Confidence in the Word of God: An Interview with Dr. Gregory Alan Thornbury (Part 2)

GATInterview with Gregory A. Thornbury | September 30, 2013

Intro:
 Dr. Gregory Alan Thornbury (GAT) was recently named the sixth president of The King’s College in New York City. He took some time to chat with me on the phone on September 30th and discuss . . . a little bit of everything, you might say. (This is part two of our interview, to read part one click here)

 

Dave:  In terms of your relationship with Carl Henry, what particularly about his work “saved your faith?”

GAT: I would put it this way: what Carl Henry did was give me a confidence in the revelatory pattern of Scripture. What we have when we hold the Bible in our hands is rational communication from God. God speaking in intelligent sentences and paragraphs to us. In other words, God is not reduced to some kind of illiteracy.

The way I approached God, Revelation, and Authority was to go ransacking it for answers. The question I had was, “Can I trust the Bible.” I was being taught a very refined version of Higher Criticism of the Bible. It was a Bart Ehrman scenario. What I appreciated about Henry was that he didn’t offer just a tit-for-tat approach. He wasn’t merely interested in talking about archeology and why the text of the Bible is reliable. That stuff was in there, but what I got from Henry was a robust philosophical defense of the coherency of the notion of authority. That’s what I needed. I needed something more Meta, rather than just that kind of Gleason Archer Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties type approach. Carl Henry gave me a philosophy of confidence in Scripture.

Dave: Is this why Carl Henry has relevance for younger Evangelicals today? We hear regularly from a segment of the post-Evangelical community that the Bible is “kind-of-sort-of” the Word of God and “kind-of-sort-of” not. There’s a real distrust of the claims of inerrancy today. Is this where Henry can be helpful to us?

GAT: Yes, exactly. I think any time your answer is “kind of” that tells you everything you need to know. In no other universe except Evangelicalism are “kind of” attestations accepted. For some reason Evangelicals think everything is constantly negotiable at any moment.

I think we need to either get over this “kind of” attitude or we should just fold it up and go home. I personally would find more succor and explanatory power out of Lacanian psychology and philosophy than I would out of “kind of” Evangelicalism. Don’t get me wound up here!

Dave: What should we make of the use of that label, “Evangelical?” Henry had pretty clear boundaries for what “Evangelical” meant, but I am not so sure that we have very clear boundaries on that term anymore.

GAT: If you have never read the book Evangelical Affirmations – it was a conference Henry did at Trinity with Ken Kantzer – I commend it to you. Also, on the Henry Center Website, there is a series they did called Know Your Roots. Henry defines the term “Evangelical” as a herald of the evangel.

He was very disappointed at the end of his life, however, that the term had gotten co-opted by a socio-political ideology that he felt was alien to the more broad-based program that he had outlined in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.

Dave: Do you deal with this subject of “Evangelicalism” in your book on Henry?

GAT: I do. My book is both about Carl Henry and it is not about Carl Henry simultaneously; Henry is an occasion for me as a current theologian to talk about some things. For example, I’ve read a lot of 20th century philosophical hermeneutics, and I will say to you that I love it! I love Gadamer and Wittgenstein, and Derrida, and Paul Ricoeur. But I do not think, with the exception of Paul Ricoeur, that any of those people would have thought that their program could be composed with anything that we would call historic Christianity. Some people have not really picked up on that in my book, and it’s maybe a little bit of an Easter Egg hidden towards the end of the book. I basically say, either we regain our swagger or let’s just go home! Let’s just do something else. This kind of furtively looking over our shoulders, like we want to be somebody else, is not acceptable. If you want to be somebody else then be somebody else. Let your freak flag fly! Go out there and say, “We don’t really think this is true.” But let’s not pretend.

Theology does not begin with junior high ideology: I really hope they like us! It’s Francis Schaeffer saying, “He is there and He is not silent!” If that’s not what it is, then let’s just go home. Let’s shut it down, let’s be something else. Let’s go to TED Talks.

Dave: Anything else you would want to say about your book?

GAT: Well, it’s a funny little book. It was a way for me to try to honor Dr. Henry. I think the implications of his work are massive and they are far beyond the purview of a 230 page book. But what I was trying to do was restart a conversation, and I think it’s been successful. I could have written half-a-dozen different books on Carl Henry, but that one came from the heart. If it in anyway redounds to people reengaging with Carl Henry that would be great.

You said that you found the first three volumes of God, Revelation, and Authority to be really dense. You know the only negative review I’ve gotten of my book was from a philosophy professor who said, “Carl Henry’s not difficult to read.” Well, excuse me, but every other pastor that I know says, “I picked up volume one and I could not get through it.” So, I tried to paraphrase Carl Henry in my book.

Other than my book (which sounds self-important), if you want to access Henry I would recommend two books. The place to start if you want to understand Henry’s theological program is the book Toward a Recovery of Christian Belief. If you want to understand Henry’s cultural program start with The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. If you only read two things by Henry those are the two you should read.

Dave: I’d love to get your thoughts on a conversation I had with another famous theologian about Henry. I mentioned to this man that I found God, Revelation, and Authority to be very dense, and he responded by saying it was both dense and simplistic. Do you think that is a fair characterization of Carl F. Henry?

GAT: People said exactly the same thing about Dallas Willard. I had a number of guys say that to me. “He’s too dense and too simple.” But, I believe that is the mark of a good philosopher. And I will put up Dallas Willard and Carl Henry against those jokers any day of the week. How’s that for a throw down?

