Post: Readers Respond

"HOCUS POCUS AS EXEGETICAL METHOD AND UNIFYING THEOLOGICAL PRINCIPLE" A response by Clifford Biel to Peter Sandstrom

Dear Peter:

To dismiss the Biblical accounts of the incarnation of the eternal Christ in the person of Jesus of Nazareth as "hocus pocus," as you do in Pietisten, 1st quarter, 1988, is to reduce the normative authority of Scripture to the level of The Golden Bough. You may pride yourself on being within "the Covenant tradition," but then, what did you do with that little paragraph in the Constitution about the Old Testament and the New Testament being the Word of God and "the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct?" Say to them "hocus pocus" and their authority disappears?

"Hocus Pocus!" "Higher Criticism!" Say the magic words and the authority of Scripture disappears as the morning mist is dissipated by the rising, blazing sun. Higher criticism? Scientific, rather. Whether dealing with form, historical or literary criticism, they all share one axiomatic beginning point: the revelation of God is irrelevant to their inquiry. By definition Scripture is treated as derived from cultural determinants and as evolved according to rationalistic norms. "Hocus pocus" they say, and the intervention of God in human affairs disappears as though by magic.

Scientific criticism not only leaves scant room for God' s revelation in the genesis of Scripture, it leaves even less room for revelation to the heater of the Word. Effectively, the meaning of Scripture is accessible only to those who hold the keys of true understanding, the apparatus of scientific criticism. The layperson who studies the Scriptures does so at the risk of serious error. Scientific criticism is contemptuous of any "enlightenment" claimed from the Spirit, through the Word. It would take the Scripture out of the hands of the laypeople and return its interpretation to the authorized rabbis.

If "hocus pocus exegesis" is unreliable because it is blind to divine revelation, "Hocus Pocus Christology" is equally unreliable theology. A Christology cut free from its Biblical roots has nowhere to go but down. The Biblical Christ is portrayed as exercising divine functions: everything is created through Him and for Him; He is final judge; he is the giver of life in the same sense that the Father is; He forgives sin; He is the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit; He raises the dead; He is the lamp which gives light to the City of God; He shares with the Father the heavenly throne. Adoptionism has no choice but to deny the pre-existent Christ. It has no choice but to affirm polytheism if he who was not God became God. Adoptionism cannot affirm the finality of the revelation in Christ, for there is no intrinsic identity between the historical Jesus and the Christ. In the hocus pocus christology of adoptionism the principles that make Christ divine apply equally to all. If it is the coming of the Spirit upon Him that makes Christ divine, then the same applies in equal measure to the disciples at Pentecost and thereafter. If it is the declaration of God: "You are my Son," then the same applies to all whom He calls His children, and they also become gods, of equal authority with Christ. In fact, however, Scripture affirms the eternal uniqueness of Christ for all time, and speaks of our possibility as being adopted through faith in Christ into the family of God. It never speaks of Christ as a pattern of general principles applicable to all, and He never relinquishes His right to the title and function of "Lord."

Adoptionism is "hocus pocus theology" because its only authority is the opinion of the theologian. As Christian theology it is as irresponsible as it is whimsical. We are not like God, who speaks "and it is so." "The Word became flesh," it didn't adopt flesh. It happened as a singularity, not as the expression of something generally true everywhere. If the Christ is indeed God, which was the preaching about Jesus that the Jew, Saul, found to be so repugnant, then adoptionist language simply cannot cope with the enormous gulf that must be transcended between the immortal and the mortal, between the divine and the human.

The apostles, the people of Jesus' time, the hearers of the Gospel, all met, and meet, in Christ the living God in a way that transcends rationalistic categories and demands a new language, the language of faith. I believe Paul's conversion was the revelation of the divinity of Christ when the answer to his question, "Who are you, Lord?" received the response: "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting." Ever after, in his preaching and his letters, he reached for the words to convey what that experience meant, just as John Wesley's "heart strangely warmed" poured itself out into his theology. Paul had met God in Jesus Christ. That shocked his Jewishness, but it was the reality which transformed his life. "Hoc est Corpus," he confessed ever after, in unity with the apostolic church. And there was no magic, only awe and reverence in the presence of the living God. Clifford Biel, Mondovi, Wisconsin.

Note from the Editors:

The editors discussed this letter from Pastor Biel and they have concluded that the articles by David Hawkinson on reading Bible in this and the previous issue constitute a response in part. Beyond that, we recommend an article by Hendrikus Berkhof, "Crisis in the Authority of Scripture," in The Judson Bulletin, Vol. VI, New Series 1987, No. 1, pp. 34-40. The Bulletin is published semiannually by the Judson Chair of Missiology of the Andover Newton Theological School. (A copy of the issue may be obtained by writing: The Judson Bulletin, Andover Newton Theological School, 210 Herrick Road, Newton, Massachusetts02 159. There may be a nominal charge.)

One point that we want to make, however, is that the statement in the second paragraph of Clifford's letter, "Higher criticism? Scientific rather. Whether dealing with form, historical or literary criticism, they all share one axiomatic beginning point: the revelation of God is irrelevant to their inquiry," cannot be accepted as true.

Further, we intend to address the issues of authority and revelation in future issues. We thank Clifford again for his vigorous participation in this enterprise.

I have just finished reading the Spring 1988 issue of Pietisten and would like to register my firm and enthusiastic affirmation. Enclosed is my subscription check.

Next Spring I will be teaching a course at North Park Seminary on "Living Issues in Covenant Life and Thought" and hope that back issues of Pietisten can be offered gratis to all members of the seminar. Perhaps most of them will be enlisted as subscribers to the journal. I will most certainly encourage that.

I wholeheartedly commend you and your colleagues for your enriching our focus on the Pietist heritage in Covenant life today. It is a Well-spring that can offer continuing nourishment and challenge. F. Burton Nelson, Chicago, Illinois.

I've spent some time this summer up at Lake Hagerman and also at the 50+ Conference held at Northwestern's campus at Roseville. Perhaps the part of this year that I enjoyed the most was three months of preaching at Edgebrook Church in Chicago. I felt like an old war horse with the scent of battle in his nostrils.

I've been reading Phil Anderson's chapter in K.O.'s festschrift. Have you seen it yet? I think it is an excellent assessment of "the Covenant circles" which a number of our leaders have been speaking of in recent years. It's a compelling call for proper historical work in seeking understanding of the Covenant movement. (The kind of thing Pietisten is seeking to do, as I see it.) The whole volume is of interest, particularly Zenos Hawkinson's, John Weborg's, and Jean Lambert's work — and others as well.

Thanks also for the fine work in Pietisten. I found your latest issue especially stimulating.

Greet all the gang back there. Donald Frisk, Batavia, Illinois.