Kevin Johnson has responded to my comments about his “mind of the church” hermeneutic comment last evening. Let’s remind ourselves what he said and the context in which he said it (for that little element got lost in his response):
My belief is that context ought to be centered more in the concerns of the mind of the Church rather than the mind of the writer in the first place especially as we look to passages like John 6 where it is quite clear to me anyway that what is being presented is a whole lot more than just the arcane details of the miracles of Christ.
Now, despite the abandonment of a belief that words have meanings, contexts are discernible, etc., I will do my best to accurately represent what Mr. Johnson has written, though, he does not seem to think we can do that for the Scriptures. The context of his comment was Owen’s sacramentalist interpretation of John 6 and his rejection, over against Luther and Calvin, of the mainstream understanding that recognizes the element of God’s sovereign decree in the teachings of Christ. Please note that Johnson says that “context ought to be centered more in the concerns of the mind of the Church rather than the mind of the writer in the first place.” This is a direct assertion that the foundation of grammatical-historical interpretation, which seeks first to determine the meaning of the author in the context in which he was writing and in the language in which he was writing is to be subjugated to a new hermeneutic focus, and that focus is provided by “the mind of the Church.” Now I note in passing I did not even point out the obvious straw-man provided at the end of the paragraph, for no one is, in fact, suggesting that the only meaning of the text is the “arcane details of the miracles of Christ,” since, of course, in the specific portion of John 6 under discussion, no miracles take place anyway. The point was that Johnson is attacking a belief he once held (note the common thread with Owen, Enloe, Johnson, et. al.?). Whether he has thought through the ramifications of making the “mind of the Church” the primary hermeneutical lens of interpretation or not, I cannot begin to tell you. I can only tell you that once you make that step, you should be honest and reject any meaningful concept of sola scriptura and admit you have embraced the epistemological ultimacy of “the Church,” however it is you define your beliefs. That is why I said I have more respect for the person who says “sola scriptura is wrong, you need the authority of the Roman See to know what the Scriptures state” than the person who tries to maintain an oxymoronic middle-ground.
In my response I pointed out the obvious problem: if the lexical meanings of words, grammar, and syntax, is not sufficient to inform us of the meaning of an ancient text, how in the world is a nebulous, undefined “mind of the Church” supposed to do so? Johnson has capitulated on the very heart of the matter, and truly has no consistent reason to remain outside of the authority of the Pope any longer. For who gets to define “the mind of the Church?” Kevin Johnson, the coffee company owner from Phoenix? Paul Owen, the former Mormon, former evangelical, former Presbyterian, now Anglican? Who? At least Benedict XVI has a big cathedral and lots of statues and some history behind him! And, most importantly, whoever gets to define this “mind of the Church” obviously gets to define the very meaning of the text of Scripture itself. And that is the point that needs to be understood here. Johnson is arguing for the death of any meaningful exegesis of the text of Scripture. He is arguing for a position that leads to the silencing of God, just as we have seen in Romanism since the middle ages. Once the church becomes ultimate, she enters into a monologue with herself. If her “mind” becomes the hermeneutical principle, then she is talking to a mirror. Reformation is precluded by definition.
With these things in mind, let’s look at Johnson’s response:
James White has suggested that my use of the phrase “mind of the Church” to look at and understand passages of Scriptures is “impossible-to-be-defined”.
Actually, I said much more than asserting the phrase “mind of the Church” is nebulous and impossible to be defined; I likewise focused upon Johnson’s own assertion that this phrase should be more important, more central, in exegesis than the original intent of the author himself. We will sadly see this former evangelical assert below that in essence, we cannot know what Jesus said, or meant, while speaking in the synagogue in Capernaum. The incoherence of his position will be explained immediately following.
So, is the phrase “mind of the Church” really “something so nebulous, something so utterly beyond all possible definition” so much so that applying it to the “interpretive matrix of the Scriptures” is “utter folly”?
In Acts 15:25, the Council at Jerusalem was “of one mind” in sending men with Paul and Barnabas to settle the controversy at hand. The Church did what “seemed good to the apostles and the elders with the whole church” (v. 22, emphasis mine). Verse 28 even links the what they thought was good as the Church to what the Spirit thought was good.