Dave: That’ll be the tagline for this interview.

Let me shift gears just a little bit. You are a theologian who enjoys culture, interacts with culture, and it seems like that helps you to bring some fresh eyes to many of the theological subjects you write on and teach about. Maybe you can help us think a bit about this subject. How can we approach theological concepts in fresh ways without drifting off into creative heresy?

GAT: Thank you for the question. I’d like to begin answering that question by quoting Gadamer, who said, “I take hermeneutics very seriously.” What we are dealing with in hermeneutics is, as Gadamer said, something like the history of the text of the world. What is the text of the world? When flat-footed sensible Evangelicals hear the word “text” they think of books. But culture is a text and the artifacts of culture are all texts. So, I feel very strongly, as a theologian, that I want to be taking the text of the world as it now stands extremely seriously. I want to read it almost sacramentally.

I went to Mid-town Comics on Saturday with my kid to get her the next volume in the Infinity Gauntlet series, so she can be ready for the new Avengers movie that comes out. When I walked into that comic book store it was very clear that the people who are in there take graphic novels very seriously. Grant Morrison, who is maybe the greatest comic book writer ever, gets it exactly right when he said that it was the idea of the super hero that helped him survive thinking about nuclear holocaust. It was a better idea. So when you read Grant Morrison’s Super Gods he is representative of legions of people who don’t just watch Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and read Vanity Fair, or go see Blue Jasmine simply because they are fun things to do on the side. People take these things extremely seriously. It is a sacramental way for them to read the text of the history of the world. So, I feel it is incumbent upon me as a theologian to care about that. But, I will be honest, I think of these texts in much of the same way too.

I will be provocative here: I am more challenged about my own sin and inner demons by reflecting on an episode of Mad Men than I am by most sermons that I hear. When I wrote that unreview of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life two years ago I quoted Tolstoy, and I talked about the script writers, the poets, the producers, and the actors as the priests of the sacred art. They have a priestly function. If the church wants to pretend like they don’t, and say “No we are the priests,” well then…good luck with that.

David: So then we want to do theology in ways that are relevant to our context, but we don’t want to be driven purely by the context. How do we maintain orthodoxy and yet do theology in fresh ways?

GAT: Here again, we are back at the question of theological hermeneutics. How does Scripture interact with culture, interact with the church? Essentially what Grant Osborne says in that now classic book The Hermeneutical Spiral is that what we are doing is interpretation. To think that what we are doing is theology in isolation, apart from any influence from our own cultural gestalt, is naïve.

To use a phrase from my dear friend David Dark, who is sort of like my doppelgänger. He said, “We hear all these people asking whether we should engage culture or not engage culture,” and then he quoted that old Palmolive commercial from back in the 70s and the 80s. There’s a lady who has her hands soaking and she’s about to get her nails done. And Madge is talking about Palmolive and the lady says, “O, tell me more about this Palmolive.” Madge says to her, “You’re soaking in it.” So, we’re having these conversations about whether we should engage in culture or not and, here’s David Dark’s line, “culture has already engaged you.”

This is one of the things that makes me upset about the “worldview” language, which I have sometimes used: worldview is an anthropological term identifying the way a society thinks about things. Christianity, in that sense, is not a worldview. It is an ancient faith that transcends all culture and all places at all times. It is only, then, by immersing yourself in culture that you begin to see how alien Christian theism really is.

Somebody asked me to sum up in one sentence what the most important part of my teaching ministry is to students. It’s this: That there is a fundamental difference between faith and ideology.

David: That’s very helpful Dr. Thornbury. I have always tried to keep Dr. Frame’s definition of theology before me. He says that theology is the application of the Word of God to the world, and so you can’t really do theology apart from culture.

GAT: That’s right. John Frame is right.

David: I find myself saying that a lot…well, except when he writes about baptism.

In conclusion, maybe tell us a little bit about what the future holds for Gregory Alan Thornbury. Should we expect a Carl Perkins tribute album?

GAT: Maybe! I do love Carl Perkins. His son Stan is a good friend of mine.

Immediately, the big thing I am working on is the first ever authorized critical biography of Larry Norman. I think that he is a fascinating figure because he was sort of a rebel poet in early Evangelicalism. I think as an artist he embodies a lot of the tensions that most of us feel about our own weird religious background. So, I think he’s a lens through which to view things. His family has authorized me to write the biography. So I have full access to all of his ephemera, letters, files, many of which have never seen the light of day. I feel a little bit like Peter Guralnick, who wrote the first authorized biography of Elvis. Larry Norman is our Elvis. I am working on that biography. So that is a big scholarly project and interest.

I have a number of other writing projects in the works, and there will be a film that will come out with the Larry Norman project. So that will be a big part of the work I will be doing as well.

My main passion now is The King’s College, and the opportunity to build a classic liberal arts institution rooted in the Oxford politics, philosophy, and economics curriculum.

I would like someday to find my way back to music.

 

*A very special thank you to Dr. Thornbury for his time and for his responses. I am thankful to the Lord for his scholarship and his general theological work, I hope that many of my readers will take time to learn from him as well.

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  1. […] 2. “Confidence in the Word of God: An Interview with Dr. Gregory Alan Thornbury (Part 1 and Part 2)” […]

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