What Is an “Evangelical” Dogmatics of Scripture? Here’s a Framework
Several years ago, Oliver Crisp and Fred Sanders conceived of an annual conference discussing and explicating Christian doctrine, one that was self-consciously ecumenical and sought to resource contemporary systematic theology. The result was the Los Angeles Theology Conference (LATC).
Earlier this year, the fourth annual gathering was framed by this question:
How does the voice of God come to us in the text of Scripture?
The result was The Voice of God in the Text of Scripture, a series of illuminating, constructive essays exploring the ways God speaks through the biblical text. Of this unique text Crisp and Sanders write,
we stand before a theological claim of the first order, and one of the right responses is to develop a doctrine of Scripture adequate to its divine authorship. Somewhere in the mix between text and voice, a doctrine of Scripture that recognizes both the written text and the holy voices will need to call on the expertise of systematic theologians, biblical studies scholars, and philosophers. (16)
One of the voices editors Crisp and Sanders tapped to engage the task of constructive dogmatics is Daniel Treier. He not only exemplifies the kind of exploration and construction the contributors offer. He also frames the conversation, offering “the broadest overview of the field, serving both as a substantive proposal for deriving the Christian doctrine of Scripture…and also a helpful map of themes that are handled in more detail by later chapters.” (17)
Below is a brief engagement with Treier’s contribution, rooted in this three-fold claim:
The Bible itself authorizes the church’s traditional identification of Scripture as God’s Word; the Bible itself acknowledges the dynamism and diversity of such divine speech, as reflected in certain contemporary trends; and the Bible itself addresses theological challenges regarding its oral aspects and moral authority. (22)
The Church’s Tradition
“First of all,” Treier writes, “a dogmatic account seeks to discern the church’s traditional commitment, honoring its past as a source of wisdom with which to pursue plausible continuity.” (22)
He notes that concerning Scripture, early Christian tradition carried little controversy and near unanimity in reading what had become the Old Testament and New Testament as the Word of God. Since the Reformation, however, diversity has arisen over notions of Scripture’s authority, canonical boundaries, and hermeneutics. The doctrine has come under particular review since modernity.
Whereas a dogmatic account of Scripture should focus on authoritative church consensus regarding God’s action, polemics arise because the church no longer hears the Word as one body… (23)
His proposed dogmatic framework is admittedly Protestant, and includes:
- Gospel freedom
- Scripture’s authority as a form of God’s Word
- Scripture’s self-presentation as divine speech
- Personal and propositional aspects of Scripture
- Biblical texts being equated with God’s Word
A dogmatic account of the church’s commitment to Scripture also addresses contemporary pastoral and intellectual contexts. In developing his “pan-‘evangelical’ framework” (25), Treier outlines three major developments affecting Scripture’s doctrine:
- The Bible’s self-presentation. Brevard Childs attended to the “canonical shape of biblical books for understanding biblical theology.” Richard Hays has highlighted “practices of inner-biblical interpretation” (25)
- Hermeneutical and philosophical trends. Nicholas Wolterstorff has appealed to speech-act philosophy to draw attention to the writer’s communication. Stephen Fowler, however, has emphasized the active forces of the interpreter in exegesis
- Dogmatically-oriented developments. The “canonical theism” of William Abraham compels theologians “to be robustly soteriological in their accounts of Scripture” (26–27). John Webster encouraged theologians to be robustly theological, focusing on divine action with a special emphasis on sanctification
“These contemporary trends create a vital backdrop for engaging Scripture as God’s textual medium of self-communication.” (27)
Finally, Treier argues that “a contemporary dogmatic account should develop the church’s teaching about Scripture in terms of the Triune God’s textual self-communication.” He suggests five claims emerge “from biblical texts concerned with Scripture’s writings, reading, hearing, and/or understanding” (28):
- A twofold dynamic of theological authority, involving fixity and freedom; we appeal to both the “it is written” nature of the text and gospel freedom of our faith when adjudicating theological claims
- A twofold human response to authoritative, written divine speech, involving remembrance and renewal; Paul, for instance, appeals to settled Old Testament teaching and appropriates it typologically
- A twofold dynamic of divine self-communication, involving the personal agency of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit
- The Bible’s self-presentation specifies authorized witness as the form of Scripture’s identity with God’s Word; a further temporal dynamic of witness carries with it prophetic anticipation (OT) and apostolic attestation (NT) of the divine Logos
- Scripture’s self-presentation carries a perennial necessity of growth in understanding on the part of God’s people
“A dogmatic account of Scripture,” concludes Treier, “begins and ends with the commitment to hear in the biblical text God himself—one Word to trust and obey.” (40)
Crisp and Sanders trust these essays will help readers do just that, as well as extend discussions surrounding the doctrine of Scripture itself.