John Owen’s White and Ruddy Jesus

In his Communion with God, John Owen reflects on Jesus’ grace in his “personal presence and comeliness.” During the discussion, he cites Song of Solomon 5:9-10 (his wording is used). The others say:

What is thy beloved more than another beloved,
O thou fairest among women?
What is thy beloved more than another beloved?

The woman replies:

My Beloved is white and ruddy,
the chiefest among ten thousand.

Reading Song of Solomon as speaking about Christ and the church certainly has huge precedent in Christian history. John Owen is not doing anything strange here. However, he goes on to expound three ways Jesus is “white and ruddy” in his “beautiful complexion.”

First, “He is white in glory of his Deity and ruddy in the preciousness of his humanity.” He cites Daniel 7:9 with the Ancient of Days having white garments and hair like pure wool. He also brings in the transfiguration here. As to his ruddy humanity, “Man was called Adam, from the red earth whereof he was made. The word here used points him out as the second Adam, partaker of flesh and blood, because the children also partook of the same, Heb. 2:14.” He cites the Hebrew text of Song of Solomon 5:10 where the Hebrew word translated “ruddy” seems to have the sense of “red” and seems to be connected to the word for “Adam.”

Second, Jesus is “white in the beauty of his innocency and holiness, and ruddy in the blood of his oblation.” Jesus was a Lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:19). However, he was also crucified and blood and water came from him (John 19:34). Moreover, he was ruddy “morally, by the imputation of sin, whose colour is read and crimson. ‘God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin,’ 2 Cor. 5:21.”

Lastly, “His endearing excellency in the administration of his kingdom is hereby also expressed. [footnote of Rev. 6:2] He is white in love and mercy unto his own; red with justice and revenge towards his enemies, Isa. 58:3; Rev. 19:13.”

There is a decent chance none of these points are original to Owen. In fact, for all I know, they might be rather common. Nonetheless, they are fascinating to consider. To take a text that many today read simply as love poetry and say that the word includes all of this about the Word goes against the grain of so much of our reading. This reading might make us see red in the ways it does violence to the text in our eyes, but possibly it is holy, pure, and white in God’s sight.

Review: Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey (Anderson)

I’ve been doing a long reading project on debates concerning Paul about Second Temple Judaism, justification, works and works of the law, and so on. Basically, digging into the whole old perspective vs. new perspective debate, for lack of better terminology (for a summary, see here; the whole series is worthwhile). I am nearing the end now and I finished Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective: Charting a Soteriological Journey. It has been one of the most stimulating reads in quite some time.

Basically, Anderson argues that the new perspective is correct about Paul’s early view of soteriology while the old perspective is correct about Paul’s later view of soteriology. So Anderson argues for development in Paul’s thought.

Chapter 1 delineates the debate and gives some “yes, but” affirmations. Chapter 2 argues that the new perspective cannot handle Pauline texts like Philippians 3:1-11, Romans 3:28-4:8, and Ephesians 2:1-22. Chapter 3 looks at various contradictory views in Pauline scholarship and attempts to bridge the gap between the two.

Next, chapters 4 and 5 attempt to establish the chronology of Paul’s letters and argues for the Pauline authorship of the disputed letters. This is important because one needs a rather large corpus and established chronology in order to argue for development. He then confirms his views of development with respect to various aspects of Paul’s thought like works of the law/works, grace, justification, salvation, and more in chapters 6-8. The final chapter then summarizes the arguments and conclusions of the book, puts justification in its proper place, and shows union with Christ to be central.

As I said at the beginning, this book was amazingly interesting. Anderson says near the beginning and end of the book that he thinks nearly everyone in Pauline scholarship gets something right. That is definitely my disposition too: to see what exactly a differing view is looking at and find the value in it. His delineation about how certain words and concepts are used or not used in the various letters in a way that seems to show development is intriguing. His readings are level headed and continually brimming with insights. This book will be near the top of my list of recommendations for anyone who wants to enter the fray.

History, Right Reading, and the Providence of God: Proposition 1

We started out by exploring the problem underneath this series. If you have not read that post, then you should do so before continuing on. The goal intimated was to explore each proposition at the bottom in order to figure out what exactly we want to affirm and deny. This may seem laborious, but it strikes me as rather important. Thus, the first proposition is the subject of this post:

(1) Both the providence of God and the practice of the church (historically and globally) show that historical criticism is not necessary for faithful interpretation.

One of the points made in the original post is that this proposition does not justify every reading. That is, the providence of God and the practice of the church does not mean every interpretation is a faithful one. There still are poor interpretations.

It seems to me that one of the key points is what is meant by “faithful interpretation.” I take it that this is not necessarily a method. It might include a method, but thinking in terms of method strikes me as a pretty modern phenomenon, especially when it comes to figural/theological reading. To put it another way, “faithful interpretation” is not about following certain steps. Certainly there might be steps involved, but that is not the whole of it.

