Son of Man, Can Your Bones Live?

What would it have been like, on the first Holy Saturday?

What would it be like, tonight, if Jesus has been dead for almost 33 hours?

All the hopes and dreams of tonight’s readings – shattered. Blown away by the cold winds of death. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a dark grave, and we, his shell-shocked followers, gather to make some sort of sense of this week’s events – to salvage some sort of hope from this week’s wreckage.

And so, some sorry snots get up to try and encourage us. They open up the Hebrew Scriptures and read about our great God.

  • Remember, when He made the heavens, earth, and humans?
  • Remember, when He rescued Noah?
  • Remember, when he stayed Abraham’s knife-laden hand?
  • Remember, when he rescued us from Egypt?
  • Remember, when he promised to bring us back from exile, restore our fortunes, and open our… graves?

It’s too much, too soon. Shut up and sit down! Leave us mourn and weep awhile! Jesus is dead! The one we thought would save us is dead!

It’s been over a day. It’s been almost 2,000 years.

Can these bones live?

Can these bones live?

The question haunts us. The answer is so obviously “No! Of course not! They’re bones! No flesh, no breath, no life!”

And yet, God asks Ezekiel. And He asks us. Can these bones live?

And sure, we know the answer, but sit with this awhile.

Can these bones live? Can Christ’s bones live?

Surely this question must have flickered in someone’s mind on the first Holy Saturday. And, yes, we know the answer, but sit with this awhile.

Look at the world! Dealing in death, day by day. Wars. Famines. Floods. Diseases. Droughts. Death.

Can these bones live?

Look at the Church! Claiming with her lips to follow Jesus Christ, and yet so often proving with her life that she wants no such thing. Scandal. Hypocrisy. Idolatry.

Can these bones live?

Look at yourselves! I’ll be honest, the question “can these bones live?” is put to every preacher facing a congregation! If the Spirit doesn’t move, I’m throwing hot air at dry bones!

Can your bones live?

But then, look at me! Just as scandalous, hypocritical, and idolatrous as any – and yet here I stand, presuming to proclaim the Word of God to you.

Who do I think I am? Can my bones live?

Can all these dry, dead bones live?

Friends, there’s a reason why we’re here, though it’s so dark, so late. Sure, it’s to bring in, bright and oh so early, the celebration of Easter.

But it’s also because keeping vigil is what the Church does every day. We keep vigil for the sake of a suffering and dying world. We keep watch for our bridegroom to return and wipe away every tear, to right every wrong. We stay awake at the world’s late hour, surrounded by so many dry, dead bones.

Can these bones live?

Yes. They can. But, what do they need in order to do so?

First, they need some WATER. Did you notice how often water has appeared in tonight’s readings?

  • The waters of creation, out of which God called the dry ground – out of which He formed human beings.
  • The waters of judgment, through which God saved Noah and his family in the Ark.
  • The waters of redemption, through which God rescued Israel from the Egyptian house of slavery.
  • And the waters of cleansing, by which the Lord promised in the prophets to wash away His people’s guilty stains.

Water, water, everywhere! Except the dry valley.

I think the dry bones need some sort of water.

They also need some sort of SPIRIT. You know, God’s Spirit, His breath, His wind, who hovered over the waters at creation.

  • Who filled the first humans with life.
  • Who led God’s people.
  • Who inspired and preserved the words of Scripture we read this evening.
  • Who rushed upon the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision – making them into a great army, alive!

Dry bones need the Spirit.

But, the question isn’t “Can these bones get wet and windy?” It’s “Can they LIVE?!”

And, if they’re going to live, they’re going to need a RESURRECTION.

  • They need the defeat of their most ancient enemy: Death!
  • They need Death’s reversal! They need Death’s death!
  • They need exactly what God promised Ezekiel: to open their graves, and lift them up, living!

Amen! Glory, glory, hallelujah!

But, if I hear Ezekiel’s glorious vision read at the first Holy Saturday, I’m tempted to lose it at this point. To bitterly ask those gathered:

When?! That sounds great, but when?! When is God going to do this?!

For over five hundred years since Ezekiel, we’ve been falling into our graves over and over again – and staying there! Sure, it’s no longer in Babylon, but we’ve been invaded and harassed and dominated here in Judah ever since!