Now please note the irony here. Johnson is claiming that the original context of Scripture is secondary to the “mind of the Church.” But, when he goes to try to provide us a means of identifying the “mind of the Church” so that it can become a meaningful focus of literary interpretation, he goes back to the very text he is claiming we cannot know without the mind of the Church! The circularity would be humorous if it was not being suggested by a man who once professed the views he now decries. How can we know what “of one mind” meant in Acts 15:25? According to Johnson, we can’t. We were not there. It was too long ago. It was spoken in a different language. For Johnson’s “mind of the Church” hermeneutic to work it must provide us with a mechanism that is present with us today. He well knows what he was suggesting: that it is through the broad “tradition of the Church” (whatever on earth that can possibly mean) that interpretation is to take place. Look around his website. You’ll see all the evidence of what he is promoting you could possibly need. So why point out that during the Apostolic age the Spirit led the Apostles and the elders to a oneness of mind on the matter of circumcision (truths we can only discern by interpreting the words in their original language and context, something Johnson is saying we can’t do anyway) if that in no way defines for us today exactly what this “mind of the Church” is. Given his own claims, the fact that a unity of mind existed in Acts 15 means nothing to us today for the obvious reason that what Paul and Peter were saying was clear to those who were there, but, we were not there, so, we cannot know what they meant any longer! That unity of mind could be a historical novelty, never to be repeated again! The utter destruction of any meaningful basis for Christian epistemology and interpretation inherent in Johnson’s claims is startling, and hopefully, highly instructive (in the sense of providing a warning to all who would begin to slide down the same path he has taken).
This of course is in line with what the rest of the New Testament indicates in terms of how the Church functions when looking at interpretive and other questions. Paul exhorted the church at Rome to be of one mind and not to have divisions with one another (Romans 15:5). In Corinth, Paul tells us his hearers–the church–that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Is the “the mind of Christ” an equally non-sensible phrase for our Reformed Baptist doctor? Of course, in the book of Philippians Paul instructs the church at Philippi to:
make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.
Odd directions for something “so nebulous, something so utterly beyond all possible definition”. Kinda makes you wonder what the “inspired text” is really saying here!
Once again we simply have to point out how completely Johnson misses the challenge. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball. Where do any of these texts, which we are told cannot be understood from grammar and syntax alone anyway, tell us that we are to look outside of Scripture for the interpretive grid that will open up for us a whole range of meanings outside of what is obtainable only from the actual intended meanings of the authors? Where is “the mind of the Church” defined in these texts in such a way as to fulfill Johnson’s own original claim, to which I responded? Of course, the careful reader sees that none of these are, in fact, relevant at all. How does an exhortation to unity in the local congregation (Romans 15:5) provide us with a hermeneutical matrix? How does the mind of Christ in 1 Cor. 2:16 give us insight into how we, living two thousand years after the Christ events, are to delve beyond the original meanings of the Scriptures to some meaning that has evolved over time so that we can somehow identify the “mind of the Church”? How do these basic exhortations provide for us a method of identifying the “mind of the Church”? Given the constant development, evolution, degradation, and change in what can be defined broadly as “tradition,” is there any way of finding a consistent reading of the “mind of the Church”? Does this mind exist in Rome, in Constantinople, in Lynchburg? Can anyone seriously cobble together any kind of meaningful synthesis of the broad fabric of what calls itself “Christianity” today so as to claim to be able to define the “mind of the Church”? This kind of facile argumentation, circular as it is, will hardly meet the demands produced by the weightiness of Johnson’s claims.
No. Dr. White’s Reformed Baptist slip is showing again and he can’t stand to actually defend the view he puts forward or the presuppositions that he brings to the text in the first place. Instead, he’s content to insult and charge folks like me with cowardice for not ‘fully crossing the Tiber’.
I simply remind the reader that I provided far more than insults in my response. Johnson has no replies, and he well knows he is not prepared to engage in exegesis on the text (he once agreed wholeheartedly with the comments I made), and that is why he (along with Enloe) have abandoned the entire field of exegetical study of the text to begin with.
And now we turn to the heart of Johnson’s claim, a claim that I assert proves the point that he finds so offensive. Kevin Johnson, if he believes what he writes in the following paragraph, has no logical or rational reason to remain outside of some kind of religious group that would provide him with extra-scriptural revelation (Mormonism, for example) or authority structures that can withstand, by definition, the weight of defining and interpreting divine revelation (Rome).
