The Evangelical Universalist: Interview

I am slowly working my way through The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym). The book is primarily an attempt at a biblical theology of universalism, though the first chapter is a very interesting philosophical treatment of free will and the doctrine of hell. I heartily recommend the book to all those interested in the subject.

When I have completed the book, I will take this blog through the various chapters, offering my own critical thoughts along the way. My personal opinion is that the question of universalism is not primarily a Scriptural issue. Granted, Scripture is our norm for theology and practice, but Scripture alone is not univocal on the subject of damnation and salvation. Some passages can be read in a Pelagian sense; others reject any kind of salvation by works. Some passages clearly speak about eternal (or at least long-lasting) suffering for the damned; others qualify this by locating the salvation of the world in Christ. So on and so forth. I will treat these hermeneutical and exegetical questions in more detail at the end of my series on universalism.

For now, I wish to point people to the interview with Gregory MacDonald by Graham posted on Leaving Münster. This is the first part of the interview, so keep checking the site to read the rest. (HT Disruptive Grace and GOTT)

Comments

Mark Congdon said…
David,

Interesting description of the way that Scripture is not univocal on this issue. I've got a couple questions I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on.

(1) If Scripture was univocal on this issue, would you then consider Scripture to be normative above philosophical/theological considerations?

(2) Is Scripture univocal on anything substantive?

I've been struggling with the perplexities of Scripture for many years now, and this particular issue (who will be saved? how does salvation come to us?) was the one that forced me into that position, out of my previous "Scripture is clear and obvious" intellectual blindness.

I'm pretty sure I don't work through these issues the same way you do, but I'd be interested at least to hear your thoughts on the above questions.

Thanks,
Mark
bcongdon said…
In the interview, Gregory mentions the thought process that led him toward Universalism:

"This conjunction of beliefs (God could save all but won't) brought me major spiritual problems and I found it hard to believe that God really loved the world (only the elect). I found worship difficult."

I agree that the hyper-Calvinist idea of a God who loves only the elect, would make worship difficult. But there is a Biblical solution to this conundrum. The solution speaks to God's love and mercy as well as to his justice, with humans who are truly free moral agents. It's wiser to wrestle with the mystery of God's sovereignty than to throw out some of the clearest passages in the Bible and make the Great Commission a charade.
Anonymous said…
Very interesting discussion. There is a blog called experimentaltheology, where prof. Richard Beck has an interesting study on "Why i am a Universalist". He is an associate prof of Psychology at Abeline Christian University, with an interest in the Psychology of Religion. You and Him both have excellent Blogs.
D.W. Congdon said…
Mark,

Thanks for the insightful questions. Here is the start of a response.

(1) If you mean to imply that Scripture reveals one thing whereas philosophy/theology reveals something else, then I reject your question. Scripture and theology are not two sources of revelation. There is only one revelation, Jesus Christ. Scripture is the authoritative witness to this divine self-revelation. Dogmatic theology is the discipline of interpretating God's self-revelation in accordance with Scripture with attention to the doctrines of the Christian faith.

That said, Scripture is univocal on very, very few things. I think one of the only things Scripture states without equivocation is that there is indeed a God who governs this world. Scripture is not even entirely clear on whether or not Jesus is God. Obviously, the NT witness is overwhelmingly on the side of affirming Christ's divinity, but it is not entirely clear in every respect. Arius had plenty of Scripture to support his position. How did the early church solve the dispute? Theologically. They asked a basic and important question, "What must be true for Jesus to be the source of salvation?" Result? The doctrine of the Trinity and, eventually, the doctrine of Christ's two natures (and a lot of other doctrines).

(2) Scripture is not univocal on most substantive doctrines, but that's no problem for the church and never has been, because Scripture is not the source of our doctrines. Scripture is the witness to the being and acts of God, and out of this witness, the church attends to the questions of what must be true. Scripture does not give us doctrine; it is not some storehouse of facts that we turn to for formulations of dogmatic truths. The Protestant debates about supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism seem abstract and utterly unrelated to Scripture, and yet these are theological debates that shape our entire approach to the faith. Theology and Scripture are symbiotically interrelated. The latter is the authoritative witness, and the former is the ecclesial interpretation of this witness.

The church need not concern itself with whether there are things that Scripture is univocal about, because that is not the basis for Christian faith. The basis for faith is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who lived, died, and was raised again for our justification (Rom. 5). Is Scripture univocal on any of that? Perhaps, but probably not. Does it matter? No, because the parts of Scripture that are differ from these confessions are in the minority and can be explained. The Bible is complex, full of different genres, written by different people over long periods of time, and shaped by different cultural contexts. We have to sift through all of this as a community of believers, recognizing that some parts of Scripture are more authoritative than others (yes, we must make this claim, as did all the early Reformers). Not all of Scripture is equally authoritative. We thus need hermeneutical categories to read Scripture properly. I suggest that this is found in the doctrine of justification.

The point is that in discussing the doctrines concerning salvation, we have to ask these tough theological questions that will determine how we read Scripture. Is Pelagianism in any form acceptable to the faith? Is Christ entirely exclusive? Did Christ complete everything necessary for salvation in himself? What does it mean for us to receive salvation?

These are the big questions we have to ask. It is my contention that the answer of classical Protestantism is the most radical and the one most Christians cannot accept, and yet it is the one which honors Christ the most, which denies any salvation by works, and gives God the glory alone.
Mark Congdon said…
David,

I'm a bit confused how we can "sift through all of this as a community of believers", and yet end up with a conclusion that "most Christians cannot accept". Those seem somewhat antithetical to me.