Is it really that much better to fall into the grave under Rome’s heavy heel, like Jesus?

Why not Babylon’s?

Why not Assyria’s?

Heck, why not Pharaoh’s?

When is God going to turn things around?!”

Thankfully, I wasn’t in the audience back then. But we’re here, tonight. And maybe you’re similarly tempted to lose it and freak out sometimes in church!

All this pretty Jesus-talk, when for over 2,000 years the Church has travailed in the midst of a deadly and dying world.

We thank Jesus for our oversized meals, cars, and houses, while thousands fall into their graves around us – tired, hungry, destitute, and alone.

So, on the first Holy Saturday and the 2,000th, the question is roughly the same:

When?! When is God going to turn things around?!

And the answer is likewise the same. We sang it, earlier:

When?

THIS IS THE NIGHT.

When did God open the grave?

THIS IS THE NIGHT, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”

So, can these bones live? Yes!

Can Christ’s bones live? Yes! For on this night, some 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ got up from the tomb. He was alive. He was dead. But he is now alive again.

Can our bones live? Yes!

How? Because Christ has provided the resurrection, the Spirit, and the water we need.

Because, through the waters of baptism, we receive the Spirit and the resurrection.

Now, we aren’t going to baptize anyone tonight. We’ll have to wait until later this morning to do so. But we are about to renew our baptismal vows.

  • Through our baptism, we are preserved, like Noah, from the waters of Sin and Death, in the Ark, the Church.
  • Through our baptism, we are ransomed and rescued, like Israel, through the waters of the Red Sea.
  • Through our baptism, we are cleansed with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, as God promised through Isaiah and Ezekiel.
  • Through our baptism, we are buried with Christ in his death, and are raised with him in newness of life.
  • Through our baptism, we are empowered and emboldened to proclaim the good news to a desperate world that JESUS CHRIST IS RISEN.

So, we can assure the world that their bones can live, because Christ has died.

We can rest assured that our bones can live, because Christ is risen.

And we can keep watch for the sake of a suffering world, because Jesus Christ will come again.

Amen.


(Sermon preached on Easter Vigil, March 26, 2016. For an idea of the readings which preceded the homily in this service, see here.)

The Holy Trinity: What Is It? (Why) Is It Important?

Introduction: The Holy Trinity

One God. Three persons. The Holy Trinity.

The orthodox paradox of this Christian confession confounds many, due to its apparent contradictions, abstractions, and absence from Scripture.

From Arius to Augustine and beyond, trinitarian debates have raged even among those who agree that God exists, that the Bible is true, and that it is therefore worthwhile to consider what the Bible says because it reveals the existent God.

Although the best discussions of the Trinity begin with an acknowledgment of its inscrutable mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach, a sober analysis of the doctrine’s canonical presence and historical outworking may help to answer the charges that the Trinity is a nonsensical, unbiblical abstraction worthy of abandonment. 

Although it is precisely the Trinity’s classical formulation that receives the criticisms just noted, it is important to begin at the end, so to speak, by introducing the operative terms before analyzing the scriptural context out of which and the historical context in which these trinitarian terms grew.

The definitive statement of trinitarian belief is the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 CE, discussed below.1 In brief, however, Christians confess belief in one God who eternally and only exists in one divine substance, essence, or ousia, and in three divine subsistences, Persons, or hypostases.2

One in three, three in one: Father, Son, and Spirit – each Person equally and essentially God, and yet each distinct from the other two.

(For a[n attempted] summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I Believe?“)

Is the Trinity in the Bible? – Canonical Presence

A common objection to the doctrine of the Trinity as just stated is that it nowhere appears within the pages of Scripture.

And indeed, despite the favorite trinitarian proof-texts in which Father, Son, and Spirit appear together, “no doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene sense is present in [even] the New Testament.”3

However, as Jenson persuasively argues, “the doctrine of the Trinity is indeed in Scripture, if one abandons modernity’s notion that statement in so many words as formulated is the only way that a doctrine can appear there.”4 Instead, the narrative of Scripture portrays the Trinity “by telling a history of God with us that displays three enactors of that history, each of which is indeed other than the other two and yet is at the same time the same God as the other two.”5

These three dramatis personae Dei, or “persons of the divine drama,” appear throughout Scripture as God – “as a persona in Israel’s story – of which he is simultaneously the author.”6

