Category Archives: Biblical Interpretation

2017 Symposium Recap – David Outlaw on Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Kevin L. Hester

As part of the fall 2017 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission on Theological Integrity, Dr. David Outlaw, Global Education Specialist with Free Will Baptist International Missions, presented one of the more thought-provoking theological explorations. His reflection on Christopher Wright’s 2006 publication, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative spurred significant discussion and laid the groundwork for re-visioning how Free Will Baptists understand their role of theological education, especially in non-Western cultures.

Outlaw related his own experiences and difficulties in expressing typical Western theological expressions to non-western cultures. His proposal was that Wright’s missional hermeneutic may allow for a more bibliocentric approach to theological education in cross-cultural contexts. He began by reviewing Wright’s work and explaining his concept of a missional hermeneutic. Following some helpful assessment, Outlaw then teased out several possible implications of this hermeneutic for theological education in light of the worldwide Church.

A Missional Hermeneutic

Outlaw communicated his vision of Wright’s idea of a missional hermeneutic as the grand story of God’s redemption expressed in Scripture. He argued that this Biblical metanarrative provides a basis for approaching and communicating truth about God in ways that move beyond proof-texting, avoid alien cultural expressions, and begin with Scripture rather than philosophical speculation. Such a Biblically-centered approach underscores the Bible as the inspired, authoritative source of knowledge about God and helps to promote a Biblical and theocentric worldview.

Outlaw traced Wright’s work in outlining God’s gradual revelation of Himself in Scripture primarily though His actions. These actions in the Old Testament included creation, judgment, and the calling of a people (Israel) to Himself. In these actions God demonstrates his holiness leading to judgment and love leading to redemption. This narrative unfolds in the New Testament, most perfectly with the salvation made known through Jesus. ultimately in His death, burial, and resurrection. At Pentecost, the redemption of God’s people was expanded to all nations. Paul’s preaching and the growth of the early church made it clear that God’s purpose in revelation and redemption was a global one.

Missional Practice

The ongoing activity of the Church should then be understood as the work of God through the Church rather than the work of individuals. The same narrative of redemption presented in Scripture is ongoing throughout the world today. God is building His kingdom in and through the Church and this has implications for the way the Church lives out these kingdom principles in the world today. This calls the Church to be actively engaged in preaching the Gospel. The Church should proclaim a holy, righteous judge who loved us enough to send His Son for our redemption.

But God’s kingdom extends beyond individuals. God cares for all creation and is renewing this creation through the Gospel and through His people. God’s mission cries out for justice as the Church works to eradicate the effects of sin in interpersonal relationships. God’s mission to the world demonstrates the inherent value and equality of all those created in His image. God’s mission also frees redeemed humanity to exercise appropriate dominion over all areas of God’s creation. This recognizes both the appropriate use of natural resources, but also a concern for the preservation of these goods given to us by God.

Moving Forward

While Outlaw reasserted the basic outlines of Wright’s thesis, he did not do so without criticism. While he appreciated Wright’s focus on mission as the work of God, he recognizes that even focusing upon the Biblical narrative will not allow us to fully escape the cultural and hermeneutical grids through which we read and interpret the Bible. He expressed concern over Wright’s perceived overemphasis in ecology, while simultaneously underscoring the truth that the mission of God extends to all creation and will ultimately manifest itself in the new heaven and the new earth.

Outlaw believes that a missional hermeneutic has two overarching strengths in reading the Old Testament. First, it allows the Christian to obtain a fuller picture of how the Old and New Testaments connect with one another as parts of the same story. Second, it allows room for Christians to come to understand Israel (at least historically if not more) as a focus and an instrument of God’s redemption.

Outlaw also believes that such a hermeneutic can highlight the need for missional activity and inform its processes. Rather than starting with a systematic theology, he proposes that Christians working cross-culturally emphasize Biblical theology, training new believers first and foremost in the Biblical narrative of God’s redemption as story. Because stories are part of who we are, it allows Christians wherever they are to see themselves in the light of God’s redemptive purposes. Preaching and teaching then should move beyond reductionist approaches to expository preaching to include the missional moment of God’s redemption as we strive to locate, interpret, and apply a Biblical text.

Conclusion

The strength of Outlaw’s presentation is found partly in Wright’s work and partly in Outlaw’s experience with communicating Christ cross-culturally in Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America. Outlaw’s cultural lens and his work contribute authority and wisdom to his words. Such a perspective allows him a unique position from which to gauge the sometimes hidden cultural components of the Christian message. Nowhere does he call us to leave off theological thinking. In fact, he argues that such a response would be unhelpful. Instead, he simply asks that we recognize the cultural components of our understanding of the Gospel and to begin, not with theology, but with Scripture. Only when we have grasped God’s unfolding of Himself in the time and space of this world as he builds His kingdom will Christians be able to find their own place in this world and in God’s story.

