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Words from GOD – Words to GOD

Jounal of Theological Interpretation, Vol. 1.3 – Archbishop Uwe AE.Rosenkranz

part 3.

Herod´s Temple on the TempleMount
Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story

Abstract—Using recent claims that scriptural interpretation is a kind of performance, this article examines the “Walk to Emmaus” in Luke 24. There Jesus is presented as the authoritative interpreter of Scripture, both in his verbal performance on the road and his table performance in Emmaus. Luke’s telling of Jesus’ performance on the road both claims the Scriptures (soon to become the Christian OT) for Christ and frees the church for Christological readings. Luke’s contrast between disheartened disciples and risen Christ reveals Jesus as the one who not only knows but is where the scriptural story is going. At table in Emmaus, the risen Jesus prompts their recognition by performance. He performs his identity by two enacted resemblances to prior meals: taking the role of host and a characteristic fourfold action that is recognizably similar to the feeding of the 5,000 and the Last Supper. Just as those prior meals were themselves performances of Scripture, both recalling and anticipating God’s redemption, so Jesus’ breaking of bread in Emmaus performs Scripture fulfilled in his death and resurrection. Refocusing on Jesus’ table performance allows a clear connection between those meals, the breaking of bread in Acts, and the later Eucharist, while avoiding anachronistic claims about early Christian practice or Lukan intentionality. Finally, the article displays how “text talk” and table performance enable the two disciples to improvise their own faithful performance of Scripture in Jerusalem.

Key Words—performance, Emmaus, Eucharist, breaking bread, improvisation, divine plan, narrative, resurrection, Luke 24

In his seminal essay “Performing the Scriptures,” Nicholas Lash developed the provocative thesis that interpreting the Christian Bible is more like artistic performance than analysis of a novel. Lash noted that, for many kinds of texts, some sort of activity serves as “the fundamental form of their interpretation.” For example, a map produces one kind of activity, reading a poem another. Beethoven’s scores or the text of King Lear “deliver their meaning in so far as they are ‘brought into play’ through interpretive performance.” Just so, suggested Lash, the Bible is a text meant to be performed by Christians. While not denying that biblical commentaries or JTI articles are forms of interpretation, Lash was claiming that they are not the primary form; the heart of scriptural interpretation is the Christian life itself.
A number of scholars have followed Lash’s lead in thinking about biblical interpretation as a kind of performance, most notably N. T. Wright, Frances Young, and Samuel Wells. As a whole, they further Lash’s claim that theological interpretation of Scripture is an ecclesial performance. But because they focus on the relation of our present performance to the biblical text, they underplay the performance of Scripture in the text’s own story—especially by Jesus. The Gospel writers present Jesus as one who performs the Scriptures of Israel throughout his life.5
This article will display how Jesus performs Scripture in Luke 24, thereby inviting further performances by his church. In the “text talk” that opens Scripture on the road, Jesus articulates his passion performance as a faithful rendition of the biblical text and presents his resurrected flesh as the hoped-for end of the scriptural story. In the “table act” that opens eyes in the house, Jesus’ performance enables perception as it enacts resemblance. As a result, his disciples perform their own theological interpretation of Scripture.

Because the Bible is a text that is oriented toward performance, talk about what it means is necessary but insufficient. Though Jesus does offer Cleopas and the other disciple a theological reading “beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (24:27), Jesus’ words about Scripture are neither the whole of his interpretation nor its heart. Jesus’ text talk on the road leads to his table act in the house. When it comes to Scripture, words cannot count as the full interpretation of the text, even when the words are Jesus’ own.
Nevertheless, an interpreter’s words do count. In making his move to reading Scripture as performance, Lash does not intend to eclipse word with deed. Scholarly work has a proper (though secondary) relationship with the primary interpretive performance. The Shakespeare scholar can marvelously enrich our understanding of a play, without her work counting as the primary interpretation. Rather, her reading shapes the play’s performance and reception. Just so, the words of any interpreter of Scripture—whether Jesus’ words or a modern exegete’s—do make a difference to our ability to perceive or enact a faithful performance of the biblical text.
Jesus’ words on the road to Emmaus are text talk, words that interpret the pattern and point of Scripture. Jesus’ words are occasioned by the alternate interpretation of Cleopas and the other disciple. Their journey home is a primary performance of Scripture; both affectively in their sorrow (24:17) and bodily in their journey “from Jerusalem” (24:13), they perform their newly formed conviction that Jesus is not “the one to redeem Israel” (24:21). Because Jesus “was a prophet mighty in deed and word” (24:19), they had hoped that in him God’s promise was being fulfilled. But they could not imagine Jesus’ crucifixion as a faithful performance of his prophetic ministry and of Israel’s messianic hopes. So their problem was larger than their inability to recognize this stranger as their risen Lord. It was also their inability to recognize Jesus’ passion as a faithful performance of “Moses and all the prophets” (24:27). In the end, Jesus’ performance on the cross seemed to them a stranger to Scripture rather than its faithful embodiment.
In this situation, Jesus’ interpretive words are crucial. To see the fidelity of Jesus’ performance at the cross, the two disciples require a different understanding of the overall shape of the scriptural story. Who better to give it than Jesus? As Luke has told the story, Jesus is the theological interpreter of Scripture, one whose command of sacred text was revealed at age twelve (2:41–51, esp. v. 47), whose interpretation overpowered the devil in the wilderness (4:1–13), whose embodiment of Scripture was named at the inauguration of his ministry (4:17–21). Moreover, in ch. 24, Luke twice refers to Jesus’ precrucifixion predictions of suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection “on the third day.” First, angels direct the women to remember Jesus’ words about suffering, death, and resurrection (24:6–7; the remembered words are Jesus’ third passion prediction [18:31], which explicitly linked his fate to “everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets”). Later, Jesus recalls his words to the eleven and their companions, directly linking what he predicted with the fulfillment of Scripture (24:44, 46–47). Things have happened as Jesus said they would, verifying Jesus’ status as truthful interpreter. Jesus’ status as truthful interpreter was vindicated by God when God raised him from the dead. It is this Jesus, validated by events and vindicated by resurrection, who interprets Scripture on the road.
The crux of Jesus’ interpretation is that his passion was the necessary performance of “all that the prophets have declared” (24:25). Though the disciples had not thought so, Jesus is quite clear that “all these things that had happened” (24:14; cf. 24:18) were a faithful performance of Scripture. In his passion, death, and resurrection, he conformed to the scriptural pattern of righteous suffering and divine vindication. Thereby, he enacted the divine plan as God had revealed it in Scripture, moving the drama forward toward its conclusion. Having read and understood the script, penetrated to its underlying theme or pattern, and discerned his unique role in the drama, he then performed it with absolute fidelity. Thus Jesus’ central interpretive performance is not this text talk on the road, but “these things”—his passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus himself, in his performance (his life, death, and resurrection), is not only the primary interpreter of Scripture; he is its primary interpretation.9
As Jesus talks with them on the road, their implicit “no” to Jesus’ question, “Was it not necessary?” gives way to “yes” (24:27, 32). Though, finally, more than Jesus’ words are needed to overcome their failure to perceive the faithful fit between Jesus’ performance and the scriptural text, certainly no less is needed. Jesus’ interpretive words matter. Yet here we encounter a wonderful lacuna in the text, an example of what N. T. Wright has called “the strange silence of the Bible in the [resurrection] stories.” Wright uses this phrase to characterize a remarkable shift that occurs in all four Gospels from an almost relentless use of “scriptural quotation, allusion, reference and echo” in telling the story of Jesus, to an absolute absence of quotation, particular reference, or obvious allusion or echo in the accounts of his resurrection. This silence is all the more remarkable in the Emmaus story, precisely because of its explicit insistence that Jesus interprets Scripture for the two disciples in order to reconcile his crucifixion and resurrection with the scriptural story (24:26; cf. 24:46–49). Yet in v. 27 Luke tells us that Jesus spoke interpretive words that opened the Scriptures but does not tell us what those words were. In a delicious irony, the two disciples on the road cannot see who Jesus is but do hear what he says. We readers, on the other hand, “see” who he is, but we cannot hear what he says.
This silence does two things. First, it draws those who “hear” it into the interpretive task. Second, it provides those who subsequently interpret “all the Scriptures” (24:27), whether then or now, with a comprehensive claim that Scripture as a whole is about Jesus (expanding the sense of “everything written about me” in v. 44) and a remarkable freedom to open every text—even and especially OT texts—to “the things about Jesus of Nazareth” (24:19; cf. 24:27). Coming to understand the script in this way is a necessary precondition to performing it thus. In Luke-Acts, no one embodies this understanding or offers a performance of this sort better than Stephen (Acts 6:8–8:1). The most obvious parallels between Stephen and Jesus are their Spirit fullness (compare Luke 4:1, 14 and Acts 6:8) and their dying forgiveness (compare the disputed Luke 23:34 with Acts 7:60). The most important parallel, however, is the way Stephen’s story performs a nonidentical repetition of Jesus’ movement from suffering to glory, enacting the same scriptural pattern that Jesus proclaimed and performed. Stephen’s performance is positioned by the covenant story he tells of persecuted prophets and murdered messiah (7:2–53), thereby articulating the same pattern that Jesus identifies in Luke 24. Thus Stephen acts within the scriptural script and expounds all Scripture and (unlike Jesus) particular Scriptures as ordered to fulfillment in Jesus.

