Results tagged “Scripture” from Reformation21 Blog

The second-century Church Father Irenaeus's most famous work, Against Heresies, was principally directed at the contemporary heresy of Gnosticism, especially as that movement found expression in the thought of a teacher named Valentinus in Rome. One can discern in Valentinus's doctrine the two chief characteristics of Gnosticism: a strong distaste for the material world (and its captivity to change and decay); and bizarre speculation about how the world came into existence (which speculation generally served to reinforce distaste for the material world). Valentinus held that ultimate spiritual reality comprises a hierarchy of thirty gods (collectively known as the 'Pleroma'), the least of which (named Sophia) became consumed with illicit desire to comprehend her superiors and consequently gave birth (as it were) to a spiritual being called Achamoth. Achamoth, in turn, generated the "god" who created this world. 

Unlike his contemporary Marcion who simply rejected portions of Christian Scripture that didn't gel with his heterodox theological vision, Valentinus generally accepted whatever texts were being circulated as Christian Scripture and then tried to convince his hearers that such texts had hidden meaning that revealed his bizarre doctrine -- hidden meaning that others could only discover with the help of him or other select teachers who had inherited knowledge of such by means of a secret tradition stretching back to the Apostles. So, for instance, Valentinus discovered a reference to the Pleroma in the parable of the Laborers in the Field (Matt. 20.1-16), because the various hours at which the master sends out laborers into his field (1, 3, 6, 9, and 11) add up to thirty (the number of gods in the Pleroma). As silly as such a reading of Scripture might seem to us in the present, many people were led astray by such teaching, perhaps because it satisfied an innate human itch to have the one-up on others, to be in the know (or rather, gnosis) about what Scripture really means.

Valentinus's system, and ones similar to it, presented Irenaeus and other apologists of orthodox Christianity with perfect opportunities to reflect upon proper methods for reading and understanding Scripture. Thus Irenaeus advanced in his work the basic thesis that Scripture means what it says -- that is, that Scripture is clear in its articulation of the fundamental points of Christian theology, and that anyone of sound mind can actually pick up Scripture, read it, and grasp those points.

"A sound mind," he wrote, "and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind [i.e., power to understand], and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures." (Against Heresies 2.27)

Irenaeus was not naive. No matter how clear and unambiguous Scripture's teaching of Christianity's main points might be, "advancement" in understanding that teaching, to his thinking, still required eagerness, devotion to piety and love of truth, daily study, and meditation. He also recognized (as Peter did [2 Peter 3.14-16]) that Scripture contains some passages that aren't so easy to decipher. Thus he complemented his basic thesis about Scripture's clarity with guidelines for navigating the more difficult texts. He encouraged his readers to read and interpret those more tricky passages through lenses provided both by the clear texts (see Against Heresies 2.28) and the teaching of Scripture as a whole, which teaching can be summarized in creedal form (AH 1.10). He also reminded his readers that "the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ" (AH 4.26) -- that is, that one's understanding of a biblical text, difficult or otherwise, should conform and lead to Christ, whose person and work stands at the very center of God's Word to us through the prophets and apostles.

Irenaeus also insisted that one should rely on authorities within the Church whose very job description entails receiving, safeguarding, and passing along the Church's corporate and traditional sense of what constitutes biblical truth. But he was more cautious in this admonition than is sometimes claimed. He recognized that some persons lawfully holding office in the Church might be wolves rather than sheep, and such persons, rather than serving as guardians of the Word, would ultimately be judged by it. "Those, however, who are believed to be presbyters by many, but serve their own lusts, and, do not place the fear of God supreme in their hearts, but conduct themselves with contempt towards others, and are puffed up with the pride of holding the chief seat, and work evil deeds in secret, saying, 'No man sees us,' shall be convicted by the Word, who does not judge after outward appearance, nor looks upon the countenance, but the heart...." (AH 4.26) Christians must, then, exercise some measure of judgment regarding persons in authority; there can be no blind allegiance to the teaching of any man, no matter his credentials.

Against Heresies is a remarkable piece of writing. I reckon it could serve as a textbook on hermeneutics in most confessionally Protestant seminaries without too much qualification. It's certainly unambiguous in its assertion of Scripture's perspicuity (or clarity), that idea about the Bible that the magisterial reformers supposedly dreamed up in the sixteenth century. It's likewise just as nuanced as the magisterial reformers in laying out principles for navigating less than clear biblical texts and relating one's impressions of biblical meaning to traditional interpretation. As such, Irenaeus's work is a powerful reminder that the Reformation was not a reaction against 1500 years of getting it wrong, but a recovery of genuine catholic Christian beliefs and practices (and so a reaction against the perversion of catholic beliefs and practices in the immediately preceding centuries).

Most evangelical presentations of the doctrine of Scripture are implicitly trinitarian. They identify the Father as Scripture's primary author, the Son as Scripture's central subject matter, and the Spirit as the immediate agent of prophetic and apostolic inspiration. Scripture is God the Father preaching God the Son by God the Spirit, to borrow J. I. Packer's famous description. Moreover, evangelicals recognize that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the central subject matter of Scripture, is implicitly trinitarian. The gospel concerns the love of God the Father for elect sinners, the suffering and glory of God the incarnate Son, and the fellowship of the saints in God the Spirit. The gospel is trinitarian in its root and fruit. 

As salutary as this implicit trinitarianism is, there is more to be said about the relationship between the Trinity and Scripture. The Trinity is not simply the primary author of Holy Scripture and the organic structure of the gospel. The Trinity is the depth dimension of Holy Scripture, its principal subject matter and end. Matthew Bates's recent book, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and the Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament, opens an illuminating window into to the trinitarian depth dimension of Holy Scripture.

Bates's book focuses upon early Christian "prosopological exegesis" of the Old Testament. Prosopological exegesis is a "person-centered reading strategy" that seeks to resolve the otherwise ambiguous identities of speakers and audiences in Old Testament texts in light of the clear determination of their identities in the apostolic gospel. As Bates demonstrates, both the New Testament and early Christian interpreters engaged in this sort of exegesis. For example, Mark 12.35-37 clarifies the identities of speaker and auditor in Psalm 110 as God the Father speaking to God the Son regarding his eternal generation and messianic dominion. And it clarifies for us that David overheard this conversation between the Father and the Son "in the Holy Spirit."     

New Testament and early Christian prosopological exegesis overhears the story of "the conversational God" as it unfolds from its root in the Son's eternal generation and appointment as Messiah, through the Son's incarnate mission, death, and resurrection, to its ultimate triumph in the installment of the Son at the Father's right hand. 

In Psalm 110.3-4, we overhear the Father say, "from the womb, before the dawn-bearing morning star appeared, I begot you," and we overhear the Father appoint this eternally begotten Son as messianic priest-king, "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (compare with Psalm 2.6-9).

In Psalm 40.6-8, we overhear the Son speaking to the Father of the body he has prepared for him and of the Son's desire to do the Father's will in his incarnate mission (see also Heb 10.5-7). 

In Psalm 22, we overhear the Son's cry of agony from the cross (vv. 1-2) and we overhear the Son praise the Father in the midst of an "ever-expanding" assembly of peoples after the Father has raised him from the dead (vv. 22-25).

In Psalm 45.6-7, we overhear the Son being addressed as the Father installs him on his eternal throne after he has obediently fulfilled the Father's commission, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions" (see also Heb 1.8-9).

Such a reading strategy unveils the trinitarian depth dimension of Scripture in at least two ways. First, it reveals that Holy Scripture is not only God's Word to us; Holy Scripture is also witness to God's Word to God. How wonderful it is to read the Bible as a Spirit-inspired occasion to overhear God's intratrinitarian conversation! Second, this reading strategy helps us see that the great love story which unfolds in the pages of Scripture is not simply the story of God's love for elect sinners. It is the story of the Father's love for his eternal Son and of his desire to make him the head of a redeemed humanity, and it is the story of the Son's love for the Father and of his willingness to become incarnate and to endure suffering--to the point of death on a cross--out of zeal for the Father's glory among the nations (Ps 69.9; John 2.17). Prosopological exegesis helps us see that the story of God's love for us is but a modulation on the greater theme of the Father's love for the Son in the Spirit. 

Prosopological exegesis is a person-centered reading strategy that helps us see the person-centered subject matter and the person-centered end of Scripture. It teaches us that the purpose of revelation, and of revelation's inscripturation, is to unveil God's intratrinitarian life of communication and communion and to welcome us into that life's embrace--at great cost to the triune God himself (Matt 11.25-27; 1 John 1.3-4). Holy Scripture is the product of the Holy Spirit, who enabled prophets and apostles to overhear the lovely words of the Father to the Son and of the Son to the Father, and who enables us to hear the testimony of the prophets and apostles in order that, through their testimony, we too may have fellowship with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.

"I come to the right of interpreting [the Bible], which they arrogate to themselves.... It is theirs, they say, to give the meaning of Scripture, and we must acquiesce." Thus Calvin summarizes the fourth and final point of Trent's teaching on Scripture. Trent's words were as follows: "No man... [should] dare to interpret the Holy Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, has held and holds" (emphasis mine).

Few things annoyed Calvin and other reformers of the sixteenth-century more than Rome's repeated claim, in the midst of theological disputes, to own the exclusive right to determine what the Bible actually says about the matters disputed. The intent of that claim, of course, was to force an immediate stop to all conversation, let alone controversy, about what Scripture teaches regarding justification, the sacraments, religious images, indulgences, and so on. Luther expressed his frustration with such posturing on Rome's part thus: "Were this true" -- that is, were it true that sola Roma possessed the right and requisite spiritual gift to interpret Scripture -- "where [then] were the need and use of the Holy Scriptures" at all? "Let us burn them," Luther continued, "and content ourselves with the unlearned gentlemen at Rome, in whom the Holy Ghost dwells.... If I had not read it, I could never have believed that the devil should have put forth such follies at Rome and [have found] a following."

Nearly three decades after Luther wrote those words, Calvin sounds a similar note of annoyance and disbelief in his response to Trent's teaching: "What hinders them," he asks, "from raising a trophy, and coming off victorious to their hearts' content, if we concede to them what they have comprehended in [this] decree?"

To gain some sense of the reformers' frustration at Roman claims of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture, one might imagine how a wife might feel if, in the midst of a dispute about who said what and thereby broke the marital peace, her husband invoked his own infallible knowledge of what was actually said, as well as his own unimpeachable right to declare the same and level blame or demand repentance accordingly.

Calvin's actual argument against Rome's claim to own the right of biblical interpretation is similar to his argument against Rome's claim that extra-scriptural tradition, in addition to the Bible, constitutes a source of saving truth (see part one of this series). Calvin could, of course, have simply required Rome to prove that she alone was entitled to adjudicate competing readings of the Bible. After all, the burden of proof clearly rests upon those who would hazard such obviously dubious claims, just as the burden of proof would rest with the husband in our proposed analogy to prove his infallible knowledge of what was said and his right to interpret the same.

