Over the last few days there has been a rather heated debate on John 6 raging in certain quarters of the blogosphere. Whilst the tone of the debate has generally left much to be desired, the interpretation of John 6 is a subject that very much interests me.
From what I gather, the debate was kicked off with this post from Paul Owen, entitled ‘Why Most Calvinists Misread John 6’. Owen argues that ‘Calvinists take a clearly Eucharistic passage and turn it into a treatise on predestination.’ It seems to me that this is quite an unfair and unjustified generalization, but this aside, I think that Owen does raise some valid concerns. There is a tendency in some circles of the Reformed world to treat passages such as Romans 9 and John 6 in a manner that is inattentive to the purposes of the passages in their contexts, largely reducing the passages to articulations of classic Reformed doctrines of soteriology.
I am convinced that many of the points of Reformed soteriology can be argued to from such passages. However, the ease with which people see the Reformed doctrine of election in John 6, for example, concerns me. Reading John’s gospel closely, it is by no means obvious that John’s doctrine of election is the same thing as the Reformed doctrine. This is not to say that John disagrees with the Reformed doctrine of election, but rather to point out that, when John speaks of God’s choosing people or giving people to Christ, the Westminster Standards might not be our best guide for understanding what he means by such language. The Johannine doctrine of election is something that I have previously addressed in this post.
I have become increasingly convinced that bringing the questions of ‘Calvinist’/’Arminian’ debates to the text almost invariably produces much heat and little light. The questions of such debates are frequently the wrong ones and we would be far better off listening more closely to the text and allowing our theology to sit a bit more loosely to certain exegetical questions. Disputing common Reformed readings of John 6 should not be interpreted as an attack on the Reformed doctrine of election, for instance. However, a more careful reading of John 6 might lead us to question the way that the Reformed doctrine of election has been framed, challenging us to re-articulate the biblical concerns that underlie the doctrine in more biblical categories.
I have found that putting the questions of the debates of systematic theology to the side for a little while and trying to understand the questions that the Scriptures themselves raise and address leaves one with a very different perspective when one returns to those systematic questions. There was a time when I would have regarded the chief task of any interpretation of Romans 9 to be that of articulating the Reformed doctrine of election. Putting such questions to one side for a while and engaging with the text without them increasingly led me to the conviction that the text was trying to say much more than my original questions would allow it to say. Questioning the usefulness of my initial questions, I started to replace my original questions with new ones. I also began to wonder whether certain of the issues that had once seemed absolutely central to me were all that important within the context of Scripture itself.
One of the principal issues that is being raised in recent debates over the FV and NPP is that of the relationship between exegesis and theology. To what degree can the Reformed doctrine of justification survive a rereading of the book of Romans? To what extent does the Reformed doctrine of election rely upon particular readings of John 6, Ephesians 1 or Romans 9? Can one reject traditional Reformed readings of whole books of Scripture and still maintain Reformed theology? In many of the questions of the current debates the underlying question is the degree to which biblical language can be regarded as something different to confessional language, whilst still retaining the truth of confessional language on its level of discourse (I am also convinced that, despite the protest of some, there are substantial theological questiosn at stake as well). Is it possible to use the word ‘election’, for instance, in two distinct senses (biblical and confessional) without being disingenuous?
In my estimation, one of the great gains of the NPP and FV is the manner in which they have alerted us to the ‘otherness’ of biblical language. Theology and exegesis retain a lively dialogue, but they are far less likely to be confused or to be forced upon each other. Once one has distinguished between confessional and biblical language as different levels of discourse, exegetical questions can be left far more open, particular passages are far less likely to be over-burdened with theological freight and the text is far less likely to be domesticated and dominated by the theological system.
This discussion on the proper interpretation of 1 John 2:19 (do read the comments) is a good example of the manner in which a particular perceived relationship between the voice of the text and the theological system can lead to trouble in distinguishing the question of the validity of the doctrine of the visible/invisible Church distinction from the question of the proper interpretation of 1 John 2:19. I am convinced that we can reject traditional Reformed exegesis of the book of Romans, whilst retaining a Reformed doctrine of justification. The doctrine of justification does not stand or fall with a particular approach to the exegesis of the Pauline epistles.
Returning to John 6, I would like to see a thoughtful discussion of the passage, a discussion which gives far less weight to the traditional theological questions that have been traditionally associated with the passage. Whilst I am baffled at how anyone can read John 6 and not see clear references to the Eucharist (see the discussion here, particularly the comments), not everyone who fails to see such references holds to a low view of the Eucharist. For this reason I would like to leave the question of the interpretation of John 6 far more open and relax the connection between the passage and the questions of Eucharistic theology somewhat. My doctrine of the Eucharist does not stand or fall on an interpretation of John 6, just as my Christology does not stand and fall with a particular interpretation of the meaning of the title ‘Son of God’. Sometimes it would be nice if the systematic theologians would give exegetes a bit more room to breathe.
It can be incredibly frustrating to dialogue with people who tie theology and exegesis so closely together that any questioning of their exegesis is seen to be an assault on their theology. This is a common problem in a Reformed context, largely because people often know their confessions, catechisms and systematic theologies far better than they know their Bibles. The Bible is read in terms of the language, concerns and systems of the confessions and the systematic theologies, leaving little sense of the fact that Scripture does not speak Westminsterese or any other such Reformed dialect. I believe that huge swathes of traditional Reformed exegesis are problematic, largely as a result of such tendencies, but I fail to see why this need entail a complete overhaul of Reformed theology.
Good theology does not ensure good exegesis. In many places systematic theologians are the exegete’s worst enemy, as they have taken texts hostage as proofs for their systems. Whilst theology must always inform exegesis and vice versa, I hope that the current debates will result in an increased independence for exegesis from systematic theology. This increased independence will hopefully serve to create a more fruitful form of interdependence between the two disciplines.