David Outlaw: A Consideration of Christopher Wright’s Missional Hermeneutic

Interpreting Doctrinal Statements in a Shifting Evangelical Landscape

by Kevin Hester

Recently, I have been working with an ad hoc committee for an evangelical organization tasked with considering admission standards. For many years, this organization has espoused a basic Evangelical statement of faith as the basis for membership. Institutions and groups have been asked to sign the statement yearly to indicate continued compliance. But recently, some groups not typically associated with mainstream evangelicalism, have approached the body expressing an interest in membership. This has served to raise the question of what is meant by mainstream evangelicalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Is there a fracture occurring? Are lines being redrawn that will exclude former evangelicals and include others not previously represented? What has been heartening about this discussion in this group is seeing both a commitment to traditional evangelical orthodoxy and to objective truth. The desire to be inclusive has not overridden a commitment to basic Biblical doctrine.

Context of the Problem

What has become apparent in our discussion is that evangelicalism is shifting. And our organization is trying to keep up. What we have noticed is that a simple doctrinal statement may simply not be enough. The issue has become an interpretive question. How a doctrinal statement is interpreted has become as important as the creedal confession. Our response to this point has been to suggest an additional document defining terms and seeking to bring clarity to what had previously been universally understood. What was formerly a question of integrity has now additionally become a question of interpretation.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. The basic historical, grammatical method of interpretation has been the mainstay of evangelicalism. I would say it still is. But in the midst of postmodern interpretive methods and societal pressures on the traditional exegesis of particular passages of Scripture, new or different, battle lines are being drawn.

Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Infallibility

Unfortunately, some Arminians seem to be contributing to this problem. I was reminded of this truth when I read a recent article by Roger Olson. In it, he argues that evangelicals should move beyond more exclusive language about Scripture and follow him in embracing the infallibility of Scripture rather than the traditional inerrancy of Scripture. “Inspiration,” a word he readily uses, is seen to apply to the human authors of Scripture rather than the very words of Scripture themselves. Thus, his denial of a traditional evangelical approach to Scripture is an “interpretive” question. Olson posits that inspiration assures the infallibility of the purpose of Scripture, but not the inerrancy of the content.

Norman Geisler, general editor for Defending Inerrancy was quick to respond. Geisler argues that statements like Olson’s miss the point that infallibility necessarily implies inerrancy. Else, how could such a document ever be a reliable source of any kind of truth? The correspondence view of truth requires Scripture to correspond to reality. The intellectual content of belief assumes that for Scripture to serve its purpose of salvation (a purpose Olson accepts) it must also be true.

The kind of hermeneutics that can embrace an infallible, but not inerrant Scripture is, in the words of Geisler, “subjective mysticism” rather than an “objective hermeneutic.” Here, I believe that Geisler has hit squarely upon the issue facing evangelicals today.

Evangelicals are specifically a people of the book. We embrace scripture as inspired and infallible. Traditionally, we have also argued for its inerrancy. The question is now one of how these important terms are interpreted. As important as ascribing to a doctrine of Scripture is also the question of the hermeneutic that will be applied. The framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) recognized this as well. This is why just a few years after the publication of their document on inerrancy, they followed it with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982).

Historical, Grammatical Hermeneutics and Inerrancy

Article 15 of this document is clear that the historical, grammatical interpretation of Scripture is foundational for any understanding of inspiration and is the basis for the inerrancy of the original manuscripts. It reads, “WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”

Article 20 goes on to state, “WE AFFIRM that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else.” Herein, lies the need for a historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic, not only in reference to Scripture, but also in reference to historical expressions of orthodox creeds and evangelical statements of faith. Words are not simply signifiers devoid of content until that content is supplied by a context of modern interpreters. Words have meaning in the instance of their formulation in creeds and statements of faith. These very words then can only mean what the original framers meant for them to mean.

If evangelicals fail to realize the interpretive questions that lie behind their historical statements of belief, the shifting theological landscape and the rains of culture will erode the meaning of these definitional statements until only a husk remains. A proper historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic is just as important as proper statements of faith in preserving theological integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

Are We Reading the Gospels Wisely?

                                                       by Jackson Watts

Reading the Gospels WiselyNear the end of 2015 I began reading Jonathan Pennington’s excellent book entitled Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, 2012). Pennington is a professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Though biblical studies hasn’t been my principal area of academic focus, I think it’s important for pastors to try and stay abreast of scholarly work being done in biblical studies as it will no doubt inform and influence their preaching and teaching at some point. Pennington’s work is not only important, but helpful as well.