YHWH – the God of Israel who created the world and delivered through the Exodus – is the Father by virtue of Jesus’ address of him as such.7

The Son is Jesus of Nazareth by virtue of this same address, but also in light of passages such as Psalm 2, appropriated in Hebrews 1 to identify Jesus as the divine Son.8

Finally, the Spirit appears as a persona of the story, first in the OT as the Spirit of YHWH which gives life and “keeps the creation moving toward its fulfillment,” and then in the NT as the one in relationship between the Father and the Son, who is poured out upon the Church.9

The significance of trinitarian “proof-texts” mentioned above is that they portray the three persons of the divine drama in close proximity.

Most significant of these is the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19, spoken by the Son himself: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Although the earliest Christians used poignant trinitarian phrases before the full implications of such had been thoroughly considered, these biblical patterns provided “the raw data from which the more developed descriptions of the Christian doctrine of God [would] come.”10

The classical formulation of the Trinity did not arise from a scriptural vacuum.

How did we get the “doctrine” of the Trinity? – Historical Outworking

Neither was the doctrine formed in a historical vacuum.

Instead, as Wainwright notes: “the classic creeds were being formulated at the same time as the canon of the Scriptures was being recognized and determined; there was interaction between the two processes, and the Scriptures and the creeds continue to function reciprocally.”11

The ecumenical creeds – such as the Apostles’, Niceno-Constantinopolitan (381), and the Chalcedonian Definitio Fidei (451) – serve as an interpretive key to the complex Scriptures, and yet also distill the divine drama of the Bible into a concise summary.12

A crucial facet of trinitarian doctrine in which this dialectic took place was the distinction between the immanent and the economic Trinity – the former referring to the Trinity within itself, and the latter referring to the Trinity’s external relationship to the universe.

While the majority of Scripture provides portrayals of the economic Trinity interacting with creation, it also offers enticing glimpses into the immanent relationships between the persons of the divine drama.13 The doctrine that developed from such glimpses offered a way of distinguishing between how God relates to himself and to everything else, but also concluded that “the immanent Trinity lives no other plot than that displayed in the economic Trinity, that when you are taken into the story told in Scripture, you are taken into God himself.”14

In other words, “there is no deeper reality of God lurking in the background” behind the three Persons of the Godhead.15

Although many of the disagreements took place before the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity was formalized, the contours of the historical trinitarian debates revolve around where the conceptual boundary lies between the two.16

A concern for the preservation of God’s unity motivated many of the early controversies. For example, Paul of Samosata collapsed the immanent Trinity to the Father alone, pushing the Son and Spirit into the economy, in their respective relations to the human being Jesus and the apostles – the view known as adoptionism.17 Similarly, Sabellius pushed all three divine Persons into the economy, positing that the immanent Godhead was one God who exists in three modes or roles of being to the external creation – the view known as modalism.18 Finally, it was Arius’s commitment to monotheism that led him to shrink the immanent Trinity down to the Father alone – concluding that, because God is the indivisible cause of all that exists, he must have existed prior to the Son, who is “not everlasting or co-everlasting or unbegotten with the Father.”19

Although each of these views would ultimately find condemnation in the creeds of the Church, it was Arius’s conception of a created Son that ignited the controversy that led to the Council of Nicaea (325), which refuted Arianism by declaring that the Son is “begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.”20

However, the trinitarian debates continued, in part because of the relative ambiguity of the term homoousios and the ability of different factions to interpret it as they wished.21 The years between the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople (381) were theologically chaotic as Athanasius of Alexandria and the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) fought for the Nicene view of the Trinity against its detractors, Arian and otherwise.22

However, along the lines of Arius’s original concerns, if the Son and the Spirit are granted full divinity along with the Father (as they are in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed), why do Christians confess one God and not three?

Gregory of Nyssa addressed these concerns first by appealing to the differences between the trinitarian terms ousia (common essence) and hypostasis (distinct personal subsistence).