If the performance metaphor guides us in the significance of interpretive words, it also suggests the importance of narrative skills. Though Lash and others who champion the metaphor of performance draw analogies with both music and drama, we would do well in our reading of the Emmaus story to turn “from musical to theatrical performance.” A Christian performance of Scripture is more like staging a play than playing a song, precisely because Scripture has a narrative form and tells a single story.17 The Bible taken as a whole is a dramatic rendering of God’s story from beginning to end. The story it tells can be understood as something like a grand, reality-encompassing drama.
Perhaps the clearest articulation of the overall plot of this drama is given by Samuel Wells in his recent book Improvisation. There Wells construes the biblical drama as a five-act play: Creation, Israel, Christ, Church, and Consummation. As Wells lays it out, we Christians find ourselves living in the fourth act, confident that the drama will end as it should (fifth act) because Jesus’ story ended as it did, with life conquering death (third act). On this construal, the third act plays the crucial role in ordering the plot, for it determines how the story continues, where it goes from here. Although the drama may end with surprises, there will be no shocks, writes Wells, “for the God who will then be fully revealed will not be different in character from the God who revealed himself in Act Three.”
Jesus and his contemporaries lived in that third act, though faithful Jews in Jesus’ day were more likely to believe themselves living toward the end of the second of three acts (creation, covenant, consummation), hoping for the third act’s arrival—Israel’s redemption; and hoping for the character who would bring it—Israel’s redeemer. Then as now, competent performance of the biblical drama required narrative skills of character and plot, of knowing whose story is being told and especially how it goes on. We see precisely these matters of character and plot being negotiated in Luke 24, where the dramatic tension resides in rightly identifying the character of Jesus as God’s Messiah and in rightly narrating Jesus’ story as God’s story. Luke highlights this by the ironic tension in the Emmaus story over who can best tell Jesus’ story, the two disciples or their risen Lord.
As they walked toward Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion were retelling the story of “all these things that had happened” (24:14), sorrowful that Jesus’ story had not ended with the redemption they expected (24:21). Their expectation of where the plot would go had been rooted in their evaluation of who Jesus was—God’s mighty prophet. His condemnation and crucifixion could not square with their sense of Messiah’s mission and destiny. Though engaged with the right story, they understood it (24:21), told it (24:14), and lived it (24:13–29) in the wrong direction. They did not recognize Jesus’ end as a proper performance of Scripture, let alone as the culmination of the scriptural story, precisely because this was not, in their view, where the story goes. Though they had heard rumors of resurrection, they lacked the narrative competence to perceive that Jesus’ story is continuing—even when he walks and talks with them.
Jesus, on the other hand, has a true sense of Scripture’s plot and his own place in it. It was Jesus who saw the story’s pattern to this point, who embodied its demand and direction, who carried it forward to its rightful end. He “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51), he envisioned the outcome (9:21–27, 43–45; 18:31–34), he entered the city (19:29ff.), he engaged the powers (19:45–48), he endured the suffering (22:39–23:46). This is the path for Israel’s redeemer, and his suffering death the pattern. This is the force of Jesus’ claims about fulfilling the necessity of Messiah’s suffering (24:26; cf. 24:46) and about the necessary fulfillment of “everything written about me” (24:44).
But his suffering and death were not what the story goes to, only what it goes through. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus claims that he has carried the scriptural story toward its divinely appointed end because, risen from the dead, he has now entered into glory (24:26). In short, Jesus does not just know where the story goes, does not just take the story in its proper direction; he is where the story goes. Jesus’ risen flesh is the body Scripture intends, the redemption toward which all creation goes. Andy Johnson puts it this way: “Since Luke portrays God reclaiming for his reign the entirety of Jesus’ fleshly body, one could say that the body of the risen Lord not only functions as the embodiment of the proclamation that God reigns, but also reveals a microcosmic glimpse of the consummation of that coming reign for the entirety of the cosmos.”24 The contrast between the two disciples and Jesus is thus not only noetic but ontic: he not only knows but is what they are meant to learn and become.
So in one sense, the story has ended as the disciples had hoped. On Easter morning, the redemption of Israel dawned in resurrection and glory. Yet this is not the final act of the play. It is the guarantee that the play is a divine comedy, that God’s will for life will finally conquer death, that forgiveness will be proclaimed to all nations (24:47). But though the ending has already been decided by his resurrection, this is not the end. As Jesus opens their minds to Scripture and Scripture to them, God’s drama itself now opens toward a hopeful future. There are places to go (making proclamation in Jesus’ name “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” [24:47]) and promises yet to be kept (“I am sending upon you what my Father promised” [24:49]). They are called forward into the fourth act. They are claimed as witnesses (24:48) and commissioned for further performance (Acts 1:8). They are called to a continued performance of the scriptural story. The fidelity of this performance is premised on the narrative skill of knowing the “who and what” of the story, of understanding its plot and their own role in it.

Robert Tannehill suggests that all of Luke 24 is about the process of “changing the disciples’ perceptions.” The Emmaus disciples had a twofold perceptional problem. They recognized neither the true thrust of all the Scriptures nor the true identity of their risen Lord. The twofold character of their misperception is signaled by Luke’s use of the same word for the opening of Scripture that occurs on the road (24:32), their opened eyes in the house (24:31), and the connection of these two moments in their own narration of the encounter (24:35). Another signal of their dual misperception is that Luke uses the same phrase, kai egeneto “and it happened,” to begin the narration of the text talk (24:15) and of the table act (24:30). These two disciples are representative of the perceptional failure of all Jesus’ disciples, something that has been signaled from the second passion prediction (9:45).
Jesus’ interpretation on the road opens the Scriptures for his two disciples (24:27), but though their hearts burn, their eyes do not yet see with whom they walk. A second opening must occur, an opening of eyes to recognize this as Jesus himself, the crucified one now risen. Luke only describes the effect of Jesus’ interpretation on the road after and in concert with his description of the effect of Jesus’ performance at the table. Luke narrates that their eyes were opened (24:31), and then they say that Jesus opened the Scriptures (24:32). This second recognition is integrally related to the first, inasmuch as his interpretation of Scripture “opens” the text to a crucified, risen Messiah, and his revelation of resurrection requires Scripture thus opened.28 In other words, the two openings are mutually informing. The exegesis enables the epiphany, and the epiphany enables the full understanding of the exegesis. Though presented seriatim, as if the first leads to the second, in fact the fullness of perception comes together in and through Jesus’ performance of the breaking of the bread.
It is not surprising that these disciples should experience a perceptional breakthrough in Jesus’ table performance. Performance has significant ability to spark perception or give interpretive insight. Because a musical score or a dramatic script is meant to “become an event,” our fullest perception of it will never be through viewing the musical marks on paper or even hearing the dramatic words read aloud. The fullness of perception requires the thing itself—the performance. So musicians and actors uncover shades of meaning through rehearsal, and audiences discover hidden depths in live performances. Our deepest insights come in and through performance.
Like music and drama, Scripture has its primary interpretation in performance. First, as with a dramatic script, so also Scripture intends and expects enactment; its final term is not meaning but meaningful action, not insight but visible performance by the people of God. Second, as with a dramatic performance, so also with Scripture does the fullness of perception occur “within our performance of it.”31 We see precisely this in Luke 24. Cleopas and the other disciple participate in Jesus’ performance of Scripture at table in Emmaus, and only thereby do they come to a full perception of who Jesus is and of what the Scriptures say.

How and why did they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread? Again, the performance analogy helps us. In drama, we sometimes recognize a character by way of visual cues such as costumes, makeup, or even the casting of actors who “look the part.” Yet most of us have suffered through a performance in which an actor looked the part but could not “pull it off.” That is to say, though the actor visibly resembled the character being depicted, his performance did not elicit our recognition. Contrawise, most of us have also experienced a performance that “rang true” in spite of a visual divergence between the actor and the character she portrayed. These experiences suggest that, in dramatic performance, genuine recognition is a matter of seeing the pattern of action in the actor’s performance rather than of seeing the visible characteristics of the actor’s physical person. The resemblance is enacted rather than iconic.
This is germane to imagining the two disciples’ recognizing Jesus in their home: the catalyst is not how Jesus looks but what he does. Perceiving resurrection by identifying marks on the surface of Jesus’ body seems to be at play in the story of Thomas in John’s Gospel (John 20:27–28), but not here. In the Emmaus story, it is Jesus’ performance that provokes recognition; that is, (1) he takes the host’s role, and (2) he reenacts key prior meals by a characteristic pattern of action. Jesus’ performance reveals his identity.
First, Jesus identifies himself by taking the role of host. Throughout Luke’s account, Jesus makes a habit of taking the role of host at meals, even (or perhaps especially) when he is an invited guest. As he has performed this sort of role reversal in the past, so again in the home at Emmaus Jesus shifts role from guest to host. Knowing Jesus and knowing that this is Jesus, we are not surprised that he does this. But not knowing who the stranger is, the two disciples are participating in a performance pregnant with perceptive possibilities. Will their eyes be opened by what he does to see who he is? Yes, but their recognition does not hang on the action of role reversal alone, for as the host, Jesus’ actions are “in character”—he does again what he has characteristically done.
Second, Jesus reenacts prior meals through characteristic action: he takes bread, blesses, breaks, and gives it to them. Jesus had performed these same four actions with bread and fish when feeding the 5,000 (9:16), and virtually the same four with the bread at the Last Supper (22:19, where the second action is eucharisteō rather than eulogeō). Interpreters have spent far too much ink trying to play one of these earlier meals against the other in relation to the Emmaus meal. Thinking dramatically, we see that a pattern of action is performed by Jesus at Emmaus that is recognizably similar to Jesus’ prior meal performances. At Emmaus he declares who he is by doing what he always does; his table performance identifies him. As Jesus, the guest-become-host, performs again the familiar fourfold action, the two disciples’ eyes are opened to see who he really is—Jesus risen from the dead.
By performing both role reversal and meal pattern, Jesus enables their recognition. Attending to performance may help cut the Gordian knot surrounding discussions of the “divine passive” in Luke 24. There are equally strong opinions that the disciples do not and then do recognize Jesus because of divine intervention on the one hand, or because of their finitude or sinfulness on the other hand. For the most part, discussions of this sort devolve into contrasts between the unstated or understated action of God and the actions of the two disciples. What is eclipsed in this line of argument is the profound, proactive agency of Jesus in Luke 24. After two chapters in which Jesus’ agency is inexorably though willingly extinguished, Luke 24 confronts us with Christ on the move, the active agent of his (and God’s) will, the proactive revealer of his (and God’s) identity. Interpretive discussion that focuses narrowly on two passive verbs with the question whether we should infer God’s agency there too easily obscures the abundance of active verbs with Jesus as their subject. Luke 24 is about Jesus alive and therefore profoundly active. The primary locus for our inference about God’s will, identity, and agency in Luke 24 is not therefore in passive verbal constructions, but in the active performance of the risen Lord.

