Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 8

Loss of Biblical Authority

In this lesson, you will explore the topic of the loss of biblical authority in contemporary Christianity. You will learn about the historical developments that have contributed to this loss, such as the Enlightenment, higher criticism, and liberal theology. You will also examine the impact of these developments on the church, including changing views on Scripture, erosion of orthodoxy, and the consequences of compromise. Furthermore, you will gain insight into how to reclaim biblical authority by affirming the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, engaging with culture and criticism, and strengthening the church's theological foundation.
James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 8
Watching Now
Loss of Biblical Authority

NT730-08: Loss of Biblical Authority

I. Introduction to the Loss of Biblical Authority

A. Modern Challenges to Biblical Authority

B. The Influence of Postmodernism

II. Historical Developments Affecting Biblical Authority

A. The Enlightenment

B. Higher Criticism

C. Liberal Theology

III. Impact on Theology and the Church

A. Changing Views on Scripture

B. Erosion of Orthodoxy

C. Compromise and Consequences

IV. Reclaiming Biblical Authority

A. Affirming the Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture

B. Engaging with Culture and Criticism

C. Strengthening the Church's Theological Foundation

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

We’re now going to discuss the significance of the eclipse of Biblical narrative and Hans Frei and the historical-critical method that he used, he applied. And we shall see this with reference to the Psalms.

One of the sources of the loss of transcendence is therefore the loss of Biblical authority. And without the authority of scripture, there can be no Christian faith, so we want to reflect on the history of how this has happened and to understand some of the cross-currents that are flowing around us today. And perhaps if you want to understand this state we’re in, there’s a book by John J. Collins called The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age. You’ll also see that in our first volume on the Psalms that Dr Bruce Waltke and I wrote on Psalms of praise and worship, we have a long section on the development of Biblical historical criticism that we trace through the centuries.

We see with some alarm that this loss of the sense of history and the credibility of any historical faith is now threatening our society with the further loss of Biblical authority. And we know that our denominations themselves are indeed like the melting of the polar ice cap that had a former unity in that their ecclesial authorities are now melting away. I myself when we started Regent was very much concerned about the rationalistic tendencies that we have inherited in evangelical faith and which are themselves a product of the Enlightenment though we may not realise it. The emphasis that we have on such themes as propositional truth is something that we will be referring to now. The whole reaction that I had in the early 1970s to much of what was then evangelical culture was this whole focus on a hypercognitive sense of he text. And so I used to speak of myself as living like a Trojan Horse in the city of systematic Troy.

I remember on one occasion very mischievously at the Trinity Deerfield College, or university it has become, speaking in front of Carl Henry and Walt Kaiser on how systematic does systematic theology have to be. And the people asked me well, what was the response from these two gentlemen? Well, they were asleep and so there was no response. And there was a generation, which is still lingering with us, of having this hypercognitive sense of our faith. It’s itself something which is a betrayal, though they would have been shocked to hear me say this, of the fullness of how we communicate our faith.

In fact, we may say that this shift from the modern to the postmodern is a shift from being hypercognitive to a shift of giving much more space for emotional and spiritual intelligence in the way that we communicate and interpret the authority of scripture. And what I was privileged to come from was my own friendship with Jim Packer, who I knew as a student at Oxford in 1945 and who has remained very systematic ever since. But that’s a personal story as far as our brother is concerned. What I mean by a personal story is that he himself confessed three years ago that a physiatrist told him, Dr Packer, you suffer from a mental handicap. Well, nobody would accuse Dr Packer of a mental handicap, but actually the mental handicap is that his right hemisphere was damaged when he was knocked under a truck when he was five years old. And he’s borne that handicap without knowing it ever since. But the handicap is that he’s not able to express himself emotionally like other people that have no damage to either of our frontal hemispheres.


So last year when he was being interviewed by a journalist, he said I don’t know when he interviewed me whether he thought I was a stiff upper lip English and not expressing my emotions, or whether I was a Stoic or perhaps a very godly man that this why I had no emotion about it. Well, the answer is it’s none of the three, although he is a very godly man. It was his pre-frontal cortex had been damaged. Well, to accuse evangelicals in hypercognitive language all having brain damage would be, of course, a wide generalisation, but it’s the consequence of the Enlightenment thinking without them recognising that that’s what it was. And so one of the sad stories that I also can narrate now about our brother Carl Henry was that at the end of his life he wrote a very sad book, which was on the way that different organisations had cut him down or betrayed him or stabbed him in the back. And I said oh dear, Carl, don’t write that. It doesn’t serve you any good. He was unable to hear me, though his wife was cheering me on with her eyes and saying go for it, go for it. And the reason was that he himself was too hypercognitive about his emotions through a lack of his emotional self.