I also was not under the impression that "classical Protestantism" embraced universalism. I believe the primary debate in classical Protestantism, which continues to this day, is between the general categories that you would call "semi-Pelagianism" and "double-predestinarianism". There is, of course, a wide swath of variations encompassed in those terms, but I'm going off your earlier statement in a previous post that Christian theology comes down to only three possibilities... semi-Pelagianism, double-predestinarianism, or universalism. Considering that you have cast in your lot with universalism, I am surprised to hear you align yourself with "classical Protestantism".

"Theology and Scripture are symbiotically interrelated." That is certainly true, though the nature of that symbiosis isn't clear. You describe it this way (of course, this may be only part of your understanding... I mention this as a discussion point, not as a criticism or disagreement): "in discussing the doctrines concerning salvation, we have to ask these tough theological questions that will determine how we read Scripture." That's true, but only part of the picture... theology sometimes determines how we read Scripture, and Scripture sometimes determines how we do theology. Your mom forwarded me some time ago some lectures about the Trinity that you had forwarded her from Dr. McCormack there at Princeton. I love what he said on this issue: "the truth of a doctrine will be decided by the extent to which it bears adequate witness to Holy Scripture ... [but] the interpretation of Scripture must take place under the guidance of the Church's accumulated wisdom". I can definitely appreciate that symbiosis. He applies that point by insisting that any theological formulation of the Trinity which does not account for the specific descriptions of the economic Trinity in the Scripture cannot be valid. I think a similar principle may apply here.

"some parts of Scripture are more authoritative than others". That's a new way of putting it for me, but certainly some parts of Scripture are more clear, descriptive, or definitive than others. The great question, the question that divides the church, is... how do we determine which parts of Scripture are the clearer ones, the ones that are definitive, the ones that we must use to interpret (or, in some cases, explain away) other parts of Scripture?

I hold you in high regard for having asked that question, even though we probably come to slightly different conclusions. The majority of pastors and theologians I've known have never even asked the question... and therefore, their answer becomes "what I'm used to, familiar with, and comfortable with is what is clear and definitive in Scripture". It's the unasked questions that lead to the worst forms of intellectual arrogance.

So, thanks for asking the questions with me. :)

Mark
Anonymous said…
David,
Simply put - your family is awesome!
Cheers to a good discussion.
D.W. Congdon said…
Mark,

I don't know if this will address everything, but I'll do my best.

(1) I never actually said that the classical Protestant view was universalist. I just said it was radical -- and it is. When Luther denied any human involvement in salvation, placing it entirely upon the gracious will of God, that was a truly new movement in the Christian tradition (possibly a return to the early church, but that's hard to say).

(2) The debate was not between semi-Pelagianism and double predestination (DP) in the Reformation; it was between Augustinian-Thomism and classical Protestantism. The former is much better than semi-Pelagianism, but still places the maintanence of one's salvation upon human works. The latter, the view of Luther and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Calvin, place all hope in the grace of God. It became DP in the hands of Calvin and his followers, but by denying that all would be saved, it was effectively DP for all of these Reformers. So while it's not technically right to label it DP, it was more or less that in point of fact.

Now DP is indeed a radical position, but it depended upon some rather limited exegesis and more than a few faulty theological moves. Most importantly, it was not christocentric in its thinking, but rather found its center outside of Christ in a pretemporal, absolute decree of the Father. I already dealt with double predestination in my sections on election in this long series, so I point you to those if you'd like to read more. (I plan on improving those sections later, since at the moment they don't really address the problems like they should; but they're a start.)

All of that is to say, universalism is simply a christocentric DP, except that now the division between saved and damned — between accepted and rejected — is born by Christ himself, is located in Christ's own person. Universalism follows the same Calvinistic logic of grace and divine sovereignty, but it refuses to limit the scope of God's grace and thus preserve the scope of sin.

In conclusion, the classical Protestant view is universalism if you simply open the scope of God's grace to all people. There is simply no way around that.

(3) I made a mistake in my previous comment about having only three options — (1) semi-Pelagianism, (2) DP, and (3) Universalism — because I should have put Augustinian-Thomism in the mix. Dr. Hunsinger pointed that out in class this past week, so I will be sure to address it in the future along with the other three options.

(4) You made the point that Scripture also affects how we do theology. I just assume that we know theology depends entirely upon Scripture. I take for granted that this is the case. But I also stated this fact explicitly several times, as in the following example: "The latter is the authoritative witness, and the former is the ecclesial interpretation of this witness." If theology is the interpretation of the scriptural witness, then we do not have theology apart from Scripture. But that is a given. Anyone that attempts to do theology apart from Scripture is doing something else.

That said, theology attends to realities that are not explicitly stated in Scripture. Theology has to think through what must be the case for the witness to God's revelation to make sense. What must be the case for Jesus to be the salvation of the world? What must be the case for the Spirit to be the divine Comforter and guide for the church? Etc. Theology has to develop a theological method as well, along with hermeneutical categories for the reading of Scripture. All of this is external to the biblical witness and yet absolutely necessary in order to make faithful sense of the Bible.

(5) Indeed, the central question is precisely which passages are more definitive (authoritative) for our theology. I believe the center of theology is our Christology, which involves necessarily our soteriology (because Christ's person and work are inseparable). That is why I place justification at the center, because it places the Christ who justifies the ungodly as the ground for our faith. It is the article by which the church stands or falls, as Luther said. Barth appears to make election this doctrine, but justification and election are two sides of the same coin: Jesus Christ.
D.W. Congdon said…
Mark,

Look for my upcoming post on divine actualism. You will find most of our past arguments addressed in that post, and it directly relates to our discussion here.

