Thursday, January 25, 2007

The mind of the individual churchman

I see that Dr. White has gotten into a debate with the usual suspects over at “Reformed Catholicism.” A few quick comments:

1.His opponents appeal to the mind of the church. But the church is an abstraction. This doesn’t mean it isn’t real. But it isn’t something over and above the members who compose it.

When White’s opponents appeal the *mind* of the church, they are surreptitiously appealing to the *minds* of the church. The minds of individual churchmen.

After all, what one church do Tim Enloe, Kevin Johnson, and Paul Owen belong to? They all belong to different denominations, don’t they?

Owen belongs to a schismatic sect. Enloe belongs to a consortium of different theological traditions. And Kevin Johnson is a prominent critic of Doug Wilson, who belongs to the same denomination as Enloe.

So where do we find the mind of the church in their own concrete ecclesiology? How does their theory of the church cash out in actual practice? They are catholic in what they say, but Anabaptistic in what they do.

Hence, when they appeal to the mind of the church, which church are they referring to? Is this some lowest common denominator of what all Christians believe, regardless of their ecclesiastical affiliation or background?

2.They also lodge the recurring claim that there’s a Baptist (or Reformed Baptist) method of exegeting Scripture, and then there’s the method by which the rest of Christendom exegetes the Bible.

The Baptist hermeneutic represents a fringe group, in contrast to the vast majority of Christians.

I, for one, would like to see some documentation for this charge. Is the methodology of James White or Eric Svendsen fundamentally different from the methodology of Catholic commentators like Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Luke Timothy Johnson, or the methodology of Anglican commentators like Wright, France, Smalley, Barnett, Cranfield, Towner, Gordon Wenham, David Wenham, &c.?

They may differ in how they assess the evidence, but the underlying hermeneutic is the same.

What we have, in fact, is the self-reinforcing ignorance of those who begin with a paper theory of church and sacraments. With their paper theory in hand, they have no incentive to study exegetical theology, and so they have no specific (or even general) knowledge of how exegesis is actually done in transdenominational scholarship.

3.In appealing to the true audience, White’s opponents commit several elementary blunders:

i) They fail to distinguish between the historical audience of the speech (the bread of life discourse), and the literary audience of the gospel, in which the speech is recorded.

Even if the *gospel* of John is addressed to the “church” (whatever that means), the bread of life discourse is addressed to Jesus’ Jewish audience, before the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

So there’s a basic difference between the audience for the speech (as it was originally delivered), and the audience for the documentary record of the speech—when the speech was committed to writing as part of the Fourth Gospel.

ii) Or are they saying that the speech has one meaning, but the gospel has a contrary meaning. That the speech means one thing for the Jewish audience, but a different meaning for the Christian audience?

Are they claiming that we need to bleach out the Jewish coloring of the Fourth Gospel in our interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, and stain it with the dye of the Church?

Does the understanding of the Church cancel out the understanding of the Jewish audience to whom the teachings of Christ were originally addressed?

iii) To which church in particular was the Fourth Gospel written? I’d like to see them reconstruct the target audience for the Fourth Gospel.

Was this a local church? A set of local churches? Was this situated in Asia Minor? What was the ethnical composition of the church to which John originally addressed his gospel? Jewish? Gentile? Mixed?

And does the understanding of the church override the understanding of the Jewish audience? Or do we compartmentalize the meaning of the Gospel?

iv) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that we can disregard grammatico-historical exegesis, then even if Dr. White’s opponents are correct in reassigning the hermeneutical frame of reference from the Jewish audience for the speech to the ecclesiastical audience for the gospel, we are no longer bound by the understanding of the community to which or for which John directed his gospel.

a) If you’re going to claim that the controlling factor is the understanding of the covenant community to which John wrote the gospel, then, to begin with, you must identify that community.

But if you reject the grammatico-historical method, then how do you propose to reconstruct the 1C ecclesiastical audience?

BTW, appealing to the Johannine community is just as “nominalistic” as appealing to the Jewish audience. You are still invoking a concrete historical particular to supply your hermeneutical grid. So Enloe’s objection, even if valid, is a double-edged sword.

b) Bracketing (a), let’s assume that you successfully identify the church (churches?) which was (were?) the intended recipient of this gospel.

Yet if you reject the grammatico-historical method, then the understanding of the Johannine “community” or Johannine “circle” ceases to be binding on modern Christian readers.

If you reject the grammatico-historical method, then whether you identify the implied reader as the Jewish audience or the Johannine community is irrelevant. For by rejecting the grammatico-historical method, you thereby reject the normativity of original intent. If you repudiate the grammatico-historical method, then whatever the Fourth Gospel meant to the Johannine community isn’t what it must mean for you and me.

