The Glory of Kings: An Insight into the work of James B. Jordan

[Note: The following is R.R. Reno’s foreword to The Glory of Kings: A Festschrift in Honor of James B. Jordan, edited by Peter J. Leithart and John Barach which can be read elsewhere at First Things.]

James B. Jordan is remarkable. There are plenty of Bible preachers in America who know the Scriptures well. Lots of professors read books in philosophy, history, and literature and have all sorts of interesting things to say about culture. Pundits cultivate a sharp, pungent, and readable style. But Jim is perhaps unique. Who else writes detailed interpretations of the Book of Daniel and quotes Allen Tate’s poetry? Who else can give a lecture on echoes of Leviticus in the apocalyptic vision of Zechariah and then chat over
cigars about Friedrich von Hayek and Richard Weaver? Moreover, who can cover such a range with vivid images, punchy tag lines, and memorable turns of phrase? Not many, which is why I’ve come to think of Jim Jordan as one of the most important Christian intellectuals of our day.

Jim knows a great deal, but I have no doubt that the electricity in his writing and conversation come from his biblical vision. He does something remarkable. He takes the cultic core of the Old Testament—Temple and Priesthood, altar and sacrifice—and reads it into the full sweep of the biblical witness. The result is not the usual sort of “theological” interpretation we’re all familiar with: Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament explained by way of warmed-over theologies of substitutionary atonement or observations that really amount to little more than restating New Testament passages. Instead, Jim takes texts such as Leviticus seriously on their own terms. He brings to life the intense concreteness of tabernacle and sanctuary, and he allows the prophets a retrospective restoration as well as a prospective anticipation. As Jim has helped me see, the Scriptures are forever reaching back and renewing even as they reach forward to fulfillment in Christ.

We live in space and time. Our lives have a concrete and quotidian reality. Precisely because Jim’s reading of the Old Testament takes its bearings from the point of maximal particularity—the cultic focal point that is the most enduring and transparent anticipation of the Incarnation—his reading of the larger biblical witness is saturated with immediacy. Take a look at any of his writings on worship. The life of God’s people has a particular shape in Israel. The tabernacle and temple have a specific architecture. The sacrifices involve discrete patterns of action. As a result, we do not encounter nebulous theological concepts. The immediacy of the cult of Israel is accessible to us today. Indeed, it is more accessible and more immediate, because in Christ we have been brought into the inner sanctuary.

Any particular detail of Jim’s biblical theology is up for debate, but the larger project is compelling—and much needed today. Many of us have limited biblical imaginations. We have stock phrases and favorite passages. We think of ourselves as biblical, but our friends recognize that nine times out of ten we’re quoting from Paul’s Letter to the Romans or the Book of Revelation or the Gospel of John. The Old Testament functions as a hazy background. The Psalms have no living power. Although we would vigorously deny it, we are functionally allied with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who notoriously set aside the Old Testament, or Immanuel Kant, who rejected the “Jewish” parts of the Old Testament as unusable.

Should we be surprised, therefore, that our preaching and teaching remains “spiritual” or “theological” in an abstract and theoretical way? Nothing we say is heretical. Orthodoxy carries the day. But it all floats a few feet above the ground. The gears of faith never seem to do what Jim’s biblical theology does: mesh with the gritty realities of life.

If we diagnose ourselves honestly, then perhaps we can see that, unlike Jim, there are no biblical actualities at the center of our preaching and teaching, things to be seen and entered and touched. Perhaps, for example, we imagine ourselves agreeing with him because we endorse a “sacramental” view of the church. But there is a world of difference between “sacramental” and Jim’s trenchant reading of the Book of Revelation as a handbook for Christian worship, a reading that depends upon his interpretation of the cultic core of the Old Testament. Again, one can debate the details, or the biblical typology, or Jim’s assumptions about how to understand biblical inerrancy, or his conception of biblical history, or any number of other different technical questions. But of this I am certain. Jim does something few achieve, even (perhaps especially!) those who make loud claims about their biblical fidelity. He puts the living realities of the Bible at the center of his thought.

By my reckoning, our intellectual culture has come to a dead end. Concepts are powerful and necessary tools for uniting and intensifying our grasp of reality, but they have come to be super-eminent. As evidence, consider the fact that “critical thinking” now supersedes any particular body of knowledge as the goal of humanistic education. Thinking about culture—having the conceptual sophistication to identify and analyze cultural practices and patterns—has taken the place of participating in a culture and arguing about what is right and wrong, what is true and false. We have been romanced by Hegel’s dream of absolute knowledge, which turns out not to be knowledge at all, but instead a knowingness about how knowledge is produced, disseminated, and preserved in all cultural systems. The result? A deracinated intellect skilled at debunking but increasingly incapable of sustaining substantive beliefs.

