Semantics of Biblical Language (Barr)

Docetism is a perennial heresy, and even those who would agree with Barr’s (correct) conclusions, and perhaps even dislike the discipline of biblical theology, would probably find that they, too, practice a form of Docetism.  I’ll put my cards on the table and begin with the conclusion. Barr notes, “Thus the isolation of Hebrew from general linguistics tends to heighten the impression of Hebrew….being quite extraordinarily unique in its structure” (Barr 291).  Barr’s opponents did theology by word-studies based on the assumption that Hebrew was special. I think the danger today, as noted in the quote above, is that we isolate Hebrew from its Ancient Near Eastern culture.

Semantics: study of signification in language (Barr 1).

The problem with the Greek-Hebrew contrast:  there is posited a contrast between “Greek” and “Hebrew” thinking, yet the Biblical Theology guys rightly affirm a unity in the Bible.  So how to get around this?

Nonetheless, Barr isn’t criticising Biblical Theology per se, but only faulty methodologies (6).

Contrast of Greek and Hebrew Thought

Barr’s problem is not with “Hebrew vs Greek thought” per se.  Rather, he is saying you can’t trace the contrast to the languages.

I admit that it is dangerous to speak of a “Greek worldview,” but if we take the leading Greek thinkers (Plotinus, Plato) we will see that they are antithetical to the biblical model.  We have to be careful in not placing the antithesis at the level of word-studies.  You can find anti-biblical, anti-creational elements all over Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.  Explode those.  

Granted, claims about “the Hebrew psychology” are silly, but we don’t need to go there.

Barr’s challenge: are there linguistic phenomena that can be tested to such claims (23)?  Remember, Barr isn’t saying there is no biblical mindset, pace some of his defenders; rather, he is saying you can’t trace that to the magical verbal roots or something.

Dangers in Interpretation

Root word fallacy (101ff): Hebrew words often have three root consonants.  Therefore, the meaning of the word is by finding its root. Barr counters by noting that bread (lhm) and war (mlhama) have the same root.  Therefore, bread and war have the same semantic domain! Indeed, many scholars think etymology is worthless. Do you need a quick refutation of Heidegger? Heidegger says truth (alethia) means unconcealment, since lethos means forgetfulness and the alpha-privative negates that.  It’s the same fallacy.

Illegitimate totality transfer: we all know that a word can have multiple shades of meaning.  Therefore, per this fallacy, any time a word is used, all of the nuances are overloaded into that meaning!

Illegitimate identity transfer: similar to above.  When we read a word’s other meaning into this usage. The Hebrew dabar can mean both word and thing.  And since an event is a thing, every time we read of dabar Yahweh, we can read of the revelation event of Yahweh!

The book has a long chapter on the fallacies in Kittel’s theological dictionary.  I won’t spend time on it simply because no one uses Kittel anymore.

Advertisements

Review: Vos, Redemptive History

Vos, Geerhardus.  Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation.  P&R, 1980.

While a collection of individual essays, in many ways this is a coherent whole of Vos’s larger theology.  We can review the material around several themes: biblical theology, covenant, and eschatology.  While the prose is dense, and Vos does spend quite a bit of time dealing with dead Germans, there are numerous insights of biblical wisdom.

Biblical theology

The first feature of supernatural revelation is its historical progress (7).  God doesn’t communicate the calm light of eternity all at once. God’s self-revelation proceeds in a sequence of words and acts. “By imparting elements of knowledge in a divinely arranged sequence God has pointed out to us the way in which we might gradually grasp and know Him” (7). Revelation is interwoven and conditioned at every point by the redeeming activity of

Eschatology

The two ages are increasingly recognized as answering to two spheres of being which coexist from of old, so that the coming of the new age assumes the character of a revelation and extension of the supernal order of things (28). Contrary to Platonism, where there is an ideal first and a physical (and probably inferior) copy later, Paul’s resurrection thought places the pneumatikon last, not first.

