Peter Leithart rescues "Passion narrative" from Paul's "maneuvers"...

Error message

Here Dr. Leithart argues that what he terms "atonement theology" is not sufficiently anchored to the "Passion narrative" of the Gospels. Atonement theology finds some support in those Gospel narratives, for sure; but in the main, what we must keep in mind is that "atonement theology has drawn heavily from Paul."

Give an intellectual with the terminal degree a choice between narrative and dogma and you don't have to break a sweat doing the work of predicting his choice. He will insert himself between the narrative and prior interpreters even when the prior interpreter wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Blinded by his pride, the literary man is certain he can probe and illuminate the narrative better than some first-century rabbi named "Paul.'

To Dr. Leithart, the office to which our Lord appointed Paul and from which he wrote much of the New Testament is not worth noting. Dr. Leithart doesn't say "the Apostle Paul." This construction would call attention to the Apostolic authority from which "Paul" wrote. Nor does Dr. Leithart write, "the Apostle Paul's revelation of the atonement." Using the word 'revelation' would point directly to the Holy Spirit's inspiration of "Paul's ...atonement theology." Dr. Leithart wants to undermine the "atonement theology ...drawn heavily from Paul," so he chooses words suitable to...

his project.

Dr. Leithart begins:

Atonement theology has drawn heavily from Paul, also from the Passion narratives. In drawing on the Passion narratives, atonement theology often makes an allegorical transition from the specifics of the narrative to a more general narrative setting of “all humanity,” even a cosmic setting.

Thus, when Jesus says He lays down His life for His friends, His friends become the elect, or the church. But in the gospel, Jesus calls the disciples his friends. Within the narrative, Jesus quite literally takes the place of His friends by standing between the soldiers and the disciples in the garden. Jesus alone is taken; the disciples flee. He goes to the cross; they don’t. Quite literally, concretely, Jesus gives His life for His friends.

Calvin provides another illustration of this maneuver.

You get that? The Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit revealing the substitutionary atonement at the center of salvation history is not keeping faith with the "Passion narrative." The Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has engaged in a "maneuver."

"But Dr. Leithart didn't intend any pejorative meaning by his use of 'maneuver,'" you say; "he didn't intend to say that Paul abuses the Passion narratives."

Of course you're right. Dr. Leithart didn't intend to say that the substitutionary atonement revealed by the Holy Spirit through His inspiration of the Apostle Paul is an abuse of the Passion narratives. Dr. Leithart intended only to imply it, and thus his use of the weasel-word 'maneuver.'

Yet even his accusation that the Apostle Paul "maneuver(ed)" around the "Passion narrative" is indirect because the word 'maneuver' is not used until Calvin has been trotted out: "Calvin provides another illustration of this maneuver." Reading this first sentence of the third paragraph, the reader must not only realize that "manuever" has a pejorative connotation, but also that "another" referring to Calvin points back to a prior maneuver, and the one guilty of that prior "maneuver" is the Apostle Paul. Which is to say the Epistles of the New Testament inspired by the Holy Spirit.

See how literary men can turn aside to abusing the authority and inspiration of Scripture? They can't help themselves. Off with the coat, roll up the shirtsleeves, put on an apron, and let fly with the brilliant literary insights as we tear apart the perspicuous Word of God. Just like the dispensationalists who posit a battle between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, Dr. Leithart posits a battle between the pristine "Passion narrative" and the "maneuver(s)" below and around that narrative illustrated by "Paul" and also by Calvin. Both men, Dr. Leithart implies, are insensitive to the integrity of the narrative, so a gifted literary man such as himself must pull us back to it.

What pristine meaning will Dr. Leithart pull us back to?

Within the narrative... in the garden... Jesus alone is taken; the disciples flee. He goes to the cross; they don’t. Quite literally, concretely, Jesus gives His life for His friends.

Dr. Leithart is saying that Jesus saving his disciples from arrest and execution by being arrested and executed Himself is the first and literal meaning of the narrative. It is the concrete meaning of the narrative, but Calvin and Paul maneuver around that meaning in order to get to "atonement theology."

Then, following a number of quotes of Calvin pointing to the cross of Jesus and repeating Scripture's declaration that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all," Dr. Leithart calls these repetitions of Scripture's teaching "Calvin's argument," and he calls his argument into question:

Calvin’s argument makes a move from Christ’s standing as a condemned criminal before Pilate, before the Empire, to His condemnation for us. But we didn’t deserve condemnation as transgressors of Roman law. Calvin has shifted and expanded the context; Pilate’s court becomes the court of the Father, and the condemnation Pilate imposes stands for God’s condemnation of sinners.

