Notes: Vanhoozer’s Doctrine of the Word

While the created order so powerfully reveals God’s “goodness, wisdom, and power” (WCF 1:1) as to leave humanity without excuse for our sin, they are not sufficient to give us knowledge unto salvation, the Westminster Confession of Faith states. For this reason, God revealed Himself to his people throughout the history of redemption, and committed “the same [revelation] wholly unto writing” for the purpose of propagating the truth and establishing the church against the corruptions of the flesh, the world, and the devil. Scripture is given for the salvation of mankind and the ordering of the church.

To know God is to know the God who reveals Himself, who interacts with His creation, and he does so with words. Kevin Vanhoozer, in his essay in Christian Dogmatics, highlights God as “a personal speaker: a communicative agent who uses words to do things, mostly in relation to administering covenants and addressing his covenant people.” (Allen and Swain, p. 34) Vanhoozer argues that Scripture is the discourse of the triune Lord, God’s active arm in the economy of salvation. “The Father initiates, the Son effectuates, and the Spirit consummates the discourse that Holy Scripture preserves in writing[…].” (p. 44) He seeks a doctrine of Scripture shaped by the Trinity. He unpacks this thesis by examining the ontology (what Scripture is), function (what Scripture does), and teleology (why Scripture is and does) of Scripture.

Ontologically, the Word of God is divine discourse. By His word, God interacts with His creation, particularly by making covenants, which Vanhoozer defines as “binding words- words sealed by an oath- by which God promises to be there and do things for his people.” (p. 46) The divine discourse takes various forms in the economy of salvation: God has spoken to His people directly (Adam and Eve, Abraham, giving of the Ten Words); He has spoken through particular covenant- representatives (Abraham, Moses, the prophets, etc.); and, climatically, God sent His Word in the person of his Son to reveal Himself among us. This divine discourse is recorded for us in Holy Scripture, the body of written text inspired by God Himself. It is “the creaturely instrument of God’s living and active Word[…].” (p. 48)

Functionally, “Scripture is a creaturely ingredient that continues to function as part of the economy of triune communicative action.” (p. 50) It is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12), not simply a static recording of past speech. God uses His Word in history to accomplish his purposes. He speaks through the Word, and the Word “solicits a personal response on the part of its hearer or reader[…].” The Word is inherently missional: God sends out His Word on mission to accomplish his purpose in his creation.

Teleologically, the divine discourse is intended “to transform the reader- to form Christ in us.” (p. 53, emphasis original) Scripture is intended to be heard (or read), and in that reception the Spirit brings the effect of transformation, a response from the hearer.

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Honest Grief

Meditation on John 11

Mary and Martha prayed. They sent their message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”, and implied in that message is a request: “… so come save him!” That’s clear in the frank statements of both sisters upon first seeing Jesus after Lazarus dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They knew Jesus, they knew He had healed others, and they knew they had a special bond of friendship with Him, so they prayed in faith for Jesus to come heal their brother.

But He didn’t come.

You can imagine the thoughts that must have been running through the heads of Mary and Martha. Did they place too much faith in Jesus? Perhaps He isn’t really as powerful as they believed He was. Lazarus and his sisters were Jesus’ friends, right? Or did He not really care about them as much as they thought? Is Lazarus not he whom Jesus loved after all? Does He really love Mary and Martha?

Maybe it’s easy for you to imagine because for you, like me, these questions and doubts are too familiar. We have all, or will all at some time, experience loss and grief of some kind. We’re all gonna die, and we’re all going to lose loved ones to death. And when we go through this, we are often left with confusion. Does Jesus love us, because if He does… why this? He promised to hear our prayers, to grant our requests, right?

It’s important for us to understand, though, that these weren’t the private or bitter thoughts of Mary and Martha. They give us an example of how to walk through grief in a way that is both honest and faithful. The sisters both tell Jesus boldly that they know He could have prevented Lazarus’ death, and didn’t. Mary weeps at His feet. But Jesus doesn’t rebuke them. Rather, He receives their complaints and enters into their grief alongside them. If the sisters had let their grief and doubt drive them away from Jesus, if they had become embittered against Him, it would be a different story. But they both, in faith, let their grief and questions drive them to Jesus. 