4.Ironically, White’s opponents exemplify a very radical brand of individualism. They interpret John 6 the same way Hal Lindsey interprets Revelation.

For Lindsey, is perfectly okay to reinterpret the 1C imagery in light of modern military technology.

Johnson et al. operate with the same hermeneutical autonomy, swapping in their own favorite traditions.

Sure, they appeal to historical theology, but they are highly selective in their appeal. What they do, then, is to choose a contemporary denomination according to their personal and prior selection-criteria, and then impose that filter on the text of Scripture.

They start with whatever denomination encapsulates whatever theological tradition they privilege, then map that back onto the bread of life discourse.


  1. Thank you so much for this post, Mr. Hays. You cleared up many things for me here. I had asked a question of Mr. Kevin Johnson on a thread there. Granted, I was wrong to use my uncle's screen name, but I had no idea of the Art Sippo like immaturity that I would be greeted with at Reformed Catholicism.

    Many blessings to you, sir.

    David Edwards.

  2. Steve,

    Great post. I tried commenting over there twice and asked them some clarifying questions, but they deleted my comments. So, apparently challenging their position is off limits....


  3. No, "supa", commenting under another id while you're already on moderated status because of previous comments is not allowed over at our site. Were you able to maintain civil discourse, we'd have no problem allowing your comments through.

  4. Kevin,

    What are you talking about? I commented twice on a single thread. On the first one I asked some simple questions to clarify where you were coming from (and politely, in case anyone thought otherwise). Then I checked back to see if anyone responded and the comments were gone. I posted again asking if that was how things were done at your blog if someone disagrees with you. That comment was deleted also. If you make that out to be otherwise, you are lying. Please document from my comments where I lacked civility...

  5. Steve,

    I don't have a particular beef with Reformed Baptists (though there are numerous differences), but as a regular contributor to Reformed Catholcism, I thought I might venture a couple of responses as you indirectly reference many of my particular contributions to this conversation.

    First, one must make the distinction between the original delivery of the "bread of life" discourse and its situation in the Fourth Gospel. The Gospels never claim to present the ipsissima verba (very words) of Jesus and indeed cannot. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic or possibly Hebrew, but the Gospel autographs are all Greek (unless you propose a Hebrew original for Matthew, of course). Thus, the debate will really be the degree to which the recollections of Jesus' statements in the Gospels diverge from the statements of the historical Jesus. Faith in an inspired Bible requires us to affirm that the Gospels do not falsify the words of Jesus and that they faithfully transmit his very voice (impsissima vox), but it is impossible to claim that the Gospels are a kind of transcript.

    All of this is faithful to an Evangelical understanding of inspiration and infallibility. Consult the various articles in Geisler's *Inerrancy* to establish the distinction I am making. More importantly, it is true to John's description of his own task. If stories of the words and works of Jesus are so numerous that the world couldn’t contain the volumes written (John 21:25) and if John selected from this pool a specific number of recollections to establish the faith of his audience (John 20:30-31), then the context of the late first century Johannine community does become important, and in some ways determinative for a proper apprehension of its theological content.

    Secondly, this does not require a kind of independent historical access to the makeup of the Johannine community. The Gospel, Johannine epistles, and the Apocalypse allow us to isolate many of the central concerns of the community. We do know a bit about docetic/proto-Gnostic thinking in the Greco-Roman world that would have made their obsession with the physicality of Jesus intelligible. The preference for sarx over soma in John 6 is one such example. Its not that Jesus didn’t mandate the consumption of his flesh and blood to an audience of Jews, but the manner in which Jesus raises the stakes of the debate to make flesh and blood explicit probably proved useful to a much later community with a very different ideological opponent.

    We can also know a bit about the liturgical context of the community from the various descriptions of the heavenly court in the Apocalypse. To the extent that John was anything of a biblical theologian, he would have noted how the Old Testament Tabernacle/Temple mirrored the divine throne room. He would have also been familiar with the manner in which synagogues were constructed as a kind of Temple in miniature (see Donald Binder’s work here). This presumes that the altar, the incense, the degrees of proximity to the throne, etc. found a counterpart in the liturgical space and liturgical practice of the Johannine community.

    Finally, I really don’t have a problem with historical-grammatical exegesis per se. In fact, one can really establish most of what I have written here without recourse to the history of interpretation/ reception of these texts in later Christian communities. That said, attending to this reception can give clues to how an audience could hear these texts without the pressing intrusions of our Western, modernist, post-industrial ontology. If there is a fairly unbroken sacramental understanding of these passages in the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation-era churches, the burden of proof is really on the modern interpreter who denies that import. Its not that historical-grammatical exegesis is off base, but practitioners need to have a fairly healthy appreciation of the doctrine of Original Sin and acknowledge its noetic effects.