Brad,

There are two dangers in your "Biblical solution" which make it rather un-biblical to many Christians. The first is the separation between God's love/mercy and God's justice, as if God is merciful or judgmental at different times. The affirmation of God's simplicity and the unity of God's attributes requires that we view God's mercy as just and God's justice as merciful. Love is the central and primary attribute of God, which takes the form of wrath in opposition to sin and the form of mercy in forgiving sinners. God is not loving sometimes and not loving at other times; God is always love, but God's love is holy and thus it is unlike human love, just as God's justice is unlike human justice. See my post on the attributes of God in my series on universalism.

The other problem is your emphasis on free moral agents. This is more of a Catholic argument than a Protestant one. The Reformation insisted that humans are in bondage to sin, that any free will (if they even is such a thing) has been captured by sin and idolatry, and that only by the grace of God do we enter into covenantal communion with God. The emphasis on human free will is an argument that stretches back to Pelagius himself, who argued that God could not rationally command what humans could not reasonably carry out in freedom; thus, sin is not total and humans are capable of doing something to merit God's favor. The Reformation answered this with a resounding, "No!"

It seems like you favor semi-Pelagianism. If so, you are in good company. Whether or not that is a correct position is up for debate (though not for me). Clearly, you would have plenty of Scripture passages to support your position, but of course you have to contend with the fact that Paul is pretty clear that salvation is by grace and not by works. You could take the Thomistic route and say that salvation is by grace but it has to be maintained by works -- which is also orthodox and commonly held (mostly by Catholics). Or you can accept the radical Protestant view that salvation is by grace and that salvation is assured by the faithfulness of God (rather than your faithfulness). In that case, either you can accept double predestination or universalism. The choice is yours -- or, rather, as I believe, the choice is not yours but you can decide whether or not you accept that belief.

In the end, I wholeheartedly believe that universalism is not only the best position Scripturally and theologically, it is also the one that is most liberating. Our good works are truly free responses to the mysterious and wonderful grace of God. What wonderful news that is! The gospel is truly Good News.

Finally, I have to insist that just because a passage of Scripture is clear does not make it more definitive for our theological position. We need a more sophisticated method of theological exegesis beyond what seems clear on the surface. And I think the "universalist" passages are at least as clear, if not more so.

And universalism does NOT make the Great Commission a charade. Gregory MacDonald makes this clear, especially in his book. And I will devote some time to it myself. I state over and over again that universalism frees us, liberates us, for the work of the kingdom. Such a doctrine does not make evangelism unnecessary because it does not view the church as unimportant. On the contrary, the church is the first-fruits of the coming kingdom, the foretaste of what is to come. The church is the creaturely witness to the glory of God and the reality of God. The church proclaims the message of salvation, urging people toward love and good deeds. The church is the vehicle of the Good News. What higher calling could you ask of the church?
Mark Congdon said…
David,

Thanks for your reply.

(1) I never actually said that...

I was responding to your description of classical Protestantism as that which "honors Christ the most". You obviously don't feel that double-predestination honors Christ the most, so I was confused. I think I understand you now, about holding to a modified version of DP.

(2) The debate was not between...

I was speaking not of the debate that brought about the Reformation, but the debate that came to consume it shortly thereafter.

In conclusion, the classical Protestant view is universalism if you simply open the scope of God's grace to all people.

Certainly. Taking the TULIP and changing it to TUUIP does make universalism. I think most classical Protestants would say you had departed from classical Protestantism, however, in making that change. :)

(3) I made a mistake in my previous comment about having only three...

I'd argue that there are a lot more than four options available here. Arminians find it offensive to be pigeonholed into semi-Pelagianism, and I tend to agree with them. Single-predestinarians find it offensive to be lumped in with double-predestinarians, and I think they have a good point, too. There are probably other variations that I'm not aware of. A good discussion of the issue can be found on the Jesus Creed blog, in its recent series on Roger Olson's new book Arminian Theology.

(4) You made the point that Scripture also affects how we do theology

That wasn't exactly my point, at least in the way that you responded to it. Your restatement was simplistic and self-evident. I was trying to go a bit beyond that, to describe more in detail how I felt that theology and Scripture are symbiotically related... that is, the nature of the symbiosis.

(5) Indeed, the central question is precisely which passages...

Let me bring in something you wrote in your response to Brad, which I think applies here: "I have to insist that just because a passage of Scripture is clear does not make it more definitive for our theological position. We need a more sophisticated method of theological exegesis beyond what seems clear on the surface."

I would strongly disagree with your first sentence, and strongly agree with your second sentence. If you changed "clear" in the first sentence to "clear on the surface", then I would agree with it. The "on the surface" phrase makes all the difference between the two.

That appears to be where we diverge in our approaches. You appear to consider Scriptural clarity (at least beyond some basic propositions, possibly?) to be unattainable. I believe it to be often unattainable, but sometimes at least partially present. To the degree to which it is present, I hold it to be normative for my theology. That is why I so appreciated Dr. McCormack's rule that any trinitarian formulation that did not take into account the actual statements about the relationships within God in the Scriptures could not be Scriptural. I don't think Dr. McCormack was applying any "on the surface" rule requiring a simplistic reading of the text, and he clearly affirmed also that the text must be read and understood within the Christian community. If I've understood him correctly, I stand with him on that issue.

My general observation would be that my hermeneutic loads more often to asking "What does the text say about this question?", and your hermeneutic leads more often to asking "What must be true about this question based on what I know of Christ?" At least, so it seems to me. Does that sound fair to you?

Both types of questions are necessary, and I know that we both ask both questions... but I think the degree to which we look to one or the other type of question to resolve theological issues is probably a good descriptor of the difference in our hermeneutics.