There are two further points to be made about Jesus’ performance in breaking bread. First, Jesus’ meals prior to Emmaus were performances of Scripture, enacted resemblances to script(ur)ed action. The feeding of the multitude was a performance that both recalled “the miraculous manna which fed Israel in its wilderness wanderings (see Exod 16:4–36)” and anticipated the eschatological promise of messianic feasting.35 The Last Supper was a performance of Passover, Israel’s quintessential performance of its own Scriptures, now invested with even richer resonances by Jesus’ interpretive words. What Jesus said in his performance as host of the Passover was that the meal now signified not just God’s purpose accomplished in the Exodus but also God’s purpose being realized in Jesus’ own imminent, self-giving death. As with the feeding of the multitude, so here as well the meal performs a recollection of Scripture fulfilled and an anticipation of Scripture to be fulfilled—in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and in the ongoing mission and table fellowship of his church. If both meals were performances of Scripture, then so is this one at Emmaus, precisely because by way of patterned action it connects with their signifying force. Jesus’ table act in Emmaus is a performance of Scripture precisely because it re-presents earlier meals in which he performed Scripture.
Second, if Jesus performs an enacted resemblance of his ministry of table fellowship in Emmaus, so will his disciples in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). When after Pentecost they characteristically break bread (Acts 2:42, 47), their performance resembles what Jesus did at Emmaus, the Upper Room, and Bethsaida. But their performance at table signifies not just prior meals with Jesus and the continuation of fellowship with him38 but also what these meals themselves signified—the accomplishment and anticipation of God’s redeeming purposes as scripted in Scripture. And because the Emmaus meal is a performance that reveals the truth that God’s redeeming purposes as scripted in Scripture have been uniquely fulfilled in Jesus crucified and risen, so the disciples’ subsequent breaking of bread could never signify anything less than this accomplishment of God’s will in Jesus. Their breaking bread cannot be less than a performed resemblance of the risen Lord’s performance of his fulfillment of the divine plan. By enacting the same pattern of action, it renders the same theological judgment: God has raised Jesus in accordance with Scriptures.
I intentionally echo the Nicene Creed here because I want to call attention to the parallel between my claim and the claim advanced by David Yeago. In a seminal article, Yeago argues that Nicene conceptuality, while differing from NT concepts, renders in its own way the same “pattern of judgments” about Jesus as does the NT. I am suggesting that, beneath differences of conceptuality, wording, and form, there is an identity of action between Jesus’ table fellowship (Luke), the early church’s breaking of bread (Acts), and the subsequent development of Eucharist. And this identity of action carries the significance of at least a putative agreement in judgment about the identity of Jesus and the activity of God.
Understood along these lines, the Emmaus meal has a clear connection with the later Christian Eucharist, not because Luke has coded Eucharist into his script, but because our Eucharist is a present performance that resembles Jesus’ prior meal performances—including the meal at Emmaus. This concentration on performance frees us from captivity to remembrance as a mere cognitive engagement either with the institution of the meal in the Upper Room or with particular understandings of the presence and agency of Jesus in our present meal. We are freed to see the resemblance of activity between our breaking bread in Jesus’ name and his breaking bread throughout Luke, a resemblance that connotes our ongoing fellowship with Jesus as messianic host, our ongoing performance as the nonidentical repetition of his performance of Scripture, and our obedient imitation in breaking bread now signifying his crucifixion and resurrection. And as with the two disciples, so for us, participating in the performance is requisite for full perception.

There is a final performative dimension to the Emmaus story, this one located in the two disciples’ response to Jesus. No sooner do they recognize Jesus and remark on his opening the Scriptures than he disappears and they return to Jerusalem to bear witness (24:31–33). Their action marks both a fitting end to the Emmaus episode and an appropriate beginning to Jesus’ next resurrection performance. We can see this by attending to the textual and the spatial dimensions of Luke’s story.
Textually, delineating 24:13–35 as a distinct “walk to Emmaus” is common but not uncomplicated. The catch is not where the drama begins, given the temporal reference at the outset, “on that same day” (v. 13). But to end the pericope by separating v. 35 from v. 36 is more problematic, given the participial “while they were speaking” (v. 36) that locates the time of Jesus’ third resurrection appearance. Therefore, we could see the walk to Emmaus as a two-part drama: scene one happening “on the road” (vv. 13–27) and scene two transpiring “at the table” (vv. 28–32). Read this way, the two disciples’ performance occurs in a new resurrection tableaux that begins “that same hour” with their return to Jerusalem (v. 33) and the sharing of resurrection claims (v. 34). Yet the point of Jesus’ performance is fully realized neither in their experience of opened eyes and burning hearts nor in their transformed understanding of the scriptural drama. Jesus’ performance is meant to issue in their shared life of witness, their proclaiming forgiveness to all nations in Jesus’ name (24:47–48). Though a clear articulation of this purpose lies in their future, their participation in Jesus’ performance already enables them to sense how the drama should go on. They improvise the next step in the drama, spontaneously returning to Jerusalem.
Geographically, returning to Jerusalem is where the story should go, in part, because leaving Jerusalem had enacted their dislocation in the drama’s plot. Their failure rightly to understand the direction of God’s story was signaled by their physical progress away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus—a movement away from Jerusalem as the place where God’s true ends are realized and where their true witness is to begin. When Jesus opens their hearts to perceive the congruity between the story’s plot and his performance—that prophetic pattern of faithful suffering leading to eschatological glory—and then opens their eyes to see the reality of his risen flesh as the story’s true end, their rediscovery of their place in the story is signaled to us by their immediate return to Jerusalem to bear witness. Jesus’ reconfiguration of the story to end in his resurrected life rather than their disappointed hopes has opened “new possibilities for them to reconfigure their lives,”43 something they begin immediately by returning to the community of disciples in Jerusalem. Their performance bears witness to the remarkable change wrought by their encounter with Jesus and initiates a subsequent encounter with him by the entire community.
Their transformation and improvisation is meant to be ours as well, a Lukan invitation to recognize Jesus as Scripture’s true performer, to find our place in his ongoing story, to break bread as a continuing performance of his scriptural meals, and to bear improvised witness that creation’s true end is the risen body of Jesus Christ. What Jesus did with their Emmaus witness in his risen flesh in Jerusalem on the first Easter he continues to do in his outpoured Spirit in every place and time, perhaps even in ours—if we are willing to go all the way from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back again—that is, to make the performative journey from text to table to telling.


A “Seamless Garment” Approach to Biblical Interpretation?

Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic / London: SPCK, 2005. Pp. 896. ISBN 0-8010-2694-6. $54.99.

The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, like this journal, gives voice to a growing sentiment among biblical scholars and theologians alike: a desire to explore and articulate ways of biblical interpretation that attend primarily to the biblical text as theological text, as a vehicle of divine revelation and address. To many outside the theological guild but inside the church (and perhaps even outside it), this focus will seem altogether self-evident and natural. To those of us inside the guild, after years of exposure to nontheological interpretation, we know better, and we are aware of the challenges before us as we attempt to move forward in the appropriately theological task of biblical interpretation.
Thus this dictionary is both overdue and timely, and we must thank the publishers, contributors, and editors. I have been happy to recommend it to colleagues and students. Its contributors include some of the best theologians and theological interpreters of Scripture in the world, such as Ellen Charry, Joel Green, Larry Hurtado, Howard Marshall, Alister McGrath, R. R. Reno, Christopher Rowland, Christopher Seitz, Anthony Thiselton, Geoffrey Wainwright, and N. T. Wright. The dictionary treats in one place the kinds of topics one would normally find in at least three different places: a traditional Bible dictionary, a general theological dictionary, and a handbook of biblical interpretation. Moreover, nearly every article—whether biblical, theological, or hermeneutical—seems to be governed by a desire on the part of the author to say something more theological and/or more biblical than one normally finds in traditional dictionaries and handbooks. This dictionary should therefore become a standard reference work for both novice and veteran interpreters of Scripture.
Thus the comments I make in this review essay should be taken less as criticisms of the project than as concerns, suggestions, and questions for all of us who are committed to theological interpretation. After this introductory section, this essay is divided into three major parts: the first more general, the second more specific to my own field of NT studies, and the third more speculative about some directions to which this dictionary may be pointing us—perhaps unknowingly. I write of course from a particular perspective, so I end this introduction by locating myself as a reviewer in order to contextualize the review.
Despite my general abhorrence of labels, I consider myself a progressive evangelical who is part of a “mainline” denomination (The United Methodist Church). I am employed by America’s oldest Roman Catholic Seminary (founded in 1791), where I teach in both of its academic divisions, the Catholic seminary itself and the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, of which I am also Dean. About one-fourth of our Catholic seminarians are international students. For instance, in my recent seminar called “Romans as Christian Theology,” of 11 students, there were 2 priests from Africa and a young student from India. Their perspectives greatly enhanced my own and the class’s reading of Romans. Moreover, in our Ecumenical Institute of Theology, two-thirds of the students are women, and one-third African-American. Catholics, Protestants, the Orthodox, and others read Scripture and do theology together. Their diverse voices enhance one another and the faculty. To me, therefore, the theological interpretation of Scripture is an inherently ecumenical and multicultural practice.

