Sunday 18 September 2005

Is the doctrine of Scripture “foundational”?

In a recent essay[1] the British theologian John Webster has spoken of the “dogmatic mislocation” of the doctrine of Scripture. The doctrine of Scripture is mislocated when it is placed at the head of a systematic theology, and used as a “foundational doctrine” on which the rest of theology depends. Used in this way, the doctrine of Scripture becomes “a relatively isolated piece of epistemological teaching.”

Instead of using the doctrine of Scripture in such a foundational way, Webster argues that we should regard it as a “consequential doctrine,” a doctrine which rests on our prior theological understandings of God, revelation and salvation.

Here Webster is making essentially the same point that I have been making in this series of posts. We do not start with a theological conception of Scripture, but we start with the gospel of God’s saving act in Jesus, and from this standpoint we develop a theological account of Scripture. When a systematic theology (or a course of theological lectures) begins with a “doctrine of Scripture,” the result is a formalised and distorted view of Scripture that has lost all contact with Scripture’s own subject-matter and significance.

Our knowledge of God is not derived from a certain collection of supernatural texts; rather our knowledge of God arises from God’s own saving self-revelation in Jesus Christ (to which the biblical texts bear witness). In other words, Scripture is not the “foundation” of our knowledge of God, but rather our knowledge of God through the gospel is the “foundation” of our understanding of Scripture.

And this means that the only proper basis for a doctrine of Scripture is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

[1] John B. Webster, “‘A Great and Meritorious Act of the Church?’ The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” in Die Einheit der Schrift und die Vielfalt des Kanons (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), pp. 95-126.


Anonymous said...

With this point, I am in full agreement. Jesus is the Word, the only perfect and sufficient revelation of God. Any systematic theology should begin with Christology. Scripture should come after ecclesiasology because it derives its authority within the community from the Church (inspired by God, of course).

Big Ben said...

The bible was simply a way to explian the unexplanable. I's sure much of it is based on truths but it is very far fetched wouldn't you say?

Sharad Yadav said...

It's odd how this seems to be both acknowledged and disavowed by many contemporary Reformed theologians. At the same time the Bible is considered the bed-rock of the entire theological enterprise under the banner of "Sola Scriptura" their doctrine of regeneration (and so much Reformed epistemology) makes the objectivity of our conversion experience primary in precisely the way you've mentioned. Sort of an odd tension. I'd be interested to know if you share this sort of tension in your desire to hold to some form of biblical authority at the same time you acknowledge the primacy of regeneration.

Anonymous said...

Big Ben: "far-fetched"? Well that depends if you reading your own standards into the text or respecting the claims that the text itself makes according to genre and other things.

Eddie said...

If we make the doctrine of scripture foundational to systematic theology, and hence any reading of the Bible, then we risk imposing something foreign on to some of the texts in terms of nature and purpose.

The best book I have read on the topic, is Johhn Goldingays, Models for Scripture. It is well worth a read as in it he seeks to understand the sciptures doctrinally through the use of four models as they apply to the various genres of scriptures.

Anonymous said...

'Scripture is not the “foundation” of our knowledge of God, but rather our knowledge of God through the gospel is the “foundation” of our understanding of Scripture'

Yes, but the "foundation" of our understanding of the gospel is through Scriptures.
This, however, is no vicious circle, but a web of mutually cohesive elements. This also needn't flatten out the web into homogenously functioning elements; each element has different role to play in our understanding and praxis (including and especially our hermeneutical praxis).

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your attempt to create a hermeneutical circle. The foundation of our understanding of the Gospel is through our relationship with Christ Jesus, first and foremost, and secondly, through the historical witness of the Church (of which the Bible is one part). There is no circle there.

God --> Jesus --> The Spirit --> The Church --> Scripture


Scripture --> the Spirit --> Jesus --> God

Anonymous said...

I should have worded that better... I disagree with the cohesive web you've weaved as it is a hermeneutical circle.

Sharad Yadav said...

Wouldn't you say that there is a tension, though, in speaking of coming to know God apart from a Gospel which is exclusively known through the witness of Scripture and Church tradition? Spontaneous covenant knowledge of God apart from the Gospel seems outside the scope of Christianity, and the witness of the Gospel seems inseperable from the traditions in which it is encased. Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

While covenant knowledge of God is not possible apart from the Gospel, that knowledge/Gospel is not necessarily mediated through Scripture or the Church, though these are the main deposits of the authoritative revelation. I certainly do not exclude other forms revelation, e.g. direct or natural revelations.

Sharad Yadav said...

I confess that it doesn't make any sense to me that While covenant knowledge of God is not possible apart from the Gospel, that "knowledge/Gospel is not necessarily mediated through Scripture or the Church, though these are the main deposits of the authoritative revelation". The way only way that we know about or understand the death and resurrection of Christ is through the Scripture's witness or some derivative variation of it. Beyond the tradition of the Church and the witness of Scripture you wouldn't know that there even was a person named Jesus, much less what to think of him and what he said or did. How can this not construed as mediation, even in the most flexible senses of the word? Natural revelation won't reveal the centrality of Christ in any meaningful sense - I think Barth's critiques are devestating in that regard.

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