So one of the things that we think of as being postmodern today is that we have a more comprehensive understanding of how we should use all three aspects of our development, that we should be cognitive in intelligence, that we should be emotional in our intelligence and that we should also be spiritual in our intelligence as well. And so it’s an academic life that often we have this unreal environment of people being too hypercognitive. I don’t know whether you’ve met them, but I’ve met many times very learned scholars who socially are really rather right blithering idiots as far as their social or emotional life is concerned. But the communication of faith, the communication of the authority of scripture, has to be communicated multidimensionally.


Now, the advantage of reading Hans Frei and his work as a Yale scholar, was that he was aware of the multidimensional ways in which we need to protect the authority of scripture. And when I think of him, I think of him as a relatively young man dying, when he was born in 1922, because here I am more than 30 years later, born the same year, still having the privilege to go on thinking about these things. So all the greater responsibility for me as I think of this biographically. Well, Hans Frei is saying, first of all, that to see theology is for many people simply a philosophical discipline. It’s the kind of theology that Immanuel Kant introduced when he said the whole purpose of theology is morality: it’s about living the good life, the moral life and it’s understanding the whole purpose of Christian religion to be moral. And, of course, being moral is not necessarily being ethical. Moral is the generalisation of behaviour; ethics is the personal response to behaviour. And so this generalisation about even behaviour is falsifying. So it’s doubly falsifying if one thinks of the authority of scripture simply being moral. From a different point of view in our own generation, Gordon Kaufman has seen that theology, as he sees it, is a kind of secular existentialism. In other words, it has no significance other than a form of behaviour with other people.

The second category that Hans Frei sees is that it has a general-meaning structure, meaning that you see Christianity fits into your own mindset, so if you’re a modern and you don’t believe in miracles then you can re-edit it and it means that you’re creating general-meaning structures. S-T-R-U is the theme. And general-meaning structures are simply a form of subjectivism. If you’re modern and you don’t believe in miracles and you don’t believe in a lot of other things because of the impact of science, then you try to make the meaning of the Biblical text bearing in mind that you’re not living in the 1st century, you’re living as a sophisticated 21st century thinker.


This process was, of course, intensified by Bultmann in Germany, which he called demythologisation, that was a huge sea change into theology because what he was doing was to indicate that tradition is totally irrelevant and that what is important is our own contemporary point of view. In other words, God is not the authority behind the Bible. It’s I, the modern reader, who’s the authority behind the Bible. There’s a kind of then Copernican Revolution that takes place with Bultmannian New Testament studies. And more subtly, because he was very overt about this, but more subtly there are others like Pannenberg at Munich, who, if you were asking him what is authoritative, what is the bottom line of your critiquing of Scripture? And the response would be it’s contemporary, modern social science that is the bottom line. And it’s very easy for even evangelical theologians to say well, I was trained in social history and therefore it’s from a social-history point of view that I interpret the historicity of the New Testament. That’s the danger of, again, this form of demythologisation.

At the other end of the scale, we have the people who we think of as stalwart evangelicals that I referred to, like Carl Henry—a propositionalist. And his five volume work on theology is all about propositions. Well, sadly, whoever reads those today? They have no life. And this, of course, has been repeated many times in the history of the past.


One of the things that you will find about Puritans in the 17th century is they too have two different traditions, even in their Puritan understanding of scripture. There were those who were influenced by the first founder of the College de France. He was under the patronage of King Francis at the time and actually he’s bogus as an educator because what Pierre Rameau was saying is that truth is like a tree with its trunk, its branches, its sub-branches and you come back to twigs. And so in Emmanuel College in the 17th century where Puritanism was birthed on a significant scale, all those Puritans followed Pierre Rameau in systematising their sermons with three point sermons perhaps, but then the sermon has a major point and a minor point and a still minor point and another minor point, like again the tree and its branches. And it’s all systematising the communication of knowledge. Well, that is not the kind of truth we have, though we’ve often been very devoutly dependent upon that way of thinking and it was reinforced by our evangelical movement that moved in that direction.