Calvin takes a different tack, appealing again, albeit negatively this time, to tradition. He recounts examples of official but clearly preposterous Roman interpretations of Scripture, which he reckons anyone endued with any degree of sense will see for what they are. These examples are all taken from the seventh ecumenical council in Nicaea which defended the existence and veneration of images of Christ, Mary, and the saints in places of worship. So, for instance, Calvin observes that this council cited Psalm 16:3 ("As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight") in defense of religious images, on the rather ludicrous assumption that the "saints" mentioned by the Psalmist were those depicted on the walls of some worship space.

As far as ridiculous Roman interpretations of Scripture go, I personally would have cited Pope Boniface VIII's use of Luke 22:38 in the papal bull Unam sanctam to establish his claim that ultimate ecclesiastical and civil authority are divinely entrusted to the papacy. But to each his own; Calvin's references do the job.

Calvin is, however, sensitive to a potential counter-charge from Rome -- namely, that each reformer rejected Rome's fallible interpretation of Scripture in favor of his own fallible interpretations of Scripture, and so failed to improve upon Rome's position (by effectively establishing as many popes as there are Protestants, and, in that process, destroying the unity of the faith).

In response, Calvin -- rather remarkably -- acknowledges the need for individual interpreters of Scripture to "willingly submit" their own judgments about Scripture's meaning "to the judgment of the Church." Calvin, in other words, unabashedly prefers a corporate, churchly interpretation of Scripture to any private individual's judgment regarding Scripture's meaning. "We neither contemn nor impair the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please."

Remarkably, then, Calvin ends up asserting something like the position of Rome against which he argues -- that is, that "it belongs" to the Church "to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures." But Calvin's own view differs from Rome in three essential regards: First of all, he recognizes the Church (with a capital C) as the collective body of visible churches (lower case c) where God's Word is rightly preached and God's sacraments are rightly administered -- where, in other words, there is integrity of doctrine and practice. Calvin thus deems it doubtful that the institution which, under the authority of the papacy, answers to the name "Roman Catholic Church" is even part of the true Church, much less the whole of it.

Secondly, Calvin entrusts doctrinal authority in the visible Church to persons properly trained to study Scripture from every age and region of the church, rather than any given person (the pope) or ecclesiastical body (a council) at any given point in time. This makes corporate, churchly judgments regarding the meaning of a text rather more difficult to discern, and -- since the Church consists of believers yet to be born -- points to the necessarily open-ended nature of ecclesiastical judgments about Scripture's meaning.

Thirdly, Calvin freely acknowledges the fallibility of the Church, which once again points to the provisional nature of corporate, churchly judgments regarding Scripture's meaning. The Church, being fallible, must intentionally and constantly render itself correctable in relation to God's infallible Word.

Calvin's argument against Rome's claim of an exclusive right to interpret Scripture might surprise many Reformed believers today. In the final analysis, Calvin assaults Rome's claim to the title "Church" more than Trent's claim that biblical interpretation properly belongs to the Church. "I wish," he concludes, "they would shew us such a Church as Scripture itself portrays; we should easily agree as to the respect" -- and privilege? -- "due to it. But when, falsely assuming the name of Church, they seize upon the spoils of which they have robbed it, what else can we do than protest?"

Indeed.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

"Thirdly," Calvin writes in description of Rome's teaching on Scripture, "repudiating all other versions [of Scripture] whatsoever, they retain the Vulgate only, and order it to be authentic." Thus Calvin summarizes the following words from the Council of Trent:

[This] Holy Council -- considering that no small utility may accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which out of all the Latin editions, now in circulation, of the sacred books, is to be held as authentic -- ordains and declares, that the said old and vulgate edition, which, by the lengthened usage of so many years, has been approved of in the Church, be, in public lectures, disputations, sermons and expositions, held as authentic; and that no one is to dare, or presume to reject it under any pretext whatever.

The Latin edition of the Bible thus approved and privileged by Trent was that which Jerome produced in the late fourth century. Jerome's Latin Bible -- the Vulgate -- was rather controversial in its own time because Jerome chose to translate the Old Testament into Latin from the Hebrew Scriptures rather than the received Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). But, whatever qualms initially existed regarding Jerome's conviction that Scripture should be translated from its original languages rather than other translations, Jerome's Vulgate eventually became the Church's standard version of Scripture. As knowledge of Greek and Hebrew faded in Western Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the influx of Germanic tribes, few biblical scholars cared enough -- or were, for that matter, competent -- to compare the Vulgate's rendering of Scripture to surviving manuscripts of the Bible in Greek and Hebrew, those languages in which Scripture was originally penned.

But late-medieval Europe witnessed a rebirth of interest in the languages of antiquity and, correspondingly, ancient texts. Western European scholars re-learned Greek and Hebrew, and so stood equipped to evaluate Jerome's translation of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures into Latin. In 1516, the prince of humanist scholars Desiderius Erasmus produced a new edition of the New Testament in Greek, having compared all the Greek manuscripts available to him in order to adjudicate textual variants and recover, as closely as possible, the original words of Scripture. In a parallel column in the same work, Erasmus offered a new Latin translation of the Bible based upon the Greek -- a Latin translation which highlighted quite a few points at which Jerome's translation was significantly flawed.

By the time that the Council of Trent got around to addressing the doctrine of Scripture in 1546, quite a few scholars had followed Erasmus's lead. They had, in other words, studied the Bible in Greek and/or Hebrew, highlighted flaws in Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, and offered superior translations in Latin or in vernacular languages (German, English, etc.).

The Roman Catholic fathers at Trent obviously found it rather unsettling that intelligent and highly skilled persons were consulting Scripture in its original languages, finding the Vulgate's translation of Scripture in its original languages wanting, and offering their own (perhaps competing) translations of the text. A reasonable response to such discomfort might have been the establishment of an ecclesiastical body to offer an approved, corporate critique of Jerome's translation and improved translation of the Bible. Calvin expected the Romanists to "make some show" at least, "of executing a new version," even if they assigned the task to "sworn adherents" of their own corrupt doctrine. Instead, Trent adopted the decidedly un-reasonable approach of authorizing Jerome's unquestionably flawed translation of the Bible over all would-be competitors.

This, of course, was a serious blow to biblical scholarship of the period, and one that was certain to raise the humanist hackles of Protestant and Roman Catholic intellectuals alike. Calvin describes Trent's "error" as "gross" and its "edict" as "barbarous." "Those," he writes, "who are acquainted with the [biblical] languages perceive that this version [i.e., the Vulgate] teems with innumerable errors, and this they make manifest by the clearest evidence." Nevertheless "the Fathers of Trent contend that although the learned thus draw the pure liquor from the very fountain [i.e., study Scripture in its original languages] and convict the infallible Vulgate of falsehood, they are not to be listed to."

Calvin offers numerous examples of mis-translation on the part of the Vulgate, particularly with regard to its rendering of the Old Testament, which proceeded from Jerome's somewhat dubious knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Jerome's failures in translation hardly need be rehearsed here; they are, just as Calvin noted, obvious to any and all who compare the original Hebrew to Jerome's Latin Bible. Perhaps the most famous of doubtful translations offered by Jerome is discovered in his description of Moses's "face" (faciem) as "horned" (cornutam) as the Prophet descended Mount Sinai (Ex. 34.29). Medieval and early modern artists read Jerome's description of Moses's "horned face" rather literally, and accordingly gave Moses horns in their artistic depictions of him:


moses2.jpg

One could, perhaps, place blame for the tradition of giving Moses' horns on medieval mis-interpreters of Jerome rather than Jerome himself. There are, however, plenty of passages in the Vulgate where Jerome cannot be so easily excused. So, for instance, in Psalm 2, a Messianic/Kingship Psalm where the Psalmist exhorts his hearers to "Kiss the Son," Jerome's translation of the Hebrew had Adprehendite disciplinam ("Embrace discipline"). "The former is clearly correct," Calvin observes. The former, in other words, clearly communicates what one finds in the Hebrew text. So "why," Calvin asks, "should the latter be held the more authentic?"

Trent's decision to authenticate the Vulgate translation of the Bible isn't as curious as it seems upon the surface if one remembers the historical circumstances surrounding the Council's meeting. Rome clearly felt threatened by persons who challenged traditional dogmas on the basis of Scripture's original words, and decided to stop the mouths of such persons by taking Scripture in its original languages (or superior translations) from their hands and replacing it with a text which was less threatening since it was familiar to them, and could -- following well-worn patterns of argument -- be more easily turned to the defense of traditional, albeit ultimately unbiblical, doctrines. Of course, purely reactionary measures, such as this decision by Trent was, rarely produce sound practice or doctrine. This particular move on the part of Trent -- rejecting every Latin translation of Scripture but the Vulgate (no matter its obvious flaws) -- was at best obscurantist, at worst completely ludicrous. Indeed, Trent essentially adopted a position akin to that of twentieth-century fundamentalists who argue -- if it can be called argument -- that the King James Version of the English Bible is divinely inspired and must, therefore, reign supreme over other (better) translations of Scripture.

In Calvin's concluding words: "were this edict of the Council sanctioned, the simple effect would be that the Fathers of Trent would make the world look with their eyes open, and yet not see the light presented to them."

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Follow the links to read the introduction and part one of this series.

"In forming a catalogue of Scripture," Calvin writes, "they [the Roman Catholic Council of Trent] mark all the books with the same chalk, and insist on placing the Apocrypha in the same rank with the others." Thus Calvin summarizes the second of the four points he discerns in Trent's teaching on Scripture. There is little need to repeat Trent's words in their entirety. The decree in question provides "a list of the Sacred Books" comprising those books that Protestants are accustomed to finding in their Bibles and some books, commonly called Apocryphal (or Deuterocanonical), that they are not -- namely, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. The decree concludes by anathematizing any and all who "shall not receive these entire Books, with all their parts ... as sacred and canonical," thereby despising "the foresaid traditions" -- a reference back to those "unwritten traditions" which, alongside of Scripture, has already been identified by Trent as a unique source of Christian doctrine.

Calvin offers a two-pronged response to Trent's "admitting" of "all [these] Books promiscuously into the Canon." The first prong advances his preceding argument from Christian tradition itself against recognition of tradition as an infallible source of unique Christian doctrine. Calvin now observes how un-traditional the inclusion of these Apocryphal books in the Canon is: "I say nothing more than it is done against the consent of the primitive Church."

In support of this claim, Calvin references the writings of two late-fourth/early-fifth century Church Fathers: Jerome and Tyrannius Rufinus. Oddly enough, Calvin doesn't seem all that interested in the opinions of Jerome and Rufinus per se regarding the Apocryphal books. He's interested, rather, in the testimony these Fathers provide in their writings to even earlier Christian judgments about the canonicity of the books in question. Thus he cites Rufinus's assertion in about 408 that "our fathers" -- that is, Rufinus's "fathers" -- judged the books in question to be "not Canonical," named the same "Apocrypha," and "would not have [them] read in the Churches" (The Creed of Aquileia, para. 38). With regard to Jerome: "It is well known," Calvin observers, "what [he] states as the common opinion of earlier times." Presumably Calvin has in mind something like Jerome's observation that "the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures." Jerome made numerous, similar statements about the Church's historic stance towards the other Apocryphal books.