Continue reading Are We Reading the Gospels Wisely?

Deus in Machina: Reading (and Studying) the Old, Old Story on your Tablet

(Part 1 of 2)

by Kevin Hester

As a non-digital native, whenever I think of Scripture I envision my first “real” Bible. It was a red-letter, leather-bound, Old Scofield Reference Bible. I still have it and I still use it from time to time though its condition is in need of an update. Since then, I have added concordances, commentaries, lexicons and other translations. All of these things are necessary for any serious student of God’s Word.

When personal computers became commercially available, it wasn’t long until technologically savvy Christians began to see the potential of these machines for making such tools of Biblical study readily available. Early versions offered little more than a searchable digital text, but it still proved helpful. Soon thereafter, however, there was an explosion of digital software and programs to aid in exegesis and study. I missed most of this. I was in seminary and a graduate program at the time. Surrounded by libraries that had all the familiar study tools to which I had grown accustomed, and being a bit of a Luddite, I contented myself with playing along the shores of what was becoming a vast ocean.

When I became a professor at Welch College I was often asked about the best Biblical study tools. I was comfortable talking about the bound volumes I had grown to love, but when they asked, “what about for my computer?” I was unable to offer any advice. I began to look into what was available, but quickly became overwhelmed. There were so many unfamiliar terms, price packages, and statements related to system requirements that I had almost decided that if parchment was good enough for Paul, it was likely good enough for me.

This is why I was so excited when Mr. Allan Crowson, Welch College’s Director of Online and Adult Studies, showed me his paper entitled, “Some Thoughts on Scripture Study Software.” I had never seen such a simple presentation of these terms, packages, and their capabilities before. I also knew that he wasn’t trying to sell me anything.

While I am sure that most of you who are reading this know more than I do about what is available in the market, I am sure that some of you are also like I was. You see the potential, but you don’t know where to begin. Mr. Crowson has happily given me permission to share his article with you. I would suggest that you begin here. https://welchlibrary.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/software-study-tools-2013-11-07.pdf

 

 

A Reflection on “Falling Away” in the Patristic Period

by Jackson Watts

My first educational stop during my graduate studies was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a distinguished Southern Baptist school in the beautiful town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. Southeastern (hereafter SEBTS) has a number of excellent scholars in several fields, and so I appreciated my three years there immensely. However, given my Free Will Baptist background, I expected to encounter some differences.

The two major doctrinal distinctions that most observe between Southern Baptists and Free Will Baptists are (1) Disagreement over whether feet washing should be considered an ordinance; and (2) Disagreement over whether genuine believers can fall away, that is apostatize, and thus forfeit their salvation.

Free Will Baptists answer affirmatively on the first of these, understanding feet washing (a) to have been ordained for perpetual practice by Christ himself, (b) to be a symbol of the Gospel truth of sanctification, and (c) to inculcate humility and remind the believer of the virtue of humility as part of their sanctification. Commission Chairman Matt Pinson called attention to this topic in a recent blog post.

On the question of perseverance and apostasy, Free Will Baptists affirm not only the possibility of falling away, but the actual incidence of believers making shipwreck of their faith (1 Tim. 1:19). We call to mind not only the many severe warnings found in Hebrews and Second Peter, but warnings from Jesus himself concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 12:31; Mk. 3:29). Though most would describe apostasy as a process of falling into unbelief, it is still attached to decisive, willful disobedience.

During my experience at SEBTS, I expected to encounter dissent on these two doctrines. Being a Free Will Baptist swimming in Southern Baptist currents, situations would arise when a classmate unfamiliar with my tradition would raise the question, “So what’s the difference between Free Will Baptists and Southern Baptists?” Though my explanations often garnered surprise or confusion (and sometimes genuine interest), I often marveled at those who learned of my position on the doctrine of perseverance, and responded in downright shock that I could hold such a view.

Learning with Other Brethren

Aside from learning to have charitable and useful “intra-mural theological debates,” that is, debates within the Christian family, I took away two key reflections from these experiences. First, I learned how deeply ingrained mainstream views like “once saved, always saved” and “eternal security” are in the Southern Baptist religious imagination. While there are some unhealthy aspects to this, in another sense our view on perseverance ought to shape our piety! All doctrines have real-world import, even if sometimes that import isn’t immediately evident, or if the spiritual consequences of certain doctrines (beliefs or practices) aren’t essential to salvation itself.