And I hope it goes without saying that when I ask "What does the text say about this?", I don't mean "What does the text say at first-glance, on the surface about this", and that such interpreting of the text must take place within the context of the Christian community.
D.W. Congdon said…
Mark,

Thanks the helpful response.

(1) Whatever soteriology I have, it can be traced back to the highest of Christologies. The lower one's Christology, the more one elevates the importance of human action in relation to divine action. Barth solves this problem by placing divine and human action in an asymmetrical relation (i.e., non-competitive), while also holding to the highest of Christologies. This way, he can stress the sole and exclusive nature of Christ AND the full and necessary obedience of the human creatures (though not for salvation or damnation).

(2) TULIP is not classical Protestantism; it is Protestant Scholasticism. The classical Protestant view is basically Luther. Calvinists came to prominence a century later.

(3) I am sure there are many, many different little changes we could articulate. However, there are still only four major conceptions of the relation between divine grace and human action (this is following Dr. Hunsinger): Pelagianism (works), Semi-Pelagianism (works followed by grace), Augustinian-Thomism (grace followed by works), Classical Protestantism (grace). We can of course modify details here and there, but I don't think there is any other significantly different position. Of course, by aligning myself with the Classical Protestant view, I am also lumped in with DP. Do I agree with them? No. But that does not mean our basic positions are identical except for a few changes. Do Arminians have a point? Sure, just as I do. But they belong in the Semi-Pelagian camp.

(4) Fair enough. But I also think my statements articulated that symbiosis, at least in a preliminary way: witness and ecclesial interpretation of witness.

(5) I most definitely DO believe in Scriptural clarity. I have to! I am a Christian who believes in the authority of Scripture. But of course, I never said that I have a problem with clarity. If you look at what I said more carefully (at the first sentence you strongly disagreed with), you will see that it is not clarity that I am discarding but the notion that clarity alone is sufficient for establishing a theological position. That is, a clear passage is not by virtue of its clarity definitive for my theology. There are other more important qualifications. Of course, by that I do not mean the passage is thereby discarded. I simply mean that it cannot be privileged on the basis of clarity.

I can throw out numerous examples. I will choose the hardest one first: the parable of the sheep and the goats. To me it is rather clear what Jesus is saying: if you do not feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick, you are a goat and will go to eternal punishment. That is what the text clearly states. Jesus is rather straightforward about it. But does this mean any soteriology which does not make the doing of good works necessary for salvation thereby unbiblical. I sure hope not! This passage seems to conflict with Paul quite sharply. Furthermore, it is a parable, and thus there are literary traits which will affect how we interpret it theologically. And it also strongly conflicts with church tradition, from Paul onwards, and especially with the hermeneutical insights of the Reformation. In short, the clarity of the passage does not trounce the other hermeneutical concerns, hence my call for a hermeneutical key for reading Scripture effectively and faithfully. Clarity is not sufficient.

(6) Your two questions in the end do not and cannot really divide us. Let me explain. I cannot state what must be true about a certain question if my answer is not rooted in Scripture. This does not mean I root my answer in a proof text alone, but rather in the overall witness of Scripture to the self-revelation of God. The first question -- "What does the text say about this?" -- is essential to the second question. But there's a problem, which I will address from your perspective.

By trying to make the first question your sole method of solving theological problems, you will quite quickly get stuck. You simply cannot solve all the problems of the church's theology from looking at the biblical text, or at least if you tried you would end up with some rather contradictory positions and would have to throw out most of what the church has held dear. Just look at the Reformation. Luther and Calvin were dedicated to Scripture alone for their faith and practice, but both were ardent supporters of infant baptism (as I am) along with the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Now the Anabaptists saw themselves as "more faithful" to Scripture because they got rid of this practice, along with the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Anabaptists may have been following the text more literally, but they abandoned an ecclesial hermeneutic shaped by tradition and theological concerns. Were they really more faithful to Scripture than Calvin? I beg to differ. And yet it is a lot harder, just using the words on the page in the NT, to argue for infant baptism. There are plenty of other similar issues, such as the salvation by works (sheep and goats parable) and salvation by grace (Paul).

I know you are trying to stake out a position that is not simply reading the Bible on the surface, but then what else are you adding to your reading? If it's anything beyond simple comparison of texts between the OT and NT, you are adding something outside of the Bible itself -- a hermeneutic of some kind. If you read the Bible with a specific hermeneutic, then you are doing more than just reading the text. The question becomes, "What does the text say about this question in light of this particular hermeneutic?" That is a very different question, and one that I hold to myself. The question then becomes, "What kind of hermeneutic ought we to have as the ecclesial community of interpreters?"

(7) You should be careful about using Bruce McCormack to back up your argument. Those were the lectures I heard which I sent to my mom, so I am quite a bit more knowledgeable about how Dr. McCormack thinks. The lecture(s) I sent my mom were just selections from his lectures on the Trinity, so it is a narrow picture. Here is how he goes about teaching systematic theology: First, he surveys the history of the doctrine; second, he examines what Scripture says about this topic; and third, he constructs his own theological position based on the theological history and the biblical exegesis. The lecture you read fell in the second stage. Of course, it is important that we take into account what Scripture says, but it must be placed in a theological context which offers us a way of reading these texts appropriately.

If you'd like, I can send you more of his lectures.

Finally, I should probably mention that Dr. McCormack is a universalist. As is Dr. Hunsinger, for basically the same reasons. What I have explained in my ongoing series is more or less the thoughts of these two theologians distilled into blog form and placed in conversation with Barth and other theologians. So let me assure you that if you doubt my hermeneutic, it really is not all that different (if at all) from Dr. McCormack's.
Mark Congdon said…
David,

Thanks... I stand corrected with regard to Protestant history and classical Protestantism.