Calvin could, of course, have made further appeal to Jerome's own opinion. Jerome, after all, cited "the common opinion of earlier times" in defense of his own very clear denial of canonical status to the Apocryphal books (as seen, for instance, in the prefaces he drafted for his Latin translation of the Bible). Jerome did, however, include -- with a clear disclaimer regarding their non-canonical status -- the Apocryphal books in his Vulgate, presumably in deference both to the merits of said books as ancient and useful (albeit uninspired) writings and to the opinion of those who disagreed with him about the canonicity of the books in question.

And there were, as Calvin himself readily acknowledges, some who defended -- contra Jerome and Rufinus -- the canonicity of the Apocryphal books, among them the famous contemporary of Jerome and Rufinus, Augustine of Hippo. Calvin seems to think the opinion represented by Jerome and Rufinus has an older pedigree than that represented by Augustine, but he doesn't press the point. He concludes rather modestly with "let us assume that the point was then undecided."

The ambiguity in early judgments about the Apocryphal books ran substantially deeper than Calvin seems to realize. In fact, it pre-dated Christianity as such. The books in question were denied canonical status in the Hebrew Bible by Palestinian Jews, but afforded canonical status by Hellenistic Jews (Greek speaking Jews living outside Palestine) and so included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures completed in Alexandria (the Septuagint). In the second century following Christ's birth, the Jews finally reached consensus among themselves in favor of the narrower canon (that which excluded the Apocrypha).

Their disagreement lingered on, however, in Christianity, with Eastern Christians typically following the Palestinian Jews in denying canonical status to the Apocrypha, and Western Christians typically following the Hellenistic Jews in affording canonical status to the Apocrypha (Jerome and Rufinus constituting two notable exceptions). Those who defended the canonicity of the books in question, for example Augustine, typically bought the now largely discredited story about seventy 3rd-century B.C. Jews translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek independently of one another and -- miraculously -- arriving at the very same (inspired) translation. In other words, their preference for the Septuagint's canon was informed by rather misguided assumptions about the Septuagint's nature and origins.

Calvin, had he only known, could have included such Eastern luminaries as Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Gregory of Nazianzus among the ranks of Fathers who denied that the Apocryphal books belong to the Bible. In truth, however, ambiguity in early Christian judgments about the Apocryphal books is all that Calvin needed to discredit Trent's teaching on the issue. Trent, after all, in claiming that the "sacred and canonical" status of the Apocryphal books has the (infallible) authority of "unwritten tradition," presumes that some largely univocal tradition concerning the Apocryphal books actually exists. Either the Roman Catholic Fathers at Trent purposed to deceive in this regard, or they made a rather unfortunate historical blunder on the basis of their own ignorance. The implicit claim of a univocal "tradition" on the Apocrypha is a historical blunder not, perhaps, on par with the Book of Mormon's populating the Americas with horses hundreds of years before their (re)introduction there by European explorers, but it's not too far from the same. And, critically, it's a historical blunder in a place where no such blunder should exist -- the canons and decrees of an (infallible) ecumenical council.

Trent's apparent ignorance regarding those early Christians who -- in keeping with the more orthodox of Jewish traditions -- rejected the canonical status of the Apocryphal books, along with its subsequent anathematizing of all who reject said books as "sacred and canonical," has the further (and rather unfortunate) effect of damning such Fathers as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Jerome, among others. That seems a rather un-catholic (not to mention uncharitable) gesture on the part of the "Catholic" Church.

The ambiguity in early Christian opinions about the Apocrypha also highlights the ultimate need to evaluate claims of the Apocrypha's canonicity by some higher standard than tradition. Thus Calvin introduces the second prong of his response to Rome, showing how the Apocryphal books, unlike Sacred Scripture, fail to testify to their own inspired and infallible status. Calvin points, for instance, to the concluding remark of the author of 2 Maccabees: "I ... will here make an end of my narration," the author writes, "which if I have done... not so perfectly, it must be pardoned me." The Holy Spirit, Calvin observes, begs no forgiveness for errors or faults in His words.

The author of Maccabees' words, it must be said, do seem a far cry from the confidence informing the Apostle John's rather dire warning against making additions or subtractions to his inspired text, and by implication at least, making additions or subtractions to the entire canon as such (Rev. 22:18-19).

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

For an explanation of what follows, see the previously posted introduction to this series.

Calvin discerned four basic claims in Rome's teaching on Scripture as discovered in the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. The first claim was comprised in the opening sentence of the first decree of that Council's fourth session (the 'decree concerning the canonical scriptures'). That sentence reads:

The sacred and holy, ecumenical, and general Synod of Trent -- lawfully assembled in the Holy Ghost, the same three legates of the Apostolic See presiding therein -- keeping this always in view, that, errors being removed, the purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand; (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament--seeing that one God is the author of both--as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ's own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.

That sentence is a bear by anyone's reckoning. Calvin helpfully and accurately summarizes it thus: "First, they ordain that in doctrine we are not to stand on Scripture alone, but also on things handed down by tradition."

In responding to Rome's teaching, Calvin -- interestingly -- doesn't bother defending the authority of Scripture from Scripture. Presumably that's because he realizes that Protestants and Roman Catholics actually agree that Scripture constitutes the "Word of God" rather than the "word of man" (1 Thess. 2.13), and is therefore inspired and authoritative (cf. 2 Tim. 3.16). The Roman decree cited above, after all, acknowledges that "saving truth" is contained in the "written books" of Scripture, which books are thus deserving of our affection and reverence. Protestantism, of course, stops there. Rome carries on, and makes a positive claim about another source of "saving truth" -- namely, "unwritten traditions ... which have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand."

The burden of proof that something other than Scripture constitutes a source of "saving truth" -- whether that something be "unwritten traditions" or Chinese fortune cookies -- rests entirely with those making such claims. This is often overlooked by would-be Roman apologists who require Protestants to defend from Scripture their principle that Scripture alone is authoritative, and fail to realize that sola Scriptura is not a positive claim per se, but a denial of the positive claim that "unwritten traditions" or anything else deserve the moniker "Word of God."

Calvin could, then, have simply highlighted the failure of Rome to prove that "unwritten traditions" constitute a source of "saving truth" and called it a day. But he does one better. Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the Church Fathers, he points out that the earliest Christian thinkers themselves recognized no infallible authority but Scripture. In other words, he argues from tradition against the view that tradition constitutes an authoritative word on par with Scripture: "In regard to Traditions," he writes, "I am aware that [frequent] mention of them is made by ancient writers, though not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the Scriptures, to which they always confine it." Calvin supports this claim with a quote from the prince of Church Fathers himself: "We must ever adhere to Augustine's rule, 'Faith is conceived from the Scriptures.'"

For what it's worth (which is quite a lot, actually), Calvin's reading of the Church Fathers is supported by the best of recent Patristic scholars. So, for instance, J.N.D. Kelly notes that up until the fourth century, the Fathers were univocal in affirming Scripture as the exclusive source of Christian doctrine. The words of Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century might be taken as representative: "With regard to the divine and saving mysteries of faith, no doctrine, however trivial, may be taught without the backing of the divine Scriptures." Athanasius put it this way: "The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth."

When the Fathers did speak of tradition (as Calvin acknowledges they did), they typically understood it not as a source of unique Christian doctrine, but as the Church's universal interpretation of Scripture's most fundamental teachings, handed down from one generation of believers to the next. To put it another way, traditional teachings were considered necessary to be believed not because they were traditional, but because they were Scripture's teachings. It wasn't until the late fourth century, in fact, that Christian thinkers began to toy with the possibility that certain truths or (more commonly, at least early on) customs could be traced back to the Apostles even if they weren't reflected in Scripture. In the medieval period the notion of extra-scriptural apostolic truths became more common (though many medieval thinkers retained the earlier, Patristic perspective of Scripture as the solitary source of saving truth, and tradition as the means by which Scripture's truth is transmitted through the centuries).

When Trent, then, affirmed that "saving truth" is contained in both Scripture and "unwritten traditions," it canonized a view on the source(s) of Christian doctrine which was an aberration from the understanding of the earliest Christians.

Calvin's argument from tradition against tradition (understood as a source of unique Christian doctrine) constitutes a case of rather clever argument. He takes Rome to task on its own turf (tradition) and shows how un-traditional Rome's teaching is. But in the process Calvin also demonstrates his own profound appreciation for tradition properly understood; indeed, Calvin honors tradition much more than his Roman counterparts by actually following the Fathers in their own insistence upon the ultimate authority of Scripture alone to define Christian beliefs. The champion of sola Scriptura proves, ironically, to be the traditionalist, to be more catholic than his Roman Catholic counterparts.

As Reformed Protestants today, we would do well to take a page from Calvin's apologetic in defending Scripture as the sole infallible norm of Christian beliefs. We would likewise do well to follow his lead in listening carefully to the Church Fathers and letting their engagement with Scripture and theological reflection inform our own convictions -- not least on the matter of how much, or rather what kind of, authority ought ultimately to be imputed to the Fathers themselves and other saints who have gone before us. 

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

I intend to offer, over the next several weeks, a four part series on Calvin's response to Rome's doctrine of Scripture as discovered in the fourth session of the Council of Trent. It's my impression that very few Protestants today -- even the confessing kind -- have informed views on what Rome actually says about the most important theological issues of every age (namely, how we know anything about God and his ways, and how we sinners can be reconciled to the God whom we have offended by our sins).

The first and foremost purpose of this brief series, then, is to let readers see what Rome, in her own words, says about Scripture, and to let Calvin guide us in an intelligent (and, ultimately, biblically based and theological nuanced) critique of Rome's doctrine. Careful attention to Rome's teaching on Scripture (not to mention Justification, the Sacraments, etc.) and careful critique of the same will, I think, shed light upon the reason(s) that confessional Protestants remain, well, Protesters -- that is, why they refrain as a matter of principle from expressing doctrinal solidarity with Rome.

A secondary reason for offering this series is that I suspect Calvin's own teaching on Scripture in response to Trent might surprise -- even challenge -- Reformed folk at some points, and there's few things more beneficial to any confessional group than being surprised and challenged by the Genevan Reformer on matters where, perhaps, no surprise or challenge is anticipated.

A brief word of historical context: The Roman Catholic Council of Trent convened in 1545 with the express intention of responding to the teaching of both magisterial (Protestant) and radical reformers. It met on and off until 1563. Already by 1547, however, the Council had tackled some of the fundamental issues at stake in the Reformation -- namely, Scripture, Original Sin, Justification, and the Sacraments. By the end of that same year (1547) Calvin had produced his Antidote to Trent (in Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, vol. 3), and stood ready to administer the same to anyone who was foolish or unfortunate enough to confuse Trent's poisonous teachings for something nutritious.