Covenant

His essay on the Covenant in Reformed Theology is worth the price of the book. The covenant idea dominates the work of redemption.  Is this the equivalent of positing a central dogma?  Maybe, but so what if it is?  The question is whether it is correct or not. The work of salvation corresponds to the unfolding of the covenant and proceeds in a covenantal way. The CoR is the pattern for the CoG. Covenantal relation unfolds as the essence of the riches of the ordo. Image of God in man: for the Reformed image is not identified with the moral qualities of the soul.

Nota Bene

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is Vos’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4, which overturns older manuals.  Vos argues this can’t refer to two existing states in the constitution of the Messiah, but rather to two eschatological modes (104). The two prepositional phrases have adverbial force: they describe the mode of the process. The resurrection is a new status of Sonship.

Problem with the older view: it has to restrict σαρξ to the body, because Spirit is already psychologically conceived and thus takes the place of the immaterial element.  Yet, this is the Apollinarian heresy. Secondly, it is compelled to take the κατα clauses in two different senses.

Conclusion:

Like all of Vos’s work, this is difficult, but it repays careful reading.

Clowney review from 11 years ago

I found this in my old email archives.

Jacob Aitken

Sermon Preparation

Prof. Alan Hix

29 April 2005

Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1961), 124pp.

Biographical Information

The late Edmund Clowney is renowned throughout the Presbyterian world for his teaching and church leadership. Serving at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA for several decades, he has written largely on preaching and ecclesiology. His present book, Preaching and Biblical Theology, draws heavily off the theological method of New Testament scholar, Geerhardus Vos. Using such a method—which will be mentioned shortly—he analyzes the various attempts to integrate biblical theology into the life of the church.

Purpose of the Book

While appreciative of the necessary work of systematic theology, Clowney sees the danger in mere doctrinal moralizing and offers the pastor a fresh alternative that is faithful to the scriptures. He seeks to rescue biblical theology from false dichotomies with systematics on one hand, and liberal distortions on the other hand. Clowney also hopes the budding preacher will read the works of Geerhardus Vos.

Organization and Content

In lieu of recent liberal scholarship on biblical theology, Clowney does the necessary groundwork in providing the pastor with a working definition of biblical theology. Recent works had defined biblical theology along the lines of the “History of Religions” school of thinking. Or, the scholar might look at the text along evolutionary lines, thus negating the aspects of redemption and revelation. To have a working definition of biblical theology, Clowney notes, biblical presuppositions are necessary. Following Vos Clowney defines biblical theology as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible” (15). This definition opposes any form of liberalism or neo-orthodoxy that denies prepositional truth. It also presupposes, against evolutionary views of revelation, a unity and objectivity in the Bible.

On the conservative side, some will object that such a definition will bring biblical theology into opposition with time-honored disciplines like systematic theology. Not so, Clowney argues, if the pastor recognizes the tension between the two disciplines as necessary. The tension can be properly understood when the pastor recognizes the distinct nature of both disciplines. Systematic theology approaches the text in a linear fashion, while biblical theology traces out the historical developments within God’s redemptive history. The tension can be eased, although never done away with, if the pastor sees the “sensitivity to the distinctiveness of both the form and the content of revelation in each particular epoch [in biblical theology]” (16).

If one is to write on preaching in the modern age, he must justify the authority of preaching over against the autonomy of the post-Christian West. Clowney then does a brief survey of New Testament scholarship with respect to the proclamation of the text. In each setting Clowney notes the challenges to biblical theology that current fads in New Testament studies would pose. Many liberal scholars saw their hope in the “kerygma” of the early church. The scholars sought to emancipate the kerygma of the New Testament form the myth the Church had placed on the gospels. Such thinking immediately led to the “Quest for the Historical Jesus,” which was more indicative of liberal presuppositions than it was of concern for the truth. Regardless of what shape the challenge might take, all presupposed an impossibility of prepositional revelation. God’s message to man was personal, not prepositional. Clowney refutes: “Personal communion with communication is impossible between human subjects, and it is a strange conception of revelation in Christ which denies to him revelatory communication in making known the Father” (27).