Belonging to the category of collective or common nouns – which unite by referring to the common nature shared by diverse members of the same category – ousia refers to the divine essence or substance, shared equally by the three hypostases of the Godhead so that they are properly homoousioi, or of the same substance, with one another.23

However, belonging to the category of individual or proper nouns – which distinguish by referring to only one member of a particular category – hypostasis refers to the individual identity or subsistence of each divine Person which demarcates it from the other two.24 The divine hypostases are distinguishable in that “the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost are one in all things save in the being unbegotten [Father], the being begotten [Son], and the procession [Spirit].”25

The distinction between a common ousia and distinct hypostases, therefore, prevents the collapse of the Trinity, yet through a crucial difference between the distinction-in-unity with regard to humanity and with regard to the divine.

After all, it is difficult to ascertain the unifying ousia of humanity because the distinct hypostases both appear and behave in such discordant ways. Due to their myriad differences and a merely conceptual unity, humans are not properly referred to as one human but many.

In contrast, the unity of the three divine hypostases is actual, by virtue of the trinitarian rule opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt.26 As Gregory of Nyssa notes, “every activity which pervades from God to creation and is named according to our manifold design starts off from the Father, proceeds through the Son, and is completed by the Holy Spirit.”27

Christians worship one God, because although each divine Person is God, “by the same proclamation God is one, because neither in regard to nature [or ousia] nor activity is any difference viewed.”28 Unlike the diverse and discordant human hypostases, the divine persons are completely unified in their will and operations. Therefore, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus: “the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.”29

Conclusion

To return to what was mentioned at the outset, the best discussions of the Trinity also end with an acknowledgment of its inherent mystery which eludes the grasp of human reason’s highest reach. Theological modesty is always in order, in part because of the unavoidable limitations of finite human speech about anything, much less about the infinite God.

Granted, certain ways of framing how God can be one and yet three are better than others, not only based upon their coherence with the traditions of orthodoxy, but also with regard to their impact on other areas of theological concern – such as the atonement and interpersonal relationships.30

And yet, because true theology is not learning how to speak about God in order to master him intellectually, but in order to worship him faithfully, a persistent lacuna in trinitarian understanding is surely acceptable. For, although the gracious condescension of the triune God enables our faith to seek understanding successfully, the inscrutable mysteries of the same triune God ensure that some understandings will ever transcend our faith’s reach.

======== NOTES =========

1 All dates CE, unless otherwise noted. Wainwright notes that the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed “has remained the most widely affirmed statement of trinitarian faith in both East and West.” Geoffrey Wainwright, “Trinity” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 815.

2 The three terms in each of these two sets will be used synonymously throughout, unless otherwise noted. Substance = essence = ousia. Subsistence = person = hypostasis. Capitalized “Person” will refer to divine, and not human, personality.

3 Rusch notes that the binitarian NT formulas are: Rom. 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:1; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:21; and 2 John 1:13. The trinitarian NT formulas are: Matt 28:19; 1 Cor. 6:11; 12:4ff.; Gal. 3:11-14; Heb. 10:29; 1 Pet. 1:2. William G. Rusch, trans./ed., The Trinitarian Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 2. Without denying the importance of such passages, Jenson rightly laments those who “scrabble around in the Bible for bits and pieces of language to cobble together into a sort of Trinity-doctrine – usually with intellectually lamentable and indeed sometimes heretical results.” Robert W. Jenson, “The Trinity in the Bible,” CTQ 68 (2004): 196.

4 Jenson, 197. Emphasis original.

5 Jenson, 199. The divinity of the Father is perhaps the easiest to note throughout the Bible. On the divinity of the Son, see John 1, 10; Col. 2; Phil. 2; and Heb. 1. On the divinity of the Spirit, see 1 Cor. 2:11; Heb. 3:7-10; and 10:15-17. I have here stuck to the contours of Jenson’s argument in lieu of the common arguments for the divinity of Son and Spirit, e.g.

6 Jenson, 198-202. The phrase “dramatis personae Dei” is Jenson’s adaptation of Tertullian’s verbiage.

7Cf. John 5:16-23; Jenson, 199. Although this is almost assuredly an oversimplification, cf. Marshall’s claim that “the Father is the God of Israel, the Son is the God of Israel, and the Holy Spirit is the God of Israel, yet they are not three Gods of Israel, but one God of Israel.” B. Marshall, “Do Christians Worship the God of Israel” in Knowing the Triune God (ed. J. Buckley and D. Yeago; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 258; quoted by Wainwright, 817. However, Jenson’s main point still stands, by virtue of Jesus’ address to the Father establishing both Fatherhood and Sonship within the Trinity.