Stay tuned for the first installment of our consideration of Trent's teaching and Calvin's response to the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Origen on Scripture

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I've been doing a little reading in Origen's On First Principles today (written sometime before 225). It's a scandalous work on several counts, but is likely the first attempt at a systematic exposition of the faith in the post-apostolic era and not without its benefits. So, continuing my theme on finding help in unexpected places (see my last post), I offer the following quotes on the doctrine of Scripture.

Origen opens his exposition of the faith with a strong statement on Scripture as the absolute source and norm of theology:

All who believe and are assured that grace and truth were obtained through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, . . . derive the knowledge which incites men to a good and happy life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ (trans. by Crombie; preface.1).

He continues:

By the words of Christ we do not mean those only which He spake when He became man and tabernacled in his flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. For without the Word of God how could they have been able to prophecy of Christ? And [if space permitted] . . . it would not be difficult to show, in proof of this statement, out of the holy Scriptures, how Moses or the prophets both spake and performed all they did through being filled with the Spirit of Christ (trans. by Crombie; preface.1).

Though not perfect, Origen appears to affirm something approaching the plenary divine inspiration of Scripture.

Perhaps more fascinating, and satisfying, is Origen's statement on the clarity of Scripture:

The following fact should be understood. The holy apostles, when preaching the faith of Christ, took certain doctrines, those namely which they believed to be necessary ones, and delivered them in the plainest terms to all believers, even to such as appeared to be somewhat dull in the investigation of divine knowledge (trans. by Butterworth; preface.3).

A little over fourteen centuries later the Westminster divines would confess something remarkably similar--that "those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (WCF 1.7). 

But most striking of all, I believe, is Origen's comments on the positive aspect of the sufficiency of Scripture. After outlining those doctrines he believed to be most clearly taught and necessary to know, he argues that, 

by clear and necessary statements [one] may ascertain the truth regarding each individual topic, and form, as we have said, one body of doctrine, by means of illustrations and arguments,--either those which he has discovered in holy Scripture, or which he has deduced by closely tracing out the consequences and following a correct method (trans. by Crombie; preface.10).

In other words, "The whole council of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture" (WCF 1.6).

I am not suggesting Origen's view of Scripture lines up exactly with the one set out in the Westminster Standards, only that on a few points it is closer than I suspect some of you might have guessed and that is at least interesting and I hope quite encouraging.

(I suppose I should note that the only complete text we have of On First Principles is a Latin translation prepared by Rufinus, a defender of Origen against accusations of heresy, over the winter and early spring of 397-98. Jerome sharply criticized this translation and prepared his own, which is mostly lost to us. But that debate had nothing to do with the passages quoted above and besides, even if these lines have been corrupted, they still date back to the end of the fourth century--which is not too shabby.)

The Visible Word

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Jason Helopoulos
Christward Collective

I was visiting a church once and heard an exchange between a pastor and one of his congregants that has stayed with me ever since. A woman asked the pastor before the service, "Is the video this morning going to make me laugh or cry? It always does one or the other." The pastor was quick to respond that he thought this one would make her cry. Apparently, immediately following the sermon in their worship services, this church showed a video every week. It set the tone for the closing song and the end of the service. It wasn't shown for mere entertainment, but was used to press home the truth the pastor had just preached from the Scriptures. Now, I want to be clear. This man was and is a brother in Christ and this particular church loved the Lord. It was my honor to worship with them. They were seeking to serve God, were obviously delighting in Him, and were desiring to give Him praise. Furthermore, I have no doubt that the pastor's heart was in the right place as he sought to show a video each week to his congregation. I am not doubting his love for God or his people, though I do doubt the wisdom of his approach.

Continue to Christward Collective.


Test link - http://info.alliancenet.org/christward/the-visible-word

Carlifornia dreaming

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Friends towards the west coast of the US of A might be interested in this year's Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors' Conference on "The Doctrine of Scripture" on the 3rd and 4th of November.

Dr. Carl Trueman is the keynote speaker and will be addressing the doctrine of Scripture from the late medieval period to 1700. He will have four lecture sessions and two Q&A sessions.

Dr. James Renihan will be lecturing on moral law and positive law in Scripture. He will provide exposition of key passages demonstrating how these two aspects of law function in Christian doctrine.

Dr. Richard Barcellos will be lecturing on hermeneutics and the formulation of the doctrine of the covenant of works. He will discuss some hermeneutical principles of seventeenth-century federal theology and how the doctrine of the covenant of works was formulated utilizing those principles.

More information is available at the conference site here or at RBAP.

"More light, Lord!"

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Light is one of those commodities, like oxygen, much underestimated until one finds oneself in need of it. I am particularly conscious of this because my desk light - a quite splendid piece of kit - decided to pack up rather suddenly a few days ago. Being a sentimental type, I sent it off to the manufacturer in the hope of its being restored, but - having gone under the knife in some electronic operating theatre somewhere in England - it was recently declared most definitely deceased.

But it means I have been without light. To be sure, even in the UK in October, there's a smidgen of daylight that filters through the window from time to time. And yes, the general illumination provided by the main light in the room, and even some assistance from the angled reading light in the corner, alleviate the gloom somewhat. But there is nothing - I repeat, nothing - to compare with the vibrant beams of pure brilliance that not so long ago washed out of my much-missed and too-much-presumed-upon and sincerely-mourned desk light.

But good news! Today brought a matutinal delivery of light - not the watery gleam of a British sunrise, but a replacement desk light - and now I sit here in a pool of white brilliance, bathed once more in happy illumination, and actually able to work without straining the wearied eyes beyond the point of no return.

"So what?" I hear you cry. "What hath Walker's desk lighting to do with us?"

Well, nothing, at first glance, but remember, if you will, the record of that wonderful preacher, John 'Roaring' Rogers of Dedham, of whose preaching people exhorted one another, "Let us go to Dedham to fetch fire."

Several well-known anecdotes capture something of the fervency of Rogers the preacher, his self-forgetful earnestness in the pulpit. In one of them, Thomas Goodwin, himself to become a renowned preacher and scholar, went to hear Rogers preach before he was converted, not imagining that anyone would be able to touch his conscience. Goodwin reported his experience to John Howe, who recorded it in this way:
He told me that being himself, in the time of his youth, a student at Cambridge, and having heard much of Mr. Rogers of Dedham, in Essex, purposely he took a journey from Cambridge to Dedham to hear him preach on his lecture day. And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible [I am afraid it is more neglected in our days]; he personates God to the people, telling them, "Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it; it lies in such and such houses all covered with dust and cobwebs. You care not to look into it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer." And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it, and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, "Lord, whatsoever thou cost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible." And then he personates God again to the people: "Say you so? Well, I will try you a little longer; and here is my Bible for you, I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practice it more, and live more according to it." But by these actions [as the Doctor told me] he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that he never saw any congregation in his life. The place was a mere Bochim, the people generally [as it were] deluged with their own tears; and he told me that he himself when he got out, and was to take horse again to be gone, was fain to hang a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse weeping, before he had power to mount, so strange an impression was there upon him, and generally upon the people, upon having been thus expostulated with for the neglect of the Bible.
Underestimated light. Nothing compares to the Word of God for true illumination. The faint gleams of natural revelation and human reason are light, to be sure, but they are distant candles to the present white light of God's holy Word. And yet how ready we are to wander around in the gloom, imagining that we see well and sufficiently while we are for the most part blind.

Would it bother you to be without your Bible? Could you preach without it? Live without it? Worship without it? Perhaps we have learned a casual neglect of that which is more precious than thousands of pieces of gold and silver (Ps 119.72)?

How little we value it, but what if it were taken away? What if the Lord deprived us of what is a gracious gift, not a natural right? How quickly would we learn the limitations of natural revelation and human wisdom, how soon would we cry out to God to restore to us again the pure brightness of his revelation, rising to its heights in the dawning of the Sun of Righteousness, that we might once more have a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps 119.105).

The story is told of a debate in the seventeenth century, I think it may have been among the Westminster divines. One man stood and was making a powerful address concerning some particular point. His opponent in the matter was observed to be writing fairly constantly on his paper. When his turn came, this opponent rose to his feet and delivered a magnificent oration, well-ordered and insightful, Scriptural and compelling, profound and persuasive.

When this tour de force was completed, a man nearby glanced at the notes that had prompted this outpouring of genuine and gracious eloquence, and found a single phrase repeated over and over across the page: "More light, Lord!"

May God grant that we should value in some appropriate measure the fact that he has spoken to us in these last days in his Son, and that his Spirit has moved men to record these saving and sanctifying truths in the Word written, and that "the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness . . . has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2Cor 4.6). How shall we see, how shall we walk, if the Lord does not give us his light? Let us not underestimate the illumination we have been given. Let us not neglect our Bibles. Let it be our constant and humble prayer, "More light, Lord!"

Did God Really Say?

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By questioning what God really said, the serpent infamously enticed Eve to do more than simply assess whether God's Word was trustworthy. The serpent's question lured Eve, and Adam in her wake, into a radical reordering of their relationship with the One who had spoken. The question enticed Adam and Eve to attempt an autonomous empirical investigation as to what the past really meant and what the future might hold, to assume that they and God were equal partners in a fundamentally unpredictable world, to think they could become, as it were, "like God" -- all on the basis of the groundless innuendo that God had not spoken clearly and reliably to His creatures. The Spirit's recording in Scripture of the satanic question and its devastating consequences reminds the church today that postmodern suggestions of new ways to handle God's perspicuous Word may not be innocent exercises of a new intellectual humility, but rather latter day echoes of an ancient and insidious voice.

Happily, Reformed Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary, with editorial oversight by Dr. David B. Garner, have cooperated to provide the church with a new aid to resist that voice in Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture. This collection of essays draws on seminar papers delivered by scholars from the contributing institutions at the 2011 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. I had the privilege of attending nearly all of those seminars and knew then that this would be a book worth having. Here are some clips to give you a little taste of what you will find in this new volume:

"For the sake of the church, these studies present the historically Reformed understanding of the objective and inherent clarity and certainty of the Word of God" (Forward, Robert C. [Ric] Cannada, Jr., Bryan Chapell, Peter A. Lillback);

"To put it frankly, there is an unnerving sympathy within evangelical scholarship for seeking light in darkness, for synthesizing antithesis, and even for wedding belief and unbelief" (Introduction, David B. Garner);

"The confession is setting forth the notion here, radical in its context, that one determines what Scripture is not by going somewhere outside of Scripture, but by Scripture itself" ("Because It Is the Word of God," K. Scott Oliphint);

"To say it a bit differently, the doctrine of inerrancy is not only about the truthfulness of the Spirit-inspired Word but also about the trust a Spirit-led people invest in that Word" (B.B. Warfield's Church Doctrine of Inspiration," Michael D. Williams);

"The church's full affirmation of these books does not show that it created or constituted the canon, but is the natural and inevitable outworking of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture" ("Recent Challenges to the New Testament Writings," Michael J. Kruger);

"It is natural for the flesh to bridle when what we think is right is challenged. It is not so easy to care about the individuals and enclaves who are perceived or real opponents of Christian teaching" ("Grounds for Grace in the Debate," Robert W. Yarbrough);

"But we are made in the image of God, and the language God has given us as a gift is designed by God" ("God and Language," Vern S. Poythress);

"The question is simple. Given that God inspired the Bible, what effect did that inspiration have on the biblical text?" ("N.T. Wright and the Authority of Scripture," John M. Frame).