I once had a student and I said to him you know, there are two kinds of Puritan writing. There’s the writing of the Emmanuel scholars that’s as dead as a dodo and nobody reads them today. And then there are others that are lively and fresh and it’s almost as if you could have read it because it was written down yesterday. And so Thomas Watson is an example of those who were in this ilk and when you read Thomas Watson, he’s so fresh. Well, my student was smart enough to discover that the springs that he was drinking from were not actually Puritan at all; they were from the spring of Ignatius of Loyola and his spirituality. Well, when the external examiner, who was a stout Puritan, read this with wrath he was ready to fail him. I said how can you fail him when he’s communicating the truth? But he himself had a huge sea change to have to face to see how subtle it is that we use our minds in the wrong kind of way.

And so when we look back now on our fellow evangelicals of just a decade or a few generations ago, it’s tragic to realise that so many really never had the freshness of a personal understanding of the authority of scripture. Well, we can all get so easily challenged by these things. And I remember as I looked into the eyes of Carl Henry’s wife and saying don’t publish this story about the tragedies of your life; have the emotional intelligence to rise above it. He wasn’t able to do so.

But then Hans Frei sees there’s a third category of doing theology and that’s the way it’s done fundamentally in a subjective way, like Schleiermacher in Germany in the mid 18th century. It’s seeing that its subjectivism is expressive of one’s own emotional life that’s dictating the way that we appreciate what is truthful. Now, this is a very subtle approach. It’s a very appealing approach. It’s like Tillich in our generation, or at least a past generation, in Harvard, who, when you really question did he believe in God, when Tillich’s ground of one’s being is simply that one lives with eternal fear, angst, that really the horizon of anxiety was driving him for a quest of the eternal. But again, it’s not fear that drives us to God. 1 John 4:18 expresses it very differently. It’s perfect love that casts out all fear. It’s a total contradiction of the Tillichian approach to theology.


Then there’s the fourth category, where one is much more, as it were, standing outside of one’s self altogether. And certainly with Karl Barth and also even with Cardinal Newman in Ireland, as well as Jonathan Edwards in New England, these theologians that we think of as great champions of faith, and they really are, are those who are allowing God to speak. They’re seeing the uniqueness of God. They’re seeing therefore the uniqueness of His authority. They see the beauty of His excellence because of that. And we know how it was Karl Barth that was a turning point to modern theology in the 20th century.

And so, much more freshly, the enormous appeal then that C.S. Lewis has had in our generation. And I remember once teaching a course jointly with Paul Holmer at Yale, who was immensely influenced by Lewis’s appealing approach and that is that we see Christian theology so personalised in such a way that we recognise that it’s this conjunction of truth that’s experienced in personal life that is the grammar of faith. It has its own inner consistency and yet it’s also something that we can embrace in the depth of our own personal being. And so with that framework, Hans Frei is now looking particularly at those who are in the first and second categories, or indeed the third category. And they’re ones that he sees have brought about this eclipse of Biblical authority.

We mentioned earlier that the whole weakness of Lutheran theology has been the split in referring to doctrine of a two kingdom approach: the kingdom of this world and the Kingdom of God and that you render to the one what is appropriate and you render to the other what’s also appropriate. And so, in a sense, there’s a rivalry between two kingdoms. There’s not a profound sense of the transcendence of the one over the other. Of course, Luther would have been shocked if we had accused him of not having a sense of the transcendence of God, because in his generation and in his context he certainly had. But it’s the consequence of what he gave way on in allowing for the two kingdoms approach that has generated the intensity of the German Enlightenment in theology. It opened the door for all this higher criticism that was to follow.


And so it’s not an accident that it’s the academic theology of Germany that has been most profoundly atheistic. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became quite a commonplace in German academic theology to say that one of the prerequisites for being an academic theologian is that you must be an atheist in order to be objective in studying about God. Can you imagine the extremity of that kind of logic? It’s like saying it’s only when you’re a stranger to me that I can most clearly assess who you are. Rubbish! We find then that unless I’m your friend, how in the world am I going to be able to give any assessment as to who you are. And if you’re not the friend of God, how in any way whatsoever can you claim to being able to be objective about your assessment?