The church in the West does not just participate in this trend. To a great degree the church herself has fueled our collective movement away from substance. As Richard Popkin observed decades ago and Ephraim Radner more recently and with more richly detailed theological evidence, the division of the church in the sixteenth century threw the substance of the Christian faith into doubt. Faced with contradictory beliefs, it became tempting for Western intellectuals to try to adjudicate between the differences by shifting attention away from the what of belief to the how. From Descartes onward, western philosophy has been in the grips of arguments more focused on the how (epistemology) of belief than what(metaphysics). Hegel represents a desire to mediate rather than adjudicate. After Hegel, by and large our interest in the how of belief shifts from epistemology to historical or cultural analysis, allowing us to talk about how Protestants and Catholics have developed different ways of expressing the common sacramental or Incarnational or Trinitarian genius of Christianity. The result? An increasingly abstracted faith that tends to affirm doctrines or theologies or “faith dispositions,” always at one or two removes from the concreteness of scripture and worship.

I’m very much a stranger to Reformed theology. I can’t distinguish a “Bucerian” from a “Zwinglian” or a Kuyperian” from a “Vantillian.” But even as an outsider, I can see that Jim senses movement in modern theology, often unconscious, away from animating particularity—even in modern conservative theology. He inveighs against a common phenomenon: using a confessional affirmation as the criterion for Reformed identity without regard to its role within a functional biblical theology. Confessional standards grew out of a sustained engagement with the vast and heterogeneous sweep of biblical details, and the living authority of these confessions depends upon their continued immersion in living exegetical practice. Taken in isolation, confessional standards easily become deracinated. They become “theological” in the bad sense of floating free from the anchoring concreteness of the Bible. They become instruments for bureaucratic boundary marking rather than instruments for guiding the faithful toward orthodoxy.

Not surprising, our often de-scripturalized theological vocabulary tends to be culturally impotent as well as spiritually ineffective. Modern Lutheranism has shown that the sola gratia principle, which has been operative for many centuries in Western Augustinian Christianity, can be levered out of the living context of exegesis and worship and then turned into a justification for affirming the antinomian spirit of modern secular individualism. Jim has a great deal to say about contemporary culture that is interesting and fresh, in large part because he does not traffic in the usual modern tools of mediation; he does not commerce in theological abstractions. In his work, the realia of the Bible run up against the realia of contemporary life, and as a consequence Jim is in a position to make observations that lend themselves to wisdom and insight rather than an abstracted critical knowingness.

Nearly twenty years ago, I read Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach. It is a great and strange book, written by a secular German Jew who had fled to Istanbul just before the outbreak of World War II. In a series of close readings of only a few pages of twenty classic texts from Homer through the New Testament and the Song of Roland all the way to Virginia Woolf, Auerbach sets himself against Hegel and the Triumph of the Concept, which he saw as the taproot of Fascism and the murderous ideological brutality of the twentieth century. Auerbach does not argue. He does not analyze. Instead, in loving attention to textual detail, he lifts up the tradition of realism in Western literature that was born, he suggests, on the pages of the Scriptures. When words serve the concrete particularity of the human condition, Auerbach observes in one of the few general statement in this very long book, we find an intellectual humanism that surrenders itself to “the wealth of reality and the depth of life.”

I’m not sure if I met Jim before or after reading Auerbach, but it was around the same time, and it had a similar galvanizing effect. There was something about the immediacy of the Bible in his thinking, an immediacy entirely at home with many levels of intellectual sophistication. I was attracted to something in Jim’s biblical vision akin to Auerbach’s devotion to literary realism. The Scriptures serve divine reality, and because God is love, the sacred pages serve human reality as well. With every conversation I become more and more convinced that it is not Van Til or Rushdoony or any other grand synthesizer that gives Jim’s ideas their sparkling allure (even the ideas I think are wrongheaded). To be sure, the Big Picture guys of years past add those layers of sophistication. But to my mind it’s a scriptural realism (if you will permit me the formulation) that gives an electrical charge to Jim’s ideas.

For too long I thought that the key to being a Christian intellectual was on the “intellectual” side—reading smart books in philosophy, literature, political theory, and so forth. Jim has taught me otherwise. We need to read those smart books. The intellectual engine needs fuel to burn. But the key element is on the “Christian” side. We need something like Jim’s scriptural realism. The concreteness and historical density of the Bible is alive with human reality betrothed to God’s purposes, always already on the way to being “heavenized” as Jim puts it.

Today our culture seems capable of neither humanizing nor “heavenizing.” As I have suggested, this is the legacy of the Triumph of the Concept. The now postmodern equipoise of understanding without commitment, of thinking without allowing oneself to feel the power of something commandingly concrete and real stems from the deracinating effect of our tendency to favor meta-reflection on the problems of life. Jim’s scriptural realism guides us in a very different direction: toward the Triumph of God Incarnate. God does not raise us up to the dignity of a concept. He hurls the spear of His love—He hurls Himself—into the irreducible, mute, and otherwise transient particularity of life. The Lord comes to us in the realities of life, most directly in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but also in the relentless concreteness of the sacred Scriptures: the dusty streets of Jerusalem, royal intrigue, temples built and destroyed, the blood-stained altar of sacrifice attended to by priests in their elaborate vestments. We need to serve this concreteness in our intellectual work, and Jim’s scriptural realism gives us guidance about how to do so. If we follow Jim’s lead, then perhaps we will also have something to say that can humanize and heavenize.