Examples of this faithful interpretation are plentiful, but we can make the point more concrete with a more controversial one. In On the Incarnation, Athanasius writes this:

“He [Jesus] accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those others His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat. Therefore it is also, that He neither endured the death of John, who was beheaded, nor was He sawn asunder, like Isaiah: even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”

It is the last sentence that is of interest. Athanasius reads the undivided body of Jesus as showing that there is no excuse for those who would divide the church, the body of Christ. Of course, this sort of view plays off many Scriptures and has various resonances, but, so far as it goes, it is certainly not made explicit somewhere in Scripture. If we could ask Athanasius whether he thinks such a point is the intention of the original human authors of any of Scripture, I find it doubtful that he would think so. Maybe that is incorrect, but let’s suppose it’s right.

The point, then, is that Athanasius is engaged in a certain way of reading: not a method, more of a practice within a communal tradition. So faithful interpretation is not so much about this or that interpretation, but about a practice within a communal tradition. This does not mean that all readings that flow from there acceptable, only that this is the sense meant within our proposition. This also does not mean that there is some essential part of this practice, although there might be.

With that in mind, what we want to affirm by (1) is that by God’s providence and the witness of the church, historical criticism is not necessary for this practice. There are still bad readings. There are still bad readers. There are still faults within this practice. And so on. But what cannot be admitted is that historical criticism is necessary for this practice. The point is almost banal since this practice has clearly been around well before historical criticism arose. But it is the verbiage used that makes the point significant: faithful interpretation. This practice is right reading.

So what does (1) mean? That God in His providence and through the church’s witness show that historical criticism is not necessary for the way of interpreting Scripture rightly. To bring it back to Athanasius, we need not show that Athanasius’ reading is correct or incorrect by the canons of historical criticism. They might shed light on the issue, but they are not the final authority. For to read Scripture as Scripture is not up to historical criticism’s word, but is based upon it being God’s Word.

History, Right Reading, and the Providence of God: the Problem

Recently I finished reading N. T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. One of his major emphases is the importance of history for right reading. Thus, exegesis is a historical practice, what is needed is pure history, and so on. He devotes a lot of time (and even more space) developing the historical background of Paul, including his thought as a Pharisee, philosophy and religion at the time, etc. To put it plainly: if we want to adjudicate our debates about reading Paul rightly, we simply need to do better history.

Obviously these claims can be a bit overblown and I would want to tailor them in specific ways, but the overall thrust is well and good. I think there is great gain from doing historical work. To give one example that is really helpful for a large segment of Western readers, social-scientific interpretation with its explanation of the cultural milieu like purity, honor, shame, kinship, patronage, and so on clearly helps one see matters in the text that we would often overlook otherwise. So yes, do the historical work and learn how that helps us read God’s Word rightly.

But here I think of a passage from Brad East[1]:

Let me finish my examples with New Testament scholar N.T. Wright. Wright serves as a nice segue because of his views about the tradition, which is our next topic. Wright regularly speaks of the church’s tradition of reading the Bible as misguided at best and distorting at worst, and often rhetorically pitches his own proposals in explicit contradistinction to nearly twenty centuries of Christian scriptural interpretation. Regarding Wright’s historically unprecedented reading of the parable of the prodigal son, for example, Richard Hays wryly implies that, instead of apologizing or accounting for this rupture with the tradition, Wright seems to see it as a vote in favor of his reading. For a church tradition that ‘has seriously and demonstrably distorted the gospels’ by ‘screen[ing] out [Jesus’s] kingdom inauguration’ is an obstacle in the way of responsible interpretation, not an inducement or path to it. Indeed, for this reason Wright can go so far as to call ‘the historical quest for Jesus … a necessary and nonnegotiable aspect of Christian discipleship’. Reading such a claim, I confess I do not know what Wright thinks the church could meaningfully have done with the Gospels prior to the nineteenth century. At times in his corpus one gets the sense that Wright believes that extensive historical-critical knowledge of Second Temple Judaism is a necessary condition for understanding Jesus and Paul – that is, for rightly reading the Gospels and Pauline epistles. Apart from the question of its correctness, such a view has unhappy theological implications. By way of response, then, in support of my counter-claim that historical criticism is neither necessary nor sufficient for faithful Christian interpretation of Scripture, let me now say why Christians, including biblical scholars like Wright, should agree.

First, to pick up a point mentioned briefly in the previous section, and as evidenced in the exaggerated claims of Wright instanced above, the standard view of historical criticism’s indispensability makes nonsense out of almost the entirety of the church’s hermeneutical tradition. The church Fathers, the medievals, the scholastics, the Reformers and the early moderns all fail the exegetical standards of historical criticism. They break every rule, commit every foul, transgress every boundary. Their readings quite literally make no sense on historical-critical grounds. Biblical scholars usually do not trace out the implications of this, if taken to its logical conclusion. The early theological controversies that beset the church occasioned authoritative and consequential decisions regarding matters of great import for Christian faith, such as whether the Old Testament is Scripture; whether God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit; whether Christ is fully God and fully human and so on. Down to this day, these judgements have led Christians the world over to ecumenical agreement. Yet historians and critics often make sport of the Fathers’ reasoning on these matters – a strange thing for Christians to partake in, given the alternative. For if the scriptural and theological reasoning that led to judgements about faith that continue to be confessed and believed today was not only misguided but fundamentally wrongheaded, unjustified, exegetically vacuous – then we might as well throw out the tradition and start with a blank slate. Some people, radical reformers and restorationists among them, have done just that. So it is indeed a live option. But it is important to see clearly that one has to be willing to go all the way in order to stand by the commitment to historical criticism’s necessity.