"Rather than viewing the Creator/creature distinction as an obstacle to understanding, we must rather see that our very creation in God's image establishes clear duty to God's Word, an ontological imperative, a religious obligation to obey the covenantal demands expressed in the perspicuous words of our Creator" ("Did God Really Say?" David B. Garner)

Let us feast on these essays, think deeply, and resolve to recognize and resist all echoes of the serpent's query.

This Lent I am giving up . . . reticence

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I will make no bones about it: I am an Old World (for which please read 'continental European') Christian, of Puritan inclination, and a Dissenter - specifically, a Particular or Reformed Baptist. That means several things. By conviction and heritage I belong to those who left the Anglican communion as a matter of conscience, sick of its halfway reformation and unwilling to conform to the general shabbiness and unscriptural demands of the Act of Uniformity. My conscience with regard to the extra-Biblical trappings of mere religiosity is tender. My attachment to simplicity of worship as a gathered church is sincere. I am sensitive to those doctrines and practices over which my forefathers spent their energies and shed their tears and sometimes their blood, both from within and then from without the established folds of their day. I see things with an awareness tuned by walking the streets, graveyards and memorials of men and women who suffered and sometimes died for conscience' sake.

Out of such an atmosphere I cannot help but be sickened by the seeming obsession with Lent and Easter at this time of year, and Christmas at the end of the year. Please do not misunderstand me: conscience also demands that - where the cultural vestiges of a more religious society patterned to some extent on the significant events of the life of Christ provide for it - I take every legitimate opportunity to make Christ known. If an ear is even half-opened by circumstance, I willingly and cheerfully speak into it, and seek to make of it a door for the gospel. I do not see the point of making a point by not preaching about the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord if some benighted soul wanders into the church with at least some expectation of hearing about his humiliation and exaltation.

But what chills my blood is the unholy elevation of things not mandated by the Word of God. I find it odd that some of the very people who obsess about contextualization and resist 'religion' have swallowed hook, line and sinker the empty traditions of men, that the men who wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts (quite literally) all the year round besides dress in sombre suits every April, telling us with one breath that all of life is worship and so tending to level out our experience and the Biblical rhythms of our relationship with God (especially dismissing the one-day-in-seven pattern established at the first and the new creation), and with the next telling us that this is Holy Week, and we are somehow falling short if we do not build it into some unholy jamboree. Meanwhile, those who trumpet their credentials as the true heirs of the Reformation either seem willing to stop with the house half-clean or seem quite keen to redecorate it with the junk that their more enlightened forefathers were in the process of throwing out (establishing the principles of the matter even if they never quite got round to that corner of the attic themselves).

Whether or not it is a vestige of the Emerging/Emergent appetite for a range of 'spiritualities' or an enthusiasm for an over-ripe liturgical renewal, I cannot say, but I wonder if it is in part a matter of distance both of time and space. This alleged 'recovery' of Lent and Easter is not actually a matter of historical sensitivity and an inheritance regained but of historical unawareness and an inheritance lost. Whether or not it is the high-grade muppetry of entire churches being urged to tattoo one of the stations of the cross on some part of their anatomy, or some gore-drenched re-enactment of the unrepeatable sacrifice, or some spotlit image-fest in which a total insensitivity to physical representations of the Christ - the image of the invisible God - is displayed, or some be-robed priest-figure half a step away from incense and obeisance, it does not come from Scripture and it does not belong in Christ's church. It is a replacement of God's order with man's notions, a disruption of God's regular rhythms of true religion with the unholy syncopation of mortal religiosity. As John Owen somewhere says, where genuine spirituality is substantially absent, men will turn either to fanaticism or to ritual - or perhaps to both - in an attempt to fill the void. Whichever way you sniff at it, and whichever way the wind blows, to the trained nostril it all begins to smell a touch Romish.

But there is a solution. This year there are - if you wish to see it this way - fifty three Easters. Most years there are fifty two. Each is a high and holy day, an opportunity to remember and rejoice in the one thing that the saints of God are commanded to remember and rejoice in: the Lord of Glory - the incarnate Son - who was crucified but who rose again, in whom we live eternally, and for whom we perpetually look with eagerness, our eyes straining for the first glimpse of the one whom not having seen, we love, who will shortly appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Each is a day of sober and grateful remembrance and recollection of his being and his doing. We have our regular (if not all of us a weekly) meal at which we remember the Lord's death until he comes, celebrated usually on the day of resurrection. On these days, putting aside the trappings of the world, we begin the cycle of time on our weekly peak, equipped by communion with God in Christ by the Spirit for the challenges and the opportunities of the days ahead.

Frankly, it seems odd to me that many of those who have proved very quick to abandon all manner of patterns and habits and convictions of Christians over decades or centuries, retain Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (Resurrection) Sunday as set in stone in the calendar, one of the high points of the Christian year (which pattern, we are informed, provides the central event in the church year - the climax of worship, expectation, and celebration, an exercise of the church's discipline). If you're not sold on Easter, you might be dismissed as one of the "diehard Reformed" for whom "this [Easter] Monday is like every other Monday because Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday." To say that Easter Sunday is like every other Sunday is not to suggest an upgraded view of Easter Sunday but a downgraded view of every other one.

I try not to be a Scrooge (although I cannot help but shed a silent tear that I am now literarily reduced to trying not to be a Grinch, but it's only a silent one and fairly dry, because Dickens' plotting makes many modern soap operas look like masterpieces of restraint and reason). I try not to be whatever is the Easter equivalent of a Scrooge or a Grinch (probably something that destroys bunnies or steals eggs). Again, for the record, I delight in the incarnation, and love to explore the excellence and wonder of Christ's coming into the world. I love to do so at any time of year, and find it grievous that I am sometimes not expected to handle those truths or sing incarnation hymns apart from at the dead of winter. Neither do I for one instant deny the centrality of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the only Redeemer of God's elect, in the glorious good news that the church of Christ declares.

But when we are told that this is the time of year when Christians begin to think again about the death and resurrection of Christ, does it not prompt the question of what we are supposed to be doing for the rest of the year? When men speak after their so-called Holy Week of the abating euphoria of the resurrection, surely they are explaining why a merely annual remembrance is insufficient? Christ Jesus is the risen Lord for 365 days of every year (plus the extra one when required), and we have a weekly opportunity for the distinct recollection of his death in an atmosphere conditioned by his resurrection. To flatten the whole year, perhaps rising only to a few unnatural annual peaks, is to miss so much, to lose so many things, to gain so little.

Christ died to set us free from empty things. Men died to liberate us from the rigamarole of unscriptural traditions and man-made routines and performances of religiosity. I hope that you will hear a voice from the blood-washed streets of the Old World, where those battles and the cost of their victory are ground into our consciousness, where the issues and enemies are neither distant nor tame, and where the lines remain clearly drawn in the collective memory of some of the Lord's people, and consider whether or not the prizes so hardly won ought to be so quickly abandoned.

Speaking of Preaching...

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Last Sunday each of our slated morning and evening preachers had originally chosen the same text for his sermon--the song of Simeon in Luke 2. I know because I was the evening preacher. Now hearing two (hopefully) biblical sermons on the same text in a single day certainly won't harm a congregation. It might even memorably demonstrate the richness of Scripture. But it certainly runs the risk of being unnecessarily redundant. After all, a tasty breakfast need not be reheated for dinner when another meal could be prepared.

So I was thankful that our morning preacher--Dr. Carl Trueman, in fact--heard about the textual coincidence, spent half the week preparing a sermon on Mary's Magnificat instead, and kindly left Simeon's song to the mercy of yours truly. What struck me was that Dr. Trueman did not merely transpose his Simeon sermon onto Mary's song (as I might have done). He explained and unfolded the Magnificat in its own context, pointing to specific verses in order to extol the glory of the incarnation.

Which leads me ask, how many pastors preach essentially the same sermon no matter which text lies open before them? Of course, the central themes of God's character, sin, the person and work of Christ, and redemption ought to reappear week to week. But each of these realities is richly variegated and should lead the preacher, text by text, to an endless number of focused treatments and applications. By contrast, doesn't the sufficiency of Scripture take a hit when, by the end of the sermon, the average listener (a) can't remember which text was read at the beginning but (b) knows he has heard this sermon before?

Consider well the charge given by John Murray to the recent champion of Christ-centered preaching, Dr. Edmund Clowney, when the latter was installed as Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary on October 22, 1963. May it be a charge to all those who seek to honor Christ from the pulpit this Sunday:


"Your work is concerned with homiletics, the exposition and effective presentation of the Word of God. I charge you to continue to press home, as you have done in the past, the necessity of discovering, unfolding, and applying the particularities of each text or portion of God's Word. Few things are more distressing to the discerning, and more impoverishing to the church, than for a preacher to say much that is scriptural, indeed altogether scriptural, and yet miss the specific message of the text with which he deals. It is by the richness and multiformity of God's revealed counsel that the church will grow up into the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ, and the witness of the church will be to all the spheres of life and to all the obligations of men"  (John Murray, "Charge to Edmund P. Clowney," Collected Writings, 1:108-9; emphasis added).

Modern Debate Over Ancient Texts

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[Editor's Note: This is the first post Rev. Wynne wrote in response to Dr. Evans, which was inadvertently removed last week. We repost it here in its entirety.]

Dr. Evans has recently graced this forum with some thought provoking comments on the Scriptural doctrine of perspicuity and the church's handling of her confessions, particularly as these areas might bear on readings of the Genesis creation account.  I appreciate many of his insights and have no desire at this point to send my dog into the fray of particular creation views. I do believe, however, that short of that larger issue, three (nearly identical) comments by Dr. Evans deserve comment. 
 
The first is the lament, cited from a previous Evans article, that some six-day creationists have "failed to take any stock of the enormous amount of data from comparative studies of ancient Near Eastern literature suggesting that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of a cosmology quite coherent to the ancients, but which we ourselves do not share." None of us, after all, he adds, "believes in a literal 'firmament,' or in 'pillars of heaven,' or in 'windows of heaven,' or in 'fountains of the deep,' at least as these biblical terms were apparently understood by the ancients."
 
The second and more recent comment was, again, that literal six-day advocates have given too little attention "to how this material [i.e., Genesis 1] would have been read in its original ancient Near Eastern context and to the implications of that ANE data for how we should read the text today."  Third, he adds afresh in the same article that the "ANE comparative data suggest[s] that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of an ancient cosmology that we do not share" and that "the mass of scientific evidence suggest[s] that the cosmos is much older" than the Westminster Divines imagined.
 
By this drumbeat of assertion that Genesis 1 is "framed" by an ancient and now discredited cosmology, Dr. Evans clearly (to me at least) is assuming that the Old Testament writers espoused this invalid cosmology as a reliable description of the physical world--that their appropriation of ANE mythical features led them to believe in "a literal 'firmament,'" "pillars of heaven," and so on, cosmic elements we now know do not exist.
 