And so in the Western world, fundamentally it has come to a point where there’s strong intolerance. There’s a new kind of liberal fundamentalism that’s taking over that if you are a confessional theologian, you can’t be an academic theologian, that you are, in a sense, losing that objectivity that’s required of you. So the basis for this is this issue of Wissenschaft that really arose when the University of Berlin was founded in 1809. For the founding of Berlin University, when it’s starting tabula rasa, starting everything from scratch with new ideals, the ideals of the Enlightenment, then you have no tradition to worry about. There are no vested interest in the past. There are no founding chairs that stand in your way from proclaiming with a new brush what you want to do. And so the formula that was adopted by the university was what I’ve written down here for you. Being an academic for this new university is the enquiry into the universal rational principles that allow us to organise any or all specific fields of enquiry into internally and mutually coherent, intelligible totalities. This is the realm of secular philosophy. It’s the realm of rational metaphysics.


One of the tragedies that I’m finding today is that one of my former pupils that is now fighting very strongly in Oxford, Markus Bockmuehl, he’s discovering today that there’s a strong movement within the university to abolish all endowed chairs in theology as having no constitutional value for the future of education in Oxford. How can you remove chairs that were endowed constitutionally as the Regius chairs, the chairs of the monarch, when we still have a monarch? But they refuse to acknowledge the faith of those monarchs that created those chairs. That’s the state that we’re in in our present situation. It’s going to be very hard in some of our universities to remain as a Christian voice. Thank God there are other universities like Cambridge that are shining lights as far as the communication of faith. They’re just the opposite.

And so, very sadly, when I was visiting Oxford just two weeks ago, I went into the university church, the church where C.S. Lewis gave his wonderful sermon on immortality and saying if we only were aware of what glorious creatures we’re going to be when we’re transformed into His image and likeness. From that same pulpit today, the rector is an atheist. The only book in the tourist bookshop, with the trinkets and the postcards, is his book and his book is called Belonging without Believing. And it’s a book on the advocacy of atheism being preached from the pulpit of that church. The lights are going out when we have that kind of total disregard for anything of the history of Western civilisation. It’s appalling the extent to which secularisation is taking over. Can you imagine an engineer avowing that he can never be a engineer and that’s his profession? I mean, who could imagine any other profession than that of the Church that would allow somebody to stand up and say he doesn’t believe in God? No accountant would ever say I don’t believe in economics. It’s crazy. But that’s the state to which there is this fanatical attack that we’re seeing today against anything of transcendence in our culture.


Is, then, theology an academic subject? Is it going to be permitted within the university? These contemporaries are saying, like Immanuel Kant and Fichte both said, no, it doesn’t qualify. They would argue that theology may be about morality, but it’s not an academic subject. Yes, says Schleiermacher. In a pragmatic way, he was saying but you know the Church is one of our major institutions, because the state church was still, of course, politically very influential in Schleiermacher’s time. So the argument was yes, we can include it for the sake of pragmatism. And so the consequence that we’re now facing is extraordinary contradictions that we really need to unfold and recognise for what they are. What happens is—and this we don’t realise—if theology disappears as an academic subject, it’ll be to a society that has no longer values. If, in fact, the churches have lost their social status, if their credibility for the wellbeing of a secular society is gone, then why continue with them?


Yesterday, we did render in a Lutheran way to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Now everything belongs to Caesar. Everything is now becoming secularised. And it’s in this awareness that we have to have a massive attack on what is the origin and the significance of the process of secularisation. That’s why we do have a strong voice in a former Oxford professor of social philosophy, now many years at McGill, Charles Taylor’s books on our secular age and what is the whole process of secularisation. It’s a profound analysis of secularism and secularisation as it’s taking place in our contemporary time.

So now as we conclude on this, I want to focus on when did this disintegration begin to take place? Hans Frei believes it began in the 17th century. Yes, there is a beginning then, but I also beg to differ that it began much earlier. It began actually in the Patristic Period, right in the beginning of the formation of theology in the 2nd century. For we have to remember that when the early apologists were beginning to do their writings in defence of the faith of what it meant to be a Christian in the beginning of early Christianity in a pagan culture, that the apologists of the 2nd century, like Justin Martyr or, later, Clement of Alexandria and Origen, that these Christian apologists were already having to defend their understanding of Christian theology. And so the only way that they could attack the Classical culture was by having an understanding of Classical exegesis. And so they started by applying Classical exegesis to the scriptures.