Of course, Jesus did hear the prayer of Mary and Martha. And He did act. But He didn’t act in the way they wanted. He answered their prayer, but rather than giving them only what they asked, He gave them something better. Jesus is all-wise. In the face of impending death, we ask for things to remain the same- stop death, let our loved ones remain. And of course we do- our finite eyes cannot see what God can see. Jesus gives Mary and Martha something better than what they ask: He lets His servant pass through death in order to be transformed in resurrection. Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t simply preserve life, He transforms. He brings new, glorified life. 

Jesus doesn’t only bring this resurrection life to Lazarus, though. Jesus brings new life to the sisters, as well, through their grief. John wants us to know at the outset of this story that “It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.” But Mary’s anointing of Jesus hasn’t happened yet- that comes in the next chapter, chapter 12. Mary would anoint Jesus with ointment in worship, John wants us to understand, but not until she has anointed His feet with her tears in grief. Passing through grief, and unexpected joy, was necessary for Mary’s transformation as a disciple of Jesus. And we know by faith that our trials, our pain, our grief, works toward this same end. Jesus hears us. Jesus loves us. And He is giving us more than we can ask or think. Through grief and death, He transforms us into disciples who bear the image of a Lord who glories in laying down His life.

New Temple

Jesus’ visitation of the Temple in Jerusalem in John 2 marks a significant transition in the life of Israel. As with his miracle at Cana, during which Jesus changed the water “…for the Jewish rites of purification” (v.6) into the wine of the New Covenant, Jesus continues fulfilling Jewish rites and institutions and doing away with the Old Covenant order.

Raymond Brown describes this transition well in The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentray: “In the outer court of the Temple Jesus finds a virtual market where visitors could purchase the animals necessary for sacrifice and change their money for Tyrian half-shekels (coins religiously not objectionable). In attacking this commerce, Jesus is doing more than purging an abuse; the animals are the coins were necessary for Temple worship. In this cleansing Jesus is attacking the Temple itself. He has replaced Jewish purifications at Cana; now he shows that the very center of Jewish worship loses its meaning in his presence. The glorious presence of God, once confined to the Temple, has now become flesh in Jesus.” (p. 30)

The Lord has surely come to his temple. “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? … he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to Yahweh. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to Yahweh as in the days of old and as in former years.” (Mal. 3:2-4)

Jesus judges the Jerusalem temple and sets himself up as the true Temple. John emphasizes that his historic body is the Temple that, though destroyed, will rise “in three days.” (Jn. 2:19) Paul draws this out in 1 Corinthians 13 to tell us that, with Christ as our head, the ecclesial body, the Church, is “God’s temple” in which he dwells. “The glorious presence of God”, as Brown says, formerly housed in the Temple, incarnated in Jesus, is now with us. 

Colossians: Chiastic Structure of 1:3- 2:5

Paul arranges the introduction to his epistle to the Colossians chiastically:

A: Thanksgiving for good report – Paul absent yet represented through Epaphras (1:3-8)

B: Prayer for Colossian’s growth in Christ (1:9-14)

C: Creation and new creation in Christ (1:15-20)

C’: New Creation in Colassae (1:21-23)

B’: Paul ministering for Colossian’s maturity in Christ (1:24- 2:3)

A’: Warning against deception – Paul absent in body yet present in spirit (2:4-5)

Bookending the section is the fact that, though Paul is not physically present with them and has not met them, he longs to be with them, and his co-laborer, Epaphras, is representing him. He begins (A) by giving thanks for the good report from Epaphras, and ends (A’) warning about dangers that could lead them away from their good beginning. He does not want his absence from them to discourage the young church or to take away from his apostolic authority.

Paul prays (B) that they will grow in their knowledge of God, and then shows (B’) how his ministry is for the goal of their maturity in Christ. The Colossian’s growth into full maturity forms the driving goal of the epistle (see also 2:8-10.)

