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.

The Totus Christus Hermeneutic of St. Augustine

Central to the hermeneutic of St. Augustine is what is known as the totus Christus hermeneutic, the hermeneutical principle that understands Sacred Scripture to be speaking of the whole Christ, head and body, Jesus and the Church. Thus, the Bible is both Christocentric and ecclesiocentric. He summarizes here:

… knowing as we do that the head and the body- that is, Christ and His Church- are sometimes indicated to us under one person (for it is not in vain that it is said to believers, You then are Abraham’s seed [Gal. 3:29], when there is but one seed of Abraham, and that is Christ), we need be in a difficulty when a transition is made from the head to the body or from the body to the head, and yet no change made in the person spoken of. For a single person is represented as saying, He has decked me as a bridegroom with ornaments, and adorned me as a bride with jewels and yet it is, of course, a matter for interpretation which of these two refers to the head and which to the body, that is, which to Christ and which to the Church.

-St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 3.31.44 (as quoted in Peter J. Leithart, Deep Exegesis)

Saint Augustine in His Study, Sandro Boticelli

Saint Augustine in His Study, Sandro Boticelli

So, when you read of Yahweh’s chosen servant in Isaiah, you are definitely reading about Jesus of Nazareth. Yet Paul, preaching in Antioch of Pisidia, can quote Isaiah 49:6 where Yahweh tells his servant Jesus “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” and say “…so the Lord has commanded us.” (Acts. 13:47) The Christ spoken of by Isaiah and Paul is the whole Christ, head and body. The Church is brought through baptism into union with Jesus, and thus becomes members of Christ. In his death, we die; in his resurrection, we are raised (Rom. 6.) We are called as disciples, then, to live cross-shaped lives of self-giving, and to bring the reality of the resurrection to bear on the world.

In Peter J. Leithart’s important work, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripturehe suggests that the “breakdown of this Augustinian hermeneutical principle has been one of the main sources of interpretive confusion among Protestants.” (p.174.) Some only see Jesus in the text, and thus allow no direct application to the Christian life. Others only find moral lessons and rule out any possibility of christological typology. A recovery of the totus Christus, however, will lead us to find our practical tropology flowing out of the christological typology. Indeed, when we see the whole Christ in the text, we learn to read like St. Paul and like Jesus.