And there were two important principles that we need to recognise. The first is what we call the prosopological approach. This is a very long-winded word, but what prosopological means is from the Greek word prosopon, which is referring to a person. It’s the Greek understanding of personal identity. And so the prosopological approach was the approach of saying who is the speaker and who is he addressing? So the Early Fathers were profoundly interested in this approach as they interpreted the Psalms. Who is the Psalmist and who is he addressing was their theme of approach. Is it David, the Psalmist, or is it Israel as the Psalm composer? Is it corporate or is it singular? Or is it the Lord who is speaking through the Psalmist? So the identification of the speaker became a Classical principle. And so when we read, for example, in The Odyssey about the exploits of Ulysses, who is speaking? Is it sometimes one and sometimes another? Is it a chorus that is communicating this ballad, or is it actually the mouth of Ulysses himself? Or is it some daemon, some other spirit, that is communicating? So this was a first principle that you interpret a text according to its prosopological identification.

The second thing that the early apologists recognised was significant was that you can’t communicate truth on one level, that behind the meaning of the text there are hidden meanings. One has to understand also those hidden meanings. And so the illusion that you have is that beyond the factual or the literal there is the allegorical, that this is allegory. And what we mean by an allegory is what is symbolic. It’s a sign that’s pointing to some other reality beyond it. And so in Greek and Classical exegesis, you could only have allegory because allegory is usually pointing to something that’s mythical, that these gods, who are they? How illusive are they in the mystery or forces behind them? Who knows? We don’t know. So you could say that the atmosphere in which you lived in a Classical world was it was an allegorical atmosphere that you lived in all the time.

And if you remember what we said in our first lecture that the kind of psychic consciousness in Late Antiquity that the early Church encountered was not the kind of individuation that you and I have as a solid entity called me and my things or my thinking. It’s not that I that is so solid. There’s a transparency of the I with the other. And so daemon possession is a very significant feature of Late Antiquity. There was a porosity between the self and the external world that you might call the daemonic world. Not demonic, but D-A-E-M-O-N-I-C: another spirit, which spirit is speaking. And so human emotions were very often interpreted as belonging to some other daemon that was speaking instead of me.


It was in that porous world where there was no clear distinction between I and the other that allegory was also profoundly important. It was a different kind of consciousness from what we have today. And as I’m beginning to understand transcultural communication, we find it in Asia you have the same thing today. Who is the I? It’s usually a social I. It’s the self as the other. And so both in Japan, where you have this strong sense that they have no awareness of who is I, and the concept that the Christian has of the uniqueness that one has is totally foreign to them. One is simply like an atom of water in the ocean. In pantheism, there is no individuation whatsoever.

This collective I then is something that is a barrier even to contemporary Japanese. And I find that it’s much easier to enter into the anthropology of the Asian mind through Japan than through China. The reason is because the Japanese are very good at imitating the other. The Chinese are very indifferent to being anything but Chinese. And so it’s when the Japanese compare their psyche with that of another culture that you have an entry point into understanding Asian culture. Vividly, I remember going to the Tokyo Metro in the centre of Tokyo and there’s no I. If it’s raining, everybody’s under their own umbrella. You just see all these different umbrellas. But there might have been just a crowd with no identity. And on that suicide lane, as they call one of the main electrified rail roads in the station, they put up a wall of mirror so that you see your face for the first time before you throw yourself in suicide on the electrified lane, because you’d never seen your face. And now you have a last appeal: see your face before you destroy yourself. How different that is to us in the Western world.


Well, this is simply to say as a preface that the Early Fathers themselves gradually evolved their thinking to be thinking of themselves as persons in Christ. The Apostle Paul had helped them in his 166 sayings in the New Testament that our identity is in Christ, our identity is not in ourselves, that the uniqueness that God gives to us is a gift that only God Himself can sustain when He gives us that gift. And they saw that. And so a remarkable thing that took place in the 2nd century that we find with Origen is that he recognised that that identity of being in Christ is an identity that grows with our maturity. So he was the first that I’ve come across that ever recognised that even the New Testament books written by the Apostle Paul are books that you discern is this the identity of the young Paul or the mature Paul or the old-age, wise Paul. And what kind of audiences is he addressing when he’s addressing the squabbling children behaving like spoilt children in 1 Corinthians and he himself as a young missionary, still rather a novice in missionary enterprise. And then you compare that with the more mature Paul dealing with more sophisticated audiences that he addresses in Rome that are now having to face their multicultural origins and live in a decent way with each other. Or the mature Paul, the really old-age, wise Paul, that writes that epistle above all epistles to the Colossians and which then is further communicated in the latest of all, the Ephesians epistle, that is so indebted to the Colossian epistle for all its wisdom that we have.


