Reality and Evangelical Theology, 1982, pp. 106ff

Reality and Evangelical Theology

A great deal has been made in modern biblical scholarship of what is called the “pluralism” manifest at the New Testament writings, and it is understandable once they are subjected to critical analysis apart from the basic framework of the New Testament in which they are set.  But a very different picture emerges when we attend to the actual scope within which they have arisen and taken shape.  then for all their rich diversity they are found to have a deep underlying unity in Jesus Christ the incarnate and risen Lord, who is the dynamic center and objective focus of their creative integration.  But that calls for a way of interpretation  in which the images or patterns at the linguistic and theological levels are stereoscopically coordinated in our viewing, for it is through the scope of their conjoint reference that real meaning and coherence come to light.

The interpreter operates, therefore, on both levels at the same time.  At the level of the test the interpreter seeks to keep what Athanasius called, “the scope and character of holy Scripture.”  By that he meant not only the peculiarities of linguistic expression and syntactic structure which may have arisen under the impact of divine revelation, but the customary way in which Scripture take language developed to describe our experience in this world and give it a new sense beyond commonly accepted usage to convey its message about God and man.  It is, then, in accordance with the new slant or shift in meaning that the sense of a particular passage is to be judged, that is, within the general direction and coherent tenor of biblical usage.  The interpreter must operate at a deeper level that this, however, by keeping what Athanasius called “the scope of faith.”  By that he meant the objective meaning that lies behind the written words, arising out of ontological orientation constituted  by what the Scripture tells us of the ways and works of God and in accordance with the religious experience which they evoke.  That is to say, interpretation of biblical statements and reports must reflect “the mind” of the Holy Scriptures, or more specifically “the mind of Christ,” which has its imprint upon them.  Strictly speaking, Christ himself is the scope of the Scriptures, so that it is only through focusing constantly upon him, dwelling in his word and assimilating his Mind, that the interpreter can discern the real meaning of the Scriptures.  What is required, then, is a theological interpretation of the Scriptures under the direction of their ostensive reference to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and with the general perspective of faith.

2. THE “ECONOMIC” GROUND AND STRUCTURE OF BIBLICAL STATEMENTS

We have just been considering the point that the Holy Scriptures are rightly interpreted with the general orientation of meaning set up by their subject matter, the new dimension of God’s self-revelation which gave them their distinctive perspective and character.  This is a way of interpreting biblical statements and reports in accordance with the objective pole of their reference.  We must now give attention to the point that the subject/object relationship which this involves requires to be grounded in and controlled by we have earlier spoken of as “object/object” relations, that is intelligible relations inherent in objective realities to which the Holy Spirit bear witness.  Since they point beyond themselves to these given realities , biblical statement manifest among themselves a coherent pattern of reference determined by their common point of reference.  But we have to reckon with something more than this, namely, with the fact that biblical statements are so grounded in and controlled by a basic pattern of truth in those objective realities that it is imprinted upon them.  Thus the distinctive kind of order which informs and gives coherence to biblical statements is not one which they have independently in themselves which can be read off their grammatical, syntactic, or formal-logical sequence, but one which they acquire from beyond themselves as through the mighty canto fermo of the his Word God calls them into contrapuntal relation, as it were, to the ordered pattern of events in his saving and revealing self-communication to mankind through Israel and in Jesus Christ.  This is the intelligible order disclosed in what the Greek fathers called the “economic condescension” of God in the incarnation of his Son and Word in Jesus Christ, or in his “human economy” towards us.21