Calvin on: The Sacraments, part 2

In like manner, in baptism we put on Christ, (Galatians 3:27) we are washed by his blood, (Revelation 1:5) our old man is crucified, (Romans 6:6) in order that the righteousness of God may reign in us. In the Holy Supper we are spiritually fed with the flesh and blood of Christ. Whence do they derive so great efficacy but from the promise of Christ, who does and accomplishes by his Holy Spirit what he declares by his word? Let us therefore learn, that all the sacraments which men have contrived are nothing else than absolute mockeries or frivolous amusements, because the signs can have no truth unless they be accompanied by the word of the Lord. Now, since we never sport in this manner with sacred things, without wickedly pouring contempt on God and ruining souls, we ought to be most carefully on our guard against those stratagems of Satan.  John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel  According to John, 20:22.

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Infallibility: An Inescapable Concept

    As Christians, we believe that the Bible is infallible. We believe the Bible to be true, unerring, and authoritative in all that it teaches, because it is the Word of the One True God. Atheists and Agnostics do not believe this to be the case. They claim that since the Bible is written by humans, and since humans err, the Bible has to by necessity contain errors. They also make claims as to the scientific and historical inaccuracies, the mythological nature of the Bible, and the downright foolishness of the Bible and its ridiculous stories, leaving the Bible far from being infallible or authoritative.

    Whatever their arguments are, the inevitable conclusion of their claims is simple, “The Bible is not infallible, because I am.” This might sound strange and even somewhat silly at first, but it is no doubt true.  When the unbeliever makes an absolute claim such as, “the Bible is not the word of God” he is making himself out to be his own god, determining for himself what constitutes good and evil, right and wrong, true and false.

The unbeliever has thus become his own infallible source of truth. He has transferred infallibility from God to himself. Granted, he might appeal to another person or even a whole group of people as the basis of his authority and the reasons for not believing in God or the Bible.

As R.J. Rushdoony states in his Systematic Theology, pg 2.

The doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture can be denied, but the concept of infallibility as such cannot be logically denied.  Infallibility is an inescapable concept.  If men refuse to ascribe infallibility to Scripture, it is because the concept has been transferred to something else.  The word infallibility is not normally used in these transfers; the concept is disguised in and veiled, but, in a variety of ways, infallibility is ascribed to concepts, things, men, and institutions.

But in order for persons to speak an infallible word, they must meet the prerequisites to do so. Sadly for them, only God can do that. Let’s look briefly look at 5 foundational characteristics that one must possess in order to speak infallibly on any matter.

    Omniscience: In order to speak authoritatively on any matter, one must know absolutely all there is to know. Only God knows everything, therefore He alone has the ability to speak an infallible word. His understanding is limitless (Ps. 147:5).

    Truthfulness: God indeed does know all things, but if He were capable of lying (as Allah is) than even if He knew everything, when He spoke on a matter there would be no reason for us to believe Him because He could very well be lying. But the Triune God of Scripture cannot lie (Heb. 6:18). Thus, when God speaks He speaks as one who knows all things, and as one who can only tell the truth.

    Omnipotence: Scripture declares over and over again that God is Almighty. In order for there to be any authority anywhere, there must necessitate first some power and strength to bring about what would be commanded. God is all-powerful, and therefore has supreme power and ability to bring about whatever is consistent and compatible with the rest of His attributes.

   Sovereignty: Sovereignty goes hand in hand with Omnipotence. God not only has the power to bring about whatever He desires, He actually does it. All things that happen, happen because God is controlling all things to bring about His plan. Man can’t do this.

   Immutability:  God cannot change (Mal. 3:6). If He could, then we could not be confident that God will always be truthful. We could not be confident that God really does know all that there is to know, and He could then, hypothetically, come into new knowledg

The atheist does not believe in God. He seeks to disprove God and the Bible by use of reason.  For him, reason is his authority. He proves the reliability of his reason by his reason. This is circular reasoning, which is a logical fallacy. But the believer does the same thing. We believe the Bible to be God’s Word. How do we go about proving it? By the Bible. But, it is through the Bible that the Holy Spirit testifies to the truthfulness of God’s Word. Since God is the only one who can speak an authoritative infallible word, God is the only one who can testify to the truthfulness of the word that He has spoken. This is the role of the Spirit of God, providing an infallible testimony to the truthfulness of the Scriptures in the hearts of all believers.  As Scripture itself testifies:e that could change His perception. If God could change, then there would be something that caused Him to change, and that thing would then be more powerful than God.

11For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.14The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

                                                    ~ 1 Corinthians 2:11-16 ESV