It may be useful to begin with a simple question: What are the objectives of this dictionary? In a helpful six-page introduction, General Editor Kevin Vanhoozer describes the vision for the dictionary as “a resource that combines an interest in the academic study of the Bible with a passionate commitment to making this scholarship of use to the church” (19). He then provides (19–23) a description of what theological interpretation is not (for example, the imposition of a confessional system onto the biblical text), why it is needed (to overcome the gap between exegesis and theology and the postmodern tendency to turn exegesis into ideology), and what it is: the “joint responsibility of all theological disciplines and of the whole people of God” to interpret Scripture “with a governing interest in God” and a “broad ecclesial concern” (21–22). These three shared premises come to expression in various ways, as Vanhoozer briefly but admirably demonstrates in the introduction. In sum, Vanhoover says, theological interpretation is “reading to know God,” the God revealed in Israel and Jesus (24).
Vanhoozer notes that the dictionary seeks to achieve its goal through four basic kinds of articles: (1) articles on texts (biblical books), which emphasize their theological message and contribution to Christian theology; (2) articles on hermeneutics, including historical, philosophical, and literary approaches and their “suitability” for theological interpretation; (3) specific interpreters and interpretive communities; and (4) doctrines and themes that arise from and/or impact biblical interpretation (23–24). There are 170 contributors and nearly 300 articles, with approximately 100 on biblical texts and related topics, 70 on hermeneutics and interpretive methods, 77 on doctrines and themes, and 37 on specific interpreters and communities. There is a topical index as well as a Scripture index and a “List of Articles by Category.”
The articles in the dictionary are nearly all well researched, well written, and highly instructive. Many will give readers insights that they need for theological interpretation but perhaps do not know they need, supplementing the more narrowly historical and literary perspectives present in traditional Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and introductory texts on the Bible and its interpretation. Because space does not permit a review of every aspect of the dictionary, it will have to suffice to mention some of the most outstanding contributions (apart from those on the biblical texts): “Canon” and “Karl Barth” by John Webster; “Canonical Approach” by Christopher Seitz; “Intertextuality” by Paul Kloptak; and “Jewish Exegesis” by Craig Evans.
Inevitably, readers of the dictionary will argue with the selection of topics. Particularly odd is the absence of an article on peace; instead, the reader is instructed to turn to the article on violence. Apart from the problem of which books the dictionary considers canonical (and thus worthy of an article)—to which we will return below—the greatest criticism will likely be about the selection of specific interpreters to whom articles are devoted: Augustine, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Calvin, Luther, Ricoeur, and Aquinas. Although these are certainly appropriately included, the absence of fathers such as Origen and John Chrysostom is difficult to understand. Moreover, the lack of articles on recent great biblical scholars (e.g., Schlatter, Bultmann, von Rad, Brueggemann) whose work was or is clearly theological and widely influential is a lacuna.

Vanhoozer’s introduction refers in a couple of places to inclusivity, an admirable but difficult goal. To be sure, there is diversity with respect to denomination and interpretive approach. Nevertheless, the first major general observation I would make is that we must be careful not to allow “theological interpretation” to be construed too narrowly with respect to voice. To be more specific, the dictionary’s contributors are primarily white Protestant males from the West. Most would be broadly classified as evangelical scholars by virtue of reputation and/or academic affiliation and/or publishing venue. In a few articles, there is a polemical edge against all so-called “liberal” interpretation, and the existence of an article on “Liberal Biblical Interpretation” (but not on “Conservative”) may send an implicit message that this is a dictionary of conservative biblical interpretation. It is not right or wise to equate the adjective “theological” in “theological interpretation” with conservative or even evangelical, even in a dictionary from an evangelical publisher.
The absence of certain contributors often associated with less conservative but nonetheless theological interpretation may perpetuate this perception about what theological interpretation is. One cannot of course have everyone contribute to a dictionary. But it should at least be noted that only 5 of the approximately 100 authors of main articles in the last five years of Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology are represented in the dictionary, and only 11 of the 85 presenters and respondents in recent issues of Ex Auditu: An International Journal of Theological Interpretation of Scripture are represented.
Approximately 10 percent of the dictionary’s 170 contributors and editors are women. At the beginning of the 21st century, this underrepresents the reality of theological scholarship. It may also negatively affect the perception and impact of both the movement toward theological interpretation and this dictionary itself. Theological interpretation does, and must, include the work of women theologians and biblical scholars. Furthermore, although I do not know all of the contributors, very few appear to be Roman Catholic or Orthodox, and very few appear to be African-American or African, Asian, or Latino/Latina. To be sure, there are articles on African and on Asian biblical interpretation (though not on African-American interpretation, which is a particularly glaring lacuna in the American context), but the existence of these articles in a dictionary with few contributors from those traditions makes those traditions into objects to be studied more than voices to be heard. As theological interpreters who are part of a universal church, we should be at least as interested in learning from our brothers and sisters in Africa, for example, as in learning about them. The dictionary (unlike some commentary series) does not explicitly claim to be “international,” and it does include some non-Western voices. But if theological interpretation is to be truly ecclesial, it must become more global. The excellent article on African biblical interpretation by Grant LeMarquand, for example, demonstrates the need for greater diversity in actual theological interpretation. The church has much to lose if it forgets that one of its marks is catholicity, and much to gain if it allows that catholicity to affect its theological interpretation of Scripture.
African-American biblical interpretation is particularly germane to the future of theological interpretation, at least in the American context (and probably beyond), in at least two respects. First, in African-American biblical interpretation (especially in preaching but also in scholarship), there is no fissure between Scripture as ancient text and Scripture as contemporary text. Scripture is not an ancient document to be analyzed but a divine story to be heard, embraced, and entered into. Second, in African-American biblical interpretation, there is no fissure between political and theological interpretation of Scripture. The Bible is rightly seen as a theopolitical book that speaks to and about life in the public realm—about justice, liberation, speaking truth to power, and so on.
For examples of theological exegesis with these two emphases, we may look to black theologians like J. Deotis Roberts and James H. Cone. Although their approaches and conclusions are hardly identical, they share the two common commitments noted above. Their theological interpretations as theologians do not seem to be on the radar screen of most contributors to the dictionary, yet both the theological method and the impact of Cone’s God of the Oppressed, for example, seem relevant to the pursuit of theological interpretation in our day. As many of us work to make theological interpretation more faithful to the character of Scripture itself, which is a theopolitical book from beginning to end, we cannot ignore the methods and results of African-American biblical interpretation.8 If space permitted, we could make similar observations about models of biblical interpretation from around the world.

The temptation to narrowness in theological interpretation is perhaps most serious in the ecumenical realm. It is inherent, unfortunately, in the dictionary’s understanding of what the Bible we are interpreting contains. There is an article devoted to every book of the common Christian, or Protestant, canon but not a single article devoted to any book unique to the Catholic and/or Orthodox canons. For instance, there is no article on the Wisdom of Solomon, which is Scripture to many of the world’s Christians. The list of abbreviations in the front matter places the Wisdom of Solomon in the category of Apocrypha, though the index places it and the other deuterocanonical/apocryphal books in the Scripture index but after Malachi—not where the books appear in their canons. The entries for the Wisdom of Solomon or 1 Maccabees or Sirach in the Scripture index usually take us to articles such as the “Apocrypha” or the “Jewish Context of the New Testament” or to something like the “Kingdom of God”—as an illustration of “later Jewish literature” or “intertestamental writings.” There has thus been an editorial decision about what truly constitutes Scripture that assumes and reinforces a Protestant canon, but this is nowhere explicitly stated.
This is especially ironic given the theological character especially of Orthodox interpretation as evidenced in the article on that topic by Theodore Stylianopoulos—which is an excellent introduction to theological interpretation. Orthodox biblical interpretation, he argues, is characterized by fidelity to tradition, critical study, and the Holy Spirit. In many ways, the spirit of the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible is the spirit of the Orthodox hermeneutic. (One might even say that we are attempting to reinvent the wheel.) We should not, therefore, treat “Orthodox biblical interpretation” as a long footnote but rather as a substantive model of what theological interpretation looks like. Similarly, Protestants need to take seriously not only medieval discussions of the “spiritual sense” of Scripture but also recent Roman Catholic reflection on it (“the meaning expressed by the biblical texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ [the cross and resurrection], and of the new life that flows from it”) and on the related “fuller sense” (sensus plenior).
To summarize: as theological interpreters of Scripture, we need to be more inclusive readers, willing to hear God’s voice in and through the church universal, male and female, African and African-American, Catholic and Orthodox, and so on. This Pauline allusion takes us next to some comments about the NT articles.