Unless I am missing something, the message conveyed in the three statements I quote is that Christians cannot rightly accept the biblical writers' cosmology in every detail since an "enormous amount" of relevant ancient Near Eastern data has revealed that they (unconsciously?) absorbed mythical cosmological elements from surrounding pagan cultures, erroneously believed them to be true, and then wrote their erroneous understanding into the pages of Scripture. 
 
At the point, I am compelled to ask: Is it really the case that the Bible presents "an ancient cosmology that we do not share", because it is erroneous? Doesn't the Reformed doctrine of inspiration hold that the omnicompetent Spirit, who searches the unfathomable depths of God's omniscience (1 Cor 2:10), is the determinative agent who has issued the written text of Scripture down to its very words? And as the "Spirit of truth" (John 16:13), did He not guide the biblical writers into all truth--indeed, could He do any other thing--barring any speck of error that might have otherwise intruded into the text of holy Scripture on account of the writers' biases, confusion, ignorance, weaknesses, and, yes, exposure to faulty cosmologies? As I see it, Christians are obligated to receive the cosmology of Genesis in every detail as the inviolable truth that trumps any competing scientific claim and rebukes every pagan worldview because, as the Divines put it, it is the Word of God.
 
So what are we to make of the parallels between Scripture's teaching and the ANE literature? Aside from the profound debate that still rages over the nature and extent of such parallels, Reformed and evangelical scholars have suggested that they reflect the Bible's (1) polemical treatments of false worldviews; (2) infallible interpretation of general revelation that was partially grasped by pagan writers; (3) infallible appropriations of an older tradition to which pagan writers fallibly bore witness; or (4) demythologized elements of ANE concepts incorporated into Scripture as poetic idiom (see G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism [Wheaton: Crossway, 2008], 28-29). All of these options maintain the integrity of the Bible's inerrancy in that none suggests that the biblical writer unwittingly imbibed faulty elements from his pagan surroundings. Likewise, all of them appeal to the absolute wisdom of the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final authority on all matters, especially ANE myths. Readers may be surprised to know that even Meredith Kline, the functional patriarch of the controversial "framework hypothesis," called the pagan cosmogonic myth "a garbled, apostate version, a perversion, of pristine traditions of primordial historical realities" (Kingdom Prologue [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006], 28). The Bible, therefore, he said, "rejects the mythical cosmogony and cosmology root and branch" (ibid., 29).
 
The need of the hour, it seems to me, whether we are discussing the relative merits of competing creation views, confessional subscription and interpretation, or any other related issue, is to state as clearly and as boldly as we can that the authoritative nexus of meaning--the divinely sanctioned access point for the meaning of a biblical text--lies within the canon of Scripture itself and not in apparent similarities with extra-biblical ANE literature. This is an indispensable corollary of Scripture's authority and sufficiency that we lose to our epistemological and hermeneutical peril. On a related note, however informative ANE literature may be for studying isolated texts, we cannot allow it to norm our readings of Scripture nor determine what Scripture, as a whole, is. The book of Hebrews alone, with the scant authorial and extra-biblical contextual evidence available to us today, ought to check our dependence on background studies for interpreting the Scriptures and exhort us to read it, and every other biblical text, ultimately in light of its canonical perspective and place in the unfolding organism of special revelation.
 
Again, my purpose here is not to challenge Dr. Evans' view of Genesis or to criticize his helpful comments on the role of confessions. It is simply to issue a call for us all to put on the spectacles of Scripture, as Calvin put it, whether we are reading Genesis or the Epic of Gilgamesh, studying the Westminster Confession or doing some digging in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Doing so just might bring some needed clarity to debates over what God has said is an essentially clear Scripture.

ANE in an AC World

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I want to thank Dr. Evans for his extended and thoughtful response to my recent post on Scripture and the ancient Near East. In that post, I expressed my concern that his appeals to ANE data for reading Genesis 1 imputed error to the writers of Scripture in their expressed understanding of the cosmos--error that we, the more scientifically enlightened, now recognize for what it is. I also suggested that this line of reasoning and conclusion are inconsistent with Scripture's inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority. I trust that the readers of this blog will indulge this clarifying response. By it, I mean to convey my abiding, and now, intensified concern regarding Dr. Evans' apparent position.

Dr. Evans perceives that my view of inspiration allows for "no hint of human limitation or error evident anywhere in the text of Scripture", nor even error (or limitations?) in the human writers' "underlying assumptions". Well, I certainly reject that Scripture contains errors. But nowhere in the quote Evans offers do I deny that the biblical writers were finite or occasionally ignorant (see, e.g., 1 Cor 1:16; Dan 12:8; Acts 1:6). As for faulty "underlying assumptions", how might any of us gauge this other than by examining what they wrote? (This question also echoes my original concern about Dr. Evans' use of ANE data, but more on that below). What I believe we must affirm, what I originally wrote, and what I believe Dr. Evans is on the verge of losing, if he has not already lost it, is that the Spirit who carried the original writers along (2 Pet 1:21) prevented any error from "intrud[ing] into the text of holy Scripture" on account of their finitude, biases, ignorance, pagan surroundings, and the like. The point then, as science intersects with Scripture, was not to pose an "antithesis" between the two, but to say that where they may diverge, science should not be allowed to find what it deems in Scripture to be erroneous.  Science should not be seen as the standard of whether what God has inspired is true. If anything, at those points, it is the other way around.
 
Later, Dr. Evans indicates that I said we must ascertain the meaning of a biblical text "without reference to 'anything extrabiblical.'" But what I wrote, what Dr. Evans himself quoted, what also relates to the heart of my concern over Dr. Evans views of ANE literature, and what I now fear he has functionally denied in his appeals to ANE literature for reading Genesis 1, is that we must find the "authoritative" guide for meaning and the "divinely sanctioned" locus of meaning within the canon of Scripture itself. This is just to say that the "infallible rule" for interpreting Scripture is...Scripture itself. It is to say that nothing extrabiblical--no matter how it may appear to "mesh well" with Scripture, and especially if what is being meshed is erroneous--may dictate the meaning of Scripture. For me to say that, is nothing but glorious, Westminsterian vanilla. Frankly, I struggle to see how Dr. Evans sees it any differently.

All of this brings me to my initial, very real, and now growing concern regarding Dr. Evans' view of the relationship between ANE literature and how we ought to read Genesis 1. In his most recent post, Evans reaffirms his belief that the biblical writers wrote like "primitive peoples" should be expected to write, using ANE terms to communicate ANE cosmological beliefs that we now, in our A.C. (After Copernicus) world, know were erroneous. In other words, what they wrote was wrong, and their error now lies forever exposed in the pages of Scripture, and we should try to read through, beyond, and despite its embedded errors. The key today, he says, is to realize the "limits on how literally we can interpret" the faulty details we now understand are recorded in Genesis.

As I see it, using a "non-literal" hermeneutic for the purpose of evading allegedly faulty cosmological descriptions in Genesis is like holding your nose as you cross the front yard of your residence because you believe the neighbor's dog has paid a visit. It may get you to the street without risk of olfactory offense, but it does nothing to solve the problem you perceive. I take Dr. Evans' point that Scripture does not read like a modern science textbook, and that reading it faithfully means taking its genre and other literary features into account. But that is far different from saying that Scripture speaks error. Interpreting Scripture and finding error in it are two dimensionally different things. And I fail to see how it "effaces common grace" to say that modern science is not qualified to find error in Scripture. To be sure, science informs our reading of Scripture, but it cannot countermand what Scripture teaches.

A Reformed doctrine of Scripture--a biblical doctrine of Scripture--does not "pit Scripture against human knowledge" or common grace. It certainly doesn't deny to Christian young women an opportunity to study biology (!), as Dr. Evans understands my view to do. Incidentally, it may surprise Dr. Evans to know that I was a pre-medical student in my undergraduate days and even considered majoring in chemistry for years before heading toward the ministry. I have a high regard for the scientific enterprise.

I include that autobiographical point as background to what I hope is a future encounter. Were I to meet the young woman Dr. Evans mentioned, I know what I would tell her, and would encourage her to shout from the rooftops: a Reformed doctrine of Scripture (more precisely, a Reformed doctrine of the God of Scripture) provides the only sufficient foundation for any scientific enterprise to proceed, including a proper evaluation of extrabiblical ANE texts. Go boldly, then, and put on a space helmet, an archaeologist's hat, or a snappy pair of Visorgogs, but be sure to put on the spectacles of Scripture first, not second.  
 

Home Repair and Hermeneutics (Part 3)

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In a previous post (and here), I noted how sophisticated, Reformed evangelicals are both disclaiming the arrogance of Enlightenment rationalism and skirting the bottomless pit of postmodern relativism, contending that total human objectivity is an illusion and postmodernism is intellectual quicksand. Few would disagree. The trouble is, what do we do now?

According to the increasingly popular approach known as "critical realism" or "critical rationality", the most sure footing is found between the illusion and the quicksand--that is, coherent truth is out there, but, because our biographies and assumptions perpetually fog our respective lenses, we must realize that truth, absolute though it may be, will always lie just beyond our grasp. And it's not only our lenses. Our feet, too, stumble upon new and unexpected evidences that can alter the trajectory of our journey, turn us around, lead us temporarily astray, or put us on a new path altogether. But journey we all must, halting, listening, committing, reorienting, or meandering as the case may be. And yet, by a process of critical reflection and self-questioning, by opening up our religious beliefs and biases to enough voices, both past and present, and with a wide enough breath of experiences at our disposal, we can gradually orient our thinking correctly and approach truth through a series of ever-improving approximations. We can be sure, at least for the moment, that we are on the road that offers the best empirical fit, that makes the most sense of what we see, and we can even invite others to check out our way for themselves; but ever announce we have arrived at truth, itself, we must not.

One practical result of this approach for Reformed pastors and theologians, I have argued, is a gospel message that diminishes the character and clarity of Scripture, dilutes the intellectual strength of the gospel offer, and functionally introduces a subtle dose of provisionality into our theological claims. Scripture's hammer blows against sin, even humbly delivered, are downgraded to lashes with whip of linguini. Appeals to Christianity's "explanatory power" (as filtered through the minds of unbelieving hearers) begin to trump thoughtful, but direct, appeals to the Bible and the God who wrote it. Additionally, we influence our hearers into becoming confused Bereans, who read a text and then run out into the world to see if these things are so (cf. Acts 17:11). We start appreciating those with whom we disagree not because they force us to return to the sufficient Scriptures, but because they offer another opportunity to compare notes in our common quest for extant, though as yet unattainable, ultimate truth.

