‘What is the church?’ Ask first ‘What does God intend for man?’

What is God’s intention with respect to man? That’s a key component in answering the question “what is the church?”

While keeping the Reformed confessions in mind, G.K. Beale, in his A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic ©2011) says this:

My thesis is that the major theological ideas of the [New Testament] flow out of the following New Testament storyline, of which the new-creational kingdom and its expansion are the central element leading to God’s glory: Jesus’s life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory [emphasis is Beale’s, pg 23].

Beale swoops out and takes a look at the grand sweep of Scripture. He stresses that “the resurrected Christ is ‘the foundation-stone of the New Creation [that] has come into position.” But elsewhere, he notes that the resurrected Christ has a “back story” that extends back through the Old Testament to Adam. He stresses that Paul’s contention in Romans 5, for example, is not a brand new thought of Paul’s, but rather, it is the result of a lifetime of the Apostle’s reflection on the Old Testament message:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come…

Thus, Beale looks at the New Testament through the entire sweep of what he calls “the Old Testament background”. He points to the work edited by himself and D.A. Carson, “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, ©2007):

where nineteen NT scholars have analyzed every major OT quotation and significant allusion in the NT. This is the first time in the history of biblical scholarship that this kind of material has been brought together in one volume. This is a major step forward in understanding the biblical theology of the NT, since all the contributors affirm in one way or another that the two Testaments hang together theologically, and that the NT writers to varying degrees have referred to OT passages with their broader OT context in mind.

What Beale is referring to is a body of Old Testament knowledge that the Apostles had in the front of their minds as they wrote and as they taught. This is the “Tradition” to which Paul referred in various places, having a culmination in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This may be the first time that “modern biblical scholarship” has had this type of resource at their fingertips, but the first Protestants and covenant theologians also held to a hermeneutic that relied on all of Scripture, not just medieval florilegia, or, catalogs of sayings of “church fathers” often taken out of context.

Roman Catholics make one of two mistakes. Either they hold to a notion that “Time began with the foundation of ‘the Church’”, as Bryan Cross seems to do in this article :

When trying to understand the meaning of a passage in Scripture, Catholics have always looked to the Tradition; we seek to determine how the Church has understood and explained the passage over the past two millennia. We look up what the Church Fathers and Church Doctors have said about the passage. …

The explanation of the Catholic approach to Scripture lies in its ecclesiology, its understanding of the Church as a family extending through time back to Christ and the Apostles, and perpetually vivified by the Holy Spirit. And this understanding of the Church as a family spread out through many generations, has methodological implications with respect to interpreting Scripture.

Bryan’s mistake is to suggest that somehow, this 2000-year-old teaching has somehow been “constant”. But even in earliest times, Rome boasts of a “power to assimilate elements from different cultures which is one aspect of the [Roman Catholic] Church’s catholicity” (From Eric Plumer, “The Development of Ecclesiology: Early Church to the Reformation”, in Peter C. Phan, ed, “The Gift of the Church: A Texbook on Ecclesiology in Honor of Patrick Granfield, O.S.B.”, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press”, pg 25).

What is being “assimilated” is almost assuredly not what was in the minds of the Apostles.

Or they make the mistake of more “modernist” Vatican II-style of Catholics, such as this notion from Avery Dulles:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Maurice Blondel sought to carve out a middle path between post-Tridentine and Modernist theories of tradition….To his lasting credit, he rediscovered the capacity of tradition to transmit what was already known in an implicit way but not yet formulated in conceptual terms. (From the Foreword of Yves Congar’s “The Meaning of Tradition,” (c)1964, 2004, Ignatius edition, pg ix).

In both instances, some sort of magical “authority” is what determines “what a passage says”.

If “the church” is, as Bryan Cross says, “a family extending back through time”, then it is a mistake to cut it off at that point, without taking into account what the Old Testament writers were pointing to.

What’s most important is not what later church fathers thought, and certainly not what the disconnected post-Vatican II magisterium says; what’s most important is what the Apostles were actually teaching about what the Old Testament had been telling them all along (Luke 24:44–47).