Allegorization of the Passion narratives isn’t a mistake. Paul does it, at least when he writes about our participation in the cross of Jesus. But one wonders if the allegory hasn’t moved too hastily from the literal to spiritual senses.

"One wonders"? Who wonders? Dr. Leithart wonders. Certainly I don't. Do you join Dr. Leithart in his wondering?

My Dad used to warn us that heresies typically start with one man alone with a Bible. The corporate solidarity at the root of his sacramentalism would seem to protect against such independent judgments. Should not Dr. Leithart be the last man to turn away from the Household of Faith for quirky individualistic interpretations? Yet here we find him precisely where Dad warned us not to go. He is sitting alone with a Bible, fomenting rebellion against the Apostle Paul and the Holy Spirit Who inspired him. At first Dr. Leithart made a name for himself by wresting the text of God's Word from subjectivists and systematic theologians. He worked to clean up the corruption Scripture suffered at their hands, giving it back to the church pristine and glorious in its original specificity, structure, and meaning.

Reviewing Dr. Leithart's book, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, in Books and Culture, Wesley Hill says:

...the book's central thesis is a simple one: Taking cues from the way Jesus and Paul read the Old Testament, interpreters today ought to pay attention to the letter of the text—its particular form, the way the words go—and not only the supposed matter underneath that form, its "spirit" or "content." Or, rather, "attending to the specific contours of the text—the author's word choices, structural organization, tropes and allusions, and intertextual quotations"—just is the way to engage the "spirit" of the text. If you like, paraphrasing Derrida, there is no spirit outside the letter.

For Leithart, the history of modern hermeneutics presents, for all its superficial diversity, a unified front when it comes to engaging with Scripture's specific forms. Interpreters of every stripe seem to agree: Those forms are (in one way or another) dispensable, a husk that can be marginalized or discarded once the kernel of truth has been grasped and removed. Thus, for instance, Immanuel Kant could accord Scripture a certain respect, but only after he had made clear that its timeless message was to be extracted from its problematic trappings. "His hermeneutics," Leithart claims, "is a form of moral allegory, as Kant moves from the narrative and poetry of the Bible to rational, philosophical accounts of the realities in question," discounting the truthfulness of the former and privileging the latter.

Leithart detects the same allegorizing impulse in some unlikely places. In a vein not too dissimilar to Kantian interpretative schemes, contemporary evangelical believers may do their part in maintaining a tacit opposition between Scripture's particular media and its underlying message. "[W]e are impatient with texts," 

Then Hill quotes Leithart:

A writer lingers, and we want to grab him by the throat and say, "Get to the point, man!" Evangelicals would reverently refrain from throttling an apostle, but the demand for practical Bible teaching often has this threatening subtext. "Don't give me all these names, lists, genealogies, stories. Tell me what to do. Tell me about Jesus."

Yet now Dr. Leithart is wresting the text of the Passion narratives from Calvin and Paul. Both of them have maneuvered around the Gospels' specificity, structure, and meaning for the purpose of allegorizing that narrative until it conforms to the Procrustean bed of Paul's "atonement theology."

Thus Dr. Leithart concludes:

The assumption behind the overly rapid allegorical move may be that the gospels don’t offer us theology but only a factual account of the events of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. To get the meaning of the narrative, we have to go meta-narratival, we have to go to Paul. We should rather assume that the gospels are what they are called - gospels, which means that they are theologically-weighted tellings of the story of Jesus. The good news is the gospel narrative, not a second narrative running slightly above the events of that history.

Watch Dr. Leithart carefully, here: when he speaks of "the overly rapid allegorical move," he is speaking of the statements of the Apostle Paul composing the canonical books of the New Testament inspired by God's Holy Spirit which, as he puts it, allegorize "the factual account of the events of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus." We ought not "go meta-narratival." We ought not "go to Paul," but "rather assume that the gospels are what they are called—gospels...." The gospels are the true narrative, not Paul's writing which is the "second narrative running slightly above the events of that story."

How did a man who started out as a Cambridge University doctor of systematic theology turn away from wresting the Word of God from the hands of scholars end up wresting the Word of God from the hands of Calvin, the Apostle Paul, and the Holy Spirit?

There's a moral in this tragic decline. Think and pray over it. Then determine never to follow such a path yourselves, dear brothers.

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!