8 Cf. Ps. 2:7; Heb. 1:1-14. In addition, Jenson (200-3) focuses on showing the presence of the Trinity in the OT, where it is so often neglected, by positing that the Son shows up via the themes of the angel of the Lord, the name of the Lord, and the glory of the Lord..

9Jenson, 199, 204; cf. Gen. 1:2; Ps. 51:11; Isa. 11:2; Ezek. 37:1-14; John 14:15-31; Acts 1:7-8; 2:1-41; Rom. 1:4; 8:11.

10 Rusch, 2. Gregory of Nazianzus captures the progressive nature of this scriptural trinitarian revelation well: “the old covenant made clear proclamation of the Father, a less definite one of the Son. The new covenant made the Son manifest, and gave us a glimpse of the Spirit’s Godhead. At the present time, the Spirit resides amongst us, giving us a clearer manifestation of himself than before.” See Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration (Oration 31): On the Holy Spirit, 14, in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Popular Patristics Series 23; trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 26.

11 Wainwright, 815.

12 Jenson, 205; Wainwright, 815.

13 Cf. Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” of John 17 and the glimpse of the relationship between Father and Son.

14 Jenson, 206.

15 Jenson, 205.

16 That is, while the debates did not originally or chronologically take place in terms of “immanent/economic Trinity,” the concept provides a helpful analytical framework when considering the trinitarian controversies. .

17 Adoptionism is also known as “dynamic monarchianism.” Rusch, 8.

18 Modalism is also known as “modalist monarchianism.” Rusch, 9.

19 Arius’s “Letter to Alexander of Alexandria,” §4, in Rusch, 32.

20 “The Creed of the Synod of Nicaea (June 19, 325)” in Rusch, 49.

21 Rusch, 20.

22 Rusch, 22.

23 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter his own brother on the divine ousia and hypostasis,” 2a-c. in Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters (Boston: Brill, 2007), 250-1; “Concerning that We Should Think of Saying That There Are Not Three Gods to Ablabius” in The Trinitarian Controversy (trans./ed. William G. Rusch; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 149-51.

24 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Peter,” 3a, 4d-f in Silvas, 251,3.

25 John of Damascus, “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” I.2, in Saint John of Damascus: Writings (trans. Frederic H. Chase, Jr.; Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America, 1958), 167.

26 “The external operations of the Trinity are indivisible.”

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 155.

28 Gregory of Nyssa, “To Ablabius,” in Rusch, 159

29 Gregory of Nazianzus, Fifth Theological Oration,127.

30 In fact, feminist critiques have helped to address trinitarian sloppiness in theological explorations of the atonement and interpersonal relationships. See Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2007), 40-3 and Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1996), 27, 167-190.

Scripture: What The Bible Is And Why It Matters

INTRODUCTION: THE NATURE OF SCRIPTURE

As the illocutionary act which testifies to the Son of God1 as the ultimate redemptive and revelatory locution of the the triune God, Scripture is used by the Spirit of God to accomplish the perlocutionary end of redemption of, in, and through the people of God.2

[Ahem, in order to understand my first paragraph, you must first be familiar with the basics of Speech Act Theory. If you’ve never heard of it before, click that link, and then come back here. It will be worth it, I promise!]

The written Word of God is, therefore, the authority for followers of the living Word of God precisely because of its providential role in the divine speech-act, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.3

Practically, this providential role has worked itself out in various ways throughout the history of the Church, perhaps most notably through the development of canon in the patristic era.

Theologically, the authority of Scripture is inescapably trinitarian in nature and ecclesiological in implication.

(For an explanation of the Trinity, see my essay “Trinity: What is it? (Why) Is it important?“)

WHAT SCRIPTURE IS FOR CHRISTIANS

For Christians, Scripture is the indispensable lens through which, with the Spirit’s illumination, we view Christ, who is himself the fullest lens through which we view the Godhead.

That is, the Bible is a vital link in the revelatory chain which includes Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and humanity. However, the Bible’s role in and for the Church is inescapably intertwined with (1) how the Bible came to be and (2) how it is properly to be accessed and interpreted.

