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.