Second, apart from the theological tradition, consider the consequences for the church and its relationship to God and Scripture. God must have done a very strange thing indeed in providing the church with the Bible, if it could not be read rightly until a group of European intellectual rebels came along 1,700 years later to provide Christians with the necessary tools to read their own Scripture. Moreover, most of the world’s Christians today are not informed by the results of historical criticism; consider the village pastor in Tanzania, or the rural priest in Panama or the underground minister in urban China. Might any of these benefit from the knowledge afforded by historical criticism? Undoubtedly. Yet without it, are they lacking something essential for their ability to read Scripture productively for the sake of their respective flocks? I suspect few would want to answer in the affirmative. My point is that, if it is truly the case that such persons (and their churches) are not lost without historical criticism, then the inflated claims made on its behalf – as, say, the sine qua non of legitimate exegesis of any sort – must in turn be deflated; and that, once one starts to take note of the rhetorical pitch and sweeping nature of such claims, the counterclaim – that it is neither necessary nor sufficient for faithful interpretation – starts to assume a good deal more critical force than one may have initially assumed.

I want to take his point on board too. These do not necessarily form a contradiction (as I did not commit myself to the claim that historical criticism is necessary for faithful interpretation), but there is a lot of tension here.

This tension comes to a head when we look at the on the ground reality for a lot of readers of Scripture. One of the responses, I think, we do not want to give is one that makes every whimsical and unstudied reading acceptable. That is, when reading Scripture (and Scripture alone) more closely would lead to faithful interpretation, then we do not want to use the history of the church and the providence of God to justify the laziness of so much Christian reading.

So here are three broad propositions I want to commit myself to, although they might have to be modified as we explore the question:

(1) Both the providence of God and the practice of the church (historically and globally) show that historical criticism is not necessary for faithful interpretation.
(2) Historical criticism is important and can lead to both insights about the text of Scripture and disconfirmation of certain readings of Scripture.[2]
(3) There are unfaithful interpretations borne out of laziness, vice, and neglect of what God has given us.

So that is the goal of this series. Where it will go, I honestly have no clue right now. A resolution could be discerned immediately or it might lead down many winding roads. It’s this exploration that is the reason for this series.

I believe I will continue by looking at each proposition in turn and attempting to refine what is and is not meant.

[1] Brad East, “The Hermeneutics of Theological Interpretation: Holy Scripture, Biblical Scholarship and Historical Criticism.” International Journal of Systematic Theology, no. 19/1 (2017): 48-50; citations omitted.
[2] Here I want to think more about Brad East’s comment in ibid., 51-52: “For, notwithstanding its many assertions to the contrary, historical criticism does not, hermeneutically, and could not, theologically, have the power of interpretive
disconfirmation – that is, exegetical veto power.” There is footnote here that reads: “Along the lines of the pattern: ‘X scholar says Y text means Z; but that cannot be
because the original context …'” (emphasis original)

The King’s Honors

Esther is a weird book. God is never named. Mordecai and Esther seem to be  faithful Jews, but the way the story unfolds with joining a harem in order to become the new queen doesn’t exactly seem law abiding. But maybe God speaks through Esther too.

Mordecai had spoiled a plot to kill the king. His deed is written down in the Chronicles. One night, the king decides to read the Chronicles and is reminded of this act. What had been done to honor this man, Mordecai? Apparently nothing. Then Mordecai”/ enemy, Hanan comes to visit:

So Haman came in, and the king said to him, ‘What should be done to the man whom the king delights to honor?’ And Haman said to himself, ‘Whom would the king delight to honor more than me?’ And Haman said to the king, ‘For the man whom the king delights to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and the horse that the king has ridden, and on whose head a royal crown is set. And let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials. Let them dress the man whom the king delights to honor, and let them lead him on the horse through the square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.”’ Then the king said to Haman, ‘Hurry; take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to Mordecai the Jew, who sits at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.’ So Haman took the robes and the horse, and he dressed Mordecai and led him through the square of the city, proclaiming before him, ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.’ (Esther 6:6-11, ESV)

Haman thinks he is the one the king will honor but it is actually his enemy, Mordecai. And so Haman must honor Mordecai and proclaim this is what is done for the man the king wants to honor.  If we have ears to hear, being dressed might evoke larger resonances in Scripture:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

“Follow me.” The words that began it all. Follow me, Jesus says, and you Peter will be clothed by another, and crucified. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Here is what it means to be honored by Jesus the King: to be crucified like Him.

God have mercy on our souls.