Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 6 (Interpretation)

Blunt’s sixth chapter is entitled “The Interpretation of Holy Scripture.” However, a more accurate title would be “Hierarchies of Guidance with regard to Holy Scripture” as that is what he presents here.

This will be (should be??) a fairly short post, because Blunt’s presentation here is simple and straight-forward. He begins out of the gate with a flat denunciation of the notion of the perspicuity of the Scriptures, that is, the idea championed in the Reformation that Scripture is clear and simple enough to be read and understood by all:

It is sometimes alleged that this true meaning and sense becomes evident to pious and humble minds at once by a kind of instinct; but however correct such an allegation may be to a small extent, it is contrary to fact when made as a statement applicable to the Bible in general, and to pious and humble minds in general. It is perfectly certain, for instance, that the Song of Solomon, the prophecy of Ezekiel, and the Book of Revelation are not capable of interpretation by instinct. It is also clear that many various interpretations of nearly every part of the Bible will be given by different good men who have no other guide; and that some of these interpretations will be so utterly inconsistent with, and even contrary to each other, as to make it certain that they cannot all represent the truth. Hence, although piety and humility are the proper foundations for a penetrative insight into the meaning of Holy Scripture, external guides to its interpretation are also necessary.

Blunt, 106-107

So—to clarify the argument—Blunt’s two principle proofs for the non-perspicuity of the Scriptures are 1) the really hard books, and 2) a diversity of interpretations even among the well-meaning.

While I agree with Blunt generally in this chapter, this initial establishment of the reasons makes me squirm a little. Perhaps it’s my Lutheran upbringing that emphasized the importance of everyone reading the Scriptures for themselves, perhaps it’s his assumption that a diversity of interpretations is an inherently bad thing. However, I’ve also heard and seen enough very bad biblical interpretation to agree with him that flat, unmediated, unbounded, undirected Bible reading can frequently do more harm than good.

I do want to highlight his second point, though: it’s not what he says explicitly, but implicitly he appears to be arguing for a restricted range of “correct” interpretations if not a single true reading of every passage of Scripture. (I’d like to know if he, like some at the time, would argue for a single right reading of every passage, but he seems too catholic to fall into that particular trap.)

So—guides are required for right reading. The guides Blunt will identify next are ecclesiastical and hierarchical. He begins his discussion of guides with Christ himself, followed by the examples of the apostles from Acts from which he proves his prior point:

In fact, we can hardly open a page of the New Testament but we find the writer of that page guiding us to some interpretation of Scripture which not one person in ten thousand would have found out for themselves; and thus showing the general application of the words spoken by a humble and pious man to Philip, when asked if he understood the mysterious Scripture about the death of Christ, “How can I, except some man guide me?” [Acts 8:31]

Blunt, 108.

(The way he keeps repeating “humble and pious man” makes it clear to me that he is citing some source [likely Calvinist?] that uses that phrase defending the perspicuity of the Scriptures, but I don’t recognize it off the top of my head…)

The move to the post-apostolic age brings with it the first mention of the Holy Spirit which I find both purposeful and deliberate. Note here the context and caveats connected with the Spirit and its interpretive gifts:

It is clear that these interpretations of the Apostolic age were made by those to whom the Holy Ghost had been given for this among other purposes. In some cases it is mentioned that the interpreter was “full of the Holy Ghost;” and in every case it will be reasonable to suppose that our Lord’s promise, “He will guide you into all truth” was fulfilled.

But this province of guidance by the Holy Ghost was not given solely to the Apostles. The represent the Church of all ages, and especially the ministers of Christ in the Church; and as our Lord promised his own perpetual Presence in the words, “Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world.” so He promised the perpetual Presence of the Holy Ghost, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that he made abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth.” Thus the Holy Ghost has been always believed to guide the solemn assemblies of Bishops which are called Councils, whenever they have sought His Presence in a humble determination to abide by his guidance; and it is not difficult to distinguish such Councils from those in which questions have been prejudged or decided from secondary motives instead of humble desires for the Truth.

And as this guidance is given in its highest degree to Councils of Bishops, so in a lower degree, it is part of the ordination gift which is bestowed on all priests and Bishops when the words are spoken, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”

Blunt, 108-109.

Thus, in the hierarchy of guides, Blunt establishes:

  • Jesus
  • Apostles
  • Councils of Bishops
  • individual bishops
  • priests/clergy

Blunt gives particular attention to the clergy piece in discussing their interpretive status:

And although it cannot, of course, be maintained that these authorized interpreters [the clergy] are infallible interpreters, it cannot be doubted that those of them who wish to use the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their expositions of Scripture will receive that guidance, and be preserved from error to the extent to which they submit their studies and ordinary means of knowledge to His benediction. One purpose of their office is the instruction of the laity. It is an universal rule that such instruction shall be founded on Holy Scripture. Hence it is one purpose (and many regard it as the chief purpose) of their office that they shall be the ordinary interpreters of the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Blunt, 109-110.

Thus, Blunt pretty bluntly states that when we’re talking about interpreters guided by the Spirit, it ought to pertain to the clergy rather than the laity. He does get to the laity in the next paragraph, acknowledging they are part of the Church and also guided by the Spirit “so far as it is needed for the purposes of their own Christian life” (Blunt, 110). However, he sees it as a different an lesser order of interpretation than what the clergy receive—else why should the clergy be charged with instructing the laity on the Scriptures? Logically, then, the priestly comprehension is greater than that of the laity.

Finally, Blunt takes up the idea that the Holy Spirit cooperates with natural gifts and acquirements. Thus, he argues that of two devout men, one very learned and the other very ignorant, “the learned man is infinitely more qualified by God to become and interpreter of Scripture than the other” (Blunt, 111). Furthermore, there are great troves of wisdom in the history of the Church, and again—following the previous example—Blunt states:

and of two equally good men, the one of whom has used these treasures and the other has not, the best and most reliable interpreter can very easily be discerned. It is in these treasures, then, that we find the TRADITION of the Church as to the sense and meaning of Holy Scripture; the results of the co-operation of God’s Spirit with man’s learning in searching the Scriptures through many hundreds of years.

Blunt, 112.

Thus, both intellectual development and learning the teachings of the Church create far better interpreters than the “humble and pious man” with which Blunt began.

Blunt concludes the chapter with the acknowledgement that the Scriptures still need to be read, searched, and studied because time is always drawing us into new circumstances which can draw out “hitherto undiscovered meanings” and, indeed, “a special message to the nineteenth century may be found there, of which there would be no perception, because there was no need of its perception, in the ninth century or the third” (Blunt, 112).


Obviously, Blunt is very interested in making the argument for an educated priesthood as the central and local arbiters of the meaning of the biblical text. That makes perfect sense and, largely, I agree with that. I can’t agree that ordination gives an inherently richer/better interpretation of Scripture than the Basic Package Holy Spirit given in Baptism. I also think this argument lands more soundly if you envision Blunt’s target audience as school children in an English village where the vicar is the only man who’s been to university. That’s certainly not my context!

I also can’t help but see a certain symmetry between the model of inspiration and the model of interpretation, that strikes me as structurally suspicious… The notion that the Bible was written by a few specific set-apart men and that its interpretation should be likewise reserved for a few specific set-apart men (because of course they were all men in Blunt’s day) seems like a mutually reinforcing paradigm that is as much about maintenance of the present power structure as it is about the past…

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 5

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 5

Blunt’s fifth chapter is “The Object of the Holy Bible.” This is where he is talking about object and purpose. At first, this seemed to me an odd detour between chapter 4 on Inspiration and chapter 6 on Interpretation—why not just move directly from Inspiration to Interpretation? On further review, Blunt uses this intermediary chapter to make some good and useful points that might otherwise be overlooked about the character of the biblical texts. He gets at intention in some interesting ways. But enough prolegomena, let’s just get in to it…

Initial Section

The opening of the chapter is a strong appeal that Christians who read the Bible should come following Anselm’s famous dictum of “Faith seeking Understanding” (neither using that phrase or mentioning Anselm by name, of course). And the heart of that faith is its purpose:

That purpose,—so pervading Holy Scripture from beginning to end—is THE REDEMPTION AND SALVATION OF MANKIND BY OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST. The History, Prophecy, the Poetry, the Teaching, of the Bible all look towards this one object; and thus the Cross of Christ is the true “Key of Knowledge,” [Luke 11:52] the “Key of David,” [Rev 3:7, viz. Isa 22:22] and of all other treasuries of divine mysteries. By this Key the most secret pages of Holy Scripture may be unlocked, and the Personal Word revealed by the written word:— “Him first, him last, Him midst and without end.” [Paradise Lost, Book 5]

Blunt, 84-85; small caps in the original; parenthetical brackets listed sources added by me

As a practicing Christian and an academic student of the text, I have to say “Yes, but” at this point. Yes, as a Christian, I agree with him that Christ is at the heart and center of the Scriptures. However, to say that Christ is the only true object of the purpose and writing of the OT texts is problematic from both an inter-religious standpoint and an interpretive one. Christ as the center of the OT is not self-evident. If established as a hermeneutical framework, projected from the NT back on the OT text, it works—but it is far from the only acceptable hermeneutic for understanding these texts, their contents, and the through-line that holds them together. I do believe that there are some strong fundamental themes encoded throughout the OT that shape and encourage a messianic reading of the text of the OT as we have received it, but many of the messianic expectations are quite unlike the figure of Jesus.