Dr. White wants us to look at the original context of the words of Jesus. This is something that is frankly impossible and to assert otherwise is to spin endlessly in the most fundamentalist circles known to man. We weren’t there. None of us speak Aramaic and even if Jesus was speaking Greek at the time, it’s doubtful that even Dr. White would have the sort of linguistic ability to follow along in conversational Greek. Oh wait. That would also require Dr. White to have been there two thousand years ago. Also not possible! So, this notion that we have “an original context” or “original meaning” to deal with other than what we have written in the text of John is just ridiculous. Since John was written in the context of a covenant community–the Church–by its very nature we must take into account not only what was recorded but who John was writing to–in other words, we must be free to explore the mind of the Church in viewing the book before us.
Consider for a moment what is being said here. To believe in the perspecuity of Scripture and to believe that language is, in fact, capable of communicating across linguistic, chronological, geographical, and societal boundaries, is to “spin endlessly in the most fundamentalist circles known to man.” Now, I have no idea what that is supposed to mean, but it doesn’t sound good. In fact, if he is right, it is not possible for me to know what it means, since I was not standing in Kevin Johnson’s office when he typed it. It happened in the past. I was removed geographically. So, I might as well interpret those words to mean “Kevin Johnson thinks Starbucks rocks” as to interpret them to have any relevance to fundamentalists running in circles. Language is insufficient for the task, right? So, since none of us speak Aramaic (as if we could reconstruct it anyway) or Greek, well, then that written text, preserved and loved by Christians down through the ages, that God-breathed revelation that Kevin Johnson once claimed to love and honor—it is insufficient without “the mind of the Church” to communicate Jesus’ meaning while speaking in the Synagogue at Capernaum. And, of course, this would be true of everything Paul wrote. Of all the Gospels. The Psalter.
Compare this view of Johnson’s with Jesus’:
Matthew 22:29-33 29 But Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 “But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: 32 ‘I AM THE GOD OF ABRAHAM, AND THE GOD OF ISAAC, AND THE GOD OF JACOB ‘? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
Notice how the Lord Jesus held the men of his day accountable to the Word of God that had been spoken and written a thousand years earlier as if it had been spoken directly to them! Where is “the mind of the Church” here, Mr. Johnson? Why do you hold a view of Scripture significantly different than that held by Jesus Christ Himself?
Now, Johnson’s thinking is clearly muddled here. He has obviously not thought this stuff through. First he says there is no “original context,” and then, of course, he tells us it was “written in the context of a covenant community–the Church.” Which is it? He tells us we can’t know from grammar and syntax what Jesus meant when speaking in Capernaum, but, “we must take into account not only what was recorded but who John was writing to,” which, of course, is what grammatical-historical interpretation does (that’s called context, both authorial and receptive). Is all of this just Johnson’s ignorance of the process of exegesis itself, muddled together with his fascination with Rome? Who is to know? Perhaps if he would actually attempt to interact with the refutation of Owen’s comments and the exegesis I have provided of John 6 in published works, we could find out just how consistent the man is. Till then, he is a loose cannon and his arguments are self-refuting.
Not only that, there is nothing in the text whatsoever that precludes us from thinking that either John or Jesus had other things in mind besides making bare assertions about what Dr. White thinks is important about John 6.
What I think is important about John 6? Where have I ever inserted such a concept? I demand that what we should all think is the point of Jesus’ words is to be derived from His words, not from what some modern interpreter decides is the “mind of the Church.” That is the only way for His words to continue to have the same meaning in each place and for each person.
Quite likely, as we have pointed out, John most certainly had an agenda well beyond the original import of Jesus’ words in presenting John 6 to his readers. White can go over the details of the passage all he likes, but as Dr. Garver has already pointed out recently, the idea that the Lord’s Supper is being referred to in John 6 is hardly outside the mainstream of Reformed interpretation regarding this passage. Calvin says no less in his commentary on the passage noting that whatever is said in John 6 can certainly be applied to what takes place in the Supper of our Lord.
