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The Whole Counsel of God: Van Sloten, Hoezee, and Metallica

By December 1, 2012 No Comments

As a Protestant, I am intrigued by “protest” practices. When people feel driven to protest against the status quo, there is almost always some truth, goodness, or beauty in what they are doing. Typically too, the protestors are often pointing to genuine problems, even if I don’t agree with their proposed solutions.

John Van Sloten, I believe, is such a protester. In his writings and his practice of preaching from cultural texts rather than directly from scripture (see essays and responses by Van Sloten and Hoezee in August/September and October 2012), he is protesting against the way the Reformed tradition has divided the “book of scripture” from the “book of nature” and neglected the latter. Although I appreciate Van Sloten’s protest, I agree with Scott Hoezee’s responses to Van Sloten on the two main points that seem to be in question. With Hoezee, I think that preaching that uses this or that cultural artifact as the primary “text”—regardless of whether the wisdom of God may be shining through it dimly or brightly—is not a wise normative practice for the church. Furthermore, I agree with Hoezee that Calvin’s theology as a whole cannot be used to support Van Sloten’s preaching practice (i.e., “WWCD”—What Would Calvin Do?). Hoezee represents the wisdom of the classic Christian and specifically Reformed tradition, a wisdom that I agree with. And yet, Van Sloten’s practice raises an important issue.

The positive truth that Van Sloten’s protest practice uncovers is that the “whole counsel of God” is not fully contained in “the box” of the scriptures. This is the main point of his out-of-the-box practice and his arguments about the “book of nature.” But I think there is a further problem that he and his congregation sense that neither Van Sloten nor Hoezee fully articulate. It is this: the Reformed tradition has not entirely come to terms with the imprecisions and subtle problems that surround our understanding of scripture. While Hoezee is right to point out that the Reformed tradition has fabulous resources for engaging culture and seeing God’s glory throughout the world, Van Sloten rightly presses us to ask if our theology of scripture (and tradition, culture, and non-human creation) is good enough. We should not dismiss Van Sloten’s proposal too quickly, but rather treat it as a welcome thorn in our Reformed flesh that spurs us to ask, Is our inherited understanding of scripture, tradition, and culture sufficient for the mission of the church today?

I want to be very clear. I am not saying that the Reformation tradition’s understanding of scripture is wrong. I do think, however, that there are persistent ambiguities and imprecisions that are part of the way we talk about scripture that are easily and often misunderstood. These imprecisions most fundamentally concern the distinction between God and creatures. Classic Christian thought recognizes that this distinction is at the heart of our theology. The best of classic Christianity and the Reformed tradition understands that this radical transcendence of God is precisely what allows God to be radically immanent in all of creation and supremely so in the incarnation.

Given this important distinction between God and creatures, on which side of the line is scripture? Some of the ways we quickly talk about scripture are not always helpful or clear about this. Phrases such as “sola scriptura” (versus everything else?) or “Scripture is the Word of God” (and thus divine?), and even the opposition between “book of scripture” and “book of nature,” may give to the untrained eye the impression that we understand our scriptures to be more like the Koran or Book of Mormon than what the reformers had in mind.

For example, Hoezee in his essay rightly points to Article 7 of the Belgic Confession. In that article is this phrase: “we must not consider human writings—no matter how holy their authors may have been—equal to the divine writings.” While there is truth here, the contrast between “human” and “divine” might be understood as implying, for example, that if we had to sort the book of James (an important text in the early church that is in the canon) and the book of 1 Clement (an important text in the early church that did not make it into the canon) into two boxes, one labeled “God” and one labeled “creature,” we would put James in the God box and 1 Clement in the creature box. This is a very unhelpful way of thinking—and yet many people are being formed precisely in this way.

As another example, consider the language of the Westminster Larger Catechism, a very formative confession in the Presbyterian tradition. Question and Answer 3 reads: “What is the Word of God? The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.” When the words “are,” “only,” and “rule” are rightly interpreted, this is a wonderful statement, but again I fear this statement is easily misinterpreted.

Our official theology never falls into the problem of “fundamentalist bibliolatry” that Van Sloten worries about. I am not convinced, however, that our confessional traditions’ language and way of thinking about God’s revelation are sufficiently clear and helpful. Are we able to form people who can think well about how God’s “counsel,” wisdom, and word should be sought preeminently and authoritatively in and through scripture, but also about how it can be heard in our tradition, in the surrounding culture, in holy conversation, and in the non-human creation? In the protest movement of the Reformation, Protestants rightly opposed understandings of “tradition” that put it on par with, or even as judge of, scripture. And given the tremendous modern tendency to denigrate scripture and its authority in favor of “natural” reason or “universal” forms of religious experience, traditional Christians rightly responded by upholding the authority of scripture. But the wholesale rejection of tradition in our confessions and the ongoing suspicion of natural theology within our Reformed heritage can create false oppositions and leave much unsaid about God’s work outside of scripture.

How might we move toward greater clarity? In the past decades there has been a wave of important and helpful work on the theology of scripture that can begin to move us beyond the typical polarizations that plague our tradition. It points traditional Christians in fruitful directions for talking about and understanding God’s work in and through the scriptures. It opens us to the theology of the early church and to constructive conversation with our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, and moves us past the imprecisions of our tradition. Listen, for example, to John Webster, a conservative Reformed theologian, who writes this in an important article on the authority of scripture: “God’s ‘word’ refers to God’s self-communicative presence, through which he establishes the knowledge of himself in the face of defiance and ignorance; Scripture is the creaturely means through which the Word’s activity is extended into the church” (“Scripture, Authority of,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 725; this dictionary is a starting place to access this recent work on the theology of scripture). The “Word” of God most fundamentally is the second person of the Trinity, who works in tandem with the Spirit. Scripture is a creaturely means, sort of like a sacrament, through which Word and Spirit work. This is a much more helpful way of thinking about scripture. An implication of this trinitarian-shaped understanding is that our doctrine of scripture should not be isolated “as a quasi-independent topic” but should rather, according to Webster, be treated within the larger discussion of other “affirmations about God’s communicative presence and activity.” When talk about scripture is separated too far from, say, discussions of sacraments, tradition, the book of nature, and even the work of God in individuals’ lives—as I think it is in the Belgic Confession and Westminster standards—it is too easily misunderstood.

Given all this, I find Van Sloten’s suggested practice not without any ground whatsoever, but simply unwise. To put it more personally, rather than having my children formed by preaching from Metallica and other cultural texts, I would prefer to raise them in a church where the typical weekly practice is to reverently carry a physical book of the Christian scriptures into the middle of the congregation when the scriptures are read, and to preach from the scriptural passages, making sure special attention is paid over time to the Gospels. While I appreciate the questions raised by Van Sloten’s protest practice, I think they are best answered by thinking more deeply about sacramental or mediatory means of God’s work in the world in general, and scripture’s unique place among these.

Practically speaking then, how can leaders better equip congregations to understand that God’s word comes to us most clearly and authoritatively through scripture, yet can also be “heard” in sacraments, prayer, tradition, culture, and nature? The alternative “protest” practice I would suggest, rather than preaching a sermon from Metallica, is to richly celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week in conjunction with preaching a sermon that springs out of scripture.

David L. Stubbs teaches theology and ethics at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.