As noted above, every NT book is treated in a dictionary article, as are other topical subjects in the NT or related to NT studies. On the whole, there is much to commend in nearly every article. There are some wonderful topical articles (including some primarily on the NT that are classified by the editors with the articles on “doctrines and themes”), including, for example, insightful and beautifully written entries on “New Creation” by Edith Humphrey and on “Ascension” by Douglas Farrow. Excellent articles on “Parables” by Stephen Wright, “Passion Narratives” by Christopher Bryan, and “Roman Empire” by N. T. Wright should also be noted. Also particularly well done is Christopher Rowland’s crisp, clear, helpful, and nonpolemical treatment of “Apocalyptic.” However, in the space we have here we will focus primarily on articles on NT books.
It is clear that the editors gave the contributors a general outline for the articles on biblical books, even if it was not always followed: brief introduction; history of interpretation; theological message (sometimes a linear approach, sometimes a thematic approach); relation to the canon; theology or theological significance; and bibliography. The inclusion of at least some history of interpretation for almost every biblical book (“1 Corinthians” by David Garland has none)—though the length and depth of analysis vary greatly—alone makes this dictionary stand apart and justifies the price of admission, especially if we believe that theological interpretation is one dimension of the communion of the saints.
The specific task of theological interpretation so understood and outlined is executed in different ways with varying degrees of success. For example, we may consider the role of the history of interpretation in these articles. In one case (“Galatians” by John Riches), we find a brilliant history of interpretation and analysis of the book’s place in the canon, but unfortunately no analysis of the text’s theological message or its contemporary significance, and there is no recent commentary in the bibliography. On the other hand, the temptation for history of interpretation to devolve into a summary primarily of historical-critical approaches (and thus the last 200 years) can be seen occasionally elsewhere. One article (“1 Peter” by Peter Rodgers) treats only “recent interpretation” and then discusses not the book’s theology as a whole but only the hermeneutics of its use of the OT—an important but not sufficient analysis of a book’s theology. Howard Marshall’s succinct and insightful interpretation of 1 John has an introductory section labeled “the history of interpretation,” but it focuses instead on the chief issues he sees addressed by the letter, with some discussion of critical issues raised by modern study. Some additional history of interpretation appears later under the rubric “First John and Theology.”
All this is simply to say that the task of theological interpretation, and specifically the meaning and role of the history of interpretation in theological interpretation, is understood and executed in quite different ways by the various contributors. Do these differences reveal a young discipline in search of identity and methodology; do they bear witness to a mature and appropriate permanent diversity; or do they simply reflect the normal idiosyncrasies of contributors to a multiauthor work?
There are many book-specific articles in which the multidimensional assignment is carried out extraordinarily well and some in which it is done with brilliance. In the latter category may be mentioned S. A. Cummins on the Gospel of John. The history of interpretation is deep, broad, and interesting; the analysis of John as a two-part drama is creative and compelling. Similarly comprehensive and insightful on both the history of interpretation and the document’s theology is the article on Hebrews by Jon Laansma. The essay on James by William Baker is a specimen of vivid writing, with an innovative, canonical approach. Sylvia Keesmaat on Colossians is concise, insightful, and cutting edge, similar in tone to her coauthored Colossians Remixed. Max Turner on Ephesians writes a fine article with a thematic approach to the message that is nonpolemical regarding the authorship issue. And Peter Davids on 2 Peter finds more theological relevance than one might expect in that letter.
Finally, we should consider the article that appears to tie for the longest in the dictionary (along with “Sexuality”): “Pauline Epistles.” It treats three aspects of Paul as theologian—theologian of grace, of the cross, and of the new age in Christ. The actual content is superb. Unfortunately, the article is unsigned. More importantly, the unnamed author(s) treat(s) the three parts differently. The section on grace is largely a history of interpretation; the section on the cross is more analytical of the topic and its subtopics, with special reference to modern interpretations; and the section on the new age is a theological analysis with much emphasis on Paul’s historical context but almost no reference to the history of interpretation.
It is tempting for someone schooled in the historical-critical method to suggest that there were three sources that were not so well redacted. But this article’s approach to the three subtopics of Pauline Epistles is a microcosm of the question of theological interpretation: “What is it?” (as a friend of mine who actually edits a theological journal recently asked). How do we do it? Do we always have to do everything that appears in the Ur-outline presupposed by these articles? What are our parameters and goals? What is our primary context to consider? Is context, as Daniel Treirer says in his article on the doctrine of Jesus Christ, “our ordinary and sacramental Christian communication” (371), or is it the case, as Dan Harlow says in his article on the Jewish context of the NT, that all interpretation must first of all consider the text’s historical and literary context (379)? Or is it both? This exemplifies the interesting tension that is the nature of theological interpretation.
So, this new dictionary gives us many aids and answers, but it also raises, in a good way, many questions.

Perhaps one effect of this dictionary (as in the case of any text, not necessarily intended by the authors or editors) will be the pursuit of new directions and the realization of unexpected convergences in the theological interpretation of Scripture. Three possibilities come to mind for new directions.
First, this dictionary points ahead to a broadening of the theological conversation about theological interpretation and of the practice of theological interpretation itself. Many of the contributors to this volume are often in conversation with one another, but we must work toward bridging the gap not only between biblical scholars and theologians but also between Protestants (especially evangelical Protestants) and non-Protestants committed to theological interpretation. This gap is reflected in our major professional biblical societies, the Society of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Association, despite some overlap of membership. But the conversation about and the practice of theological interpretation take tremendous risks if they ignore the Orthodox voices mentioned earlier or Catholic voices such as John Donahue, Luke Johnson, Francis Moloney, Sandra Schneiders, and others. Further, we must also bridge the gap between North and South, to include more voices from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where the Christian faith is exploding.
Second, this dictionary points ahead to the task of refining our understanding and practice of theological interpretation. One way to trace the history of theological interpretation in the last few generations of Western/Northern scholarship and to think about its future is by considering the Interpreter’s Bible (1952–57) and the New Interpreter’s Bible (1994–2002) along with the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (even though the dictionary is obviously a different genre from the other two works). In the Interpreter’s Bible, there was “exegesis” and “exposition” by two different contributors, and the connection between the two was not always apparent. Theological interpretation consisted of two separate and separated tasks. In the New Interpreter’s Bible, the “commentary” and “reflections” are by the same author, and the connections are nearly always evident. But theological interpretation is still two separate, though now less-separated, tasks. Is this a natural division between analytical and analogical thinking that allows the “bridging of horizons,” as we are fond of saying, or is this separation an unnatural bifurcation? Would not the example of many of the great interpreters, whether patristic, reformation, or African-American, suggest that these two tasks, the analytical and the analogical, need to become more unified? Can we imagine postmodern, theological interpretation in which “commentary” and “reflection” are one task? What might the format of the next Interpreter’s Bible look like?
The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible suggests that theological interpretation actually consists of several separate but interrelated tasks (tracing history of interpretation, analyzing theological message, determining canonical function, and reflecting on contemporary significance), at least one of which (history of interpretation) requires expertise in which many biblical interpreters have not been trained. The expansion of theological interpretation into, say, four tasks rather than two creates the possibility, if the dictionary is any indication, that theological interpretation might become less integrated into a holistic process. Can we imagine postmodern, theological interpretation in which all four aspects of theological interpretation are executed as one? Is this not what patristic exegesis and rabbinic exegesis, for example, are, each in its own way?
If someone were to say, as I might, that we can maintain a unified approach to theological interpretation but still, for heuristic or pedagogical or other practical reasons, divide the task into several components, is there a way to execute the several components as a unified task that we might call the “seamless garment” approach to biblical interpretation? This garment of theological commentary would contain the interwoven threads of the argument and theology of the text, aspects of the history of its interpretation, its role in the canon, and reflection on its theological and spiritual significance. If we attempt to do so, are we making the task so arduous that even the best professional theological scholars cannot execute it? N. T. Wright’s article on Philippians in the dictionary approaches this kind of unity in method, but it definitely pays more attention to theological analysis than to contemporary significance and canonical function, and it says very little about history of interpretation. Still, Wright’s article may point us toward a unified approach of this sort.
Third and finally, this dictionary points ahead, more by what it omits than what it includes, to a unified theological hermeneutic that expands itself to be both theopolitical and missional. The inherently theopolitical character of the Bible and hence of theological biblical interpretation has already been suggested above. What also needs to be part of any theological approach is recognition of the Bible’s inherently missional character and hence the inherently missional character of theological interpretation. Within the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and other professional theological societies, some theologians, missiologists, and biblical scholars are working to develop a truly missional hermeneutic for the 21st century. However, this movement, for lack of a better term, does not seem to be reflected in the dictionary. The word mission appears on the appropriate page of the dictionary, but there is no article. Rather, the reader is referred at that page (and in the index) to articles on the “Church,” “Culture and Hermeneutics,” and the “Trinity”—all of which are helpful essays but not focused on mission. The distinguished missiologist Samuel Escobar contributes an article, not on mission per se, but on liberation theologies and hermeneutics. And the already-mentioned absence of an article on peace seems almost tragic today.
This omission of sensitivity to a missional hermeneutic is especially surprising in a dictionary that is evangelical in origin and tone. But it may be related to the relative (though not complete) lack of sensitivity to the theopolitical character of Scripture previously noted. Theological interpretation must retain, or regain, its focus on the missional purpose of scriptural interpretation if it is to be truly ecclesial. Nothing is more fundamental to theological interpretation than its connection to the missio dei.

Wherever and however the Spirit leads the church forward in a more catholic, holistic, and missional theological interpretation, this excellent resource—in spite of and perhaps even because of its lacunae—will be among the tools the Spirit uses (along with the gifted editors and contributors who created it) to “guide us into all the truth” (John 16:13). It provides a wealth of information and perspectives on texts, hermeneutical strategies, interpreters, and theological topics. For this, we should all be grateful.


P. T. Forsyth, Scripture, and the Crisis of the Gospel
“Although/Because He Was in the Form of God”: The Theological Significance of Paul’s Master Story (Phil 2:6–11)
The “New Creation,” the Crucified and Risen Christ, and the Temple: A Pauline Audience for Mark
Apocalypticizing Dogmatics: Karl Barth’s Reading of the Book of Revelation
The Hermeneutical Circle of Christian Community: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Dimensions of the Unity of Scripture
Review Article: Reading with the Subject: A Conversation with Angus Paddison
Review Article: Seeking Comment: The Commentary and the Bible as Christian Scripture

Joel B. Green

Craig Bartholomew (Redeemer College, Canada)
Tony Cummins (Trinity Western University, Canada)
Stephen Fowl (Loyola College, USA)
Beverly Roberts Gaventa (Princeton Theological Seminary, USA)
Luke Timothy Johnson (Emory University, USA)
J. Gordon McConville (University of Gloucestershire, England)
Graham McFarlane (London School of Theology, England)
Andrew Purves (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, USA)
Murray Rae (University of Otago, New Zealand
Raymond C. Van Leeuwen (Eastern College, USA)
Francis Watson (University of Aberdeen, Scotland)

Correspondence and papers for submission should be directed to Prof. Joel B. Green, Fuller Theological Seminary, 135 N. Oakland Ave., Box 257, Pasadena, CA 91182; e-mail: See inside back cover for information for contributors.

The Journal of Theological Interpretation (ISSN 1936-0843) is published and distributed by Eisenbrauns, P.O. Box 275, Winona Lake, IN 46590 USA. E-mail:

Copyright © 2007 by Eisenbrauns Inc. All rights reserved.

P. T. Forsyth, Scripture, and the Crisis of the Gospel

Abstract—This article examines P. T. Forsyth’s theological interpretation of Scripture. Scripture for P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921) is a sacramental agent of the gospel, and the NT writings are decisively incorporated within the redemptive activity of God in Christ. Forsyth’s location of authority in the gospel conveyed by Scripture allows him considerable flexibility in relation to two alternative sources of authority: biblical scholarship and biblical infallibility. An ecclesial reading of Scripture is beholden neither to the rationalism of the academy nor to mechanical theories of verbal inspiration. A church resourced by what Forsyth termed the “positive gospel” will read Scripture with decisiveness and litheness, giving space for the lively activity of the Spirit upon the Word. Moreover, the cross is the one superhistoric principle capable of interpreting all history and human action. The essay then turns to the Jesus that Forsyth encounters in his preaching of John 12 and John 16. Forsyth’s powerful reading of the NT reinvigorates John’s language of judgment, conviction, and sin. The holiness of the Son moving through the world and dying on the cross is the crisis of the world and accomplishes the sinful world’s reconciliation with the holy Father. Forsyth’s consistently theological interpretation demonstrates the potential of a theologian’s immersing herself in Scripture and concentrating on the resources of the gospel.