I submit that a better approach to preaching and teaching about the existence of God and His redemptive plan in Christ self-consciously acknowledges the self-sufficient Spirit who proceeds from the Father and Son in perichoretic unity and is, for that reason, the omnicompentent and successful Communicator of divine truth to all people (not despite, but rather within their own cultural contexts). As the sovereign Agent of revelation, the Spirit not only hears divine truth (John 16:13; 1 Cor 2:10) and infallibly delivers it (John 15:26), but also enables His people to receive with confidence, and therefore know (1 Cor 2:12), God's authoritative Word. In other words, because God is its ultimate Author and Teacher, Scripture is sufficently and savingly clear about the Christ it proclaims. That deserves saying again: the perspecuity of Scripture is not the product of the interpretive task (i.e., it is not delineated by what we can agree on), but its prerequisite (i.e., we may and should know what the Spirit has made plain concerning the Bible's integrating center, Christ crucified and raised; cf. Luke 24:25-27; 1 Pet 1:10-12). Under this approach, Christian claims to epistemic certainty regarding core revelational and redemptive truth do not constitute irrational fanaticism or entail, as one self-proclaimed "postfoundationalist" has put it, "absolutism and hegemonic totalization". Instead, they are part and parcel of the Spirit's sovereign authority and activity to reveal and illumine divine truth to those whom He has made alive.

A final plea of sorts, then: let us acknowledge our finitude, but revel in the infinite God. Let us acknowledge demographics, but trust that no obstacle will thwart God's communicative purposes. Let us listen humbly, but speak boldly. Let us hear again Martin Luther (no naive Enlightenment rationalist, in my view), who thundered, "To take no pleasure in assertions is not the mark of a Christian heart ... Away, now, with Skeptics and Academics from the company of us Christians; let us have men who will assert, men twice and inflexible as very Stoics!" (Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger [New York: Anchor, 1962], 167-8).

Proclaiming the gospel message with unwavering conviction of its truth hardly makes one a card-carrying Enlightenment modernist. It certaintly does not guarantee that all hearers will be persuaded, even intrigued. What it does do is show us to be unlike virtually anyone our unbelieving hearers have ever met: emissaries who know that even the most hardened skeptic cannot escape the voice of God in creation or in the Scriptures He has infallibly written through fallible men, that our very personhood is tuned to His frequency, that His Word never fails, and--most importantly--that the only solution to the moral disintegration and compounding guilt that marks every passing day of our hearers' lives is the glorious, clear, and sufficient gospel of the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). If we hold to this message, in this way, we may also be the tools He uses to fortify, and thus adorn, the church in which He deigns to dwell.

 

 

 

 

Home Repair and Hermeneutics (Part 2)

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In a recent post, I noted just how easy it is to pick up hermeneutical tools that are ill-suited for handling Scripture, if indeed Scripture is the Spirit-breathed, self-attesting Word of the sovereign, triune God. Like taking toy blocks and a screwdriver to a window that has been painted-shut (mine is still shut, by the way), pastors and theologians often pick up contemporary models of knowing and theories about the accessibility of truth (and therefore about the relative possibility of making absolute claims about biblical truth) without adequately considering the approach demanded by the sacred text itself. 

 

One growing hermeneutical approach to Scripture--or, better yet, one epistemology that undergirds a common approach--attempts to steer a middle path between a naïve objectivism ("What I plainly read in the text is what it means--period") and full-blown hermeneutical relativism ("We all understand what we read only according to how we are conditioned to read, either individually or communally"). This increasingly popular hermeneutic recognizes the limitations of the human mind, but ultimately declines to dissolve the idea of truth in an ocean of postmodern skepticism. Some will recognize that what I'm describing in broad strokes is sometimes called critical realism.   

 

If using that term hasn't induced you to click away from this discussion, maybe we can get a bit more philosophical, just for a minute. Critical realism recoils from the arrogance and exclusivist instincts of a bygone Enlightenment hubris (who doesn't?); but it has also read the obituary of radical postmodern hermeneutics and wants no part of it (who does?). In the hands of pastors and theologians, this newer approach believes, on the one hand, that a text of Scripture, to some degree, actually reflects its author's mind and refers beyond itself to a coherent and knowable reality. It asserts that the gospel isn't a made-up fantasy or simply a product of my deepest wishes. It is real! And yet, on the other hand, critical realism also recognizes that the reader, author, text, and extra-textual reality are all moving targets within their respective times and places, and that each dimension is unavoidably filtered through each of our unique, fallible (and often colliding or, better, "subverting") worldviews. In short, this approach assumes that there is real truth to be known, but that such truth can only be provisionally known by a series of ever-improving approximations. The "best" approximations, or narratives, or models, it is said, make the most sense of the relevant data currently available. Those that offer the most "explanatory power"--usually as determined by the deepest intuitions or experience of the one involved--take the lead and the rest of us are to adjust our worldviews accordingly.

 

This "critical realism" is a potent siren song for well-meaning, sophisticated, Reformed evangelicals seeking to make sense of Scripture (and make Scripture sensible) today. It calls us to listen long and hard to secular scientific conclusions regarding human origins before making final judgments about Genesis. It supplies an overall context for narratival construals of religious experience (e.g., "how-does-my-story-intersect-with-the-grand-Story" descriptions of the Christian faith).  For those keeping score at home, it is, in one way or another, the operating epistemological paradigm of scholars such as N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, Thomas F. Torrance, and J. Wetzel van Huyssteen. It has perhaps become the unrecognized paradigm of many more.

 

This critical realist epistemology, however, comes with a huge ball and chain. Adapting the words of Colonel Jessup--this model can't handle Scripture's definitive truth claims. According to critical realism, all truth per se, especially truth about and from God, is unattainable and may only be approximated by progressively constructed models derived from human investigation and reflection: e.g., I believe there was a historical Fall because I sense there is something wrong with the world. I believe Jesus was resurrected because it best explains the worldwide explosion of the Christian church. I believe the gospel is true because it has changed my relationships at work, etc. These may be supplementary evidences by which the Spirit confirms Scripture's witness in our hearts, but should they be determinative for our faith or the centerpiece of our evangelistic witness to others?  


For now, let us consider whether the apostle Peter, for example, was acknowledging the provisionality of all truth claims when he said that we may "know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus" (Acts 2:36)? Or whether Jesus' bodily resurrection was the best explanation among many for the data of the empty tomb when he said that "it was not possible for him to be held by [death]" (Acts 2:24)? Was the apostle Paul resting the inexcusability of all men before God (Rom 1:20) upon a knowledge of Him that lies on the far side of a spiraling path of conversation between divergent voices?

 

If not--and here is the key question--is there an alternative approach to preaching and teaching Scripture that exhibits Christ-like humility, that hears the cry and questions of the world's unbelief, that avoids Enlightenment arrogance and postmodern quicksand alike, and yet lovingly stands upon the nothing less than absolute (and, sometimes, hard to repeat) claims Scripture makes about God, creation, sin and the redemption wrought by Christ? That way, and that way alone, I submit, will not be a meandering pathway to a comfortable conference table, but is the direct and narrow road to Spirit-fueled preaching and teaching that has the power to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).


New Resource on the Canon

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Since Trueman is showing some love to Cardinal Newman, click here for an excellent apologetics resource to answer the perennial questions Newman and his ilk raise against the Protestant canon - as well as more answers to other questions concerning this bedrock doctrine of Christianity.
HT: Triablogue

Statement on Scripture by Concerned Erskine Faculty Members

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While some have thought that what has been termed the "battle for the Bible" was successfully concluded in evangelical circles almost three decades back, there can be little doubt at this point that the doctrine of Scripture is now a front-burner issue among American Evangelicals.  In particular, there is increasing interest in the formulations of Karl Barth, whose dialectical theology is thought by some to provide a more "dynamic" and satisfying view of the Bible and its authority, and whose polemic against "inerrancy in the original autographs" is increasingly influential in some quarters.   The recent reactivation of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy is but one indication of the concerns that many have regarding such developments. 

The statement below addresses the problem of Barthian views of Scripture in a particular institutional context.  It has been signed by five esteemed colleagues and myself.  I am honored to join with these faithful men and to post the text of the statement on this blog. An exploration of issues related to the broader background for this statement can be found here on this site. 

 

GOOD FRIDAY STATEMENT BY CONCERNED FACULTY MEMBERS
OF ERSKINE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY AND ERSKINE COLLEGE

The ARP Church has historically held to a high view of Scripture as inerrant in the original autographs (see Historical Addendum below).  It has consistently rejected Barthian and Neo-Orthodox refusals to speak of the inerrancy of Scripture and to affirm unequivocally that Scripture is, rather than becomes, the Word of God.  Furthermore, the clear lesson of history is that Barthian fuzziness on the inspiration and authority of Scripture has had a disastrous impact on the mission and witness of the Church in Europe, Great Britain, North America, and elsewhere.  

Despite these clear affirmations by the ARP Church, of which Erskine Theological Seminary and Erskine College are agencies, after decades of theological conflict between the Church and the Seminary over the inspiration and authority of the Bible, Barthianism continues to be tolerated at Erskine Seminary. In recent years, one faculty member has publicly and privately expressed his strong opposition to the stated position of the General Synod of the ARP Church regarding Scripture.  We are profoundly disappointed that some in the Erskine administration and board find it acceptable for those who hold Barthian views of Holy Scripture to teach their viewpoint at Erskine.   

Some may say that debates over the inerrancy of Scripture are nothing more than semantics, arguments among theologians who are more interested in precise definitions of words than they are the peace of the church. We regret that characterization of the issue. Pious-sounding bromides regarding Scripture are no substitute for a clear articulation of the church's historic doctrine of Scripture, especially when such bromides conceal positions that fatally undercut the church's confidence in our God-breathed book, the Bible. The inerrancy of Scripture is not a second or third order issue, but one of critical importance for the life and well-being of the church. As much as we dislike controversy, we are compelled to say that this is not a matter for equivocation or compromise. Rather, we must be clear in our articulation of the doctrine and resolute in our stance.

We rejoice that, Dr. David Norman, President of Erskine College and Theological Seminary, has publicly affirmed his support and acceptance of the ARP Church's statement on the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs.  By virtue of the actions of the 2008 General Synod, this statement has been added to the General Synod's definition of Evangelical belief, is now required of all new teaching and administrative employees of the General Synod, and will be added to the ordination vows required of all ARP ministers and elders. 

We, the undersigned, believe that, after almost half a century of resistance by some Erskine Seminary faculty members to the historic theology of the ARP Church (again, see Historical Addendum below), ongoing conflict over the doctrine of Scripture threatens not only the Seminary's reputation for orthodoxy and its relationship to the ARP Church, but the very well-being of the school--as prospective students opt for other seminaries that affirm a more consistent theological stance. As members of the faculty at Erskine College and Theological Seminary, we believe this situation is unacceptable. Therefore, we humbly call upon the Board and Administration of Erskine College and Erskine Theological Seminary to support and defend the position of the ARP Church on Scripture, and to work toward an Erskine Theological Seminary and an Erskine College that stand strongly and unequivocally for the authority of God's inerrant and infallible Word. We represent a wide range of theological specialties and different denominational affiliations, but we are united in our affirmation of the church's historic doctrine of Scripture.

Signed:

Terry L. Eves, Ph.D.

Professor of Old Testament, Erskine Theological Seminary

Chair, Dept. of Biblical Studies

Presbyterian Church in America

 

The Rev. R. J. Gore Jr., D.Min., Ph.D.

