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Here is a critical book review (in PDF version) I have written of the following book: Thomas B. Dozeman. Holiness and Ministry: A Biblical Theology of Ordination. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Although I try to give credit where credit is due, ultimately I found Dozeman’s biblical theology unsatisfying because of the way he rigidly separates Moses’s priestly and prophetic callings, then fills these artificially reconstructed categories with preconceived ideas about human experience (which ideas he then also reads back into the texts of Torah).
The following is a book review of: Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 310 pp. For the audio version (which has a more elaborate conclusion) click the play button below or download it to your itunes. For a PDF version of this book review, click here.
Levering’s proposal in Participatory Biblical Exegesis poignantly addresses what R.W.L. Moberly calls “a curious situation” in Christian biblical exegesis (2). Modern Christian biblical interpretation has heavily relied on historical-critical methods that tend to preclude interpretations that invoke the most important divine and spiritual realities to which the biblical texts refer (2). Since historical-critical inquiry and discovery has proven fruitful for a fuller understanding of the linear-historical realities of the biblical texts, rather than propose something less than historical-critical methodology, Levering hopes to redeem the valuable finds of historical-critical methodology for Christian interpretation by proposing something more: a broader understanding of history as including also a participatory dimension (1).
His proposal is that history is not merely linear-historical but also metaphysically participatory (finite participation in divine being). Therefore in order to do justice to the human and historical aspects of exegesis, Levering argues that one must go beyond the linear-historical dynamics of the text to account for the realities beyond the words (the res, 11). The ultimate argument of the book, then, is about the nature of history (3).
The Advent of Historical Critical Methods
Chapters one and two seek to demonstrate the “gradual displacement” of the patristic-medieval participatory approach to scripture (14). Levering hopes to shine light on exactly why history came to be conceived as purely linear-historical and divine realities as extrinsic. This metaphysical shift takes place in “the Scotist rupture” of the fourteenth century (19). Scotus rejected the Platonic understanding of participation and the Aristotelian understanding of ultimate teleology that Christian theology had, up to this point in history, largely appropriated in Christian theology (19).
After locating the origins of the modern understanding of history in medieval nominalism, Levering hopes to show the implications such a view of history has for biblical exegesis. He does this by looking at how biblical commentary of the same text (John 3:27-36) drastically changes over time, starting with Aquinas’ exegesis that illumines the participatory elements of historical reality (25) and ending with modern modes of biblical exegesis that marginalize all such approaches (53). For Christian interpreters, “commentaries do not [easily] blend history and theology” because the modern idea of history makes history “exegetically problematic” (52).
Participatory Biblical Exegesis
In chapter three, as Levering begins to offer a vision for participatory biblical exegesis, the real concerns come to the fore as he warns that notions of history and biblical interpretation that do not involve recognition of divine realities are ultimately “anthropocentric (and thus, from a Bible’s perspective, idolatrous)” (64). Renewing the tradition of patristic medieval participatory biblical exegesis, on the other hand, offers Christian interpreters the sorely needed “theocentric model of biblical interpretation” (64). Levering marshals the brilliance of St. Augustine’s insight into the nature of teaching: “all teaching is about res, realities” and therefore, “in order to understand true teaching one must learn how to judge the relative importance of various res, so as to be able to get to the heart of the teaching” (65). To do otherwise would be to cling to “created realities, loving them without reference to their Creator”—a “doomed enterprise” that confuses the means as above the end (65). (Here is the real heart of Levering’s proposal; the rest of the book is historical/theological/exegetical troubleshooting. In this chapter, most of his ideas find expression.)
The ultimate end of all teaching “aims at building up love of God and neighbor in ecclesial communion” (68). Humility requires that one recognize the “norm of Scriptural reading” of the Body of Christ (68). The scriptures ultimate telos (my word, not his) is to mediate an encounter with God: “’existential’ participation” that amounts to God’s own teaching which “re-orders” one’s loves (69). This effectively reverses the hermeneutical priority from linear-historical to existential-participatory (69). The author then further expounds on this key idea through Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture as “transformative sacra doctrina” (71) that must be understood as a unified whole rather than “a mere repository of facts and ideas” (75).
In the second half of chapter three, Levering is forced to take the reader a step back from the euphoric teachings of Augustine and Aquinas to revisit the muddled issues of contemporary biblical interpretation (76). Levering by then, however, has made his point well: linear-historical tools cannot be employed in a “neutral” fashion (77): they either include or preclude the divine realities as part of real history. Levering claims not only that a participatory mode of exegesis is necessary for discerning the divine res, but he makes the further claim that this approach is “required to account for even the linear-historical complexity of the biblical texts” (77). But is such a participatory perspective able to capture fully the “unsystematic” messiness of human authorship and intention?