(Always remember: the idea that Jesus is Messiah and the idea that Jesus is God are two distinct ideas fused in the NT and Christian thought; the messiah of the OT is chiefly portrayed as a restoration and continuation of Israel’s political power embodied in an heir of the Davidic line. Hence the many disagreements from readers of the OT past and present that Jesus is a perfect fit for the role! Again, it’s a clash of very different hermeneutics [frameworks for making sense of the texts].)

Blunt then sets forth proofs of his argument by stepping through a variety of genres of texts in the following arrangement:

  1. The object of the Bible illustrated from Old Testament History
  2. The object of the Prophetical Books of the Holy Bible
  3. The object of the Poetical Books of the Old Testament
  4. The object of New Testament History

Blunt on OT History

Blunt’s first section focuses largely on the book of Genesis. Thereby neatly bypassing in silence the 7,000+ verses from Joshua to Esther that speak (sometimes in excruciatingly genealogical detail) about the political events of Israel and Judah for a period of roughly 800 years. But—ok—we’ll give him Genesis… And he makes four main points about what we find there, talking about Creation and then—his topic categories, not mine—mysteries, prophecies, and types.

Essentially in this latter portion of his history section, Blunt gives a brief primer on allegorical and figural interpretation of the Bible without using either of those words! Mysteries he uses largely as references to the trinitarian character of God (the creative plural in Genesis 1, the 3 men at the oaks of Mamre, etc.) but also the sacrificial system which cannot be strictly literal but points beyond itself to Christ with the sacrifice of Isaac as the central representative. Prophecies are the many passages that will be interpreted in relation to Christ (God’s words to Eve at the casting out, God telling Abraham all nations will be blessed in him, etc.) Types are the “persons,…events, and…material things” “by which the Redeemer and his work are set forth in the course of this first historical book of the Bible” (Blunt, 91; rearranged for clarity).

It’s fascinating to me that these three are presented in basic, factual terms. He doesn’t argue for them, he doesn’t put forth a schema of levels of reading (literal/allegorical/moral/tropological), they just are the way that Scripture is read.

Before moving on, I must loop back to where he starts this section and therefore the main bulk of the chapter, because he uses it to make a very instructive point that I agree with and that is frequently overlooked in discussions of Scripture and its content. He’s talking here about Creation, and very specifically draws our attention to what is and isn’t described by the text. Because this is important, I’ll quote this at some length:

The history of THE CREATION is the only such history that we possess; but the fact that it is contained almost entirely in the first chapter of Genesis, while the family history of Abraham occupies forty times as large a space, shows that it is not intended for the purpose of setting forth an account of Creation such as would satisfy the mind which wishes to inquire into its various details. What is narrated must have been known to the writer from information communicated by God, who only, of all living beings, witnessed it; and therefore it must be entirely true. But the object of the narrative is to assert, (1) that God was the Creator of all things, (2) that when He created them there was no evil associated with them; and (3) that the whole earthly creation was bound up with man, to whom the sovereignty of it, under God, was given.

Thus the account of Creation is incidentally a history, and as such it is of the highest possible value as being communicated by the all-knowing Creator Himself; but its real object is to show that God created a kingdom on earth, of which he appointed man to “have” the “dominion,” and that this kingdom was committed to his trust in a condition of perfection, even including himself [i.e., that humanity be perfect too…].

Blunt, 86; emphasis & small caps in the original, bracketed section added by me for clarity

The very important point Blunt is making here is that creation specifically and biblical narrative more broadly is selective. It doesn’t say everything that happened—it says what is relevant to its story and purposes. I actually totally agree with Blunt that those are three foundational points that the author of Genesis 1 is trying to communicate through the narrative. Where we part ways is that, for me, that’s the take-away and the point. The narrative doesn’t have to accurate for those points to be real and true. That is—contra Blunt—I can discard the historical and scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation because the author who scribed this creation myth from Ancient Israel was communicating these three points as fundamental and foundational. (And, as a modern Christian, I can fully embrace the author’s points 1 & 2, while feeling that point 3 is entirely too anthropocentric and has had devastating consequences regarding how humanity has impacted creation…)

For me and my reading, myth is just a legitimate vehicle for truth as history which is a place where Blunt and I diverge broadly and about which more ought to be said—but won’t be in this post as I’m already slipping off topic…

Blunt on OT Prophecy & Poetry

I’ll treat these two together, as largely, Blunt does what you’d expect, with only a few points worth noting.

With regard to prophecy, Blunt has an admirable section at the start where he uses the general structure of prophetical proclamation to both see it in its historical context and to use it more broadly for Christian purposes:

The Old Testament prophecies were all written at times when the Jews were going through some national sorrow, as in the time of Hezekiah, at the close of Josiah’s reign, the times immediately preceding and during the Babylonish Captivity, and the sad return to the Holy City. The immediate purpose of most of the prophecies, was that of warning against the sins which had brought calamity on the nation, and of denunciation against all those who set themselves up as the enemies of God. But beyond this immediate purpose there was another, that of pointing to a glorious future, when the reign of the Messiah would more than compensate the nation for all past woes.

Blunt, 94

Naturally, the messianic promises point to Christ.

With regard to the poetic material—Psalms, Lamentations, Song of Songs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes—Blunt goes full-on prosopological. That is, we read these texts best when we hear them (properly discerned, of course) coming from the mouth of Christ himself. It’s both interesting and telling that a large portion of this section is Blunt plagiarizing himself: fully a page and a half (pp. 97-99) is a quotation ripped straight out of the section on the Psalms from his Annotated Book of Common Prayer.

Blunt on NT History

Here we get again Blunt’s important reminder of the reality and importance of specificity:

When we open the New Testament, and come upon the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, we still move in the same track as we have done all through the Old Testament. For these five books all form part of the same History of the Redeemer and His work which is contained in Genesis, or the Psalms, or the Prophecies.

This explains why it is that the Gospels do not contain a complete Life of our Blessed Lord. As the history of Creation is narrated only so far as it is part of the history of Redemption, so the Life of our Lord is set forth only so far as it is necessary to illustrate His position as the Redeemer and Saviour of mankind.

Blunt, 100-101

Thus Blunt speaks of the Gospels & Acts portraying Jesus as Teacher, Healer, Light-giver, and Liberator in straight-forward terms.

And by “Liberator”, he does clarify what he means by this at the head of that section: “It is not any where recorded that [Jesus] [set captives free] literally (at least among living captives), and so it must be concluded that spiritual captivity is referred to” (Blunt, 105). A footnote here acknowledges that Jesus does refer to the healing of a woman “bound by Satan these many years” [Luke 13:16]. Despite this, he recommends that Liberator be equated with Absolver. So, Blunt sees it, but is not a proto-liberation theologian by any stretch of the imagination!

Final Thoughts

I see this chapter chiefly as Blunt teaching the art of interpretation and establishing hermeneutical principles. Of course, he’d never use that language, but this is the framing of thought that enables a person to see Scripture from a particular interpretive perspective. I never would have guessed it from the title, though! Using the term “Object” cloaks his actual purpose. Having said that, “cloaks” implies a deceptive intent that Blunt lacks; he’s not trying to smuggle it in, it just comes across like that from my own later perspective. Seeing the chapter for what it is does help clarify the logical progression of the chapters as being Inspiration – Hermeneutics – Interpretation.

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 4 (Inspiration)

Introduction to the Chapter

After completing a 3-chapter sweep of the Bible itself, its languages, translation, and contents, Blunt now embarks on a 4-chapter theological arc that deals with how Christians should regard and use the Bible. The first chapter in this section is our present focus: “The Revelation of the Holy Bible, and the Inspiration of its Writers.”

No. I don’t know why he felt the title needed a comma in it, but then—I do feel his repeated use of the semi-colon in his prose is odd to the modern eye as well.