Professor of Systematic Theology, Erskine Theological Seminary

Former VP and Dean, 1998-2003; Dean 2003-06

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

 

Dale W. Johnson, Ph.D.

Professor of Church History, Erskine Theological Seminary

Chair, Dept. of Theology and Church History

Presbyterian Church in America

 

The Rev. Toney C. Parks, D.Min.

Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling, Erskine Theological Seminary

Chair, Dept. of Ministry

National Baptist Convention

 

The Rev. William B. Evans, Ph.D.

Younts Professor of Bible and Religion, Erskine College

Chair, Dept. of Bible, Religion, and Philosophy

Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

 

John Makujina, Ph.D.

Professor of Biblical Studies, Erskine College

Independent Baptist

 

HISTORICAL ADDENDUM REGARDING ARP STATEMENTS 
ON THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE

 In an article entitled "What the Associate Reformed Church Stands For," in The Centennial History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell, 1905), p. 694, James Strong Moffatt gave clear expression to the doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs: "The Associate Reformed Church stands stoutly for the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. Its testimony is that the inspiration extends not merely to some portions of the Bible but to the whole Bible; not only to the words and sermons of Christ but to the Epistles of Paul and Peter as well. Its position is that not merely the contents, the body of truth found in the Scriptures is inspired of God but that the inspiration extends to the very words; that not only does the Bible contain the Word of God but the Bible is the Word of God. . . . The Associate Reformed Church does not contend that that there are no errors in the Bible as we have it today.  It would be strange indeed if having passed through so many hands, and so many casualties, and having been so often transcribed, some errors should not have crept in.  But the contention is that as originally given to the church there were no errors, and that the originals have been so guarded by the Spirit, and so reverently and carefully handled by godly and faithful men that whatever errors may have crept in through human frailty are slight and have not corrupted or changed in any particular the originally inspired documents."

The Church's doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs is also expressed by two 1979 statements by the General Synod. "We believe that the Holy Spirit reveals Christ to us through the Holy Scripture which is the Word of God written.  While we do not have the original autographs as evidence, we believe on faith that God's Word in its entirety was accurately recorded by the original writers through divine inspiration and reliably transmitted to us" (1979 Minutes of the General Synod, p.76).  "Be it resolved that the General Synod of 1979 affirms that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches" (1979 Minutes of the General Synod, p. 23, emphasis original).

In 1994 a controversy broke out at the General Synod meeting after a Barthian faculty member expressed reservation about the use of male language for God in a Seminary document.  A "Seminary Select Committee" of the Board was formed to examine all Erskine Seminary faculty members as to their views regarding the Standards of the ARP Church.  Faculty members were asked whether they affirmed "That the original writings of the Old and New Testaments are inspired by God, truth (without error), divine authority, and kept pure by Him through all ages" (1995 Minutes of the General, p. 51).  While the results of this examination were no doubt ambiguous, the nature of the question on Scripture itself is highly significant.  It demonstrates an understanding by the Church and Board that Erskine Seminary faculty members are indeed expected to affirm the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. 

In 2008, after controversy erupted when two Barthian faculty members at Erskine Seminary refused to affirm the 1979 General Synod statements regarding Scripture, the General Synod passed the following language and added it to the definition of Evangelical beliefs binding on new faculty and administrative hires at Erskine Seminary: "the position of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church on Scripture is that the Bible alone, being God-breathed, is the Word of God Written, infallible in all that it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts" (2008 Minutes of the General Synod, p. 514). 

 

 

 

Inerrancy From the Resurrection

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In light of Prof. von Hoffman's stunning (but all too familiar) revisionist historiography, I thought it might be helpful to highlight an argument for the inerrancy of Scripture that I had not heard until Warfield--who else?--brought it to my attention:

"[Jesus'] testimony is that whatever stands written in Scripture is a word of God.  Nor can we evacuate this testimony of its force on the plea that it represents Jesus only in the days of his flesh, when He may be supposed to have reflected merely the opinions of His day and generation.  The view of Scripture He announces was, no doubt, the view of his day and generation as well as His own view.  But there is no reason to doubt that it was held by Him, not because it was the current view, but because, in His Divine-human knowledge, He knew it to be true; for even in His humiliation, He is the faithful and true witness.  And in any event we should bear in mind that this was the view of the resurrected as well as the of the humiliated Christ.  It was after He had suffered and had risen again in the power of His Divine life that He pronounced those foolish and slow of heart who do not believe all that stands written in the Scriptures (Luke 24:25); and that He laid down the simple 'Thus it is written' as the sufficient ground of confident belief (Luke 24:46)." (B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, pp. 143-44; my emphasis).

Not only does Jesus in his earthly ministry refer to every portion of the Old Testament, from Genesis to the prophets, as inviolable truth.  In Luke 24, the resurrected Christ claims to have fulfilled the constraints placed upon him by the entire scope of Scripture.  To the degree we diminish the inerrancy of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, with appeals to "he-was-a-man-of-his-times" reasoning, to that extent we detract from the trustworthiness and biblically-conceived significance of the resurrected Lord.      

Of Kenny Rogers and Creeds

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As any poker player knows (and I am not a poker player--I tend to steer clear of competitions where the victor takes home a bracelet), the hand is over when all the cards have been dealt, all the bets have been called, the players' cards are turned over and they reveal who has won the pot.


The image of that poker moment came to mind in a recent discussion with some church members about the role and value of ecclesial creeds for the Christian life, especially when it comes to meaningful theological exchange between two professing believers. I remember a friend who resides in a church tradition that rejects any notion of creeds. He saw them as man's conscious or unconscious attempts to bend Scripture to suit his own desires. Indulging another metaphor, I assured my friend that though the historic creeds of the church are not infallible, they provide a deep theological stream of carefully articulated doctrines that have contributed through the years to unity, health and honesty in the church. I told him he was in the current of that stream whenever he claims that God is triune, that Christ is divine, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, or when he claims any other orthodox tenet of belief.  And I warned him that to claim "No creed but the Bible" would, itself, be creedal, but, by comparison to the historical creedal stream of the church, his would be but a shallow and muddy ditch.  It would be to show only some of his cards.  It would identify the basis for what he believes, but it would not reveal what his beliefs are.


Creeds help us lay our theological cards on the table for all to see. They differentiate our hand from the hands of others around the theological table.  They tell all who would look at our cards not only that our beliefs are grounded in the Bible, but that "These are the truths revealed in the Scriptures as the Word of God." They tether our confession of Scripture to the content of Scripture.  They do not leave anyone wondering what we mean when we claim the Bible is God's very Word.  Indeed, many through the ages, and even today, who call for creedal revisions deploy words like "inspiration" and "atonement" only to inject those words with unorthodox content.  Poker, then, has an advantage over some of the theological hands being played today.  In poker what the cards are and what they mean cannot be subverted.


At least two lessons are ready for the taking: First, holding to the enduring creeds that present the truths of Holy Scripture is akin to holding a royal flush.  Second, should anyone entice us to abandon the historic creeds of the church, we should remember The Gambler's adage, "You've got to know when to hold'em...and when to walk away."

What sits on your Bible?

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"It all comes down to authority, doesn't it?" Stretching out his hand across the coffee shop table and resting it atop the Bible in front of him, a recent college graduate confessed to pastor Todd Pruitt that he had lost the faith he once professed as a freshman. With heartbreak over those words, Todd, the pastor of Church of the Saviour in Wayne, PA, and host of the event, opened last night's beginning of Westminster's "Full Confidence" weekend conference on Scripture.

 

Dr. David Garner then powerfully exhorted the church to God-honoring vigilance for the authority and reliability of Scripture's own self-witness and rocked the room with admonitions against failing to do so.  "Passivity turns error into evil." "Rest reaps rot." Pastors are duty-bound, he said, to proclaim the authority, sufficiency, and clarity of God's word rather that "doggedly hold forth with milquetoast and muffins". The "serpentine question" of Genesis 3 is alive in our day and many have already been "snake-bitten" by the "slithering lie" that the Bible lacks relevance. He closed with an almost prophetic announcement that God and His Word would openly triumph on the last day.


Dr. Carl Trueman came through with the second connecting punch of the night, unfolding with his trademark clarity and humor the Early Church Fathers' seed-bed convictions concerning Scripture. Graciously donning (and doing battle with) a "Brittany Spears" earpiece microphone, he drove home the early church's views on the inscripturation, inspiration, and authority of Scripture. He added a few gems of his own as well, but seasoned readers of Ref21 may sympathize as to why I omit them from my first post. 


"It all comes down to authority, doesn't it?" By the Authority who came down for us, and by His Spirit, we can and should repose our full confidence in our Bibles as, indeed, bearing ultimate authority. 

More on inerrancy...

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Iain D. Campbell, one of our new bloggers (who has yet to be able to sign in!  be patient with us), has posted a review of Andrew McGwan's book referred to below (the review by John R de Wit) on his blog.
 The recently published volume, The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan has been reviewed by John R. de Witt for The Banner of Truth and can be viewed here.

My Kind of Book

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"That the scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort" (U2's Bono, in his introduction to Selections from the Book of Psalms [New York: Grove Press, 1999], xi). 

Results tagged “Scripture” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 1.1

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i. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation: therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

This first paragraph of the Confession makes it clear that Scripture is necessary if there is going to be a knowledge of salvation. The confession says that "it pleased the Lord." It does not state that it was necessary for God to reveal what He did; He decided to reveal that of His own good pleasure, or His own mercy.

For the framers of the Westminster Confession, Scripture is foundationally and essentially divine. It is worth noting that in WCF I, there is no mention of the human authors of Scripture. This is not an oversight in the Confession; it is not that the Reformers and their progeny did not recognize the human element of Scripture. It is not that they were not privy to extra-biblical sources and other cultural, contextual and human elements. Rather, it is in keeping with the  testimony of Scripture itself about itself that the WCF affirms that Scripture is foundationally and essentially divine (though contingently, secondarily and truly human).

For the Reformed, God is the author of Scripture, and men were the ministers, used by God, to write God's words down. Scripture's author is God, who uses "actuaries" or "tabularies" to write His words. Reformed thought has been careful to see God as the primary author, and men as instrumental, secondary authors.

This means that a doctrine of Scripture can only be constructed by way of what Scripture itself says about itself. We do not build a doctrine of Scripture by looking at the surrounding culture and intimating what Scripture is, based on that culture. To do that will involve us in hopeless confusion. We won't know, for example, how to compare certain creation narratives of a surrounding culture with the creation account given to us by God in Scripture. All narratives, including those in Scripture, become nothing but "literature."

While it is appropriate and important to seek to understand biblical passages in terms of their cultural context, it is inappropriate, in a Reformed, confessional context, to let those phenomena determine what the Bible is (i.e., a doctrine of Scripture). Such a methodology denies that we determine our doctrine of Scripture in terms of its self-witness alone. To let our understanding of the "cultural context" of the Bible determine its meaning denies that a doctrine of Scripture is gleaned, first of all, by virtue of what Scripture says about itself