Key Words—atonement, authority, Christology, holiness of God, judgment, kerygma, theological hermeneutics

One persistent question theologically engaged readers of Scripture thrust in the direction of their fellow readers is “With whom do you read?” Behind this question is the permanent reminder that professional biblical scholars are not to be unchallenged in their custodianship of the Bible’s meaning. Outside the scholarly syndicates of the biblical literature, there are others—biblical authors, theologians, the saints of the church—who are essential companions in the committed reading of Scripture and its claims. Indeed, for theological interpretation of Scripture, those who have tuned their voices to the gospel, who have been broken and regenerated by its power, will be the most nourishing co-readers. One particular shattered and regenerate voice I want to draw on in the course of this essay is that of the Scottish Congregationalist theologian P. T. Forsyth (1848–1921). If, as Kevin Vanhoozer poses, the answer to the question What does it mean to be biblical? is theology’s Holy Grail, then P. T. Forsyth offers much guidance in this pursuit.3
In what follows, I will first tease out Forsyth’s doctrine of the status and location of Scripture. Following this, I will examine Forsyth’s encounter with the Jesus of the NT witness.

To the frustration of not a few, P. T. Forsyth never wrote a definitive work of systematic theology. Accordingly, what he has to say on the place of Scripture within the church and theology must be gleamed from the plethora of articles and monographs he wrote on an impressive array of theological loci.
Scripture was central to Forsyth’s reorientation from the confines of liberal theology to what he termed the “positive gospel.” Forsyth’s redirection from being a “lover of love” to an “object of grace” sprang from exposure to the gospel for which Scripture was a “shrine.”5 Forsyth’s language consistently reinforces Scripture’s commissioned role in service of the gospel. The Bible is a “humble vassal” bearing the gospel, or a “field” into which the objective gospel has been ploughed.7 The “positive gospel” mediated by the NT is the apostolic insight into the significance of the Jesus-event; it is “a certain interpretation of Christ which is given in the New Testament, a mystic interpretation of a historic fact. It is the loving, redeeming grace of a holy God in Christ.” The gospel is therefore two-sided: it is both the reality of God’s holy love and the apostolic interpretation of this divine action. The NT faith, which Forsyth consistently counsels the church to be resourced by, is that the actions of Jesus were the actions of God among us. Thus, in the hands of Paul the apostle, the historical reality of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross is seen for what it is: the atoning death of God in Christ.
Forsyth’s positioning of Scripture in service to the apostolic gospel gave him notable freedom with regard to two prevailing sources of authority (then as now): biblical infallibility and biblical scholarship. Evangelical authority, Forsyth implores, is not secured by shielding the Bible from legitimate scrutiny but by turning with renewed concentration and vigor to that for which Scripture acts as conduit: the gospel. Christians who believe not in an infallible Bible, but in an impregnable gospel, need not be unsettled by the perceived critical plunders of scholarship. Authority in the church is a permanent correlate of the “moral reality rising from the experience of forgiveness in the Gospel and from the certainty that Christ has there done on us a work that none but God could do.”
Forsyth encouraged the church to graduate from notions of the Bible’s verbal inspiration, even if it was a distinctive tenet of Reformation thought. “To the Bible as the Reformers read it we can never, indeed, return,” Forsyth gravely intoned. Notions of plenary inspiration relied upon theories that stultified the relationship between the Word and the Spirit. Verbal inspiration risks slighting the Spirit’s present work, rendering Scripture merely a “mechanical creation” running on fuel deposited there and then, rather than having its location in a present reality continually at work through the Spirit.11 “The Gospel is always the Spirit in action, not from afar, not from an old inspired past which never loses its force, but also from the direct present using that timeless past.” Conversion to the gospel is not the legacy of an inspired past but the operation of the Spirit in the present. The Spirit keeps us at once bound to the historic act of God in Jesus Christ while simultaneously operating as this singular event’s “continuity, amplification, and its individualisation.”13 Danger lay in divorcing the Word and Spirit: not only would the Word become calcified, but the Spirit would have warrant to wander free of the Word and be an instrument in our evolutionary or subjective predilections. Wrenched apart from the Spirit, the Bible is dehistoricized and, instead of being read in tune with the apostolic revelation, the text is “brought to the bar of the inspiration it creates.” This is to succumb to religious impressionism—namely, enlisting the Bible to a spiritual experience created within us, rather than exposing ourselves to Scripture’s regenerative gospel. The risen and present Christ, whose objective and completed work is the abundant energy acting on the Bible, works in us through the Spirit’s stewardship.15 “It is the living matter and content of the ageless Word that is brought livingly home to us by the personality of the Spirit.”
The NT documents are directly co-opted into the saving action of God. It is not the religious Jesus that interests the NT authors, but Jesus as the Son of God and so the object of religion. An apostolic writing like John’s Gospel is a “prolongation of the message of Jesus … [it is] Christ himself interpreting his finished work, through men in whom not they lived but he lived in them.”18 Apostolic inspiration is the final reality of Christ’s revelation working through the interpretation of Peter, Paul, and John. The uniqueness of these apostles is not their historical proximity to Jesus—plainly other people enjoyed historical encounters with Jesus—nor does their uniqueness lie in the quality of their faith. The apostles’ uniqueness was their instruction by the Spirit of the risen Christ, whose office was “not enlarging the revelation in matter but … opening its interior.” Their charism was Christ opening his final revelation out in them, and their writings are the textual extensions and expositions of his work.
Jesus’ work is indeed completed only with the interpretation of himself through the apostles, whose issue is “part of the action … and not a searchlight thrown on it from without.” Neither the record of Jesus’ impressive personality nor an insight into the spiritual mores of the apostles, the NT is therefore decisively enclosed within the act of Jesus’ self-revelation.21 The apostolic records “are themselves acts within his [ Jesus’] integral and historic act of redemption,” and so they are “sacraments” more than they are “sources” to be quarried by scholars. The apostolic issue “partakes of the authority of that revelation whom they interpreted.”23 While the Synoptics alone could not found the church, this need not be a worry, for the apostolic gospel can make sense of the synoptic witness. The twofold witness within the NT, the synoptic and the apostolic, is not then to be sundered—or plundered—by the historical critics. Indeed, in his Person and Place of Jesus Christ, Forsyth attempts to narrow the perceived gap between the synoptic and the Johannine witness to Jesus, staking much on the so-called “Johannine thunderbolt”: “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt 11:27 NRSV). In this declaration, Jesus reveals an awareness of his preexistent Sonship, pointing to the congruity between Jesus’ teaching and the apostolic gospel.26 Just as in John, Jesus seems here to be preaching himself, for he is the gospel: the eternal Son revealing the eternal Father. Little wonder that Forsyth says that Matt 11:27 “is the Fourth Gospel in nuce,” providing the “centre of gravity” for the synoptic insight.28 Forsyth consistently argues that there is no disjunction between the teaching of Jesus and the apostolic interpretation of Jesus. Indeed, if we thought that the apostles were unfaithful to Jesus’ teaching, we may as well not believe in the Spirit’s work of binding together history and faithful expansion.
The conviction that the apostles were powerfully coopted into God’s action of grace resourced Forsyth’s attitude toward biblical scholarship. To confine the Bible to a rational veracity would install an intellectual hierarchy and misread the Bible as a historical source rather than a sacramental agent. Forsyth consistently warned of the dangers of rationalism, an attitude that forgets that “the judges of Christian truth are not, in the first place, reasonable men, but redeemed men.”31 The principal function of the Bible is not for it to be scrutinized, but for it to examine us. The reader who appreciated this would know that the gulf between the reader and the text is not one decisively traversed by intellectual apparatus but by the holy God who reaches out to sinful humanity. To adopt the words of John Webster in his discussion of the biblical hermeneutics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, the real difficulty in reading Scripture “is spiritual and therefore moral; it is our refusal as sinners to be spoken to, our wicked repudiation of the divine address, our desire to speak the final word to ourselves.” This rupture between the reader of Scripture and God is met by the gospel: the forgiving action of the holy Father in his Son, Jesus Christ. Readers of Scripture attuned to this reality find themselves in a place of remarkable freedom in relation to critical modes of reading Scripture. The Christian reads Scripture in a sphere of autonomous and regenerative grace, a topic about which A. M. Hunter wrote powerfully in his study of Forsyth. “The man who has never experienced this divine act [God’s central act in Christ] in his own life has no rights to judge it by methods which, however valid in other fields, do not apply to the experienced fact of grace. In short, the Christian gospel cannot have anything else for its criterion. It is spiritually autonomous.”
Forsyth’s conviction is that the gospel dislodges any human critical faculties in which we may seek to fix authority. Modes of biblical reading that neglect this will fail to convey “the drama, the fury, the pang, the tragedy, the crisis of the actual world at large.”35 In every attempt to tame Scripture—through ecclesial institutionalism, creedalism, or scholarship—the Bible reveals itself as a “Trojan horse,” a text whose subversive principle within is always greater than any attempt to master it from without. Those concerned by the incursions of biblical criticism may, then, be of good cheer, for scholars lack “the power to reconstruct the Gospel in the Bible; and that Gospel has the power to reconstruct both Bible and Church.” If the Bible is read for what it is—“the exposition of a long action and a final act of grace”—criticism will not rock this truth. Faith is therefore Scripture’s “native air, in which it expands, reveals and bestows its true soul.”39 Biblical criticism has a restraining leash kept on it insofar as its findings are tested according to evangelical principles, their “compatibility with the central life and experience of redemption which makes the Church.” With the right perspective on biblical scholarship, biblical scholars can, of course, be enlisted in the theological endeavor as “assessors and advisers.”41 Biblical scholarship, after all, was a gift of the Holy Spirit. It needs to be said that Forsyth followed his own counsel, for as many have noted, his theology demonstrates considerable awareness of the latest (especially German) biblical scholarship.43 The biblical reader, Forsyth warned, has nothing to gain by denying the validity of biblical criticism. Nevertheless, the reader of Scripture is best fixing his/her faith beyond the reach of biblical scholarship by returning “to the Epistles for the key of the Gospels, for the evangelical secret, and the principle of the Highest Criticism of all.”
There is no sense, then, of Forsyth’s being careless with regard to the historical reality of God’s action. The crucial matter remains, however, how Jesus’ history is interpreted, and here Forsyth’s reading companions to the Gospels are the epistles with their kerygmatic interpretation of Jesus’ significance. The Bible’s ultimate context is not the historical context from which the texts arose but the gospel. “Fact, history, is quite necessary, but it is the nature, the interpretation, the theology, of the historic fact, the nature of its purpose and action, that tells. It is the eloquence of the fact, or let me rather say its vitality, its conductivity, its conveying power. It is fact as sacramental.”
Historical study of Jesus risks confining our attention to Jesus within a limited time frame. The more urgent task is, however, to ground one’s life and thought in what, through Jesus, is continually expansive. “Christ himself arose at a point within human history and stands at a particular moment of it. And the whole business of history is to give Christ His eternal place in the whole course of history … to let loose the eternity locked in those brief thirty years, and give it its ruling place in all the affairs of time.” Forsyth is keen on giving the example of the cross on which Jesus died. That Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross is historic, but that this act is the decisive act of a holy God is superhistoric. The gospel is based in history, but it is not confined to the investigations of historical scholars: “the Person of Christ which is to be the foundation of living faith must be something else than the residuary legacy of historical research … we must found anything so real as eternity on a historic fact; but one too creative of history to be given by history alone.”47
As a consequence of these convictions, Forsyth directed that the Bible was neither a document of doctrinal orthodoxy nor a statute book of ethics. The one who speaks from within the biblical interior is fittingly resourced by the gospel “upon which all [biblical] texts crystallize and fall into their graded place.” Reading the Bible out from this center gives the reader of Scripture the appropriate blend of finality and sequacity. The gospel “is not something to stand on, but something to live from.… [i]t is more than ground that will not give way; it is a source that will not fail or dry.”49 Forsyth’s own reading of the Bible demonstrated this “positive core” and “flexible casing.” He had little or nothing invested in the Synoptic Gospels’ presentation of the virgin birth, and he consistently argued that the finished work of the cross was the source of Christian ethics rather than the occasional precepts of the Sermon on the Mount. Ethical action fueled by Jesus’ teaching would soon find itself running on empty; only the cross has resources enough to fund our moral behavior. Again, Forsyth is as good as his own counsel; in The Christian Ethic of War, written in the midst of the First World War, Forsyth excoriates those who justified pacifism on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount.
What then was the Bible’s positive contribution in church and theology? The Bible is indispensable to theological thought because it is the source for apostolic kerygma. Verses such as 2 Cor 5:19, Rom 1:17, or John 3:16 were what Forsyth understood as unshakable “dogma.” In statements such as these, the church is confronted with a truth that is “absolute, final and essential.” The church speaks on the basis of these statements whose “creative interior” is the action of God for humanity, whose guiding idea is not human thoughts about God but God’s decisive dealing with humanity.53
Doctrine, in this setting, is subordinate to dogma and marks the church’s release of dogma’s pressure; it is the space into which dogma expands. Doctrine is the energy of dogma expressed in the church’s understanding, appropriate to the particular time and place it finds itself in, as in the historic creeds of the church. The authority of a creed is therefore on a lower order than the authority of the dogma enclosed in the apostolic witness: doctrine is “faith’s thermometer for guidance rather than its governor for obedience.”55
Forsyth makes clear that, in this understanding of dogma as the kerygmatic base of the church, he is opposing how dogma was conceived by Protestant scholastics. As authority switched from the church to Bible, Protestant scholasticism viewed dogma as the neat ordering of biblical doctrine. Restricted by an intellectualist understanding of the faith and bound to a doctrine of Scripture’s infallibility, once biblical criticism had established itself, Protestant scholasticism found its reading of Scripture vulnerable. What the church is to (re) discover, after being winded by biblical criticism, is that there is a reality within the Bible immune to the incursions of biblical scholarship. It is this positive reality that rescues the Bible for theological thinking and enables the church to approach biblical criticism with less anxiety.
As can be seen from our explorations thus far, Forsyth is first and foremost a theologian calling attention to God’s activity, “not merely a gospel of definite truth but of decisive reality, not of clear belief but of crucial action.” This plea that we attend to the lively activity of God—rather than a series of propositional truths about God—explains Forsyth’s resistance to dry-freezing Scripture and regarding it as little more than “an arsenal of Christian evidences.” Scriptural reading is to resist having commerce with stupefied orthodoxies. Christian faith is not ultimately faith in doctrines but rather a faith in the realities and powers that Scripture and doctrines attempt to articulate. The power of John 3:16 is not that it is a message about God’s love for us; it points to God’s love enacted for us. Elaborate doctrinal systems are prone to misunderstand faith as an intellectual assent to truths articulated, rather than the soul’s “direct contact with Christ crucified.” Biblical readers who domesticate the Bible into systems of orthodoxy are liable to forget that it is the theologian’s “hard and high fate to cast himself into the flame he tends, and be drawn into its consuming fire.”61 So, with Forsyth’s guidance we might answer Vanhoozer’s question by stating that to be biblical is to apprehend that Scripture’s core “is not a crystallization of man’s divinest idea, it is not even a divine declaration of what God is in himself; it is his revelation of what he is for us in actual history, what he for us has done, and forever does.” Being biblical is a matter of apprehending correctly God’s redemptive activity into which Scripture has been drawn. “No belief is scriptural simply because it be met with in the Bible. We do not believe in the contents of the Bible, but in its content, in what put it there, and what it is there for. For it is a means, and not an end. We believe in the Gospel, the Gospel of God’s Grace justifying the ungodly in Christ’s Cross and creating the Bible for that use.”63