This chapter is one of the key reasons I wanted to go in-depth on this work: to see without prejudice (or pre-reading) how a High Church Anglican of the 19th century would describe the mechanisms of revelation and inspiration. I have theories about the default assumptions that I find in American Mainline congregations, and I’m curious to see if his treatment confirms or challenges my hypotheses. In a nutshell, my hypothesis is that his portrayal of these mechanisms will be very much informed by Romanticism, its critique of empirical science, and the image of author as genius in a Kantian mode… (Fair warning: I’m not a philosophy guy, so I’m working with an educated laymen’s sense of Kant and Romanticism, not an expert’s!)

Now—there are two ways to work with a chapter like this; one is to walk through the argument and logic, using his words and headings, with points clarified by means of quotes from the text, the other is to convey a general impression, and then discuss the interesting bits that stand out. The first approach is helpful for clearly displaying the author’s thought (greatly increasing comprehension of the actual argument and reducing the author to a straw man) but is much less readable especially for those looking for a pay-off; the second is the reverse, more readable but less thorough. In a spirit of compromise, I’ll provide both: Up front, I’ll provide my thoughts and reflections, after that I’ll provide a full walk-through (here’s a link if you want to read that first!).

My Thoughts and Reflections

I must state up-front that, as an author, this has got to be a daunting chapter to write! Blunt approaches it from a different angle than I would—presenting it as a simple explication of objective truth—and this decision very much characterizes his approach.

Fundamentally, I agree with Blunt on the majority of his teaching—that the Bible is the revelation of God to humanity, the Word of God written by inspired humans. In the main, he does not attempt to nail down a specific mechanism of inspiration; specifically, there is no reference to verbal inspiration, and no declaration of an infallible text.

That having been said, Blunt presents a number of assumptions with which I do not agree. First, his model of inspiration very much appears to be that the Bible was written by a discrete limited set of named men writing directly what the Spirit inspired them to write. This assumption is supported by his careful attention in the previous chapters to authorship supplemented by which men made additions to which earlier works (usually in the case of historical documents). Additionally, he uses a vague couple of sentences to cover the possibility of factual errors within the histories, worth quoting here:

It is possible that errors may have crept in among the truth; but this is another question, to be answered by careful inquiry and criticism. Of one thing we may be certain, that when we have found reason to be assured that any thing in the Bible has really been revealed by God, or written by men whom He has inspired for the purpose of writing it truly, then we may also be assured that what is so recorded is removed beyond the range of all reasonable doubt, and is absolutely true and certain.

Blunt, 79-80.

With one hand, then, he acknowledges that some (few) errors might have crept in amongst the truth, however he does not make any reference to how or by whom this might have occurred. The next statement doubles down on the principle that whatever has been revealed or has been written by an inspired man is to be believed, free from doubt. The unspoken wiggle room in the middle suggests 1) there may be some additions to the texts, 2) these additions are presumably made by uninspired men, and therefore 3) these additions may contain errors. To me, that’s significant: the unspoken assumption that all inspired text must be the production of a discrete limited set of inspired named men.

Second, I believe that Blunt errors in painting Scripture with too broad a brush in terms of its genre and intention: for him, everything within the historical books is intended to be objective literal history. To me, this reflects an overly simplistic approach to genre, but also an overly simplistic approach to human purposes in writing. Blunt’s clearest statement on the authors’ role in biblical composition appears in this passage at the end of his discussion of unity within diversity:

Thus we find the first traces of a Divine as well as a Human Element in Holy Scripture: the HUMAN ELEMENT in the natural powers of the penmen who wrote its component books, the DIVINE ELEMENT in the supernatural influence by which the penmen were controlled.

Blunt, 69.

There is no sense here that human authors may have ulterior motives or purposes in their writing. I have most fully in mind the reality that histories written and promulgated by a certain regime at a certain historical point are hardly neutral products; they are written with intent to make certain things look good and others less good. To deny the presence of these within the biblical record is difficult and here I’m thinking very specifically of the way that Samuel’s speech in 1 Samuel 8 echoes Solomon’s reign (especially with regard to 1 Kings 9:22; 10:26-29; 11), or the casual dismissal of certain monarchs like Nadab (1 Kings 15:25-6).

One accounting for the discrepancy between the way Blunt and I read is in the very complaint Blunt levies against Jowett and Semler and others: I presume that the Bible is to be read as any other ancient text and is thus open to questions of intent and the presence of ancient propaganda. Blunt’s perspective appears to preclude this.

Third, Blunt’s hermeneutics (theory of interpretation) of Scripture determine his assessment of the content of Scripture. Thus, his discussion of both the Historical Unity of the Bible and proof of its Inspired Prophecy center on the person of Jesus to a degree I simply cannot agree with. Are the histories presented in the OT selective? Yes. Are they selective in order to point solely at the person of Jesus? No. Nor is Jesus the focus of all prophecy in the OT; unless Blunt reads the destruction oracles of various Ancient Near Eastern cities in Isaiah and other prophets more creatively than I, there is a lot of prophetic material that is fairly silent on Christ. That’s not to say I disagree with his broader point, that the New Testament and Church find types, antitypes, and figures of Christ within the history and prophecy of Israel, but to say that Christ is their central focus is not accurate.

Finally, the image with which I disagree the most is likely the one wherein he characterizes the separation between the authors of Scripture in order to emphasize the surprising unity and thus the inspired source of their messages:

Forty men writing at different times, in different languages, in different countries, mostly unacquainted with one another, often not knowing much or any thing of what predecessors among them had written, having no intention of working their writings into the system of those predecessors, and not knowing that their writings would form part of a collection—such a series of writers would not have written in this consistent manner if they had been left to themselves.

Blunt, 69.

This reads far more like the legend of the translating of the Septuagint from the “Letter of Aristeas” than it does a description of the Old and New Testament! I do understand Blunt’s rhetorical purpose, but in his exaggeration he has undercut the fundamental concept of the intertexuality of the Scriptural witness—that many of the writings we have are not only cognizant of one another but are intentionally participating within a dialogue on and through Scripture that grounds and establishes the interpretive process of the Church. I think he believes this has been covered by referring to the Holy Spirit as the author of all Scripture, but in emphasizing the separation of the authors, he fails to grasp what I see as a fundamental mechanism of the Spirit’s authorship itself: the facilitation of a theocentric conversation across time and place and language.

With regard to my initial hypothesis—that Blunt represents a Romanticism-shaped model of inspiration which I refer to as the “Mighty Man of God model”—I believe I am correct, but he largely leaves it at the level of assumption rather than being fully explicit. Truthfully, I was hoping he would be much more explicit on the matter, but nevertheless the assumptions that he makes are telling. Perhaps the most important thing I can draw from this source is the level of implicit assumptions that govern the conversation that I think a lot of modern American Christians also hold.

Full Walk-through

Blunt lays out his argument in this chapter with a clear, formal structure of points to explicate. He presents his central thesis at the start with definitions of his two key terms:

The Holy Bible has been universally received by the Christian Church as a REVELATION made by God, and a volume written by men who were under the influence of His INSPIRATION.

The plain meaning of these two terms is as follows: Revelation is an unveiling of something previously concealed. Inspiration is a breathing into the mind of knowledge which it could not naturally possess.

Hence the Holy Bible has been received as so directly coming from God that men have even ventured to call it by a Name Divinely given to our Lord Himself, The Word of God, the Word spoken by the Father through the Inspiration of human persons by God the Holy Ghost.

Blunt, 65-66.

From this point, Blunt proceeds along this outline:

  1. The grounds on which the Bible is received as an inspired book (in ascending order of importance).
    1. The uniform purpose and impulse despite the diversity of authors
      1. Historical Unity: “Their works were all written with reference to a central subject, the coming and work of Christ, the Messiah-King of the Old Testament, the Incarnate God of the New” (Blunt, 67).
      2. Moral Unity: “God is universally represented as holy, as hating sin, as being a just Judge, as rewarding the good and punishing the evil. Man is as generally represented as being in a lower moral condition than he might have been, aiming (in his better moments) at something higher, and as capable of recovering his original moral condition in a future life” (Blunt, 68).
      3. Spiritual Unity: (“constant representation of man as needing a Saviour; by the sacrificial system…ever-recurring references to the Mercy of God…idea of God as Supreme Spiritual Head of all mankind” (ibid.).
    2. Nature of its Contents
      1. Revelations
        1. Facts of Creation: “could be known only by those who were then in existence to observe them; and as man was the last of all created things, he could have observed none of them” (Blunt, 70).
        2. Person of God: “His Nature is continually spoken of from the days of Adam and Cain, all through the the long line of holy men and holy writers down to the last page of the Bible. … Such revelations all reached their climax in that made by our Lord’s words and work” (Blunt, 71).
      2. Prophecies: “Examples may be found in almost every page of the Bible; for, in reality, the whole Bible revolves around one central object, the Person and work of the Redeemer” (Blunt, 72).
      3. Moral Teaching: “No writings which are not plainly moulded after the pattern of the Bible in this respect make the faintest approach to its purity and its elevation above the ordinary thoughts and rules of men…their very nature reveals them to us as a reflection from Divine Holiness and Perfection” (Blunt, 73).
    3. Direct Assertions that it is a Revelation made to and through Inspired Men
      1. Paul (2 Timothy 3:16)
      2. Peter (2 Peter 1.21)
      3. “many passages throughout the Holy Scriptures in which the writers speak of themselves or their predecessors as speaking or writing that which had come from God”
        1. Moses
        2. David
        3. Prophets
        4. New Testament
    4. [Concluding summary] “And thus there are three distinct lines of evidence which all lead to the assurance that the Holy Bible is given by the inspiration of God:—(1) The wonderful unity of its contents, though written by many men in many ages; (2) the nature of its contents, which are such that they could only be known by revelation from God; and (3) the solemn assertions of the writers that they were speaking and writing what God had put into their minds” (Blunt, 78).
  2. The authority belong to Inspired Writings
    1. God speaks as One who is Omniscient, and who is absolute Truth: “Certainty and Truthfulness are, consequently, qualities which are inseparable from God’s word; and no inspired writing can possibly be untruthful or of doubtful authority: a principle which we may apply to inspired history, inspired prophecy, and inspired doctrine” (Blunt, 78).
    2. Inspired History
      1. [Haters gonna hate]: “Almost every section of these records has been made the subject of controversy and doubt. . . . But there is little or no consistency in the opinions of such sceptics, and the only thing in which they agree is their disbelief” (Blunt, 79).
      2. [No better alternatives offered]: “No more probable history has ever been substituted for the history contained in the Bible; and many of the things which have formerly been doubted by sceptical men have afterwards been proved to be true from independent testimony (such as the Assyrian sculptures) by men of deeper research and fuller opportunity for investigation” (ibid.)
      3. [Possibility of errors?]: “It is possible that errors may have crept in among the truth; but this is another question, to be answered by careful inquiry and criticism. Of one thing we may be certain, that when we have found reason to be assured that any thing in the Bible has really been revealed by God, or written by men whom He has inspired for the purpose of writing it truly, then we may also be assured that what is so recorded is removed beyond the range of all reasonable doubt, and is absolutely true and certain” (Blunt 79-80).
      4. [It’s not you, it’s me]: “Hence we may conclude that when we fail to recognize the perfect truthfulness of the Bible we are in fault, not the word of God” (Blunt, 80).
    3. Inspired Prophecy
      1. Truth of some prophecies proved by their fulfillment
      2. All others to be equally credited [even if some ideas of their fulfillment are wrong]
    4. Inspired Doctrine
      1. Many doctrines unintelligible, but not therefore to be disbelieved
  3. Divine and Human Care of the Scriptures: “How far the preservation of the Holy Scriptures has been owing to Providential care, and how far to the care of Jews and Christians, cannot be defined; but the fact is clear, that they have been handed down from one generation to another in a substantially unchanged condition that is quite marvellous, and all the more so because it would have been the interest of many sects to have altered portions of the sacred volume to meet their own views” (Blunt, 82).

Back to My Thoughts and Reflections

Conversations with Scripture: Blunt, 3

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 3

Having dealt with New Testament dating stuff in a previous post, I’ll head into Blunt’s third chapter on the New Testament.

His opening paragraphs introduce an interesting set of stats:

The books of the New Testament are twenty-seven, the writers eight, in number; the greater part being written by St. Paul, St. Luke, and St. John, who are the authors of three-fourths of the whole. The writings of St. Mark and St. Matthew to nearly one-fifth, and those of St. Peter, St. James, and St. Jude to one twenty-third part of the whole. Or, more exactly, supposing the whole New Testament to consist of 186 pages,

St. Peter, St. James, and St. Jude wrote 8 pages,

St. Matthew and St. Mark wrote 38 pages,

St. Paul, St. Luke, and St. John wrote 140 pages.

Blunt, 54.

Or, in pictures:

Blunt’s bird’s-eye view of the NT page counts thrown into an Excel chart

The point he’s making here is that there are five major authors (at least as measured by page count) and three minor. (Of course, as he’ll explain, he’s lumping Hebrews with Paul and Revelation with John the Evangelist.) What he doesn’t say, but clearly implies, is that these eight men represent our fundamental conduit of Christian truth. Furthermore, of those eight, three provide the bulk of the material. This is an interesting fact that I’ll say he leaves at the level of an assumption. But—I want us to notice what he’s doing here. We’ll come back to this in a post or two…

Then, Blunt provides a paragraph explaining the ordering principles of the NT. I didn’t want to quote this one in full, but after wrestling with it, I think we do need to see this two sentence paragraph in its entirety so that we can tease out a couple of observations with the assistance of some bracketed numbers inserted for later reference:

The several books of the New Testament are not arranged in [1] chronological order; for the the whole of them [2] having been written within the space of half a century, and nearly the whole within less than twenty years, [3] such an arrangement would have no particular advantage. The Gospels and Acts are [4] indeed thus arranged, but the Epistles are placed in the order of their length under each author; that to the Hebrews coming at the end of St. Paul’s and out of order, on account of some doubt whether it was or was not written by that Apostle.

Blunt, 54-55.

Whenever I teach an Intro to Bible/Exegesis class (and quite frequently when doing a forum or similar sort of biblical talk), a central source of confusion for the students/participants is around order and chronology. Here are two key things to remember:

  • Order implies chronology especially when disparate texts are assembled beginning with a chronological order.
    • In the OT, Genesis begins with creation, and the following books of the Bible maintain a narrative historical order through Esther (with a recapitulation for 1 and 2 Chronicles)
    • In the NT, Matthew begins the story of Jesus (which the other gospels recapitulate), Acts picks up the narrative thread, letters to churches follow, then time and history conclude with the end of the Book of Revelation
  • A distinction is necessary between “time in the text” and “time of the text”
    • “Time in the text” refers to the time period that the text is about.
    • “Time of the text” refers to the time period when the text was written/achieved the form in which we have received it.

When I talk about this stuff, I frequently refer to “the time referred to in the text” or simply “time-in” versus “the time when the text was written” or simply “time-of.” Keeping these two concepts distinct is especially important when talking about narrative material. Yes, the Gospel of Mark is describing the events of the year A.D. 33 or whatever year we decide Jesus conducted his main ministry in. But Mark was written in A.D. 65 or so. These are two different dates that represent two different things: when events happened vs. when the version of the events recorded achieved the form in which we encounter them.

Why does this matter?

Without any external cues, we tend to collapse these two mentally. Matthew is first; Revelation is last. If Paul mentions something about Jesus, we can just look earlier in the book to what he was referring to. Ah—but wait… In a single-author book you can totally do that… In a collection, it’s a totally different story (so to speak).

Thus, for one example, even though Paul is located after the gospels and is writing to churches established after the events of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, Paul’s writings were written before the gospels as we have them. Indeed, if we want to look at what Paul’s reference to Jesus might mean, we should look to Luke as—if we take the Acts narrative as reliable (which I think it largely is)—Luke himself was Paul’s student and the Gospel he leaves us, written a decade or two after Paul’s letters, gives us the Jesus-content of Paul’s proclamation.

While Paul was chronologically later than Jesus, his letters were written before the gospels were. 1

For another, I’ll throw in an OT example. When working with students wrestling with Psalm 8, they will often point to the fact that it references the creation story. Specifically, Psalm 8 has some parallels to the Genesis 1 account. (I’d say strong thematic parallels; the verbal parallels are actually less strong in the Hebrew than most English versions make it appear). They fail to appreciate that saying “the psalm quotes Genesis…” has some serious dating implications! The Torah as we have received it appears to have come together in and around the Babylonian Exile, and the Genesis 1 section appears to be from a Priestly source writing around that general time and possibly in deliberate contrast to a Babylonian/broader Ancient Near East creation-through-conflict narrative (which pops up in some of the older psalms!). To then say that “the psalm quotes Genesis” is not just an intertextual statement but also a dating argument that must place the composition of the psalm after the composition of Genesis (or at least that part of it which appears pretty late in the book’s history overall). This gets even more tangled if David (who lived roughly around 1000-960 BC) is identified as the author of the psalm!

[For more on all of this OT stuff, I refer you to the most excellent find by long-time friend Barbara in a comment below, the free full and complete open source text of John J. Collin’s Introduction To The Hebrew Bible And Deutero-Canonical Books, Third Edition (2018)]

Ok… Having said all of that, let’s pick up the Blunt thread again. Rather than forcing you to scroll up, I’ll put Blunt’s paragraph here one more time:

The several books of the New Testament are not arranged in [1] chronological order; for the the whole of them [2] having been written within the space of half a century, and nearly the whole within less than twenty years, [3] such an arrangement would have no particular advantage. The Gospels and Acts are [4] indeed thus arranged, but the Epistles are placed in the order of their length under each author; that to the Hebrews coming at the end of St. Paul’s and out of order, on account of some doubt whether it was or was not written by that Apostle.