Having a covenantal groundwork in the Old Testament, Clowney applies this to the New Testament to establish authority for biblical theology and preaching. Christ is prophet, priest, and king in the New Testament—the self-interpreted Word of John 1 (51). Besides being the Son of God, his authority is first seen as that of an Old Testament prophet proclaiming the message of God. But not only is he a prophet, he is the fulfillment of prophecy. Furthermore, the apostles are endowed with authority as they, being witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, proclaim the whole counsel of God, which has been fulfilled in Christ. “Their apostolic ministry,” says Clowney, “is the foundation of authority in the New Testament church, for by their witness the word of Christ is given to the church” (59).

The character of preaching, if it is to be driven by biblical theology, must enrich the listeners with the full scope of God’s redemptive work. Such preaching is driven by biblical eschatology. The preacher thus realizes that he is living in the last days, knows Christ’s kingdom has been established, and is driven with an urgent message of the grace of God in the person of Christ. Clowney exults, “The evangel of the prophet Isaiah is that which is fulfilled by Jesus of Nazareth. The year of Jubilee has come, therefore we must proclaim liberty to the captive…the latter days have come, the days in which the Lord is glorified, and he has poured out his Spirit upon men” (67-68).

The only flaw in the book comes in the middle of this otherwise edifying chapter. Clowney notes the mission-orientation of the Church was lost upon the establishment of Constantine. He writes how the church has lost much of her vigor in missions. Clowney: “No doubt this came about through the confusion of church and state which began in the age of Constantine” (69). Now, one can legitimately roast Constantine on a number of issues, but this overlooks the gospel’s explosion on the island of Britain, for example. Granted, much of the Roman and Grecian church lost their power due to state control, but he tries to put too much historical commentary in one paragraph. Clowney ends his chapter on the character of preaching with a challenge to the pastor to balance the ethical and the redemptive element in his preaching.

What does a sermon driven by biblical theology look like? The pastor has two tasks before him. He recognizes the unity of God’s salvation throughout biblical history. He proclaims to his flock that Abraham rejoiced to see Messiah’s day and we too long to feast with the prophets when the kingdom of God is consummated at the end of the ages. He also notes the “epochal structure” of redemptive history. This prevents him from arbitrarily chopping unity of God’s revelation and redemption, as the early dispensationalists did (88). However, the pastor does pay attention to the historical nature of the God’s acts in history. The preacher who would preach along the lines of biblical theology takes note of symbolism and typology in the scriptures. God’s revelation is laden with types and shadows that point to the future redemption accomplished by Christ. “Until the heavenly reality is manifested, the covenant fellowship is mediated through earthly symbols, ‘like in pattern’ to the heavenly archetype (Heb. 9:24, 25)” (100). Clowney guides the bible student in interpreting symbols and types: 1) They symbol is distinct from that which it represents; 2) There is a relation between the symbol and the reality symbolized; 3) The reference of the symbols is divinely established in revelation; 4) The symbols may be classified in various groups (103-108).

Evaluation

Clowney’s book is written along the lines of heroic disorder. His thoughts and guidance to the reader are superb and Clowney himself appears to soar at times. His passion for his subject is not lost on the reader. Nevertheless, there were times where one wondered where he was going with an idea. He did repeat a number of times several of his best ideas and phrases throughout the book, although to the delight of the reader. Writing from what appears to be an amillennialist interpretation of scripture, it is curious as to why he did not address dispensational challenges more often than he did. The book is extremely edifying and relevant to the church at large. It is a book that will stay on the pastor’s desk as he searches the scriptures. Clowney achieves his goal in exciting students to take up the task of biblical theology.

Application

Clowney’s work is utterly relevant to the church and those who long for their sermons to be clothed with the Spirit’s power. What else could enflame preaching but the glorious proclamation of what God has done in Christ in history? Whether he goes into the pulpit or the lectern, Clowney provides both a tonic to the tired preacher and a caution to the theologian who might divorce systematic theology from biblical theology. It provides the bible student with a hermeneutic that sees Christ, properly interpreted, in all scripture, thus avoiding trite moralizing.