Monday, October 31, 2022

"Partitive Exegesis"?

"...partitive exegesis: the common patristic stratey of determining whether a biblical passage is speaking of the Son of God in terms of his deity or in terms of his humanity. (Matthew Y. Emerson and Luke Stamps, "On Trinitarian Theological Method," in Keith S. Whitefied, ed., Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, p. 116)

In the supposed modern retrieval of trinitarian orthodoxy, certain trends in academia has started to make its way into Reformed circles as they lure people to the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas. This supposed ressourcement in part seems to be a re-reading of classical theology using a Thomistic framework, and this fiters into one's hermeneutics and exegesis of the text of Scripture.

As defined by Matthew Emerson and Luke Stamps, "partitive exegesis," a word that was not present during most of Reformed history, is reading Scripture about Jesus Christ, then asking the question, "Is this talking about Jesus in his divine nature, or Jesus in his human nature"? In a certain sense, the question is innocent. After all, if you believe Jesus has two natures: one human and one divine, then certainly when you read for example that Jesus slept, you might want to ask whether this means the divine nature can sleep. But is the question really that innnocent?

Exegesis is the interpretive task whereby the meaning of a text is derived from the text itsef. It is a literary endaevor, as it deals with texts in contexts. In order for an interpretive process to be exegesis, the meaning of the text has to be read out of ("ex-") the text of Scripture. The oppposite of exegesis is eisesegesis, where meaning is read into ("eis-") the text of Scripture. Now, for a long time, the term used to describe Protestant exegesis of Scripture is "Grammatical Historical (G-H) Exegesis," where attention is paid to the grammar and the historical context of any text of Scripture. As God communicates in words through the Word, meaning is seen to be found in the words inspired by God, and G-H exegesis is the highest compliment paid to the primacy of the written word in Scripture. An expansion of G-H exegesis is Redemmptive-Historical (R-H) exegesis, where Reformed exegetes point out the progressive revelation of Scripture, with Scripture interpreting Scripture. All of such progression in one unified Word brings forward God's plan of redemption, the one plan in both the Old as well as the New Testaments. Through exegetes and bibical theologians such as Gehardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos, this canonical reading of Scripture can be indeed seen to emerge organically from Scripture itself. G-H and R-H are not, as some might think, competing methods of interpreting the Scripture. Rather, R-H expands upon the insights of the G-H method, emphasizing that Scripture's way of interpreting itself must be seen and utilized by us as well.

If exegesis is to read meaning from the text of inspired Scripture, then there are limits to what is exegesis and what is not exegesis. It is from the exegesis of Scripture that we arrive at fragments of biblical truth — what the Bible teaches in particular texts. While we acknowledge that God's truth is indeed whole, nevertheless, an examination of the text of Scripture itself does not grant us this whole truth. The discipline of systematic theology therefore is meant to eludicate biblical truths. Systematic theology builds upon the fragments of biblical truth, and seek to systematize them and in so doing smooth out any flaws in our exegeses. Systematic theology is necessary for the Christian to know the unity of God's (ectypal) truths, but it is itself not exegesis. One is not doing exegesis when one is engaged in systematic theology. Rather, one begins with truths arrived at via exegesis, and then synthesize the biblical system of truth, the "pattern of sound words" (2 Tim. 1:13), from them. In order for something to be truly biblical, founded on Scripture, sound exegesis must be at the base of one's systematic theology.

It is on this note that we look at this thing called "partitive exegesis." Does this "exegesis" derives its truths from the text of Scripture? The obvious answer is no. It calls us to ask a question that is not found anywhere in that text. On this answer alone, we must reject its label of being "exegesis." But I have said that the question is "in a sense innocent," haven't I? Yes, when we are trying to synthesize biblical truths into a coherent system. "Partitive exegesis" is therefore not exegesis but theologizing. But, if the question should be asked anyway, why the concern over terminology? The concern comes about because of how easy it is to confuse one's theology with Scripture. If it is seen as exegesis, then one has placed the usage of this "exegesis" beyond criticism. Anyone who criticizes any use of this "partitice exegesis" is seen to be not truly interpreting Scripture, being tarred with the slur "biblicist." But if the issue is over systematic theology, then no view is considered as a "default" view. Contested views have to be argued and debated, where both sides can appeal to Scripture, and Christians have to deliberate over which view is more faithful to Scriipture.