Blunt, 54-55.

With regard to [1], Blunt does not clarify between time-in and time-of; however, [2] makes it clear that he is talking about time-of—at least, as he sees it. Therefore [3] refers to placing the various NT books in strict time-of chronological order which—given his dating scheme—would intermix Epistles and Gospels in a most confusing combination. [4] presents his thesis on gospel order, but fails to note the time-in/time-of hiccup represented by Acts. Thus, following the order of composition popularized by Eusebius and Augustine, Blunt will date Matthew at 61, Mark later in 61, Luke (and Acts) in 63, and John in 97. The reason for the canonical gospel order, then, is the chronology of their writing. (But—don’t forget—this is not the only order possible; the pre-Vulgate Old Latin Gospels that circulated in the fourth through seventh century followed the order Matthew-John-Luke-Mark which reflected the frequency of use in the lectionaries of the day.)

Following this introductory material, Blunt follows the pattern established in his OT chapter, providing a marginal date notation, then giving a quick summary of the content of each work. The notes on the gospels are largely about the evangelists, passing on the traditional material from Eusebius that was collected into the standardized prefaces that appeared in the medieval manuscript gospel books. Thus we’re told of Matthew’s Hebrew gospel, Mark being the deacon of both Peter and Paul but preserving Peter’s remembrances, and Luke being the disciple of Paul. His John section is different. Following Augustine’s lead he tells his readers that it:

…is chiefly a theological, and not a historical work, only so much narrative being introduced as is necessary for setting forth the particular truths to be proved and illustrated, and the whole of it being comprehended within broken periods, amounting altogether to only thirty-one days. His purpose was not to teach the history of our Lord, but the mysteries arising out of that history.

Blunt, 57-58.

Unlike the preceding Synoptics (and, no he certainly does not use that term!), he provides a brief guide for John:

Chapter 2Divine Nature of the Man Christ Jesus.
Chapter 3Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Chapter 6Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Chapter 8Eternal existence of the Son. His equality with the Father. Doctrine of Plurality in Unity.
Chapter 10Pastoral work of Christ in the visible Church.
Chapter 11Power of Christ in the invisible world.
Chapters 14-17Various mysteries connected with Christ’s perpetual presence.
Blunt’s drive-by of John (Blunt, 58)

After noting the limited focus of Acts on Peter and Paul, Blunt heads into the Epistles and provides brief summaries of each, identifying the location from which it was written, the addressees, and—in a sentence or two—the chief arcs. He does attribute Hebrews to Paul. He places James in A.D. 61 (same year as Matthew and Mark) basing his date on the death of James following (here explicitly name-checking) Eusebius and Josephus. 1 Peter is dated to 49, becoming the earliest of all the NT writings. The writing of the Johannine epistles is correlated with the destruction of the Temple, but he places Revelation either in 67 (Nero) or 96 (Domitian), preferring the earlier date (pleading confusion based on the longer name “Nero Domitianus”).

As in the previous chapter, this one ends with the summary of Revelation with no concluding verbiage.

Again—despite my issues with his dates and some authorship matters, I think Blunt does provide a solid overview of the content of the NT, suitable for providing readers used to encountering the Scripture in pericope-length chunks (whether from the Eucharistic lectionary or the Daily Office one) a big picture view of the NT. I do find his opening paragraphs intriguing, less for what he actually says and more for what I think he is assuming and will build on in the next chapter.

Because…the next chapter is one of the key reasons I’m interested in working through this book: “The Revelation of the Holy Bible and the Inspiration of its Writers.” But that’s for next time…

  1. I was tempted to talk about the Jesus vs. Paul narrative you sometimes find in the church at this point, but that would have taken me completely of course! Another post, perhaps… [back]
The Gallio inscription

Scripture: NT Dating Sucks

Before turning to Blunt’s chapter 3, I need to rant about how scholarship attempts to date the various books of the New Testament.

The honest truth is that dating the writings of the NT is really, really, hard. We have no solid external evidence about when they were written. Church tradition (i.e., whatever scraps Eusebius collected in the 4th century from 2nd/3rd century sources) assigns authors but little in the way of dates, and in a couple of key cases (looking at you, Matthew), those externals go against the much stronger internal evidence. Additionally, there is very little internal evidence, because the writers were—largely—not intentionally writing for posterity, but were giving specific advice to specific communities around the growing Christian world! We have no “In the year that King Uzziah died” a la Isaiah for any of the NT writings.

What we are able to do is to peg the Synoptic Gospels using Mark 13 and its parallels in Matthew and Luke. The situation described in Mark 13 seems to describe the Roman armies massing around Jerusalem shortly before the destruction of the Temple but it hasn’t happened yet; Matt 24 and Luke 21 seem to describe the situation after. That’s the best we’ve got for the Gospels… Internally, we can say definitively from the Greek that there was direct literary borrowing with Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The vast majority of scholars agree that Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used him. My own perspective is that Luke used both Matthew and Mark, and I’m not sure that we need to theorize a hypothetical document (Q) that Matthew and Luke knew but Mark didn’t.

We’re better off with Paul because we do have external evidence nailing down one particular point in time. Acts 18:12 tells us that the events described occurred “when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia.” This Gallio was Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, brother of the Stoic author Seneca, and was proconsul across the years 51-2. Thus, trusting the Acts narrative and using 51 as a date around which to revolve, we can assign some general dates to Paul’s letters.

When it comes to 1 Peter, 1 John, James, etc. we’re pretty much in the dark. These authors are completely uninterested in giving us any information that we can use for dates.

In the absence of actual evidence, various schemes of guesswork have been constructed following a variety of scholarly theories. Unfortunately, these are usually communicated as far more solid and factual than they actually are. Furthermore, the origins of this industry was not a neutral one. NT Studies began in Germany, spearheaded by Lutheran scholars guided by an anti-Catholic agenda. One of their primary early concerns was to “scientifically” foreground what they considered the heart of the Pauline writings due to emphasis on “justification by grace through faith” (Romans, Galatians, Corinthians) over and against parts less focused on that message (Colossians, Ephesians, the Pastorals). This program of Sachkritik (content criticism) led to the uber-parsing of Paul that gives us the category of the Deutero-Pauline designation. That is, the notion that some of the Pauline letters—oddly, the ones the Lutherans thought were squishy—are not actually by Paul and therefore(?) less important/useful/Bible.

The older I’ve gotten, the less compelling I find the Deutero-Pauline arguments. The problem is that most of the arguments tend to assume two things: 1) a single author writes within a single form or genre, and 2) a writer uses vocabulary and theme consistently throughout their writing career. Looking across my own publications, I feel quite certain that any one of these classical Pauline scholars would be able to definitively prove that the author of Inwardly Digest could not possibly be the author of Honey of Souls and that it’s obvious (obvious!) that the sanctoral section in chapter 2 is a clumsy insertion by a later author. [Clumsy, I’ll grant, but not “later” as I was there when it happened…]. The idea that Paul “couldn’t” have used terms differently across works and genres (i.e., a specifically directed occasional letter like Galatians vs. a general letter like Colossians) does not ring true to me.

One of the related, and more pernicious, dating ideas is that the Christian message started simple and got more complex over time. Therefore, simpler writings must be earlier and more complex ones must be later. This fit a Lutheran model of a simple proclamation of justification by faith that was overcome and overburdened by the descent into “early Catholicism”—which is the Hegelian model put forth by F. C. Baur (writing in the early 1800’s) who determined that the only “real” Pauline letters were 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians, and that all of the others were part of a “catholicizing” tendency that trailed through the 2nd century.

One of the popular forms of this argument that I’ve found floating around the Episcopal Church is the idea that the idea of the Trinity is a “late” development, and that anything Trinitarian must be either late or an addition.

Here’s the key problem. Everyone agrees that the earliest writings we can accurately date are Paul’s letters, written in the 50’s. Read Romans. Read Galatians. Then come back and tell me that this faith was just a simple set of beliefs that would get complexified only later. Read the start of Romans 5 and tell me with a straight face that the Trinity is a late, 2nd century development. Same with the end of Romans 15.

Now—we’ve been talking about Paul, the one guy for whom we have dates. You can see the evidence and dating difficulties when we have a large collection of letters and a biography of the author (Acts). Now imagine cases when we have none of those things—and you have the rest of the NT epistles. When was 1 Peter written? Or James? Really hard to say. We can say that 2 Peter does quote Jude and likely references a scene from a written gospel in 1:17-18. Revelation does appear to be speaking from the time of Domitian (d. 96). But other than that, there’s a lot of guesswork involved, to the point that you’re working with a dartboard helpfully labelled with decade names.

