Gerald McDermott is Anglican Chair of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School. He is a well-respected scholar of Jonathan Edwards and the author of many books. On a personal note, I will add that Gerry’s book, The Great Theologians, was one of my favorite reads in 2018.
The following interview revolves around McDermott’s latest book, Everyday Glory: The Revelation of God in all of Reality.
The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s teaching and interview videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: You addressed this topic during your recent Griffith-Thomas lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary. In listening to those, I was amazed how much Jonathan Edwards (and others) commended typology, especially those observed in the natural world. Many of us are aware of types existing in Scripture, but we rarely think about types being displayed in nature. Why is that?
McDermott: One reason is Karl Barth, who denied the existence of natural revelation, which means the idea that God reveals himself through nature. Because Barth was the most influential theologian in the last century, many Christians, especially Protestants, have told themselves that they should not see revelation or types in nature. Barth has persuaded them that the Bible does not permit seeing such types there. I argue in an appendix at the back of Everyday Glory that Barth misinterpreted Scripture on this.
A second reason has been the influence of Darwin, Marx and Freud, who have been called the three secular prophets of modernity. For them the world was no longer a beautiful mystery full of signs pointing to God but an arena for the survival of the fittest (Darwin), the realm of exploitation of the proletariat (Marx), or the battleground for conflict between the superego and the id (Freud).
With those negative dynamics at play, how could the world be a place where God reveals himself?
Moore: In my first hermeneutics class I heard the professor warn us about finding too many types in Scripture. It does seem that some go too far in seeing types all over Scripture, almost as if they have some secret decoder ring. What are some ways we can responsibly see types in Scripture while not falling prey to speculation?
McDermott: First we must realize two things, and then we can follow three rules.
We must realize that there are many times in Scripture where we are told explicitly that something outside of Scripture is a type. For example, Jesus said we can learn from lilies and sparrows, and Paul said we should realize a lesson about resurrection from seeds dying and germinating (1 Cor 15).
The second thing to realize is that God does not typically explain his types in Scripture. Think of the two most prominent messianic types in the OT: Moses leading Israel out of slavery and the suffering servant in Isaiah. The OT never says they are messianic, but Jesus rebuked his disciples for not understanding them (Luke 24:25-26). Perhaps then we should be wary of insisting that we are to draw no typological lessons where the Scripture is not directly explicit.
The Bible is more than a beautiful drama, but certainly not less than that. It is full of types and symbols and images that appeal as much to the right brain as the left. Like all things of beauty, it often shows rather than tells its inner secrets. It is full of “spiritual things for those who are spiritual” ((1 Cor 2:13). To demand that it always explain its images is like refusing to appreciate Mozart’s music until we can find his philosophy of music.
But there are rules nonetheless. First, things or events must fall within a clear range of biblical meaning. For example, since Scripture compares our Lord’s anger to that of a she-bear mourning her cubs (Hosea 13:8; Isa. 59:11), the anger of any large animal would fall within that range of typical meaning.
Second, when something in nature or history does not have a clear biblical referent, it should nevertheless fall within the meaning of the whole story of redemption that the Bible tells. For example, there are only a few allusions to sports in the Bible, such as when Paul referred to a wrestler (2 Tim 2:5). But the motif of winning and losing is at the heart of biblical eschatology where there will be winners and losers in the end, those who are saved and lost.
Thus interpreting types is a matter of descending rather than ascending. It starts with the biblical vision of the God of Israel coming “down” to history in Jesus and seeing the world of nature and history through the lens of that God rather than starting with our own ideas of truth and goodness we find in the world and moving up, as it were, to create our own idea of God by finding in the Bible what agrees with what we have already decided is good and true and beautiful.
Third, we should measure all of our thinking about types against the wisdom of the Great Tradition of theology and exegesis. So if we thought we were finding types in nature or history that taught the virtue of same-sex marriage or that all would eventually be saved, the Great Tradition would inform us that we were interpreting wrongly.
Moore: Augustine, Edwards, and Balthasar stand out for their theological work on beauty with perhaps Edwards leading the way. Have other theologians simply been blind to thinking about aesthetics, or are there legitimate reasons for them to be leery of writing about beauty?
McDermott: There has always been the danger of thinking that salvation comes through aesthetic experience. We could call that “salvation by imagination.” Aesthetes of every era are tempted to think that way, particularly when they consider themselves better educated than simple Christians in the pews. So there are legitimate reasons to be leery of writing about beauty in theology.
On the other hand, there are good reasons to write about beauty once you realize the danger. In previous eras the Church has emphasized the good and the true, and of course we should always present the Trinitarian God as the source and embodiment of truth and goodness. But in this new century there is fresh resonance with the beautiful. New generations will listen to or watch us when we talk about beauty and God in ways that they have not followed us when we stressed truth and ethics. Seekers and other non-Christians are more attentive to “the beauty of holiness” than to “What must I do to be saved?” when few realize they are not saved and need to be.
Moore: In nearly two hundred interviews, the following is a first because I want to raise a question from one of the endorsements! One of the blurbs provocatively says that “We need to recover this unified vision of ‘everyday glory’ as a balm against the secular materialism of our modern age and its stepchild of biblical literalism.” I assume you agree with this counsel, so would you unpack how your book seeks to achieve that goal?
McDermott: The Reformers rightly said that every interpretation must start with the literal meaning of a biblical text, but they also insisted that our interpretation need not, and sometimes must not, end there. In other words, there is a difference between a literalistic reading of the Bible and a literal one. Not to mention other meanings such as typological ones. When the Bible says God is a rock (Ps 18:31; 2 Sam 22:32), it obviously begs us to seek the meaning of that image. We must get beyond the literalistic (which rock on earth contains God?) to the literal (the rock-like faithfulness of God to his promises) and then typological (Paul’s saying Christ was a “spiritual rock” in the wilderness, 1 Cor. 10:4).
The literal meaning of every text is critical to know, and proper hermeneutics is anchored to it. But often there are other layers of meaning as well.
Moore: I am hoping that your book will begin a more robust conversation about types both in Scripture and in nature. How are theologians responding to your work? As a DTS alum., I am curious how the faculty and students found the material.
McDermott: The book is still very recent, and so has not yet garnered a full-length review. But Sam Storms picked it as his favorite theological book of 2018.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers take from this book?
McDermott: I am hoping that believers will see 1) that they can have confidence that nature does indeed radiate with God’s glory, and that they are not taking real theological risk to say that; 2) that they will not be abashed to say that there are signs of God’s glory in the human conscience and the world’s cultures; 3) that they can see certain patterns in human history, 4) and signs of glory in the worlds of animals and sports and human sexuality.
I hope too that believers will see that they can talk about truth and beauty outside the Bible that unbelievers and other religionists can also affirm. And that they can reject the postmodern myth that there is no meta-narrative, no final truth. Christian orthodoxy, they can say, works not only inside the Bible, as it were, but in every part of life and the cosmos.
Seekers, I hope, will see from this that the atheisms and agnosticisms on offer are both vulnerable and risky. Why are there such profound symmetries in science that bedazzle some of the greatest scientists? Why are nature, science, law, history, love, and even sports so full of types—signs of glory—that befuddle skeptics?
This book will never prove God to seekers. But if they come to it with an open mind, it might help them question more deeply the absence-of-God alternatives they struggle with.