Having plotted the location and status of Scripture in Forsyth’s theology, I want now to turn to the reality for which Scripture was an appropriated instrument. What can we say about Forsyth’s encounter with the NT Jesus?
Pivotal to Forsyth’s reading of the Jesus conveyed by the NT is Paul’s teaching that in Christ God was working to reconcile the world (2 Cor 5:19). “We must think,” Forsyth appeals, “of the divine element as constituting the historic personality; and we must think of Christ’s earthly life itself, with all its passion and choice, as due to a great and critical volition of the same will in a heavenly state.” As a close reader of the NT, Forsyth defends the use of metaphysical categories in striving to understand the NT Christ. The attempt of the church to feel its way into the historic redemption is, Forsyth notes, an extended reflection on the implications of Jesus’ statement, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30 NRSV). The church’s investment in ontological categories is an implication of its faith that in the action of Christ we are to see the action of God. The notion that in the person Jesus we have in act the eternal love of God (John 3:16) follows from the community of faith working backward from its experience of salvation (and not forward from prepackaged ontological formulas). While the gospel is primarily “experienced grace” and secondarily “a result of philosophic thought,” Forsyth warns that “faith would be so far dead if it did not compel the mind to revolve the theme, explore the gift, and swell the praise.”67
One dominant theme found in John and Paul is the preexistence of Jesus, a topic that was of far more interest to Forsyth than the virgin birth. Forsyth notes that biblical scholarship, when faced with the Fourth Gospel’s statements of preexistence, is afflicted by “imaginative” and “mental cramp.” Scholarship of this sort lacks the faculties of mind that help us “launch out into the deep things of God.” Forsyth argues that the pervasiveness of the preexistence motif in the Fourth Gospel, Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation indicates that Jesus himself must have spoken of his preexistence. In any case, Forsyth counsels, we need not be alarmed by the Synoptics’ relative silence on this topic, for the Fourth Gospel represents a development of what remained obscure and allusive in these texts.69 Explorations of the apostolic insight into Jesus’ preexistence disclose that Jesus is no inspired human, not even a human uniquely filled with the Holy Spirit, but a human whose actions of forgiveness and judgment are those of God himself. Jesus’ work among us “was but the exercise in historic conditions of an eternal resolve taken in heavenly places.” The wider vision of the NT witness is that Jesus’ “emergence on earth was … the swelling in of heaven.”71 Attention to Jesus’ eternal origins is a more reliable key to his work than his teaching. The cross has its finality because Jesus’ earthly acts are carried out against the backdrop of his eternal volition. It is to Forsyth’s insight into the scouring reality of the cross that I now turn, an exposition that for Forsyth was indubitably accountable to the apostolic witness.
In two striking sermons, “The Fatherhood of Death” and “Final Judgment Full Salvation,” Forsyth pivots his thought around the cross as presented in John 12 and John 16. These two chapters condense many themes intrinsic to Forsyth’s theology of atonement and reconciliation: the holiness of the Father and the Son, the sin of humanity, the judgment of God’s holy love, and the obedience of the Son to his mission. Beginning with Jesus’ inner crisis apparently provoked by the news that some Greeks wished to see him (John 12:24), Forsyth preaches that Jesus is coming to realize his death is more than just fate but necessary as part of the work of the Son. Death, Jesus realized, was not something that he could not avoid, but something he must not dodge. Jesus did not die as some hapless religious teacher who overstretched himself and got into bother with the religious authorities. His death was a working out of the Son’s commitment to his Father’s holiness and correspondingly aroused all that was sinful in the world. Jesus’ agony—the desire that his Father spare him from his “hour” (John 12:27)—is compounded by the knowledge that through his death Israel, his own people, will be implicated. Through prayer, however, Jesus is returned to the resources of his “solemn will,” the knowledge that “now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31–32 NRSV). It is these verses that lie at the heart of Forsyth’s sermon, “The Fatherhood of Death.”
Reading Jesus’ reference to being “lifted up” primarily as a reference to the crucifixion, rather than the resurrection or ascension, Forsyth exploits the Johannine irony that the point at which Jesus was hoisted on a Roman cross is the very point “at which history is made an integral part of eternity.” Were it not for the cross, Jesus’ incarnate life would remain bound by “the husk of Israel.” Only the cross could “catholicise” Christ and enable him to extend out to the world with moral power.77 Any missionary impulse that the church extrapolates from this verse is, therefore, carried out in the shadow of that which has already been fulfilled. Much of the church’s activity neglects this reality, being more concerned with what it still has to do rather than with the plenitude of what has already been achieved. A church whose gaze is trained on the cross will not neglect that “[i]t was in the Cross that Christ conquered. It was there that Christianity was set up. The Church was founded there. The Resurrection and Pentecost started the Church, but it was the cross that founded it. Its history begins with the Resurrection, but its life begins with the Cross.”
The cross establishes Jesus’ victory because it is on the cross that Jesus’ holiness decisively encounters Satan’s realm. Forsyth appreciates that for the apostles the victory of Jesus was a victory over Satan’s rival claim to power. The hallowing of God’s name required the toppling of Satan’s kingdom.81 Jesus’ death marks the judgment of this world because on the cross he takes into himself the judgment that weighs upon the sinfulness of the world. The moral reality of the cross is that there two realities, the dominion of sin and the holy love of God, meet and are placed side by side. The world’s sin was magnified by the holiness of Jesus; as his mission drew to its culmination, Jesus became like a magnet drawing sin to his person. Attempting to reinstate the power of John’s language of judgment and conviction, Forsyth states in relation to John 16:11 (“about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned,” NRSV) that Christ’s work on the cross is the “final establishment of righteousness upon the wreck of sin.” The conviction of the world that John speaks of is the vindication of the moral order, God in Christ “working out by judgment and sacrifice the moral restoration of the world.”84 Fixing judgment to its proper place on the cross requires Forsyth to discredit notions of judgment as something either reserved for the “last days” or a process imminent and evolutionary within our sphere of moral activity. The “now” of John 12:31 (“now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out,” NRSV) is read with renewed seriousness. Any judgment that is to come in the future is the working out of the judgment anchored in time by the cross once and for all. The conviction and judgment of the world is something that has already been achieved, and now “we live in a saved world only because we live in a judged world.” Judgment is the inescapable correlate of the holiness of Jesus and his life consecrated to the holy Father.
From the judgment of the cross—the crisis of the world—flows forgiveness, an action that the resurrection seals and laminates. To be precise, Christ is the crisis of the world. Forsyth picks up on the connection that John 12:31–32 makes between Jesus’ judgment and the pulsating of this act out into the world. What the church takes to the world is not news of a future judgment but of a completed judgment in the wake of which the world now lives. Picking up John’s language of “lifted up,” Forsyth moves to concentrate on the work of the present, ascended Jesus. Jesus draws all people to himself not principally through an act long ago achieved but through his continuing and lively operation. Retreating from any suggestion that Jesus’ drawing all people to himself is a function of his influence, Forsyth insists upon Jesus’ continuing energy among us through the Spirit. Christ draws all people to himself neither because believers are impressed at his heroic death nor because he incarnates something latent within us and renders it eternal. Jesus is not predicting that his death would stand as a great example through the ages. On the contrary, Jesus is promising what, through the Spirit, he will continue to do—namely, draw all people to himself. What Jesus promises is “what He would do, and not merely a forecast of what men would feel.” This is not the Jesus of an inspiring influence, but the Jesus who is indestructibly alive, even now drawing people to himself. This has obvious implications for the church’s ministry. Ministers of the gospel are not those who have to divine Jesus’ influence or eke out the example that Jesus’ death illustrates; rather, they are commissioned to extend the sacramental power of the gospel into the life of the church.
In these two sermons, Forsyth condenses many themes central to his encounter with the NT Christ. First, humanity needs a Savior capable of lodging the holiness of the Father into the midst of the disfigured relationship between God and humanity. The saving potency of Christ’s person is not however his sympathy with our plight, for “[t]he Redeemer is more mighty by what he had not in common with men than by what he had.” The love of God in Christ is redemptive more than it is sympathetic. The Jesus of the NT is not therefore the apex of humanity but God’s overcoming of the world in a human. Jesus’ first priority was not “to consecrate human nature, but to hallow God’s name in it.”90 It is worth recalling that Forsyth’s influential 1896 sermon “The Holy Father” was based on John 17:11 (“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me,” NRSV). Second, Forsyth appreciated the fact that if the NT claim is that Jesus has reordered the relationship between God and humanity then consideration must be given to Jesus’ metaphysical relationship to God. Third, Forsyth’s theology is a sustained fugue on the themes of John 16:33 (“Take courage, I have conquered the world,” NRSV) and 19:30 (“It is finished”). Crucial to Forsyth’s treatment of Christ was his finality. Indeed, Forsyth said that if we release talk of Christ’s finality then we will have released Christianity. The perversion that Forsyth was combating here is Christ as evolutionary within a series of revelations, a person who draws upon resources brewing within us. Christ’s action is not an evolution from within our world but is an eruption from another world. While John the Baptist directed attention away from himself and toward Christ, Christ himself summoned attention to himself: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9 NRSV). Jesus is not the incarnation of a principle of which another exemplar can be imagined, for “the divine destiny of the world was not simply revealed in Christ but secured.” Revelation of Christ’s person not being a placid evolution but a radical interruption, Forsyth maintains a firm grasp on the crisis provoked by Jesus’ entry into the world.
Above all, these two sermons reveal Forsyth’s concern to recover and moralize the theme of judgment. Jesus’ ministry is itself the incarnation of crisis and judgment, all of which is of a piece with Forsyth’s concern to demonstrate that Jesus’ life is “more tense, real, dramatic and triumphant than a revelation of kindness unruffled.” In Forsyth’s hands the cross is the superhistoric event that makes sense of all history, much more than a worthy example or “the disentangling of a moral muddle.”95 Jesus is the holiness of God actively moving through the world, and his life provokes sin to its hideous climax on the cross. Thus Forsyth expounds on John 16:9 (“about sin, because they do not believe in me,” NRSV):