So this is a new way of recognising that when you say I am a Christian, what age are you writing it at? Are you making that claim as a young man, or are you, like the Apostle John, recognising that you’re writing to the children, you’re writing to the young men and you’re writing to the fathers? And I think that theological institutions for the future, or indeed all academic institutions for the future, need to have three levels of appointment, that we need to have post-doctoral fellowships, those who are the children. But they’re infusing us with fresh thinking all the time—highly stimulating. That we have the endowed chairs of those who are mature and have settled in their faith and they’re in danger of having tunnel vision, so they need the youngsters to open their eyes to fresh thinking. Or there are those who are wise, that you might call the emeritus professors and they’ve had their day.

And now what does a theological college require? A theological college for the future requires that we have emeritus professors of neuroscience, of quantum physics, of mathematics—unheard of in previous cultures—because what the injunction that the Christian mandate has is to bring all thoughts captive to Christ. And that the old boundaries of what we thought of as being Church history or the humanities or New Testament studies or Old Testament studies, or you name the disciplines that we used to have, all those boundaries are melting away and we can anticipate in the future of 21st century Christianity that there will be the awareness that all are subject to Christ and that we have Christians in these fields who are recognising all subjects are under the dominion of Christ and that we are worshipping the Lord as much in exploring quantum physics as we are in exploring the history of the Church. That’s the future that I think we can anticipate. So it’s a glorious future. And it all began with this thinking that we have with people like Origen in the 2nd century.


I want to close by examining then how these Early Fathers began to identify the Psalms and how we’ve lost so much of the authority of the Psalter in our own generation today. With this prosopological approach, the Early Fathers were saying where do we hear the voice of Christ; is Christ communicating to us through the Psalter? And the answer is at two levels, yes. I dare to suggest that the first level is how Jesus himself as a small boy growing into manhood, so that when he was at the age of 12, he was able to say don’t you know that I’m about my Father’s business. And the answer is he learnt it through the Psalms. That as a godly young Jew, he would memorise the Psalter and that he quotes the Psalter. And so we have about 200 references to the Psalms in the New Testament and they’re all very significant passages that Jesus himself applies to himself in his passion and death. And so as Jesus was growing up, he identified his own identity and his own ministry through the meditations that he himself had and quoted from the Psalms.

And so when we read Psalm 22, we’re hearing the voice of Jesus speaking in his own passion. Or Psalm 110 is the Psalm that was taken up by the Epistle to the Hebrews as expressing the exultation of Christ in his ascension and glory as the Son of God. And so it was an easy transition for the Early Fathers to adopt this Classical methodology of allegory. Of course, the problem with allegory is it can riotously go wrong. And many of us who may have been brought up in some more primitive kind of Christian tradition, still remember with fondness how our grandparents would allegorise scripture to death. I remember coming out of a session where a very dry and totally unsuitable conference preacher had been speaking about the five stones that David used to kill Goliath. And the wry remark of this elder was and he hit me with one of them and I’m so bored to death as a result. Well, that’s allegory gone riotously wrong. So we can use it in such ignorance. But on the other hand, we as Christian scholars of scripture today have to made a huge distinction between allegory and typology. That is to say, that typology is much more fixing things in a specific way. So the analogy that Paul uses in Galatians 3 between Hagar and Sarah is that he’s using this with the technical understanding of typology rather than a kind of vague allegorical sense.


So allegory is a literary device that may be totally unreal. It may be a device about the gods, about dreams that I’ve had. It’s simply that something is like something else, but what that likeness is is not substantial. But when we speak of typology, we’re dealing with real history. We’re talking about a real event that happened, as indeed happened in the typology of Hagar and Sarah. And so when the Psalms are interpreted as being Christological and referring to Christ, we’re saying that they refer to Christ because Christ is a real person, as David was a real person. David is not a myth. David is a historic reality. And so this is where we have to be very careful in our own language to see the huge difference between allegory and typology.

Now, when all the historicity of the Old Testament is swept away from us, as we were talking about previously, by modern critics and there’s the death of that past of the tradition then, of course, everything becomes allegorical—there’s no typology. And so this is something that we have to bear in mind as we view these things.