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 2

Blunt’s second chapter entitled “Old Testament Writers and Writings” contains just that: a survey of each of the Old Testament books after an initial discussion on the shape of the whole.

The introductory paragraph begins with the opening words of Hebrews to remind his readers that the the multiplicity of books are guided by a single mind and purpose: “these many writers were inspired by One Divine Mind to write with one purpose, that of setting forth the work of redemption and salvation by Christ” (Blunt, 30). The principle of the Unity of Holy Scripture is very important to him. He will not, however, trace the through-line in all cases which is good as identifying and bolstering this single purpose does get challenging in certain of the Minor Prophets.

Organizationally, Blunt notes the Jewish division of the Law and the Prophets, but denies that this division denotes a sacred character—certainly not one the English Bible recognizes. That is, the Law has no preference or precedence over the Prophets from a Christian perspective.

He can’t resist a potshot at Colenso and the German schools when he asserts the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch: “…and although elaborate guesses at a different authorship have been made by a few writers in recent times, such guesses are worth nothing in comparison with the weight which must belong to the testimony of so many nations and so many ages” (Blunt, 31). Following the 1650-4 dating scheme of James Ussher, Anglican Archbishop of Armaugh, Blunt places the composition of the Pentateuch between 1450 to 1490 B.C.

Blunt’s pattern going forward is to briefly introduce the author, assign a date of composition, then to describe the main theme of the book in a paragraph-sized synopsis. When necessary, he will provide a brief narrative outline like the one offers for Genesis:

The contents of Genesis are (1) [Chap. i. ii. (marginal notation)] an account of Creation, given, not as a full History of Creation, but with reference to the fall of man: (2) [Chap iii.] an account of the Fall: (3) [Chap. iv.-vi.] some few particulars respecting the history of the world between the Fall and the Deluge: (4) [Chap. vii.-viii.] an account of the Deluge: (5) [Chap. ix.-xi.] a few particulars of the history of the world between the Deluge and Abraham: (6) [Chap. xii.-xxv.] a rather full history of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, with which particulars of many other persons are interwoven. The last event recorded is the death of Joseph, which occurred about 1700 years before Christ, about 2300 years after the creation of Adam, and thus more than 3500 years from the present century.

Blunt, 32.

(Sharp-eyed readers will note that Blunt’s outline was summarily curtailed. I would guess he intended to break out the patriarchs separately since Genesis 25 wraps up the Abraham narrative, but either he or his editors decided to mash them all together and neglected to fix the margin notation! )

As seen at the conclusion of the quote above, Blunt concluded each synopsis with a description of the time elapsed within the events of each book and where that places them with respect to the timeline. For example, the summary of Leviticus emphasizes the brief timespan: “These laws were delivered by God to Moses during the first months after the dedication of the Tabernacle, at the beginning of the second year from the departure of the Israelites out of Egypt. To this month, therefore, the whole of the Book of Leviticus belongs” (Blunt, 34).

I really like his pattern here. The basic scheme looks like this:

  • Brief comment on the name of the book
  • Identification of the author (if needed)
  • Brief outline of the major movements/sections of the book
  • Relation of the book to the overall temporal narrative and the length of time encompassed

I attempted a video form of something like this in my now-defunct “Liturgical Look Forward” series, hoping to provide context for the Daily Office readings through Years 1 and 2, but was never satisfied with the results.

Before leaving the Pentateuch, I must call out his words on the conclusion of Deuteronomy; section 5 describes “the account of the death and burial of Moses, added by an inspired person at some time later, probably by Ezra” (Blunt, 35). This is him grappling with one of complications of Mosaic authorship: did God inspire Moses to write of his own death and burial, or did a later writer add it? Blunt goes with “addition” but assures his readers that it was an inspired author, likely one from a short, well-known, list.

The pattern above holds through the Histories, at least up through 2 Samuel. Blunt apparently despairs of offering a sufficient synopsis of 1-2 Kings, appropriately given its 400 year span, and summarizes each in a sentence (“in the first book the reign of Solomon and the building of the Temple are the most prominent subjects: in the second book the prophetic history of Elijah and Elisha, with the reign of Hezekiah, and the final destruction of both kingdoms” [Blunt, 38]). With regard to authorship, Blunt follows Talmudic tradition in assigning 1-2 Samuel to Samuel, Nathan and Gad; 1-2 Kings go to Nathan, the prophet Jeremiah, and Ezra. (And if the inclusion of Jeremiah makes you think of modern discussions around the editor of the Deuteronomistic History, well, you’re probably not wrong!)

Moving to the Wisdom portion, Blunt transmits the tradition assigning the Book of Job to Moses, suggesting that he might have learned of it or met the participants during his 40 years in Midian.

By far the longest section apportioned to any book of the Old Testament is that of the Psalms. Blunt describes the many authors, issues a caution on the accuracy of the superscriptions, describes the five books within the Psalter, addresses the numbering differences between the Hebrew/English text tradition and the Greek/Latin, explains the two chief English versions (the 1540 Coverdale in the BCP and the 1611 from the KJV), then enumerates four classifications: The Great Hallelujah (113-118), The Psalms of Degrees (120-134), The Passion Psalms (2, 22, 38, 59, 69, 88), and The Penitential Psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143). Finally, he concludes with a paragraph-length encomium on the Psalms worth quoting in full:

The Psalms, as a whole, form the central portion of Divine Revelation. They contain the words in which the Church of God has spoken to Him in public offices of praise day by day for 3000 years without intermission. They have formed the devotional utterances of individual saints innumerable during the same 90 generations—half the age of the human race; and they are supposed by some to be embodied in the praises which are being offered in Heaven.

Blunt, 45.

Moving to the prophets, Blunt connects the Major Prophets with sections of the Historical Books where they properly appear or to which their words pertain. By the time we get to the Minor Prophets each receives basically a paragraph. These sometimes mention Christological themes that can be found in these books or where they are used in Prayer Book services.

At the conclusion of Malachi, the chapter abruptly ends with nary a summary statement.

For my own conclusion, while I disagree with his assignments of authors and dates, the intention behind this chapter is both good and necessary. A quick, at-a-glance, summary of the OT books locating them in time and in the narrative/historical sequence remains a really good idea. Based on my reading of Blunt’s text, I can envision a spiral-bound guide of a similar fashion with bright color-coding to group thematic relationships, and including a variety of timelines and maps. Especially for those of us who encounter the Bible chiefly at the level of the pericope in liturgical services, this kind of overview is very helpful. I’d be shocked if such things don’t already exist—my only question is whether such things reflect the current state of biblical scholarship; Bible helps of this sort that I’m familiar with tend to be dominated by very conservative perspectives. A key difference in the kind of thing I’m envisioning vs. Blunt is that rather than one timeline at least two would be needed (and profitably superimposed at points): one to track the historic through-line, the other the track our best guesses on the composition of various sections of various books and editorial efforts.

(And if you are aware of a decent Mainline resource of which I speak, please add a shout-out in the comments!)

Scripture: Blunt and Colenso

In the previous post, an initial foray into J. H. Blunt’s basic introduction to Scripture, I noted that his book had come out shortly after the Colenso affair—the travails surrounding the Bishop of Natal, his translation of the Scriptures into Zulu, and his presuppositions around the Bible and its inspired character that kicked off the Lambeth Conferences. I wondered if Blunt had said or written anything directly around the controversy in order to give me a clear fix on his take. Thanks to his prolific writing, I was able to find just such a thing!

In 1874, Blunt edited a fascinating—and lengthy—work entitled Dictionary of Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Parties, and Schools of Religious Thought. (No contributors are mentioned and the various dictionary entries are unsigned; as such, I’m going to assume that its articles present the positions of Blunt himself.) Colenso appears in the index under two entries, “Colenso, Bishop, writings of” and “Colenso, Bishop, excommunication of”, both of which point to the article entitled “Broad Churchmen.”

The initial paragraph of this entry serves as a very clear introduction to Blunt’s perspectives on the Broad Church movement as a whole and is worth quoting in its entirety:

A modern school of Latitudinarians, composed of those clergy and laity of the Church of England who dissent from the principles developed during the revival of exact theological learning. The designation “Broad” has been assumed as expressive of the comprehensiveness which the theology of this school offers to men of various opinions; but it is scarcely a fitting designation, as well defined opinions of a positive kind are not included. The most distinctive characteristic of the Broad Church School is, in reality, its rejection of traditional beliefs, and the substitution in their place of what has been aptly called a “Negative Theology,” in which much is doubted and rejected, and very little believed.