Sin is defined by relation to Him. He came to reveal not only God but sin. The essence of sin is exposed by the touchstone of His presence, by our attitude to Him. He makes explicit what the sinfulness of sin is; He even aggravates it. He rouses the worst as well as the best of human nature. There is nothing that human nature hates like holy God. All the world’s sin receives its sharpest expression when in contact with Christ; when, in face of His moral beauty, goodness, power, and claim, He is first ignored, discarded, denounced … and hustled out of the world in the name of God.

Even from this brief examination of P. T. Forsyth’s theological interpretation of Scripture, the concerns and worried inquiries of critics may be evident. Has he rendered invisible the OT and God’s covenant with Israel? Does an apostolic interpretation of the NT not risk drowning out the shriller voices within the NT and so denying the total cumulative effect of the texts? And, finally, does Forsyth’s almost total disregard for Jesus’ earthly ministry “border on irreverence”? Without belittling the force of these anxieties, let us however conclude by highlighting the positive contribution of Forsyth to today’s task of theological interpretation.
First, it is necessary to say that Forsyth’s theology is biblical without being exegetical. But although there are few explicitly exegetical excursuses in Forsyth’s theology (in contrast to Barth, for example), a keen reader of Scripture will not only detect in Forsyth a mind irrigated by Scripture but will find in Forsyth’s theology a map for the contours of the biblical world. The constant legend to the various maps Forsyth sketches is the objective gospel as the action of God in Christ. Forsyth’s manifold publications are read with reward when viewed as attempts to present “a projection which enables readers of Scripture to find their way around the biblical worlds.” The cartographical skills of Forsyth demonstrate what happens when a theologian allows Scripture, and its claims, to work through her.
Second, Forsyth reminds us of the dangers of mutating the writings of the NT into a catalog of ossified truths and precepts devoid of saving power. The apostolic truth conveyed by the NT is dynamic and searing. The NT texts are not in service to a system of “orthodox” propositions but are sacramental agents willing to draw us into closer relationship with Jesus. From within this regenerative understanding of Scripture’s office, there remains much to be mined in Forsyth’s suggestive relationship between Scripture and ethics.
Third, we can extrapolate from Forsyth the benefits of a local, rather than a general, hermeneutical approach to Scripture. Forsyth is far from nervous about the contribution of historical criticism and indeed he draws upon its findings fruitfully and freely. Forsyth’s theology speaks of a confidence that the cross is the supreme action that interprets and directs history. Theological exegesis is to be directed by this irrepressibly creative and revolutionary point in history. Scriptural reading attentive to the interruption and crisis of revelation is required “to impose … its principle on the course of history and not … accept it from it.” Theological hermeneutics, as demonstrated by Forsyth, is therefore a reading of concentration. The reader who concentrates on the moral reality of grace will find in this act the resources to order everything else. To deploy a term frequently used by Forsyth, local hermeneutics is not a free-lancing activity, but, being grounded in a specific nodal point, it has the capacity to contribute to more universal concerns. Local hermeneutics may be nourished by microscopic attention to the Bible’s axis—the gospel—but that is no indication that its interests are parochial or anxiously insular, for concentrated reading “radiates in moral sequacity from the central principle of grace; and having there its perpetual rendezvous, it has the freedom of a vast realm, the variety of an infinite world, and the breadth of the whole heaven for its scope.”101 Resourced by the authority of the gospel, scriptural reading is not a statutory or restrictive activity and nor is it unguided. “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18 NRSV). A hermeneutics of expansive concentration is no hermeneutics of retreat but, in the traditions of liberal evangelicalism, it radiates out to the world with both decisiveness and litheness.
Gorman, M. J. (2007). A “Seamless Garment” Approach to Biblical Interpretation?. Review of Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible Edited by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Journal of Theological Interpretation, Volume 1, (1–2), 101–145.


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