One of the people who recognises this very clearly is Jerome, who’s actually living in Bethlehem in his time at the end of the 4th, beginning of the 5th century. He was a Roman scholar who had been trained in the West, well-versed in Latin as well as Greek. But he also knew Hebrew and therefore he has an edge on Augustine, who knows Latin a smattering of Greek, but has no or little Hebrew. And so the rebuke that Jerome makes about Biblical exegesis, especially by Augustine in the Psalms, is that you’re purely being rhetorical about it. You’re using allegory for a rhetorical purpose. Of course, you’re an imaginative preacher and you preach well, but you have to remember that you have to use the text as a Hebrew text and if you don’t have Hebrew, you can’t understand the levels at which the text is implying. So there was a bit of a tension between these two great figures of the early Church, but it’s a tension that remains with us.

The sad thing that Jerome did, however, was his own hubris. He said there was a source of authorities that were locked up to Western scholars of his time because they were in the Hebraica, that is to say, sources that he had access to because of Hebrew. But what he did was to lock up those sources in the Latin Vulgate. And so one of the tragedies of the Western Church has been that it’s been locked up within the Vulgate right up until the end of the 18th century. One of the things that I studied when I was working with Dr Waltke on the Psalms was to discover that there were scarcely 12 leading scholars through all the history of the West, right up until the beginning of the 19th century, that knew Hebrew. And so the consequence of that was this tendency for us to really not understand the Old Testament morality because we didn’t understand the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. It’s one of the problems that we’ve suffered. I’ve never seen anybody write a doctoral thesis on it, but it would be very important for somebody to indicate how the Western Christian mind has been imprisoned by the Vulgate right up until the end of the 18th century. And it’s because of that that I think we became so much more cognitive in our evangelical faith since then.

There were some courageous souls. Richard of Saint Victor was one of the first to be penalised because he was consorting with Hebrew scholars and he was viewed as being Jewish in his interpretation. Another was Calvin, who did attempt to have some knowledge of Hebrew and again was accused by fellow reformers because he was consorting with Jewish scholars in order to understand the Hebrew scriptures. And again, it’s the locking up of the Old Testament that locked up the Psalms as well. And so this is another story that we should recognise and that is that when you’re viewing scripture, you have to realise the multiple levels at which you’re viewing it.


So there was an effort made to overcome the Vulgate imprisonment by medieval scholars and it started with Origen himself because he was a pioneer in moving in this direction. He sees four levels at which we interpret scripture. There’s the literal meaning of the text: what is the text saying? So the literal is the beginning. But then the second approach is the allegorical approach. What’s the allegory that you see in the text? And then the third is but then it’s holy scripture because it’s changing you to become godly, so there’s a moral interpretation of a text. There’s what you might call the tropological level, at which you’re aware that the purpose of it is for you to become a holy person. And then, of course, there’s the eschatological level and how is this pointing to God’s purposes for the fulfilment of all things in Christ. So this fourfold approach of Lectio Divina, of meditating in this kind of way, was one attempt to overcome the bondage of the Vulgate. These are four different circles in which we have to operate in our acceptance of the authority of scripture.


One of the things that I find very significant then is that those who are most mature in Christ have always been saturated in the Psalms. The Psalms are themselves a unique scripture within the scripture. First of all, they’re probably the oldest part of scripture. They’re probably in origin 4,000 years old. Because the first Psalms were echoes of the hymns of the Egyptians and of the Mesopotamians, in other words, going back to that echo that hymnody precedes language. And the expressions of the emotions is the first expression of being a human being. So they’re very, very ancient in their origin. But now, instead of being a hymn to the gods of Egypt or the gods of Mesopotamia, they’re now hymns to the one true God.


This principle of always transforming the primitive into the revealed is a principle which I once had the privilege of experiencing when I was visiting Armenia. And some 60 miles to the north of Yerevan, the capital, is the most ancient shrine of the Armenian Church. And I had the pleasure and the privilege of going with the mentor to the Catholicos. He had himself been the teacher of the present pope of the Armenian Church and he had the sacrifice of saying when he was asked to be the next Catholicos, he said give it to the young man. I’ll be behind him as his shadow and mentor. And so he refrained from taking that leading position in utter selflessness in order that the church could have somebody for a longer tenure for the leadership of the Armenian Church in this day of crisis. Well, you can imagine when I sat across the table from him and our eyes met, I just loved him and I thought what a man of God this is.