Blunt, Dictionary of Sects, 85

Blunt identifies F. D. Maurice as a central star of the party and refers derisively to his Theological Essays of 1853 as a work expressive of the party’s principles. The key quote here is this classic line: “In these [essays] the doctrines of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, Inspiration, and Eternal Punishment, among others, were dealt with in language remarkable for its beauty, and for its inconsistency with the opinions of orthodox Churchmen” (ibid.). Apart from this, Blunt identifies the “greatest literary success” of the the Broad Churchmen as “a composite work of third-rate merit”, the Essays and Reviews published in 1860. Blunt explores each of the seven essays in the volume, presenting a paragraph-length synopsis of each.

The pertinent essays are the second, fourth, fifth, and seventh. Broadly, these indicate the influence of the German academic tradition and the efforts of scholars like Baur and Strauss. I see Strauss coming through in the description of the fourth: ” [Williams] considers many of the ‘traits in the Scriptural Person of Jesus’ to belong to an ideal rather than an historical person; e.g., the Temptation did not really happen, but is an imaginary scene put into the Gospels to complete the picture. The Annuciation ‘may be of ideal origin’ also, the writer says, and much more to the same purpose” (Blunt, Dictionary of Sects, 86). The fifth raises his ire regarding Creation: “…[Goodwin] considers the Book of Genesis to have been written by some Hebrew man of science, who invented a theoretical account of creation, but living in a time when he had no geological discoveries to guide him, simply wrote down what proves to be full of mistakes” (ibid.). The last essay by Benjamin Jowett is seen as a collection and amplification of the rest of the volume’s themes: “…its chief object appears to be to lower the authority of the Holy Scripture by showing that very little of it was inspired in any ordinary sense of inspiration.” (ibid.). For a clarifying view of this essay, a modern assessment of it in the Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation states that it “urged that the Bible be read ‘like any other book'” (Pals, “Jowett, Benjamin, DBI, 1.632).

(For what it’s worth, this tack—that the Bible be read as and subject to the same canons of interpretation and investigation as any other work from antiquity—is one of the essential characteristics for the emergence of modern academic Biblical Studies. Within the Guild, Jowett is seen as a hero rather than a villain.)

Describing the aftermath of this publication, Blunt notes that High and Low Churchmen were in agreement on its total condemnation. Williams and Wilson were condemned by the (ecclesiastical) Court of Arches, but were acquitted on appeal by the Queen’s Judicial Committee. This reversal, then, leads Blunt to his account of Bishop Colenso.

It was probably under the encouragement of this supposed victory that Dr. Colenso, Bishop of Natal in South-eastern Africa, published his speculations on the Pentateuch, by means of which he endeavoured to make the high-road of Biblical interpretation so very broad that the most arrogant sceptic would find no difficulty in walking along it. The purpose of this work was to minimize to the utmost the authority of the Pentateuch, and with it of all Holy Scripture; the first principle of the author being indicated by the words, ‘There is not the slightest reason to suppose that the first writer of the story in the Pentateuch ever professed to be recording infallible truth, or even actual historical truth. He wrote certainly a narrative. But what indications are there that he published it at large, even to the people of his own time, as a record of matter of fact, veracious history?'”

Blunt, Dictionary of Sects, 87.

Blunt then cites the work of Ernst Hengstenberg, a German Lutheran much opposed to the emerging Biblical Studies faculties, criticizing Essays and Reviews including the key passages, “‘The authors of the Essays have been trained in a German school. It is only the echo of German infidelity which we hear from the midst of the English Church. . . . All of these Essays ten toward atheism. Their subordinate value is seen in the inability of their authors to recognise their goal clearly, and in their want of courage to declare this knowledge.” (ibid.).

In conclusion, Blunt is of the same mind as Hengstenberg and concludes the article with a final salvo against the Broad Churcmen:

This school is of a distinctly rationalist type, carrying Broad Church views about inspiration to the length of practical disbelief in Scripture; Broad Church views about our Lord to the length of Unitarianism; Broad Church views about everlasting punishment to Universalism; and Broad Church views about the priesthood and Sacraments to an utter denial of their reality. Such is the natural terminus of the original school, and such must be the logical outcome of its opinions when they are taken up by men who are not satisfied to rest in negations and generalities.

Blunt, Dictionary of Sects, 87-88.

So—it’s pretty safe to say that Blunt was not a fan… He is relentless in his attacks on the Broad Church theological agenda and upon their perspective on the Bible. If I had to summarize the Broad Church take present in the Essays and Colenso, it would be a focus on historical context—that the Bible has to be read with attention to each author’s historical and cultural context, not from the post-facto perspective of Holy Scripture that Blunt and others take. And, as a modern biblical scholar, I’d agree with them rather than Blunt…

Ok. Having said all of this, what is it that Blunt does believe, then? The simplest and clearest presentation of Blunt’s view appears in two lists that preface his larger books on the Old and New Testament:

Blunt, Companion to the Old Testament, 1872
Blunt, Companion to the New Testament, 1881

The first principle establishes continuity: our Isaiah was their Isaiah. I have no substantial issues with this idea generally. My specific issue is that it elides away differences between the Hebrew Texts and those transmitted in the Septuagint—the variation here varies by book. However, this principle also artificially fixes a canon, implying that what is in our Old Testament/New Testament also constituted what the NT authors thought of as “canon.” This is a much more dubious principle. There were many writings of the Second Temple period that influenced New Testament thought than are contained in our OT, and a number of contemporaneous writings—thinking of texts like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache—that influenced the Early Church but do not appear in the NT.

The second principle introduces a host of terms that are left undefined and thus not terribly clear. The italicized emphasis on “authentic”, though, seems to be of first place. If I’m reading it as intended, this principle is foregrounding the idea that the books we have were truly written by the men identified as their authors who are also inspired. This is precisely the view I’m interested in defining more carefully and will engae at length.

The third principle states that the original writings contained true statements, histories, and doctrines. Furthermore, that the books even as we have received them have not been substantially altered by any additions or alterations. Additionally, I believe that this article is implying that any additions and alterations (unless otherwise specified—I’m thinking of a couple of carve-out exceptions) are inherently uninspired.

The fourth principle states that, essentially, Scripture itself serves as the standard of truth. Any historical, scientific, or doctrinal statements to the apparent contrary must either be reconciled or discarded.

On the whole, then, when it comes to the emerging field of Biblical Studies, Blunt sides with those who reject it. He, alongside other critics, saw atheism as its inevitable end and responded by retrenching assertions as to the genuine, authentic, and trustworthy witness of the Scriptures in all respects. This—ultimately—is what is at stake for him: Can Scripture be trusted? To affirm this in the positive, for Blunt, all of Scripture must be seen and shown to be trustworthy.

Now—back to the primary text…

Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 1

I’m entering into a conversation of sorts with a companion with whom I share a number of interests and convictions, John Henry Blunt (1823-1884). A priest of the Church of England and a scholar of Scripture, theology, and the medieval Church, Blunt was a voluminous author passionate about communicating his knowledge to a popular audience. As such, Blunt represents a serious scholar from the latter half of the nineteenth century interested in conveying to “the churchman” of his day what should be thought, known, and believed about a wide variety of topics. Theologically, he was of the High Church party and saw its great work as “preserving the substantial catholicity of the the Church of England…and also that of renewing its life and vigour.” (Dictionary of Heresies, p. 200).

The text I’m interested in at the moment is A Key to the Knowledge and Use of the Holy Bible published by Rivingtons in 1868. It’s laid out in a set of nine chapters along with an appendix and an index:

Blunt’s Table of Contents

To move through it logically, I’ll begin with the first chapter…

Blunt’s initial chapter, “Literary History of the Holy Bible” is an investigation of the authorship of the biblical books and how they passed through a succession of translations to the reading public of his day. He breaks this discussion into 5 major topics:

  1. Universal Interest in the Bible (I.e., why is it that modern people care about an old book)
  2. General Structure of the Bible
  3. Gradual Growth of the Holy Bible
  4. Ancient Copies [and translations] of the Holy Bible
  5. The English Bible

On the whole, I find his writing clear and informed. It is the strongest in his discussions of the historical material in sections 4 and 5. He does, to my mind, exaggerate a bit the breadth of the circulation of the sections of the Scriptures in Old English, but does appropriately convey the presence of the vernacular Scriptures during the medieval period. He and I part ways in two major places: first, in his initial discussions of the intent and worth of the Scriptures; second, in the authorship and dating of the various biblical books.

In Section 1, Blunt identifies three principal reasons why the Bible deserves to be the subject of universal interest:

[1.] The Bible has always been received as the original source of all our knowledge respecting God’s dealings with mankind in respect to spiritual things. [2.] It contains the only reliable account of man’s future beyond this life. [3.] It offers itself as a guide to the attainment of happiness for ever in the world to come.