Levering argues that his approach does not demand “that all biblical authors/redactors, working in various genres, are saying and intending the same thing,” but only “that Scripture’s human authorial teachings and intensions be recognized as belonging to the participatory framework—divine revelation and inspiration—of the Trinitarian doctrina” (80). Problematic passages must be governed by the schema of doctrina, which includes abandoning a particular explanation of any passage “if it be proved with certainty to be false” (81). Levering backs this claim by appealing to Dei Verbum’s doctrine of inspiration that claims that Biblical interpretation “seeks salvific truth” (83-84). This chapter concludes by an affirmation of the “centrality of God the Teacher, in whose teaching exegetes participate” (89).
God as the Teacher
Chapter four is concerned with affirming the necessary locus of receptivity to God the Teacher—the “divinely ordained fellowship” (90). Here Levering is concerned to show that his proposal is more promising for finding common ground for dialogue with Jewish interpreters than the “comparative textology” of mere historians who ignore the divine and ecclesial aspects of biblical exegesis (96). The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, in spite of its “good job” in some respects, is troubling on account of its “presumption of a solely linear-historical model” to both Jews and Christians who see Scripture as more than just “ancient texts” (96). To do justice to real history, including the “communal participatory appropriation” of Scripture, biblical interpretation must heed the communal traditions in which the biblical texts are “operative” (99). This aspect of historical transmission should distill the fears of “total semantic indeterminacy” (100). To ignore communal interpretation is fatal because the true meaning of Scripture is “embodied” in this “communal, intellectual, moral, and liturgical” history (104, 102).
Communal Context of Kenotic Love
As we discover in chapter five, for Levering, the communal teaching of the Christian church that sets the context for all exegesis is “kenotic love” that includes “cruciform peace” and is therefore more promising that the Spinozian undermining of ecclesial authority (140). In the end, Levering comes through with a robustly Christian biblical exegesis that “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in ecclesial communion, understands the fullness of sacred scriptures because it participates in the realities to which they refer—specifically the “Christological plan of human salvation” (143).
Levering’s narrative of the origins of modern notions of history will need to be evaluated by interested historians, and his peculiar Platonic understanding of participation (though nowhere extensively explained) may not be shared by all Christians (although some account of our participation in God is indeed necessary). Certainly, however, Levering has exposed a naïveté in Christian biblical exegesis by showing the woeful inadequacy of any interpretation that does not take the divine realities into account as real history. In this respect, his work is a brilliant myth buster, forcibly deconstructing the illusion of neutrality in historical-critical methods that exclude the divine realities in history and perhaps an eye-opener to what should be more obvious to those who cherish this aspect of Scripture above all else. This insight is especially relevant to those who use the historical-critical method in apologetic postures.
Although Protestants will perhaps wish to dispute his argument for ecclesiologically governed interpretation, I would argue (as a Protestant) that such Protestants engage in performative contradictions anytime they use the word “heretic.” Although Levering’s work still leaves certain questions unanswered, it appears to be more suggestive than comprehensive, inviting other Christians to join him in rethinking an authentically Christian hermeneutical framework that does not shy away from all useful critical tools but keeps the divine realities central to the task of interpretation.
by Bradley R. Cochran
Since I posted a book review on Jay Adams’ book Competent to Counsel entitled Psychology is the Devil: A Critique of Jay Adams’ Counseling Paradigm, it has been the most viewed post here at T h e o • p h i l g u e. On the one hand, I think the Biblical Counseling Movement has great potential and certainly beats compromised approaches to counseling that do not take the Christian Worldview seriously enough. On the other hand, I also think that many who associate themselves with the BCM are plagued with a spirit of anti-science, and that sometimes those who are not a part of their movement interpret and apply the Bible in a way that is more biblically informed and scientifically aware. Although not associated closely with BCM or the integrationist approach, Eric Johnson has presented by far the most balanced and sophisticated approach that anchors itself in a biblical worldview without bashing science and psychology. I have learned, however, after reading more literature from the BCM, that not everybody thinks as dogmatically as Jay Adams (who endorses very negative and unfair critiques of Eric Johnson’s work). Case in point: David Powlison and Paul David Tripp. Although closely associated with the Biblical Counseling Movement, these authors are much more helpful in their application of biblical truth and much less polemic in their tone. Below is a book review of David Powlison’s book Seeing With New Eyes. I offer praise as well as critique.
Powlison, David. Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003. 274 pp. $10.49.
One of Powlison’s greatest advantages in his approach to biblical counseling is his desire to be somewhat systematic and comprehensive as opposed to merely pragmatic (3). This project includes presuppositional candor and consistency. He rightly perceives all counseling models as virtual pastoral care that ultimately seeks to diagnose and cure (3). Because of this paradigmatic sensitivity and cultural familiarity, our author cleverly understands that although secular counseling models may have great insights into human nature and provide half decent advice, ultimately, because they fail to put God in the equation at all (much less at the center) they are paradigmatically hostile to the Christian worldview (4). Such epistemic alertness has been the strength of the biblical counseling movement and is the foundational insight of this book.