How the Bible Came to Be

Although the story of how the table of contents at the beginning of each Christian Bible came into existence is an old one, questions of canon in this sense did not arise immediately after Christ’s resurrection and ascension.4

The earliest Christians, persuaded that Jesus of Nazareth was the foretold Messiah of Israel, eagerly adopted the Hebrew Scriptures, or Tanakh, as their own Scripture. Apart from the Bible’s narrative of YHWH’s redemptive mission with his covenant people, the Christ-event (life, death, and resurrection) made little sense.

In the other direction, however, the early Church believed that, as the fulfillment of the Tanakh, Christ himself was its true message. Put differently, the Hebrew Scriptures and the Son of God were considered reciprocally-interpretive, and this relationship was the first sense in which canon was considered as “the rule of truth”: the Christ-event and the Scriptures illuminate each other.5

The link between this earliest consideration of canon and the table-of-contents approach begins with the role proclamation and confession of the Son of God as the Bible’s true meaning – of the Gospel of Christ according to the Scriptures – have in creating the Church proper (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1-9).6

Because Christians are primarily interested in bringing people to faith in the faithful God through Christ, the proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Word of God constitutes the Church as the divinely-ordained way in which faith is brought about (cf. Rom. 10:17). To use a spatial metaphor, this ecclesial “point” of proclamation becomes a “line” throughout history by tradition as “the act of passing down” and “the content of what is passed down.”7

The Church is thus formed by proclamation/confession of Jesus the Messiah according to the Scriptures, and preserved by tradition.

In the second century C.E., Irenaeus of Lyons relied upon the connection between Scripture and apostolic tradition to refute Gnostic heresies which threatened to destabilize the Christian community by, among other things, insisting that Scripture could not be read at face value.8

This connection was so strong that he referred to the “traditioned” teachings of the apostles as in scripturis, responding to those who accused these apostolic “Writings” of novel fiction by delineating the unity of Christian doctrine which had been passed down from the apostles (eyewitnesses of the Christ-event) to the Church through a clear line of bishops.9

It was of crucial importance to Irenaeus that Christian doctrine was (1) unified and (2) in direct continuity with the apostles’ teaching (and therefore with the proclamation of Christ and the Christologically-fulfilled expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures).10

Thus the Gnostic controversies of the second century led to canonization in its second sense: the Church’s recognition/acknowledgment of writings which already had authority due to their coherence with the complex dialectic between Scripture, the Christ-event, the apostles, proclamation, and tradition.11

Canon’s final sense, as a list of included and excluded books which comprise the Bible, came into being in the fourth century. The Church’s recognition of already authoritative writings culminated in C.E. 367 with the Thirty-Ninth Festal Epistle of Athanasius – the first canon list to include “all, and nothing but, all [sic] the books of our New Testament.”12

Scripture’s Proper Interpretation and Role

In interacting with the Word of God, it is imperative that the people of God resist the impulse to jump behind the text – either to a Gnostic-inspired and disembodied spiritual narrative, or to historical criticism’s rationalistic insistence on verifiable facts.

Properly handled, the Bible results in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in order to produce faith in the faithful God.

Arguably, the best interpretive method accounts for both Christ as the fullest truth of Scripture and the varied ways in which the Bible has been used by God through his Spirit to accomplish his redemptive mission in manifold ways.

That is, in terms of my thesis above, the best biblical hermeneutic accounts for both the central locution (Christ) and the varied perlocutionary effects accomplished in/through the Church by the Spirit throughout history.

It does not leave Christ behind in its insistence on esoteric behind-the-text matters, nor does it refuse the Spirit its right to bring the written Word to bear on the interpreter’s present context in fresh ways. In this way, interpretation of the Bible leads to faith through the faithful proclamation of the Christ-event according to the Scriptures.

SCRIPTURE’S OWN AUTHORITY

As mentioned above, Scripture’s authority comes from its providential role in the speech-act of God, of which it is a necessary – yet not a sufficient – condition.

That is, although the illocutionary acts of the Bible are an indispensable link in the revelatory chain, they do not comprise the entire chain. Any discussion of Scripture’s authority must, therefore, take place with its discursive context in mind, by including a discussion of the Christological locution and Spirit-empowered, ecclesiological perlocutionary effects of the divine speech-act.

Christologically, the illocutionary acts of the written Word of God bear witness to Christ the living Word as their central meaning: the ultimate locution of God.