Do Arminians have a point? Sure, just as I do. But they belong in the Semi-Pelagian camp.

I expect that Arminians would disagree, and argue that they are in the "grace" camp.

I also think my statements articulated that symbiosis

You definitely did. I was articulating an alternative view of the symbiosis.

The sheep and the goats story is an excellent example... but I found this sentence interesting: "Furthermore, it is a parable, and thus there are literary traits which will affect how we interpret it theologically." Actually, I would consider a recognition of literary traits to be a textual consideration, not a theological consideration. I would consider the literary style to be very much a part of the answer to the question "How clear is this text?" Of course, the word "clear" is rather non-specific. Maybe something like "propositional" or "definitive" would be more useful. I think there are some parts of Scripture that, based on their textual characteristics, can be put in those categories.

By trying to make the first question your sole method of solving theological problems, you will quite quickly get stuck.

Which is why I would never think to do such a thing.

I know you are trying to stake out a position that is not simply reading the Bible on the surface, but then what else are you adding to your reading?

Careful literary and historical analysis, for starters. Dialog with the rest of the intepretive community comes into play, too.

You should be careful about using Bruce McCormack to back up your argument.

Thanks. I never doubted that you know more about Dr. McCormack than I do, and I hope I was clear that I was only referring to what I understood him to be saying in that paper, since that's all of Dr. McCormack that I have read or heard. I'm not at all surprised that my hermeneutic is somewhat different from Dr. McCormack's.

There was one point I made earlier in this discussion that I think has gotten left behind, but I think it's significant. After your first response, I wrote:
I'm a bit confused how we can "sift through all of this as a community of believers", and yet end up with a conclusion that "most Christians cannot accept". Those seem somewhat antithetical to me.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on that.

Thanks,
Mark
D.W. Congdon said…
Mark,

There seems to be great resistance on your part against theological exegesis. Why is that?

Take the sheep and the goats example. Literary considerations are obviously textual questions, but how are theological considerations not also textually based, since they too are working from the Scriptural text? I am trying to get you to see that theological, historical, and literary perspectives are all involved in the hermeneutical process. And what is the point of this hermeneutical process? To develop a coherent, biblical, and orthodox theology. Theological concerns are on both sides of the process -- the interpretive and constructive sides. We approach a text theologically for the purpose of reaching theological conclusions.

More importantly, how does one develop a solid hermeneutic for reading Scripture? Or rather, how do you determine when a hermeneutic is faithful to the text as a whole and to the church tradition? The point is this, hermeneutics itself is theology, at least a prolegomena for theology. But the formation of a prolegomena requires that we attend to material elements in our theology. Placing Christ at the center of our hermeneutics implies a material decision: that Christ is indeed the exclusive Son of God who reveals the nature of God, etc.

You wrote:

I would consider the literary style to be very much a part of the answer to the question "How clear is this text?" Of course, the word "clear" is rather non-specific. Maybe something like "propositional" or "definitive" would be more useful. I think there are some parts of Scripture that, based on their textual characteristics, can be put in those categories.

But wasn't our original issue between clarity and definitiveness? A text, I said, may be clear though not definitive -- so we clearly cannot make clarity and definitiveness synonymous. But that seems to be your whole thrust: to see clarity in the text as a sign of definitiveness. I challenged that by using the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Careful literary and historical analysis, for starters. Dialog with the rest of the intepretive community comes into play, too.

In other words, you are looking for a sophisticated hermeneutic. You still need to include theological analysis. But more importantly, as I said above, this is all theological through and through. The formation of a hermeneutic that is not literalism requires and implies theological considerations.

I'm a bit confused how we can "sift through all of this as a community of believers", and yet end up with a conclusion that "most Christians cannot accept". Those seem somewhat antithetical to me.

I mean to address this before, but got distracted. The conclusion does not have to be something most Christians cannot accept; I just assume that most Christians will end up refusing to accept it. Dr. Hunsinger quoted a pastor friend of his who told him, "No matter how many times I preach salvation by grace alone, the congregation will still leave believing in salvation by works!" I believe this is blatantly manifest in Christianity in America especially. Salvation that is entirely by grace is so radical, and it is entirely antithetical to evangelical revivalism. Pastors want to preach moral imperatives, as they should, but if this is all one preaches the gospel effectively becomes salvation by works, no matter what theology the pastor has. Furthermore, the Reformers condemned viewing faith as a work as well, and this has simply been ignored by almost all Protestants.

The point is, we need to think through these questions communally, but I think the church needs another Reformation: a Reformation from American individualism, from the bootstrap philosophy of America that stresses free will and moral responsibility, yet dissolves the essential basis of the gospel: Christ alone. I think American evangelicalism is basically Arminian/ semi-Pelagian/ Anabaptist. We need classical Protestantism. But the fact that this is a minority position does not make it wrong; it may actually enforce why it is right.
Mark Congdon said…
David,

I must apologize for a misuse of words that caused confusion. Definitive generally means "concluding without further question". But, in this most recent post, I was searching for words, and used definitive to mean "of the type that defines things". Sorry for that misunderstanding... it was my fault, using the wrong word.

I am trying to get you to see that theological, historical, and literary perspectives are all involved in the hermeneutical process.

I do see that, and have said it from the beginning. So, I guess we agree. We must be talking past each other somehow.