More important than systematic attempts to understand accurately is the author’s more ultimate goal of feeling appropriately. Powlison is jealous not to sound “overly cognitive,” but emphasizes that the end goal is to “feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires” (10). It is made very clear that our author’s rigorous method for dealing with the concepts of counseling is rigorous only because “seeing clearly, we can love well” (12). The principle of getting “personal” in the application of biblical truth is part of the very fabric of every chapter (11, 37).
Powlison’s motivational theory influences how he addresses every problem in counseling scenarios. This applies not only to his belief that “we can be fundamentally rewired” but also his supreme insight into the biblical picture of human nature (147). We all worship something because God designed us for worship; thus, every ethical problem is rooted somehow in our failure to have God-centered desires (147, 149). The author also operates under the assumption that desires for good things such as family, friends and human love become sinful snares of idolatry when they are not subordinate to our desire to please God (151).
Our author has a “Christifying” modus operandi hermeneutical scheme worth noting, which scheme I am inclined to be skeptical about (26, 28). He believes that the New Testament “alters” the Old Testament for pragmatic purposes (23, 25). Paul uses the Old Testament pragmatically, not exegetically. Even passages which do not originally have messianic overtones should now be understood primarily in terms of what they say about Christ (23-24). I am skeptical concerning this hermeneutical approach because it seems to violate the theory of authorial intent, and so far, I have not seen a more comprehensive and sophisticated theory of inspiration than the Chicago Statement which works through the implications of authorial intent for the doctrine of inspiration. I am afraid that Powlison, as something of a neo-Adams, has not developed a robust and clear hermeneutic for the BCM that does justice to the issues that inevitably arise in a uniquely Christian discipline of practical theology. If Scripture is the foundation for counseling, consistency in hermeneutical precision is indispensible, yet Powlison’s theory of hermeneutics seems to betray the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy at the point of authorial intent.
Another question Powlison’s admonitions raise is this: “Is the style of Scripture inspired as well as the meaning which the style embodies?” This question should be raised since Powlison asserts that not only “may” we communicate biblical truth in the way Paul did, but we “must do so” (29). I would agree that we might take some cues from some of the various styles of communication found in the biblical authors, but Powlison seems to define fidelity to the meaning of the biblical text with fidelity the genre or style of the biblical authors. Although Powlison attempts to state his understanding more modestly in his disclaiming section, his more modest summary of the argument does not live up to the bold claims which precede it (30).
Furthermore, a similar mistake seems to be made when Powlison admonishes his readers to reinterpret their experiences in biblical categories. In context, he really has in mind that we should think and speak of the human experience primarily in biblical language (152), yet he seems to violate his own principle by calling desires for things which are inherently good “lusts” (151). We might ask, “When Paul uses the phrase ‘lusts of the flesh,’ does he have in mind things which are inherently good?” Perhaps such a case could be made, but Powlison makes no such case. Rather, he seems to be unconsciously taking the liberty to bend the language of the biblical text to better communicate a mature biblical category of idolatry (150). Does fidelity to biblical meaning and truth necessarily entail using the exact biblical language, or is the meaning capable of being spoken in different words than those in our English Bible translations? Since Powlison’s call to think in biblical categories winds up including the use of biblical language, although inconsistently, he seems confused about the nature of this distinction, which is an important one for defining “fidelity” to the Christian worldview. How one understands the answer to these questions will have a major effect on whether one’s counseling model seeks to synthesize the insights of secular sciences with the lenses of biblical categories of meaning or reject these insights as “unbiblical” just because they do not go by the biblical labels.
I was challenged to appreciate the BCM more through reading Powlison’s views. His views are more mature than those of Jay Adams. Therefore, my sympathy with the movement has grown as a result of reading this book. Although, in the footsteps of Adams, Powlison multiplies false dichotomy upon false dichotomy, his false dichotomies are less frequent and less dramatic. Moreover, they are attended with a deeper level of insight that is more faithful to the biblical teachings than Adams’ analysis.
Unfortunately, I was required to read this book, A Pastor’s Sketches, in my evangelism class at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. The book is dangerous. A poor example of evangelism, a pastor who mistakes Calvinism for the gospel, and is out of touch with biblical spirituality. It concerns me that this book is required reading at Southern.
Spencer thinks we should be suspicious of someone’s coming to Christ in the midst of strong affections, for “when the affections take the lead, they will be very apt to monopolize the whole soul—judgment and conscience will be overpowered, or flung into the background” (175). He calls this kind of phenomenon “fanaticism” (175). Spencer believes that “the most clear perception of truth, the deepest conviction, is seldom accompanied by any great excitement of the sensibilities” (175). 9) It does not seem to be a good idea to Spencer, to present the doctrine of predestination at the outset to a sinner who still needs to learn repentance and faith (239).