Thus, when Jason Stellman makes a statement like this:

Having realized that I was using a few select (and hermeneutically debatable) passages from Romans and Galatians as the filter through which I understood everything else the New Testament had to say about salvation, I began to conclude that such an approach was as arbitrary as it was irresponsible.

He has got an incredible problem, throwing out most of the line of thinking that Paul has in mind when he makes a statement comparing Jesus with Adam.

Such a hermeneutic from Cross and Stellman simply ignores the total body of Old Testament material, the total flow of “progressive revelation” that Paul has in mind, probably top-of-mind, when he is making his argument in Romans.

This is not to say that all church fathers missed the boat. Irenaeus had a proper understanding, still, of how “Scripture interprets Scripture”. Of how Paul’s writings in Romans and Galatians, for example, built on the entire body of Old Testament understanding that the Apostles carried with themselves, “top-of-mind”.

Irenaeus knew nothing of an “implicit-but-not-yet-formulated” type of tradition. One of his works, “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching”, was virtually an expansion of the Old Testament, through the lens of the New Testament. Elsewhere, he goes into some detail about how Scripture is to be understood. In a very Calvinistic vein, he says two things here: Don’t go beyond the word of Scripture (but leave some things as unknown except to God), and we may “remain free from peril” by allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, just as the Reformed confessions have said so:

If we cannot find the solutions for all the questions raised in the Scriptures, let us not seek for another God than he-who-is, for this would be the worst impiety. We must leave such matters as these to the God who made it and correctly realize that the scriptures are perfect, since they were spoken by God’s Word and his Spirit, while we, as we are inferior and more recent than God’s word and his Spirit, need to receive the knowledge of his mysteries. And it is not remarkable if we suffer this ignorance in spiritual and celestial matters and all those that have to be revealed, when even among matters before our feet — I mean those in this creation, which are touched and seen by us and are with us — many escape our knowledge and we entrust them to God; for he surpasses us all….

If therefore, even in this created world there are matters reserved for God and others also coming under our knowledge, what harm is done if in questions raised by the scriptures (which are entirely spiritual) we resolve some by God’s grace but leave others to God, not only in this age but in the age to come, so that God may be always teaching and man always learning from God? As the apostle said, when the partial is destroyed these will continue: faith, hope, love. For faith in our Master will always remain firm, assuring us that he is the only true God, and that we should always love him, since he is the only Father, and that we should hope to receive and learn more from God, for he is good and has unlimited riches and a kingdom without end and immeasurable knowledge. If, then, as we have said, we leave certain questions to God, we shall preserve our faith and remain free from peril. All Scripture, given to us by God, will be found consistent. The parables will agree with the clear statements and the clear passages will explain the parables. Through the polyphony of the texts a single harmonious melody will sound in us, praising in hymns the God who made everything.

(“Irenaeus of Lyons,” “Against Heresies,” 2.28.3, Robert M. Grant translation, pgs. 117-118. Emphasis added.)

In effect, Irenaeus is absolutely ruling out the kind of Vatican II “implicit-but-not-yet-formulated” that creates as doctrine such Scriptural travesties as the Marian dogmas and the papacy. He also strongly suggests that if a “church father” holds to some kind of “tradition” that is outside the scope of Scriptural understanding, it is to be rejected.

What Beale has done is completely in line with what Irenaeus says. Beale shows that “all Scripture is found to be consistent”. That is far different from the Roman Catholic understanding, which brags of its ability “to assimilate elements from different cultures”.

Consider this word from the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

Beale places the Old Testament and New Testament into juxtaposition, in just such a way, the way that the Apostles intended:

The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory …

Jesus’s life, trials death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory.

This work of Beale’s is consonant with, and builds upon, some things I’ve written in the past concerning the Kingdom of God and Christ’s rule upon the earth:

God Rules

Book Review: ‘A Theology of Luke and Acts’, by Darrell Bock (and see especially the sections on God’s character)

See also Turretinfan’s response to Jason Stellman

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