In the New Testament and early Christian writings the term “economy” was used to speak of the orderly line of action God has taken in the fulfillment of his saving purpose for mankind, i.e., the dispensation of his grace which has taken the form of the self-humbling God the Son in the incarnation and Passion of Jesus Christ.  Our concern at the moment is with the profound epistemological implications if the “economic condescension” which patristic theology was not slow to draw our for biblical interpretation and theological statement.  Just as we think of the incarnation as God becoming man in to become one with man and thereby to redeem man from within the depths of his human nature, so we may think of the incarnation as God the Word becoming man in order to adapt himself to man in his weakness and lack of ability and to assimilate human modes of thought and speech to himself, and thereby to effect real communication between God and man and man and God.  Granted, then, that human modes of thought and speech are utterly inadequate to speak of God or to convey divine Truth, nevertheless as they have been assumed, transformed, and used in God’s self-revelation they are made to indicate more than they can express and convey divine Truth beyond their natural capacity.  It was in the light of this “economic condescension” of God in which he accommodates his self-revelation to man that the fathers regarded the Old Testament Scriptures as registering the gradual self-revelation of God to his people in anticipation of the incarnational fullness and finality of his self-communication to mankind in Jesus Christ.22  When in him, the Word actually became flesh, God forged the distinctive language whereby he forever speaks to man and may speak to God and of God.  And since it was through the specific forms of thought and speech which God sanctified adapted to his self-revelation in Jesus Christ that the New Testament Scriptures took shape, it is surely as such that they should be appreciated and interpreted, i.e., in accordance with the “human economy” of God’s Word.  Although these human forms of thought and speech found in the Scriptures are unable of themselves to convey the Word of God, they are nevertheless grounded and structured through the incarnation of the very Logos who inheres eternally in the Being of God and are the vehicles of his address to mankind.  Hence if we are properly to interpret and understand biblical statements, we must learn to trace back their objective reference beyond what is written to their source in the infinite depth of Truth in the Being of God, and if we are to do that we must follow the economic line of divine action that gave rise to them in space and time and continues to govern their meaning.

Quite evidently, everything depends on whether we understand the “economic condescension of God in the incarnation in a realist way or not, i.e., whether we believe that in Jesus Christ we are in direct contact with the ultimate reality and Truth of God in our spatiotemporal existence or not.24  If this were not the case, we could not reckon on any objective connection between what the New Testament tells us about God and what God is in himself independently of the New Testament.  And in that event we would have no ground for claiming that the human forms of thought and speech employed in the Scriptures are harnessed to God’s creative self-revelation in such a way that they are enabled to direct us ostensibly to divine realities and relations utterly beyond ourselves.  We could only interpret them primarily in accordance with what they are as human forms of thought and speech, that is, with only this-worldly creaturely meaning and with, at most, a merely symbolic, mythological, or oblique reference to God.  If we do not understand the “economic condescension” of God realistically, then the term “economy” will be taken to indicate that we can speak of God’s incarnate self-humbling and self-revelation only by way of “reserve,”  which is tantamount to asserting that God cannot be taken really to be in himself what he appear to us to be in his manifestation in Jesus Christ towards us.

21. Torrance, “Hermeneutics of Athanasius.” For references to this essay, see Ekklesiastikos Pharos, 1970, No. 2-3, pp. 95ff., 104ff.

22. Cr here Hilary of Poitiers De Trinitate 1.30; 4.27f; 5.18f, 24f., etc. And see my “Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of Biblical and Theological Statements According to Hilary of Poitiers,” Abba Salama (Athens), Vol. 6 (1975), pp. 40f.  For the patristic concept of economy and its development se G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, 2d ed. (London: S.P.C.K., 1952), pp. 57ff., 62f., 98ff.

23. See Athanasius, Contra Arianos 11.6 ,  9  45  51  53  75-76  In these passages the term “economy” has a strong soteriological slant, for it expresses the form which God’s activity has taken for our sake.  It is in that “economic” sense that we are to understand the coming of Christ in the form of a “servant”, for example; far from being merely and appearance or a temporary expedient, the incarnate humiliation of the Son was the saving reality of God’s presence among us.  That is what controls the epistemological sense of Athanasius’ use of the term.

24. Athanasius, De Sententia Dionysii, where “economic” is contrasted with “putative” or what is merely “conceptual (1.23f.).