As I've said from the beginning, I think the difference between us is one of degrees... how often or in what ways we turn to theological or textual perspectives in our hermeneutic. Neither of us is exclusive one way or the other.

hermeneutics itself is theology

I disagree. :)

Of course, maybe I'm misunderstanding your use of those words. Maybe I'm using them wrong.

But more importantly, as I said above, this is all theological through and through.

I'm afraid I'm not understanding you here. Recognizing that the psalms are a type of literature that focuses on communicating emotion, and that proverbs are a type of literature that commonly speaks in hyperbole... those are observations that are textual, but not theological. Those are very simple examples, but illustrative of my point, I think.

It is possible to make textual observations that are not theological... if I'm understanding your use of those terms correctly.

I am, as you say, in search of a "sophisticated hermeneutic", one that encompasses textual, historical, and theological considerations. You also are in search of (or have found) such a hermeneutic. Both of us include all those considerations in our hermeneutic. I think we balance them somewhat differently.

Mark
D.W. Congdon said…
Mark,

Perhaps it is one of emphasis. I am not really convinced that you have accepted theological considerations as part of your hermeneutics, but if you have, that's great. In the previous comment, you said that in addition to a straight reading of the text, you would also include:

Careful literary and historical analysis, for starters. Dialog with the rest of the intepretive community comes into play, too.

There's no sign of theology here. Perhaps you forgot it. But at least you can understand why I would see resistance to theological exegesis.

In any case, the problem really is that you do not think hermeneutics are theological. I think this is a fairly easy position to refute. I point you, for starters, to the evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has written almost exclusively on hermeneutics, and you simply cannot walk away from those books thinking that the task of reading Scripture is not itself a theological endeavor.

But I'll leave you to investigate this on your own. For now, let me just remind you of the history of theology. Augustine used a hermeneutic of love, in which those parts of Scripture that stress the love of God were given priority in his constructive theology. Such a hermeneutic is theologically determined by a conviction that love is the essential attribute of God, that love exists protologically within the immanent Trinity, and that love is the eschatological goal toward which humanity ought to be ordered by God's grace, etc.

Luther discovered his hermeneutic while reading the book of Romans. He realized that the phrase "righteousness of God" is not a subjective genitive but rather an authorial genitive: God makes us righteous. He came to this hermeneutic while attending to the theological issues involved in the idea of God's righteousness. Is righteousness separate from grace, so that the righteousness of God and the grace of God are two different things? He decided that they were not separate, but one and the same reality: God's righteousness is gracious because God makes sinners righteous by God's grace.

Calvin had his own hermeneutic, even though his is much less obviously theological. He believes in the unity of Scripture, but more importantly, he believes that all of Scripture speaks about Christ. His hermeneutic depends upon a high elevation of Christ's divinity-authority, which is itself theological.

I could go on and on. The point is, you cannot read the Bible as part of the church without also involving yourself in theological issues. The attempt to set aside theology entirely from the task of hermeneutics is not only fruitless, it is also quite dangerous and suspect. When we do not approach the biblical text with certain presuppositions (and by all means, we have to have some presuppositions!), we will fail to grasp how to read the Bible properly.

I know, for example, that the Sheep & the Goats parable is not definitive for my soteriology the moment that I read it. I don't even need to do textual analysis to reach that point (although I could). Theologically, I approach already placing my faith in the work of Christ accomplished for us on the cross, in which sin was destroyed and righteousness granted to sinners: "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." With my Christology and soteriology in place, I can then look at that parable (and others) with fresh eyes, knowing that there is a different message in these words of Jesus than the apparent message of salvation by works. Theology is essential in reading Scripture.

Let's remember where we began: the non-univocity of Scripture. The Bible says a number of different things on the same topics. That's just the way it is. The task of the faithful Christian interpreter is to approach the biblical text with attention to literary and historical and theological issues -- BUT all of that is determined by one's prior theological position. Arminians and Calvinists can both find support for their positions in Scripture. Egalitarians and hierarchicalists can both find support in Scripture. Pelagians and Lutherans can both find support in Scripture. Trinitarians and non-trinitarians can both find support in Scripture.

So must we resign ourselves to a Bible that lends authority to all these positions? No. We must come to the Bible with a theological framework and that framework must be addressed in light of Scripture. There is, as most know, a hermeneutical circle involved in the task of reading the Bible. But there are certain theological presuppositions which come first. Our disagreement, if we have one, is that we differ on what those basic presuppositions must be. Our disagreement cannot be whether or not we should have presuppositions. Everyone does, it's just a matter of deciding which ones are right.

(To that end, people like Vanhoozer are doing evangelicals a service.)
Mark Congdon said…
David,

Thanks for sharing your perspective. I'm sorry that you don't believe what I am saying about myself, but I'll have to live with that. Thanks for the discussion!

Mark
D.W. Congdon said…
Mark,

Either tell me you agree or don't agree with what I said. Be a little more mature and don't use childish, condescending phrases like "I'm sorry that you don't believe what I am saying about myself." This does not improve my view of you.

You said hermeneutics are not theological. I said they are. If you have a problem with my view, then state it or else leave with some dignity. As it is, you sound like the old Mark.

Also, I think you might find my recent post on divine actualism an ideal place to decide where you disagree with me theologically. It is long, but it should prove helpful.
Mark Congdon said…
David,

Sorry if I sounded childish. I thought I was simply repeating what you had said, when you wrote to start your previous post "I am not really convinced that you have accepted theological considerations as part of your hermeneutics". You're not convinced, in spite of what I have said... I thought I was just repeating back to you what you had said. Sorry that I appear to have read you wrong.

You said hermeneutics are not theological.

I disagreed with you when you said that hermeneutics are "all theological through and through".