(Blunt, 2-3)

I have few quibbles with the first point and quite like the emphasis on reception–I think that’s key in a way that he doesn’t explore. I have more issues with his points 2 and 3. I am probably more of a Christian humanist than Blunt, and think his focus on the future life after death overly narrow. Surely the Christian message, the biblical message, is about the relationships between God and humanity that start on this side of death–the virtues of Christ and the life of salvation are birthed in the sacraments and not at our graves. If I were to rewrite point 3 it would simply state: “…it offers itself as a guide to the attainment of happiness in the presence of God…” a formulation that encompasses both the present and what is to come.

In terms of authorship and dating, Blunt follows a strictly traditional scheme based in patristic and medieval writings that flatly attribute the various books of the Bible with the authors in their titles as displayed in a chronological table:

Beginning of the Chronological Table (Blunt, 5)

On the formation of the Old Testament itself, he explains that:

…before the captivity, Hezekiah caused other sacred writings [apart from the Pentateuch] to be collected together, though not to be added to the “Law;” and after the [Babylonian] Captivity, Ezra and Nehemiah, under Divine direction, collected all those which are now reckoned by the Church of England among the number of the Canonical books of the Old Testament, re-copied them uniformly in the Chaldaic character (that now known as Hebrew), and arranged them in three divisions…

Blunt, 8

Thus, while he admits the framework of an editorial process, he sees it operative only at the level of collecting whole books

At this point in biblical scholarship, the Synoptic Problem—the project of untangling the literary relationships between Matthew, Mark, and Luke—had been underway since the turn of the century in German circles, and questions regarding the unity of the Pentateuch were active but not as developed. It’s worth noting that five years before the publication of Blunt’s book, The first missionary bishop of Natal, John Colenso, had been censured by his brother bishops because—in his research around translating the Bible into Zulu—he had questioned the historical accuracy and literary unity of the Pentateuch and Joshua. Insisting that his fellow bishops had no jurisdiction over him, Colenso continued in his work and was, in large measure, the occasion of the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.

It’s equally notable that the High Church party was vocally opposed to Colenso and his biblical thought.

[At some point I really should dig deeper into Colenso’s own writings; I know of them chiefly through later summaries.]

Blunt’s final paragraph of this chapter conveys his final word on all matters canonical, textual, and linguistic:

The conclusion, then, for those who are not very conversant indeed with the learned languages, is this:– that the Authorized [i.e. King James] Version of the Holy Bible is a just and faithful representative of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Apocrypha, and the Greek New Testament; and that in using it for his instruction or his devotion, the plain man may use it with a firm confidence that he is using that which will give him substantially true impressions of what has come down to us under the name of Holy Scripture.

Blunt, 29.

The goal here is to give confidence to the ordinary person that the text they are hearing in church and reading at home is a faithful witness of the original. The motive is sound; the content, generally so, given the amount of hedging in “substantially true impressions.”

I can’t agree with the paragraph before this one where Blunt avers that “[the KJV] has been severely criticized in past (and especially in recent) years; but really learned theologians are agreed that whatever faults may exist in our English Bible, it is so nearly perfect, that it is almost hopeless to try and improve it; while all attempts at improving it have confirmed this verdict.” (Blunt, 29). Yes, the sound and meter of it have never been matched in subsequent English translations. The quality of its base texts and the limited knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern philology possessed by its translators, however, remain a whole other story.

Update: Following up on a hunch, I found some very interesting material from Blunt on Colenso and contemporary German scholarship. I’ll post on that next before continuing on…

Medieval Church Perception

Medieval Church Perception

I really shouldn’t watch popular media set in the early medieval period or the medieval period generally. By this time of life, I should realize that doing so will only annoy me–but somehow I never learn…

The latest example confirming this occurred when I saw a review video of the Arthurian-ish Netflix show “Cursed.” Cancelled after a single season, this show apparently–and I say apparently because I’ve only seen the above video, the first episode, and read a brief synopsis–features as antagonists the Red Paladins, a group under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire and directed by the Pope, who conduct a murderous campaign against the magic-wielding pagan protagonists and their fey allies.

The idea of a militant group from the Holy Roman Empire ordered around by the pope slaughtering folks in Arthurian England is so strangely anachronistic to boggle the mind. A reasonable equivalent would be a tv show about the American Revolution where the Battle of Bunker Hill is won by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders with their laser rifles at the behest of the United Nations.

Here’s the thing…

Anyone watching the latter would question what was going on there. It’s not probable, not believable. The inaccuracies are too great compared to what the viewers know. However, the writers of “Cursed” assumed their viewers would accept the first as quite believable. Why is that?

There’s a lot that could be said here. I could talk about the historical basics–why are the aspects of this presentation so mind-bendingly wrong. I could talk about historical education–how to fix the knowledge gaps. But I’d rather identify the evangelism angle. The reality is that in this matter the historical actualities are irrelevant.

I’d wager the target audience of the show–teens and young adults–would find this portrayal of the church as a vast, powerful institution that uses force to achieve its political and social ends compelling. That’s because this show isn’t interested in getting the history right; rather the writers are taking their contemporary experience of their perspective of Christianity and retrojecting it into their fantasy-medieval past. It’s not hard at all to see the conflict as the show sets it up (at least in the initial bits I saw) as a modern parable about the social conservative campaign against all things lgbt+.

Furthermore, these sorts of portrayals inform a vicious cycle.

Americans learn their history from media. I have no doubt that many viewers could and would easily assume this is an accurate portrayal of what “the Church” is actually like. Or at least it’s a scenario they would see as plausible. And who would want to be a part of a thing like that?

Sometimes I see the challenges of modern evangelism constructed as faith vs. science or faith vs. capitalism with the chief struggle being about belief. But I sometimes wonder if a major issue might not be faith, or God, or Christ, but the perception of the Church itself.

Job's friends (1521 printed Bible)

Psalm 34 and Christian Psalm Exegesis

I was reminded of one of my biggest challenges in writing about the psalms again today upon the appearance of Psalm 34 in Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. James: it makes everything sound so easy…

Psalm 34–just like Ps 91 with which I have a long-standing dispute–flat-out says that for those who believe in the Lord and place their trust in God, everything will be ok:

  I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me *

and saved me from all my troubles.

  The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, *

and he will deliver them.

(Ps 43:6-7, BCP)

The issue is that this is not the case. Life experience, history, Christian history specifically, the experience of Christ himself, all confirm that these statements are not true on the literal level.

Here’s the thing. If you just found yourself saying, “well, maybe, but you have to understand that what it’s really saying is…” then what you’re doing is a classic interpretive move in order to avoid the actual literal sense of the text. And that’s a perfectly normal and ok thing to do–the challenge in writing about it as a biblical scholar for lay people is helping people recognize that that interpretive move is even happening at all!

There’s a reason why the Early Church generally and specifically Origen–one of our first and best interpretive minds–determined very early on that reading spiritually/morally/allegorically were important tools in the Christian exegetical toolbox alongside and sometimes instead of reading literally. Reading and praying the psalms involves quite a lot of reframing and reinterpretation to shift them into a Christian mode… If you’re just praying them as an individual, a lot of that interpretive heavy-lifting can be by-passed, or hand-waved, or maybe even outright ignored. And indeed some very shallow and very damaging theology can be and has been built on such inattentive and dismissive readings.

Facile literalists often poke fun at the interpretive children of Origen who tie themselves into interpretive knots to explicate the biblical text. But as Origen laid out as far back as the second century, sometimes the only way to attend closely to the words on the page at both a macro and micro level, to believe sincerely that they contain self-revelatory truths from God, and to wrestle with them with integrity, means putting in a lot of hard work which ends up being a re-interpretation of the literal meaning of the text rather than a simple affirmation.

(My hot-take on Ps 34 is that it presents traditional Wisdom orthodoxy in poetic form: trust God, keep your nose clean, don’t do bad stuff, and things will go well for you. From a poetic perspective, I can even see it conveying the poet’s feeling of comfort and pleasure in the supernatural support of God. I can recognize and honor that feeling of being swaddled in divine grace, mercy, and assistance–it’s a lovely emotional state; but it tends to fall apart quickly when human events around you do too… It’s a classic example of the Just World fallacy which leads to very reductive thinking a la If good things happen, it’s because you’re good; if bad things happen, you must have done something wrong. For what it’s worth, this is the fallacy which gets so much air-time in the book of Job. Job’s friends assume he had to have done something bad for everything to go so wrong; Job protests that he didn’t do anything wrong so it’s not fair! God’s final speech is to note that chaos is inherent in the system; if you assume life, the universe, and everything are neat and tidy, you haven’t been paying attention from the beginning.)