Well, he took me to the ancient shrine, the ancient cathedral, and he said watch your steps as you’re going down the steps by the high altar into the subterranean area below. And then at the level of the floor where you had the high altar, he said look, the masonry’s different. And sure enough, there was rubble below that instead of the clean-cut stones of the Armenian foundation and this was the rubble of the Zoroastrian centre of worship. And sure enough, immediately below the high altar you could see traced in the rubble the pottery rim of this great basin that held the holy oil for the worship of the Zoroastrians. And this is what the Christian faith has always done: it’s always been a transfiguration, a transformation, of the primitive below it. You get the same thing with churches in the West, that many, many times over these Christian temples are built on the pagan temple—the subjugation of one of the other. And so you can say the same thing about some of the early Psalms, that in Psalm 8 or in other Psalms you hear the echo. Psalm 19: you hear the echo of an Egyptian past, a Mesopotamian past, some other past, but now it’s with a new voice, it’s with a new understanding, that that Psalm is now being communicated. It’s the voice now of God that’s speaking.

Calvin is a modern man. He no longer has any of the baggage of the medieval tradition even like Luther had. Luther still remains a kind of transitional figure between the Middle Ages and the modern. Calvin is a modern. He’s a Renaissance humanist. And so when he approaches the Psalms, he wants to have the plain meaning of the Psalms. He wants to say that this is clearly what the text means. And now he’s become a bit of a Hebraic scholar so he’s taking the Hebrew text very seriously. Luther couldn’t do that. He didn’t have a Hebrew context. He simply had a smattering of some of the words. But Calvin himself did not realise, and this is why we always have to realise that we are people of our time, that we’re caught up in our culture and we cannot fully recognise that our culture will always imprison us in some way or other, so we always have to be very modest about this. And so when he was seeking the plain meaning of the text, he was already beginning to move away from the original meaning of the text. In what way? Well, because he was wanting now to see how that text articulated the faith as he understood the text to be and the faith to be. Mercifully, he doesn’t get very far, except that it’s very refreshing and when you read his Commentaries, you’re reading a commentary that’s quite alive for us because of our culture in which we live today is alive to us. But what the plain meaning of things is becoming, it’s becoming more factual. It’s becoming more definitive. It’s now the age that we have the dictionary, where you have to define words. And the age of the dictionary is the modern sense of how we use language.


Well, of course, only in hindsight do we see what was happening, but what was happening was that when it comes to Isaac Watts, at the beginning of the 18th century, Isaac Watts has tried to paraphrase the Psalms for a meaning of the beginning of the 18th century. And he finds it very difficult to do and he gives up. So now he’s saying the Psalms really don’t communicate the Gospel with the plain meaning of the Gospel, so we have to improve on the Psalms. What presumption! You can improve on the Psalms. Nonsense! But you see how stupidly innocent we can be of what we’re doing. And so he starts to devise hymns, which are his interpretation of what the Psalms should have said. It doesn’t say it, but now this is what needs to be said. And so that’s how in the 18th century there was a gradual usurpation of the Psalms for hymnody.

Now, of course, they’re wonderful hymns. They’re the hymns of John and Charles Wesley, of John Newton, but there’s one person who resists this with a resounding no, no, no. His name is Romaine. Now, Romaine was a Genevan scholar who took refuge in England and he’s a Hebraic scholar. He was preaching in London as a famous preacher in the middle of the century and he writes a manuscript which has been ignored by us ever since. But I’ve read it and he’s saying it’s a disservice to the Psalms to replace the Psalms with hymnody. And of course, he’s highly unpopular because who’s going to stand up and defy John Wesley with all his flamboyance in the 18th century? And even John Newton is a bit upset about him as well. So these writers are all very miffed because they felt they were being critiqued. And of course, they were, by what he’s doing.


Now why do I mention that? Just simply to indicate that whenever we interfere with what we think is an improvement, it ends up by botching things. So even in our generation, when I think of how Charles Taylor wanted to do a kind of everyman’s modern translation for the scriptures so that every taxi driver in Chicago could read it, or his own children could read it, because that’s why he was doing it, he was doing it with great idealism. But are these paraphrases any improvement? Of course they’re not. I remember at Oxford we had a famous lecture that was given to us by the editor of the revised standard version and somebody said to him afterwards and what do you think of J.B. Phillips’ translation. And with mockery he said J.B. Phillips’ translation? I don’t think I know it. It was his protest to say that a paraphrase is not the text. It’s not a translation.

And of course, my own colleague and friend Eugene Peterson has done with his paraphrase is well, it’s a kind of Norman Rockwell version for Midwest Americans. It suits that culture very well, but is that really what we should be reading? Well, if that’s your first introduction into the scriptures, it probably is very good indeed because it enables you to know that in the Incarnation he became like we are that we should become different, that we should become godly.