Wednesday, January 31, 2007

'Through New Eyes' 1

During the Christmas holidays I read ‘Through New Eyes’ by James B. Jordan. Several people have commended the book to me as a seminal work in the field of biblical theology. This is the first post of my reflections on the book. I’ll try to summarise Jordan’s views cogently and make my own comments constructive to those who have or will read the book.

Jordan’s aim (p. 4) is not ‘to try and set out a Christian philosophical worldview’ (though he thinks that’s important of course) but to ‘get into the bible and become as familiar as possible with the Bible’s own worldview, language and thought forms.’[1] His methodology is more ‘shock and awe’ than careful argument of every point. In some senses this makes for an exhilarating and at times frustrating ride, especially for the student, as Jordan lays before our eyes his understanding of Biblical symbolism. Details for further study and debate are reserved intentionally for the footnotes, which, I would argue, must therefore be read along with the main text.

Jordan’s task of helping us view the world from the bible’s perspective kicks off with a helpful discussion on the difference between a merely symbolic reading of Genesis 1 which excludes the possibility of the literal, and one that views the chapter as using ‘the language of visual appearances’ to both describe the world as it actually is (‘the sun is a great light’ after all) and also ‘sets up a worldview grid that is used later on in Scripture for symbolic purposes.’ (I must confess this made me think again about whether indeed the ‘days’ of Genesis might not in fact be literal periods of 24 hours). Jordan argues that the symbolic significance of the physical world stems from it being designed to reveal the creator and give instruction to humanity (pp. 9-13).

For Jordan this way of looking at the world fits with a generally ‘associational’ way of reading the imagery found in the bible that pays attention to metaphors, typology, allusions, literary structure and device, number symbolism and so forth. This does not reduce the bible into some kind of code but does mean we must interpret the bible’s symbolism in terms of its own ‘presuppositions and philosophy’ rather than, for example, the Platonic-allegorical method of the Alexandrians (and the naturalistic-scientific worldview of the modern west) (pp. 14-17, also 9-10).

Part one concludes that ‘we need to learn again’ how to understand ‘God’s created symbols’ which means paying attention to the primary symbols God has given us (his Word, the Sacraments and Humanity) all of which are gifts of grace. Only restoration of these primary ‘powers’ in creation will lead to Church renewal and thus also to cultural renewal (p. 30-38) as reality is shaped by a redeemed humanity understanding and interpreting the world through God’s eyes.

In one sense these early chapters are the most significant, though in another sense it is only really when the basic principles within them are applied and unfolded in the rest of the book that we see the value. At the very end of this series of posts I will make some comments about the enormous value to the Church of Jordan’s thesis that we pay attention to metaphor, typology and allusion as well as principles, commands and statements. For the moment it is worth noting that the basic presupposition is a reformation one, flowing inevitably from the conviction that the bible is the Word of God. If we believe that the form as well as the doctrine of the bible is God-breathed, we will want to pay great attention to its thought-forms, symbolism and metaphor. And, along with the Reformers, we will seek to interpret scripture by scripture itself. This means more than the necessary task of pondering apparent tension or contradiction and making the necessary distinctions and formulations (the task of systematic theology in some ways); it will also mean interpreting scriptural symbols within the symbolic worldview of scripture itself. None of this is controversial per se, but, understood properly, taking scripture’s detail seriously in this way makes the task of exegesis, interpretation and application a lot broader (and therefore a lot richer) than is customarily thought.

A question remains in my mind from these early chapters as to the way in which the creation reveals the Creator. One of the main texts employed by Jordan is Romans 1: 18-23 (pp13, 20-23). Following discussions in doctrine lectures last semester, I’m not convinced it will stand up to the weight here laid on it, since the very things revealed about God in those verses are his 'unlikeness' to anything created (his deity and eternality). exactly how does the created order reveal God to us. That it does is well established, not only in Romans but in the many ways in which God employs the symbolism of creation in his word to describe himself in some way, but I for one feel the need for some more rigorous thought on this one.[2]

[1] NB. It should be noted that this entails that we look to the bible not just for doctrinal instruction but also for hermeneutics and epistemology. This contradicts those, for e.g., who argue that whilst we follow the apostle’s teaching we should not follow their thought forms, especially their use of the Old Testament. Jordan’s point is that we see the world biblically when we think ‘the way people thought in Bible times.’
[2] And of course, Jordan is clear that sin has marred our perceptions, and, along with Calvin, that the bible is needed for a proper reading of the symbolism of creation. See e.g. 26, 31. With regard to Romans 1:20ff., it may be that Jordan's use of Romans rather than his basic point is what needs revising, since the created order is quite clearly all to be interpreted within the knowledge and fear of the LORD.

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