When the “mainstream of Reformed interpretation” becomes the “mind of the Church” we can deal with such asides. Is it Johnson’s assertion that John has unfaithfully recorded the words of Jesus? Is it Johnson’s assertion that this is myth, parable? Did this event actually happen in history? Many today do not mind at all dismissing such texts on this basis, and if Mr. Johnson wants to go down that road, no one can stop him. I just wish he’d be open about it so that those who actually continue to hold to the high view of Scripture enunciated in the WCF or LBCF can write him off as the modernist he is. Indeed, we would be much better off writing off a whole host of folks who are embarrassed to confess a belief in the fully supernatural nature of God’s revelation today. But the fact remains that Paul Owen dismissed the text as teaching on the divine decree of God in salvation. Owen is wrong. Calvin said it did, Luther said it did, and unless Owen and Johnson want to argue that “well, given one set of traditions, it might, and given another, it might not, and in fact, there are probably ten different interpretations that are useful, but, no one can actually claim that any of those interpretations are ‘true’,” they must deal with the reality that reading the text as a whole, following the flow of the argument, and eschewing eisegetical import of entire concepts into the text, results in the very reading Owen set out to disparage. As I have said many times, the only way to mute this texts testimony, really, is to deny that we can ever actually understand it. That was not the view of the Apostles, that was not the view of those who gave their lives that we might have God’s Word. And I say I want to have nothing whatsoever to do with those who would seek to mute the testimony of God’s Word today while pretending fealty to the Lord who gave it to us and who holds all men accountable for what it says.
But all this is lost on Dr. White because he’s working within an interpretive grid that only allows for his position to reign supreme. He’s the one who has put eisegesis back into vogue by demanding a strict TULIP reading of John 6 and not the other way around. It’s his theology that has determined the meaning of the passage for his view and anyone that disagrees with him gets the sort of treatment myself and Paul Owen have enjoyed of late.
There is almost nothing of substance here to respond to. Johnson cannot respond to the arguments provided yesterday on this blog, he cannot engage the text on the level necessary to even enter the fray, so I would suggest he leave that to Paul Owen. When Johnson wishes to offer a meaningful critique of the exegesis I have offered, I will gladly respond thereto.
Notice that neither Owen or myself limited the passage in the way that Dr. White does. What we’ve said is that there are other reasonable approaches to the passage besides the lock James White would like to put on it.
Please note what is being said here! “We are the ones who allow the text to have freedom!” What is the result? “We haven’t a clue what it is actually saying, and nobody else does, either!” Think of the utter epistemological absurdity to which Johnson’s words lead. Let’s go back to an earlier example. I go to Kevin Johnson’s website where he sells his coffee. I want his website to have freedom! So I interpret his words, extolling the virtues of his coffee (and, by the way, everyone I have ever talked to says he makes some of the finest coffee around–being one who can’t stand the taste of coffee, I cannot personally comment, but those I know who do partake say he knows what he’s doing and recommend his coffee highly), to actually mean that his favorite brand is Starbucks! And in fact, I want to make sure I do not “lock” his words in even then, so, I say it is proper to likewise let others interpret his words to actually recommend Folgers! (Mr. Johnson just fainted). And I even allow for a wider range of interpretations, all according to each individual’s understanding of “the mind of the coffee bean.” Ah, I have so honored the words on Mr. Johnson’s website, yes? I have shown myself broad-minded, open, and accepting, yes? No, I’ve proved myself an epistemological terrorist, a man without the slightest concern for truth or rationality. I have shown Mr. Johnson’s words deep disrespect because I have in essence claimed that he can’t speak with clarity and cannot communicate his intentions in language. And that is exactly what Mr. Johnson is saying here. Since I actually honor the text by refusing to turn it into my personal sandbox of desired meanings, I somehow am “locking” the text! Truly an amazingly incoherent position to take. When the Lord Jesus cited from the Old Testament and demanded a particular interpretation, I do have to wonder why His opponents did not take Johnson’s view. “Oh, but Rabbi, that is just one interpretation. There are so many others, and we think those others are better. We don’t want to lock the text down to any one meaning!” I suppose that is to be found in 4th Hesitations somewhere.
Who’s really being narrow here and making their theology determine what the text has to say? Perhaps Dr. White can establish that he’s independently come to the conclusions about the text that he puts forward, but all he’s done to this point is rant and rave about how inappropriate our view is simply because it isn’t in accord with his own.
The fair reader knows better.