You responded in your last post by saying (among other things): "The point is, you cannot read the Bible as part of the church without also involving yourself in theological issues. The attempt to set aside theology entirely from the task of hermeneutics is not only fruitless, it is also quite dangerous and suspect."

I disagreed with you that hermeneutics is "all theology", and you responded as if I had said hermeneutics should "set aside theology entirely".

I assumed, since that paragraph was so out of sync with what I had actually said throughout this conversation, that you felt it was applicable because, as you said in the first paragraph, you didn't really believe what I was saying about myself. So, that's what I responded to.

It seems I must have read you wrong somehow. I'm not sure how, nor how to respond.

I mean no personal attack, and I very much don't want this to become an acrimonious discussion. I'd rather see it end than turn sour. As important as the discussion is, it's not worth that.

So, again, I did not mean to be childish or to mischaracterize you, and I retract the statement that you read that way, since you disagree with it. I'm not sure how to respond to your previous post, given that. And, I'll leave it at that.

Thanks,
Mark
D.W. Congdon said…
That's much more helpful, Mark. Now at least I can see why you think my comment was "out of sync." I believe this is an excellent case study in the kind of sneak commenting that got me fed up with our conversations the last time. I also don't want this to turn sour again (maybe it already has), and I have too much going on in my life to care about this that much. But let me just make the quick observation which is the source of the problem, and then I'll be on my way.

You just said that your disagreement was with my statement that hermeneutics are "all theological through and through." (Technically, I said "this is all theological..." and was making a general statement about the process of hermeneutics. It's theological from the start and theological at the end. But I'll just assume for the sake of discussion that you read me correctly.)

Now it's fine if you want to take issue with that. But you'll notice that in the comment you left above in which you actually disagree with my connection between hermeneutics and theology, you quote a different passage: "The point is this, hermeneutics itself is theology..." You quote this and then you wrote: "I disagree." I then responded to the fact that you disagreed with this statement. The fact that you then quoted the other statement of mine does not get you off the hook. Your first stated disagreement with my connection of hermeneutics and theology was the general statement: "hermeneutics itself is theology."

I think you need to be quite a bit more understanding here, regarding my disbelief that you think theological considerations are part of one's hermeneutical process. Why my doubt? Because the only time you ever mention this is in your last substantial comment where you speak about a "sophisticated hermeneutic," long after I have argued that theology needs to be involved and in the same comment in which you expressly tell me that hermeneutics is not theology. In your earlier comments, you never mentioned theology as part of a balanced hermeneutic, only literary and historical issues.

Am I to assume you changed your mind? And should I assume that hermeneutics can read theologically and yet not be theological itself? If I were to weigh your messages, it would lean very heavily on the side that says hermeneutics are not theological. That is the rational conclusion one would come to, since you only mention theology and hermeneutics together positively in that one final sentence. And even there it is almost in passing. Did I miss a place where you make it more explicit?

I really don't have the time to have another one of these arguments, so I'm going to have to appeal to your generosity here. It's very frustrating to dialogue with you, Mark, because I always feel like you are waiting to find an opportunity to be condescending or nitpicky -- all for the sake of being nitpicky and argumentative and not for mutual understanding. And this only happens with you. Everyone else seems to understand how this works. I don't know what it is. I have a lot of work to do, so unless you want to talk about hermeneutics itself, I'm going to let it go.

Either hermeneutics is a theological endeavor or it isn't. You have not been clear which side you take, so do you want to clear that up?
Mark Congdon said…
David,

I'm still at a loss how I have miscommunicated here, and I'm sorry that you find me such a frustrating person to communicate with. I'll try to say again what I think I have said a number of times in this conversation.

Hermeneutics includes theological, textual, and historical considerations. The textual and theological are in symbiosis. But, I do not see how hermeneutics is theological, or is all theological. Hermeneutics appears to me to be a symbiotic combination of the textual and the theological. I think that's the way it is to you, too, based on your first comments in this thread. That's why I think I must be misunderstanding you in your later comments, and why I continue to be confused, and continue to say so. I'm sorry that this comes across as nitpicky.

Either hermeneutics is a theological endeavor or it isn't. You have not been clear which side you take, so do you want to clear that up?

Hermeneutics is a partially theological endeavor. And, I have been clear about that position from the point where hermeneutics came up in the conversation.

Mark
Mark Congdon said…
David,

Rereading your last comment, I notice this section. I will quote it in full, so we're clear what I'm referring to, then I'll comment on the specific aspect that I think might clarify how I am misunderstanding you:

Your first stated disagreement with my connection of hermeneutics and theology was the general statement: "hermeneutics itself is theology."

I think you need to be quite a bit more understanding here, regarding my disbelief that you think theological considerations are part of one's hermeneutical process.


I realize there is a paragraph break there, and there might have been a shift in your thought process. But, in case there wasn't, let me ask:

Take these two statements:
(a) hermeneutics itself is theology
(b) theological considerations are part of one's hermeneutical process

Do you consider those two statements to be synonymous? If so, then I have been misunderstanding you for much of this conversation, and that would explain much of our miscommunication.

I am confused by the first statement (I won't say that I disagree with it, because I don't understand yet what you mean by it); I agree with the second statement.

-----------

Responding from another angle... you wrote:

the only time you ever mention ["that you think theological considerations are part of one's hermeneutical process"] is in your last substantial comment where you speak about a "sophisticated hermeneutic," long after I have argued that theology needs to be involved and in the same comment in which you expressly tell me that hermeneutics is not theology.

It is straightforward to set the record straight on that accusation, so let me do so.