One could believe, for instance, that the office of pastor and bishop are two different roles, or that the body of Christ is physically present in the Eucharist, and still be a Christian. Of course, I would say they are incorrect on both of these points. But again, this is what we might think of as an “intra-mural” debate that Christians have had through the ages. Our views truly matter, and no doubt most of our Southern Baptist brethren believe “eternal security” occupies a lofty place in their doctrinal hierarchy.

The second reflection I took from these conversations is just as interesting as the first, and is an angle of the perseverance subject that I believe merits much more scholarly attention: beliefs about perseverance in early and even pre-Reformation Christianity.

One fact that seemed to be a great loss on many of the young seminarians that surrounded me at SEBTS was the belief that a believer could genuinely forfeit, leave, or “lose” (to use popular, though misleading jargon) their salvation has been prevalent in Christian thought through the ages.[1] As Kevin Hester noted in his recent post, “I used to be amazed at my peers’ refusal to readily consider the contributions of almost 1,500 years of church history.” Among these contributions are a number of insights into the “perseverance debate.”

Here, I’d like to simply contribute some increased awareness in the evangelical Christian community about how perseverance was characterized in early Christian thought.

Insight from a Forgotten Voice

I will be the first to say that Syriac Christianity is not my area of specialty. Yet my preparation for a sermon from 2 Corinthians 6 recently brought me into dialogue with a significant Syriac writer from the late 5th-early 6th century A.D. named Philoxenus of Mabbug.

I came across Philoxenus in the 1-2 Corinthians volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (ACCS). The ACCS is a wonderful set of commentaries that have mined riches from numerous early Christian figures and sources to allow the best of the exegetical tradition to inform contemporary biblical interpretation and faith. Gerald Bray was the main editor of this particular volume, and he cites some of the comments from Philoxenus on 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. Here is an excerpt of the verse: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers….for what fellowship does Christ have with Satan, or the believer with the unbelievers, or God’s temple with that of demons?”

Commenting on this verse in “On the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Syrian bishop and theologian writes:

“It is the same now with us who are baptized: neither the wetness of the water in which we are baptized nor the oiliness of the oil with which we are anointed remain with us after our death. But the Holy Spirit, who is mingled in our souls and bodies through the oil and the water, does remain with us, both in this life and after our death. For he is our true baptism, and for this reason we remain always baptized, for the Holy Spirit is within us always, and no sin can strip us of our baptism–neither adultery, nor theft, nor fornication, nor false testimony nor any action of this sort: only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”[2]

While Philoxenus’ connection with Syriac Orthodox Christianity is hinted upon in these opening lines, we should keep in mind that regardless of one’s specific anthropology, or one’s views about the proper subjects of baptism, the baptized person in view in this passage is a true believer because of the indwelling presence of the Spirit. So while we would contend with many early patristic brethren over their espousal of infant baptism, the person in view in this passage is a true believer.

Of that true believer, Philoxenus argues, no sin he may commit is able to strip from him the presence of God’s Spirit. Indeed, we would say the Holy Spirit powerfully convicts believers who may commit such sins. Yet this ancient writer also qualifies his claim with the very exception that many Free Will Baptists would also supply in defense of their view of conditional perseverance: “only the denial of God and consorting with demons can do this, for in such cases the Holy Spirit really does depart, for he does not consent to remain in a place where Satan dwells.”

Some Qualifications

I cannot say for sure that Philoxenus has blasphemy of the Holy Spirit specifically in mind here, but it sure sounds like it. Moreover, his assertion of the Holy Spirit’s initial presence in the individual and then later departure also seems to support the notion that “falling away” isn’t merely backsliding, or always the evidence that one was never really as a Christian to  begin with. These are just a few of the main aspects of the overall perseverance topic that often arise in discussion.

I should add one another qualification about this figure from early Christianity. Philoxenus is often overlooked because there has been reluctance among Christians who espouse Chalcedonian Christology to engage him since he belongs in the theological camp known as miaphysitism. Though it is a proto-orthodox position, it arises from the basic view found in monophysitism. Historical context aside, most modern Christians would see this as a serious Christological error that doesn’t line up adequately to the definition offered at Chalcedon (A.D. 451).

Even so, despite the cautious reading we must exercise with early Christian sources—and any Christian sources at that—I think we can learn to chew up the meat and spit out the bones when it comes to gleaning doctrinal insights from premodern Christian exegesis.

____________________

[1] It is important to acknowledge that one reason why beliefs on this topic during this period are often overlooked is because they are sometimes attached to problematic assumptions and views on the efficacy of baptism, penance, and post-baptismal sins. Still, some untangling of these issues are worth doing for the sake of uncovering truly consensual Christian beliefs.

[2] Cited on page 261 of 1-2 Corinthians in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Volume edited by Gerald Bray (IVP Academic, 2006).