I take them on their word; they they want their methods to be applied and for a robust discussion to be had on how we approach scripture. I think any new readings of scripture have an inherit brief life span, as what happens a few years latter when there is a newer way of reading the Bible?

    I am writing all this from Canberra. Unlike Dr Muriel Porter, I don't think Sydney Anglicans are a threat to the world, let alone the Canberra/Goulburn Diocese, and I don't think Brisbane Anglicans are a threat either. God's word is living, effective and active. It cuts to the heart and soul; so wherever the scriptures are declared and treated as authoritative, then people will be able to encounter God and be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. So I have hope, as I know a few people in Brisbane who trust and preach the scriptures. Combine that with prayer and you have the conditions for a true revival that will bring about transformed lives and more people giving glory to God.