And, central to the section is Paul’s Christ hymn (C) exalting Jesus as captain of creation and new creation, and (C’) Jesus’ new creation in Colossae. This is the basis and center for Paul’s argument throughout the letter: The world has died and been reborn in Christ, and the Colossians likewise have been made new in him. Paul’s goal of their maturity finds its basis here explicitly in 1:22 when he states that they were reconciled in order that Christ might present them “holy and blameless and above reproach,” if they persevere.

New Egypt

Matthew concludes his genealogy numbering the generations from Abraham to David, David to the deportation, and the deportation to Christ. But, of course, this seems to leave out an important detail: the people of the exile returned to the land. Why doesn’t Matthew include the return here?

Matthew is telling us what many Jews of the day knew to be true: although they had returned from their physical exile, they were in a very real sense still in a spiritual, theological exile. And Matthew’s point is that that exile is the one that really matters, the exile that Jesus is born into, and the one that he is sent to redeem his people from. In fact, it’s what the first Exodus was always about.

This makes sense of Matthew’s quotation and placement of Hosea 11:1. The Egypt out of which God’s Son is being called is, physically, Israel. The roles have reversed: Israel is the new Egypt, Herod is the new Pharaoh. And this is what Egypt, Pharaoh, and the Exodus always pointed toward, the New and Greater Exodus.

Notes on TNE, pt. 2: Language of Visual Appearance

 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

In chapter one of Through New Eyes, James Jordan discusses how we are to interpret the world design as presented in the Bible. When readers today approach the Bible, we do say in a very modern and scientific way. We are trained to look at the world through the eyes of science; so when we talk about animals, we think of different species; when we talk about the stars, we think of what they are made of. But the Bible talks about animals that are clean and unclean, creeping animals and sea creatures. When the Bible talks about stars, we find that they are made to mark seasons and festivals, and to represent rulers and powers. Where we are used to thinking in a scientific worldview, the Bible speaks of the world in a different way all together. Jordan calls it the language of visual appearance.

We especially find the language of visual appearance used in Genesis 1. The Bible shows us that God has vested his creation with symbolism. Jordan lists two things this language accomplishes:

  • First, “…it gives a true description of the world as it is.” (pg. 12) That is to say, while the language is poetic and symbolic, it is not merely poetic and symbolic.
  • Second, “…the language of visual appearance in Genesis 1 serves to establish a visual grid, a worldview.” (pg. 12)Genesis 1 sets up the symbolic grid that carries through the rest of Holy Scripture.

Later, Jordan gives six imporules for interpretation:

  1. “…Biblical symbolism and imagery is not a code.”
  2. “…Biblical symbols do not exist in isolation.”
  3. “…we must always have clear-cut Biblical indication for any symbol or image we think we have found.”
  4. “…the heritage of the Church in systematic theology and in the history of exegesis is always a check on wild speculation.”
  5. “…Biblical symbolism must be interpreted in terms of Biblical presuppositions and philosophy.”
  6. “…the student of Biblical imagery must be alert to the work of other scholars.”

This is not to say that Genesis is not a literal, historical account. If the creation account were not literal, in fact, this symbolism would be relativized and weakened. Genesis is symbolic, typological, and poetic, but not merely so. It is also poetic. It’s the modern scientific mind that feels the need to separate the symbolic and the historical.

The purpose of the word is to reveal God. Man, the animals, the heavens and earth, the seas and mountains, are all pointers that reveal God and his truth. To understand this, we have to learn the language of visual appearance.

Children, Fathers, Young Men

Behind this triple division of the church [children, fathers, and young men in 1 Jn. 2] is the Old Testament sequence of offices – priest, king, and prophet. Priests are servants, who are given clear and detailed instructions for everything. They are “children,” following rules and serving. Since the church is a priesthood, John can call all his readers “children.” Kings have grown in maturity, and are called to make their own judgments about things as well as engage in battle. John’s “young men” are kings. Prophets are sages, wise men who have their senses trained to discern good and evil. They speak with authority because of that experience, and because of the Spirit in them, and so they are “fathers” to the kings and direct the priests. Every church needs each of these.

(Peter J. Leithart, The Epistles of John Through New Eyes: From Behind the Veil, pp. 77-78.)