The early modern rationalist John Toland (1670-1722) argued, long before the famous statement of Benjamin Jowett in the mid-nineteenth century, that the Bible is to interpreted like any other book. That is, for Toland, with the same attentiveness and clarity of human reason:
all Men will own the Verity I defend, if they read the sacred Writings with that Equity and Attention that is due to meer Humane Works: Nor is there any different Rule to be follow’d in the Interpretation of Scripture from what is common to all other Books.
— John Toland, Christianity Not Mysterious, 2nd ed. (London, 1696), 49.
This claim from N.T. Wright strikes me as precisely right in regards to one of the main tasks of the theologian before the text of Scripture:
Again and again, theology has approached exegesis not with the desire of hearing what the text is actually saying, but with the hope that it will speak to the particular questions we bring to it. Answer: it will, but only if you pause long enough to let it first reframe the question and then answer it in the reframed terms. That pause is, I think, part of what it means to believe in the authority of Scripture. And I regret that, like the pause between two halves of a chanted psalm-verse, it is all too often omitted in the hurry to get on with the job.
— N.T. Wright, “Historical Paul and ‘Systematic Theology’: To Start a Discussion,” in Biblical Theology: Past, Present, and Future, eds. Carey Walsh and Mark W. Elliott (Eugene: Cascade, 2016), 162.
We must pause long enough with the text to let it reshape our questions, our theology, ourselves.
Christian reflection on eschatology has had to contend with two sets of statements in the New Testament, one which affirms the greatly desirable presence of deceased believers with Christ prior to the general resurrection “absent the body” (2 Cor 5:8), and another – the predominant strand – which holds out not this intermediate state but the final resurrection of the body as our ultimate hope (e.g., Rom 8:23-24; 1 Thess 4:13-18).
The tension between the two became heightened in the middle ages with questions about the time of the beatific vision, the promise of seeing God that is the fulfillment of deepest human desire. Is this already available to the souls of believers in the intermediate state, prior to the resurrection? Or does it await all Christians at the end, following the general resurrection? In 1336, Pope Benedict XII issued the bull Benedictus Deus, defining the former option as the Catholic faith.1 This heightened the Christian expectation for heaven immediately after death as the location of hope.
Nevertheless, others in the Christian tradition continued to emphasize the mixed quality of the intermediate state. Henry of Ghent states that the separated soul exists only in “incomplete personhood” (imperfecta personalitate) until its reunion with the body at the resurrection.2 And Robert Boyle, the early modern scientist and philosopher, compared this intermediate state to one of “widowhood”!3 This suggests that the state of departed believers prior to the final resurrection is one of mixed emotion: joy at being in the presence of the Lord, sadness for its imperfection prior to the recreation of the world.
1 Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), ch. 7, esp. 285.
2 Ibid., 243, citing Quodlibet 6, q.5.
3 Robert Boyle, “Some Physico-theological Considerations about the Possibility of the Resurrection,” in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, 6 vols. (London, 1772), 4:201.
I’m looking forward to another productive set of presentations and conversations this year in Denver, including giving these two papers:
“‘We Keep Our Eyes Fixed Upon Christ’: An Anti-Speculative Doctrine of Final Resurrection in Bullinger and Turretin.” Reformed Theology and History Unit, American Academy of Religion.
“The Bible in the Locke-Stillingfleet Controversy over the Resurrection of the Same Body.” History of Interpretation Unit, Society of Biblical Literature.
Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon (1648 – 1717) is best known for her writings on prayer. Less well known is that she dictated a commentary on the whole Bible, only published in 1790, several decades after her death (La Sainte Bible avec des explications et refléxions qui regardent la vie intérieure, 20 vols. [Paris: Libraires Associés]). As its title indicates, it is a kind of “spiritual” commentary, concerned with the interior spiritual life. These are her comments on Hebrews 3:7-8, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness.‘”
My God! how wonderful this passage of scripture is! In order that we might be the house of God [Heb 3:6], that he would lead and govern us as a sovereign, we must surrender ourselves to this condition, that is, if we hear his voice today. This word today means the present moment, in such a way that in all moments we must be attentive to the voice of God.
The one who does not hear the voice of God when he speaks hardens their heart. All evils that happen to us stem from not hearing the voice of God, just as everything good comes from hearing it. All the principles of the Christian and spiritual life boil down to this alone, hearing the voice of God. The one who is faithful to hear this voice hears it infallibly; and the one who hears this voice and is teachable in obeying it, their soul moreover becomes the house of God in which he commands as sovereign. But the one who does not want to hear the voice of God hardens their heart bit by bit such that it becomes no longer susceptible of inspiration. This voice is so gentle, so tranquil and profound, that one must ever keep watch over one’s heart, and by a gentle attentiveness to what is within oneself, one listens, one hears, one tastes this speech, silent and eloquent all at once.
— La Sainte Bible avec des explications et refléxions qui regardent la vie intérieure, vol. 18 (Paris: Libraires Associés, 1790), 728-29.
Jan Makowski (1588–1644), better known by the Latinized version of his name, Johannes Maccovius, addresses the question of whether we will fully comprehend God in the future life. Answering in the negative, he draws an important distinction between an “essential imperfection” of a creature (i.e., something which is only an imperfection when considered in comparison to God) and a “privative imperfection” (i.e., something properly belonging to a creature, but which it now lacks).
But whatever imperfection is essential to a creature (which is called an imperfection not in comparison with creatures, but with respect to God), is only a denial of the highest perfection, that is, it only means that the creature is not God. If this imperfection were removed, we, in consequence, would be gods; this would be absurd and blasphemous in both speech and thought. On the other hand, a privative imperfection, which denotes a certain lack in the creature when compared with itself, that is, when we consider that a creature is not as perfect as it could be while yet remaining a creature – every imperfection of this kind will be taken away. For example, whatever could perfect the body, in such a way that the body does not cease to be a body (for perfection does not destroy but adorns its subject), and whatever could perfect the soul, in such a way that the soul does not cease to be a soul, will be present in the future life.
And so, it remains to ask: does it pertain to the perfection of the soul that we comprehend the essence of God? I respond, it does not reasonably seem so, the reason for this being that the incomprehensible cannot be comprehended.
— Loci communes theologici (Franeker, 1650), 886
In 1 Corinthians 2:8, the apostle Paul states that the “Lord of glory” was crucified. This led to certain difficulties on the part of interpreters, wondering how God – who is invincible and immortal – could be said to be crucified, and die. Here are the comments of monks from the monastery of Squillace in southern Italy, founded by Cassiodorus (d.c.580), writing toward the end of the sixth century. They profit from the clarity achieved on such matters by the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).
“For if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. . . .’” The Lord of glory – and both by merit and nature the Lord of every creature – was made the man Jesus, in whom God could in some way be crucified. “For this reason God also raised him up, and gave him the name that is above every name,” because of the unity of the person (Phil 2:9). God is said to be crucified and the Son of Man to be in the heavens, while when this one was called Lord he was bodily upon the earth. Seeing that Christ, therefore, is a true human being and true God, one person out of a twofold substance, and God a human being, and the same one is king of glory, the Lord of power was not crucified, due to his invincible divinity, yet he was crucified as a man, due to the unity of the person. And so, in a wondrous and unfathomable way God suffered, yet divinity did not suffer. (PL 68:511)