Spencer here more than anywhere else demonstrates that he is out of touch with biblical spirituality. This brief post is not the place for a lengthy discussion of emotions and their role in the Christian life (I do a little of that here), but I will mention a few things in passing.
Part of conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit that causes the sinner to not only know they are sinful, but to feel contrition for their sin. This feeling I believe to be necessary for true conversion. When someone comes to Christ, it is not merely because they have understood doctrines, but it is because the Holy Spirit has wrought within them genuine affections for the person of Christ. They ought to be overwhelmed with affection for the Savior, having seen Him for who He truly is for the first time. How can such a vision not be attended with great excitement of the spirit of a man? Also, joy is an essential aspect in conversion (Matthew 13:44). Thus, we should expect strong affections to arise during conversion, and for the conversion of sinners to be accompanied by a “great excitement of the sensibilities.” Conversion affects the whole person, not just the mind. In fact, Spencer seems to be unconsciously aware of this reality, as he tells us he considers it part of his responsibility to impress truths, not merely on the mind, but on the “feelings” (52).
If you go to Southern Seminary (like I do), you are required to take a class in evangelism, and it’s usually one of the larger classes since it’s mandatory for almost any tract. If you take Dr. Beougher, he requires you to read a book called A Pastors Sketches. It’s an old book written by a Presbyterian minister named Spencer who was known as the “Bunyan of Brooklyn.” It’s basically his journalism about evangelistic encounters he has with people around Brooklyn and beyond. The first “sketch” of an encounter was actually quite fascinating and helpful. But as the book drags on, it becomes onerous to the critical reader in a variety of ways. I will be exploring several dangers of this book that may be influencing and effecting seminary students at Southern in the next few posts.
Spencer, Ichabod. A Pastor’s Sketches. Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2001. Reprint 2002. 285. $12.95.
Danger 1: Calvinism is Not the Gospel
Spencer believes that part of saving faith and understanding is to understand “the entire depravity of the heart” (127, emphasis mine). Reading between the lines that he is a Calvinist, believing the doctrines of grace, I assume he means by this that a person cannot be saved without an understanding of the doctrine of total depravity: “If he does not see that [the entire depravity of the heart], it is probable that he does not see his heart. And hence his repentance, his faith in Christ, and his reliance upon the Holy Spirit, will probably, all of them, be only deceptions” (127, emphasis mine). This perspective would explain why he is so intent on giving long indictment speeches to unbelievers (see “Election,” 230-255).
He seems to further imply that one must not only believe the doctrine of total depravity for there to be certainty of his true conversion, but also the other four doctrines of grace: “My observation continues to confirm me more and more in the opinion that to experience religion is to experience the truth of the great doctrines of divine grace” (127, emphasis mine). Because the following statement is made in the same context, it gives the impression that he considers these doctrines of grace, not as optional doctrinal positions, but as essential to Christianity: “And. . .I believed, and had always acted on the principle, that true experimental religion will always lead its subjects to a knowledge of the great essential doctrines of the Christian system—indeed, that to experience religion is just to experience these doctrines” (126). This principle is also evident when upon testing some young men who had supposedly been saved through a “camp meeting,” he questioned the validity of their experience because they did not have all the right answers to his questions (129).
I can’t help but think Spencer’s approach in this respect is legalistic and dangerous. Calvinism is not the gospel. While I myself believe that the doctrines of Calvinism are biblical, I do not believe any one of them is necessary to believe as a prerequisite to true conversion. If this were true, only Calvinists would be saved. (I’ve blogged about this before) Also, Spencer’s glib outlook on so called “revival” seems to result from this false notion. He says, “A true history of spurious revivals would be one of the most melancholy books ever written” (130). He appears at one point to attempt making a distinction between a person having a technical understanding of such doctrines (which he names as human sinfulness, divine sovereignty, atonement, justification by faith, regeneration by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the constant need of divine aid) and a persons being “substantially right” in their minds “on such doctrines” (130). However, it is not clear what the practical difference would be to him, especially since he was not satisfied with the answers given to him by the two young men in the chapter entitled “Excitement” (128-130). Also, Spencer almost seems jealous when members of his attend “revival” meetings or go to another church to be taught. In the section of his book entitled “Proselytying,” he immediately assumes that someone is “soliciting” them away from his preaching (182). He judges the situation too quickly, assuming that if these revival attenders are not immediately converted to Christ once they have changed churches that it is “manifest” that whoever they have gone to hear is simply “tickling their vanity and pride” with their attention (183). He seems pessimistic of all other churches but his own.