This adoption of "partitive exegesis" is therefore a scourge to the Reformed churches. Even if the views adopted by the promoters of "partitive exegesis" are true, the very concept should be rejected. It is a terrible practice to prejudice your views as the default "biblical" view, and demand that anyone who rejects your view must prove it on your own terms using your own prejudiced method. That is certainly one way to avoid debate, but it is not a way that glorifies God or His truth.

ADD: And just to show why Thomists do not get it, here is a tweet from Joshua Sommers:

Sommers confuses what the Reformed Scholastics term the Principium Cognoscendi (The beginning of knowing) and the Principium Essendi (The beginning of being). No, nobody "presuppose(s) something of the nature of God" when reading Scripture. We know who God is only from what Scripure tells us who He is. To believe something of God not taught by Scripture is called "idolatry."

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

How to interpret James and his definition of faith? You don't!

Therefore, it is better to go with interpreting James according to its genre not as a doctrinal treatise, but as a letter on practice and encouragement; not didactic but parenetic. (Daniel H. Chew, "Did John Calvin Teach a Doctrine of Secondary Justification? Refuting Steven Wedgeworth on Secondary Justification," Trinity Review 357 (April/ May 2020): 5. Available here.)

Justification is an act of God's free grace, whereby He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone. (WSC Q33). The Protestant doctrine of Justification by Faith alone states that faith is contrary to any human work whatsoever. The only meritorious element in faith is the work of Christ, whereby He imputes His righteousness to us so that we are considered righteous not because we are actually righteous, but because we have an alien righteousness (iustitia aliena). By definition of the fact that the ground of justification lies outside of us (extra nos), our works or lack thereof plays no part in justification, as God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). To claim otherwise is to return to the Roman Catholic position that faith is a faith formed by love (fides formata caritate). Contrary to popular Evangelical distortions, Roman Catholicism actually has a robust view of faith. It is manifestly false that Roman Catholicism teaches Semi-Pelagianism or even Pelagianism. I would even say that an orthodox Roman Catholic (a minority given the state of today's Roman Catholicism but I disgress) is probably more tuned to grace than the average Evanglical today.

But, it is objected, isn't it true that all Protestants hold that faith without works is a dead faith? If one means that Protestants reject Antinomianism, then most definitely. In popular parlance, we can say that we are "saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone." That however is a rather reductionist cliche – good for a simple understanding but not the actual Protestant understanding of the relationship between faith and works. The focus on works is a practical outflow of true faith; a most pragmatic observation. The idea is simple: Those who are truly saved do not live like those who are not saved. The emphasis is not on the doing of works, but as works as evidence of true faith, the so-called Practical Syllogism (Syllogismus Practicus). The Practical Syllogism is practical, not doctrinal. It is meant for living out one's live, not probing the nature of faith, which brings us to the issue of James 2.

Perhaps because James seems to be an overt contradiction of the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone, much ink has been spilled trying to "reconcile" Paul with James. However, after much thought on the matter, I think that much of the manner in which we deal with James is wrong. Most try the path of reconciliation, whereas if we dwell on the genre of the epistle and its place and use for the Church (not just James 2 but the entire epistle of James), you will notice that the parenetic (encouragment) genre of the epistle means that it was never meant to be used doctrinally. This is NOT to say that it does not deal with any doctrine at all, but that is not the focus of the epistle. Therefore, in reading James 2, we need to see it not as a discussion on the nature of faith, the order of salvation, the grounding of justification and all other questions we try to shoehorn into the text, but rather as an exhortation for Christians to live worthy of our heavenly calling. There is a big difference here between reading James 2 as doctrinal, and as parenetic. If we read it as doctrinal, we will think that James is qualifying the nature of saving faith as being "leading to good works" or things to that effect. The difference between the two approaches can be seen in the application of these two interpretations to a person (whom we shall call John) who has not done what is right in a particular situation:

The "doctrinal" interpretation:

Pastor: John did not do what is right at that instance. He has failed to do good. According to James 2 therefore, I must question his salvation, warn him that he is danger of hellfire if he does not repent and do what is right the next time.

The parenetic interpretation:

Pastor: John did not do what is right at that instance. He needs to be encouraged to do better the next time, since He is a child of God.

The parenetic nature of the genre implies that we should not treat James as discussing the nature of faith. James is meant to be encouragement toward fellow believers, not a rod to beat people down if they fail to be "faithful" in their Christian living, however one defines "faithfulness." It means that we should not go to James 2 when discussing whether faith is living or dead, because that is not its purpose, unless one wishes to discuss the "faith" of demons. For the nature of faith, we should go to the doctrinal texts of Scripture, and leave the practical outworkings to the working of faith in sanctification, not in justification.

How then should we interpret James and his definition of faith? We do not, because James does not have a definition of faith. Use James in the way it is intended, and stop using it for self-critical introspection or judgmentalism.

Monday, October 03, 2022

The American Idolatry of "Freedom" and David French's continual defense of rank immorality

David French is at it again, defending his so-called "moderate" views in his blog piece "When Culture Wars go too far." Under his so-called moderation, French defended his "classical liberal" view that everyone should have the freedom to sin, stating that he is a "strong believer in classical liberalism, pluralism, and legal equality." Unfortunately for him, French is none of these things. Does anyone seriously think that any of the American Founders would have agreed that anyone should be free to do Drag Queen Story Hour?

The problem with David French and many so-called conservatives is that they have imbibed the Spirit of the Age. French's view of freedom is that of Left Liberatarianism, not Classical Liberalism. It is an idolatry of "freedom" from all forms of law, where all men are to be free to violate laws as long as they are not illegal under the Zeitgeist. In other words, French's view of freedom is what John Calvin calls libertinism, where under the guise of freedom, men are to be free to break any law they want as long as the Zeitgeist does not agree with said law.

A simple thought experiment would be in order. Is there freedom for a person to own and flog another person as a slave today? It was considered legal in the American antebellum South, so one should be free to do so even if one disagrees with slavery, right? Of course not! French would probably claim that the law forbid it, so let me reframe the question. In the antebellum South, would French defend the right of a slaveowner to own slaves and flog his slaves, even if he thinks it is immoral? Let me repeat the question again: In the antebellum South, would French defend the right of a slaveowner to own slaves and flog his slaves, even if he thinks it is immoral? If French utilizes the same reasoning he uses to defend the freedom of Drag Queen Story Hour, he should logically say yes. But if French says no, as he probably would, then that is only proof that what should be awarded freedom depends on the Zeitgeist. What wickedness the current Zeitgeist allows and celebrates, French would defend the "freedom" to sin in that manner. What wickedness the current Zeitgeist demonizes, that he probably would deny the freedom to do so also.

There is a deep sickness in American conservatism, a pathology of immorality in thought even if not in act. The idea that Drag Queen Story Hour should be tolerated because of "classical liberalism" is total nonsense. Some sins have to be tolerated of course in society for a variety of reasons, like private immorality. But every healthy society has always criminalized gross public immorality. From a Christian perspective, this is just the application of the Natural Law, the Second Table of the Ten Commandments. There is nothing contrary to freedom to enforce the Natural Law, just as it is not contrary to the freedom of the rapist to criminalize rape, or against the freedom of the murderer to punish the murderer.