Jesus himself never shied away from claiming that he was the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 5:17; Lk. 24:25-27, 44). Indeed, he chastised the Jewish leaders for thoroughly studying the Scriptures, yet failing to see that the Tanakh bore witness to him (John 5:39-40)!

Likewise, in Acts, Peter (3:11-26), Stephen (7:1-53), and Paul (13:16-41) all portray Christ as the fulfillment of YHWH’s previous interactions with Israel in the Tanakh. The written Word of God is authoritative in that it bears witness to the Living Word as the zenith of God’s redemptive revelation – the “image of the invisible God” in whom “the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:15, 19, ESV).

When the Bible speaks of its own authority, it never does so apart from the life of the faithful, the Church.

The two favorite passages for the inspiration (and often, the inerrancy) of Scripture both refuse to reduce the Bible to a set of propositions to be debated within a correspondence theory of truth. The Scriptures were “breathed out by God,” not to be profitable for scientific analysis, but for “reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). Furthermore, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” (2 Pet. 1:21, ESV) for the sake of the people of God, that they might know Christ (2 Pet. 1:12-21). Arguably, then, the ties between inspiration and sanctification are stronger than those between inspiration and certain common notions of inerrancy.

At this intersection between the inspired illocutionary acts of Scripture and their perlocutionary effects lies the Spirit of God, who empowers the “inscripturate” Word to become “incardiate,” or “taken to heart” by God’s people.13

Pneumatologically, then, the Bible is able both to be and become the Word of God, as its written words are used in various ways by the Spirit throughout the ages to effect God’s mission of redemption in and through his people.14

The christological, ecclesiological, and pneumatological elements of the divine speech-act thus enable the written Word continually to be an indispensable part of divine discourse, instead of a merely static word.15

CONCLUSION

Throughout the ages, God has used his Word – living and written – to do everything from creating the world, to redeeming it; from calling a people, to establishing orthodoxy and orthopraxy in his Church; from inspiring reformation, to drawing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation to himself.

In order best to appropriate the written Word of God and submit to its continuing authority in their lives, the people of God should focus on proclaiming its central message as the Gospel of Jesus Christ and allowing the Holy Spirit to accomplish fresh perlocutionary effects in and through them as God’s redemptive mission moves toward its consummation – when the written Word of God will be in their hearts and the living Word of God in front of their faces, forever (Jer. 31:33-34; Rev. 21-22).

(For an attempted summary of the Christian faith, see my essay: “Theology in Outline: What do I believe?“)


NOTES 

1 Unless otherwise noted, I use the terms “Son of God,” “Jesus,” “Christ/Messiah,” and permutations thereof interchangeably. The same applies to “Scripture” and “Bible.”

2 I here adopt J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory, as put forth in How to Do Things with Words (2nd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975). Briggs offers the following helpful summary: “Austin sought to distinguish between the act performed in saying something and the act performed by saying something, labeling these ‘illocutionary’ and ‘perlocutionary’ acts respectively.” See Richard S. Briggs, “Speech-Act Theory” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 763. I am also heavily indebted to Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Word of God” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer et al.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 850-4.

3 Theologically modifying Austin’s framework, the “divine speech-act” consists of God the Father (locutor), God the Son (locution), Scripture (illocutionary act), and God the Spirit (who fulfills the perlocutionary effects).

4 Piotr J. Malysz From Christ to the Written Gospel: An Entry Point into the Canon of (NT) Scripture (History and Doctrine Fall 2013 Handout, unpublished), 1-3.

5 Malysz, 2.

6 Malysz, 2.

7 Cf. the discussion of παράδοσις in Malysz, 2.

8 Book III. 2:2, from “Selections from Irenaeus of Lyons, The Refutation and Overthrow of the Knowledge Falsely So Called (Adversus Haereses)” in Early Christian Fathers (ed. Cyril C. Richardson; New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 358-97. Hereafter, Adversus Haereses will be cited in the following form: “Irenaeus, I.1:1” or “Irenaeus, I. ch. 1”

9 Irenaeus, III. 1:1; chs. 2-3. In scripturis is noted by Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, 370 n.47.

10 Irenaeus, III. 3:3.

11 Malysz, 3.

12 Malysz, 3.

13 Vanhoozer, 854.

14 Cf. the discussions of Karl Barth’s and Vanhoozer’s own views (850-1, 4).

15 Vanhoozer, 853.