October 28, 5:20pm: "I love what [Dr. McCormack] said on this issue: 'the truth of a doctrine will be decided by the extent to which it bears adequate witness to Holy Scripture ... [but] the interpretation of Scripture must take place under the guidance of the Church's accumulated wisdom'. I can definitely appreciate that symbiosis."

October 30 3:39am: My general observation would be that my hermeneutic loads more often to asking "What does the text say about this question?", and your hermeneutic leads more often to asking "What must be true about this question based on what I know of Christ?" ... Both types of questions are necessary...

On October 30, 8:33am, you wrote: "By trying to make [the question "What does the text say about this?"] your sole method of solving theological problems, you will quite quickly get stuck." On October 30, 1:30pm, I responded simply : "Which is why I would never think to do such a thing."

On October 30, 3:06pm, you wrote: "I am trying to get you to see that theological, historical, and literary perspectives are all involved in the hermeneutical process." On October 31, 1:57am, I responded: "I do see that, and have said it from the beginning."

I went on: As I've said from the beginning, I think the difference between us is one of degrees... how often or in what ways we turn to theological or textual perspectives in our hermeneutic. Neither of us is exclusive one way or the other.

I hope that can clarify that this last comment is far from the only time that I have mentioned that theological considerations should be part of one's hermeneutic.

Thanks,
Mark
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks, Mark. I see I was not as clear as I should have been. Yes, I basically view (a) and (b) as synonymous, or at least (b) makes (a) true, though not (b) alone. My other comments flesh out why (a) is true in more detail -- in short, hermeneutics is conditioned by theological presuppositions, involves theological considerations (b), and works toward theological conclusions about a text. So, to use a phrase that you specifically disagreed with before, hermeneutics is theological through and through. That said, if you accept (b), I would make the case that you have to eventually accept (a). Of course, from my experience, every Christian in the world accepts (a) in actual fact, even if they would not accept it as a written statement: de facto and not de iure, in other words. The only way to reject (a) is to be either a hard and fast fundamentalist-literalist (with a deformed understanding of Christianity) or to be a hard and fast post-structuralist philosopher (with no understanding of Christianity).

---------------------------

Now regarding the other issue, I actually think you reinforced my point. Let's go through your examples:

(1) To "appreciate" something does not mean accepting it as your own way of thinking. Furthermore, theology was not mentioned there, except as it is implied in the "Church's accumulated wisdom," which is tradition technically, not theology. One can adopt traditions without thinking through them theologically, but that's what the Reformation rejected.

(2) This is the only potentially good example. However, even here you are simply accepting the fact that my question is at least necessary, though you lean toward a different question which seems to imply that theology is a separate concern from looking at the text. My whole discussion with you has been to deny that separation. You cannot examine a text without theology in mind; and you cannot think theologically without having the biblical text in mind.

(3) This does not tell me anything about how you view hermeneutics, except that reducing it to "what does the text say about this?" is something you would never do. What would you do? is the logical next question. Of course, I should point out that in the context of my statement, it should have been clear that I knew this was not your position. I was stating a position that some hold, and I addressed it to an anonymous "you." That doesn't change my point, though, that your response does not answer the material question.

(4) And this is from the same comment that I referred to as the only time you actually indicated that theology is part of your hermeneutic. So that doesn't change anything.

My point is that you only explicitly declare theology to be an integral part of your hermeneutic in the same comment in which you say, "As I've said from the beginning..." But no, it really hasn't been from the beginning. At best, you gave me hints of such a view, but three times in the whole conversation hardly constitutes a clear case. Furthermore, in your one opportunity to really set me straight (Oct. 30, 1:30), you only mention literary, historical, and communal analysis.

Honestly, though, this is all rather petty and I have a lot things to do, so going back through comments like this is not worth my time (nor yours). But let me restate that it is far from clear how you view theology in relation to hermeneutics. Let me use a statement of yours in the comment mentioned in (4). You wrote the following:

As I've said from the beginning, I think the difference between us is one of degrees... how often or in what ways we turn to theological or textual perspectives in our hermeneutic. Neither of us is exclusive one way or the other.

My point should be clear by now: we cannot divide theological perspectives from textual perspectives, and the sharp distinction here indicates that we are not on the same page. I do not believe you can have a purely textual perspective, nor do I believe you can have a purely theological perspective. The former would be literalism, the latter would be philosophy.
Mark Congdon said…
David,

My point should be clear by now: we cannot divide theological perspectives from textual perspectives, and the sharp distinction here indicates that we are not on the same page. I do not believe you can have a purely textual perspective, nor do I believe you can have a purely theological perspective. The former would be literalism, the latter would be philosophy.

Amen to that. The two are in symbiosis. The exact nature of that symbiosis is an area where we may disagree, but I don't think we disagree that the theological and the textual must be symbiotically related in our hermeneutic.

hermeneutics is conditioned by theological presuppositions

I would say that there are some hermeneutical observations that can be made that are not conditioned by theological presuppositions. It is possible, I think, to make certain observations that are purely textual. I gave an example of this in my post on Oct 31 at 1:57am.

So, maybe that's a point where we disagree. If so, I'm glad to have that clarified. Thanks!

Sorry for taking up your time...

Mark
Mark Congdon said…
[Note... rereading my comment, I realize there could be some misunderstanding. By "Amen to that" in my first sentence, I was responding to the literalism/philosophy comment, not to the "sharp distinction" part of that quote. I'm sorry that wasn't more clear.

To be more explicit... I do think there are some textual observations that can be made that are not theological, and so I disagree with your first sentence in that way; I do not see this as a particularly sharp divide between us, though you do; and I agree that a purely textual hermeneutical is untenable literalism, and a purely theological hermeneutic is simply philosophy.]
Anonymous said…
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