Results tagged “hermeneutics” from Reformation21 Blog

Theology on Target


Theology on Target

The Scope of the Whole (Which Is to Give All Glory to God)

Part 1

On October 16, 1845, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these familiar lines in a poem titled "The Arrow and the Song":

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.

I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.

He recorded: "Before church, [I] wrote The Arrow and the Song, which came into my mind as I stood with my back to the fire, and glanced on to the paper with arrow's speed. Literally an improvisation."[1] These well-known poetic lines, some of which have crept into popular idiom, were nothing more than momentary thoughts, penned as a result of the action of Longfellow's eye. The illustration they provide is, nonetheless, thought-provoking. An archer may nock an arrow to his bowstring, raise it to the sky, draw the cord and release the arrow without any express aim at a target. It rapidly flies away, perhaps to be lost, perhaps to be found at another time.

This picture may serve as a metaphor to introduce the topic at hand: theology and hermeneutics. In a religious world replete with an increasing amount of frequently diverse expositions, books, articles and sermons, one is bewildered. Why are there so many discordant voices? How can it be that one text--Christian Scripture--when examined by competent (or sometimes incompetent) students, yields such a miscellany of interpretations. While this question is far too large even to begin to answer in any comprehensive sense, perhaps we may suggest a line of thought as a contribution to the discussion.

Sometimes, there seems to be a hermeneutical principle upon which books, sermons and even expositions of Scripture texts are based--arrows shot into the air at a chance, without reference to a particular target. The Holy Book is treated, consciously or unconsciously, as a loose collection of historical events, propositional truths and wise sayings, with little or no reference to the interrelationship of the whole and/or its parts. It may be that these arrows will one day be recovered from the oak tree, but they may just as easily be lost forever.

This approach to Scripture differs significantly from an important method commonly used in Christian history. A more unified approach--what we might today call a canonical approach--is far more frequent in the tradition of interpretation we inherit, and may serve as a useful tool to recover in our own day. This paper is an attempt to argue that the concept of scopus (σκοπός) or the scope of Scripture may provide a helpful corrective to this theological dissonance.

In the English Reformed theological tradition, and specifically among the early generations of Particular (or Calvinistic) Baptists, the notion of the scope of Scripture was fundamentally important. We may begin with the common language of the three major Seventeenth century Confessions: the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of 1647, the Congregational Savoy Declaration of 1658, and the Particular Baptist 2nd London Confession of 1677.

Every good confession of faith is replete with technical theological language; such a statement ought to be obvious. Nonetheless, for the purposes of this study, it is important to be reminded of this fact. While certainly true, it may be easily forgotten, and contribute to the neglect of, or perhaps even ignorance of, important doctrinal issues addressed briefly in the theological symbol. The 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, often nicknamed The 1689 Confession, is just such a document. From beginning to end, its framers brought together very specific technical language, reflecting the best theological insight of all the preceding Christian centuries. This careful and specific language, often the fruit of difficult controversies, has become the common heritage of Christians, defining the nature of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. 

Among the gems of insight hidden in the 2nd LCF is the statement in the title of this paper:  "The scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God)" (2nd LCF 1:5).  This clause, easily passed over in the midst of the development of the larger argument it supports, is a window into an important doctrinal perspective and hermeneutical aid employed by theologians from Athanasius through the post-reformation period. Our purpose is to look through this window, view the vista it provides, and benefit from the things that we see.

The clause is one of several statements used in a section of chapter one described by B.B. Warfield as the "properties" of Scripture.[2] The fourth and fifth paragraphs read as follows:

  1. The Authority of the Holy Scripture for which it ought to be believed dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth it self) the Author thereof; therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
  1. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church of God, to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the Doctrine, and the Majesty of the stile, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God) the full discovery it makes of the only way of mans salvation, and many other incomparable Excellencies, and entire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence it self to be the Word of God; yet notwithstanding; our full persuasion, and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our Hearts.

In these two paragraphs, the Confession argues that the authority of Scripture derives from its divine origin, and though buttressed by several important properties, will only be recognized for what it truly is by a divine work of the Holy Spirit. The properties are nonetheless of great importance. The church is to testify to the nature of the Word by means of a "high and reverent esteem;" but beyond this, Scripture itself "abundantly evidences itself to be the Word of God" by six properties: heavenly matter, efficacious doctrine, majestic style, self-consistency, its scope, and its complete disclosure of the way of salvation, along with "other incomparable excellencies."  Each of these is an argument for its divine origin; together they produce a formidable demonstration of the point.

Among them is our phrase, easily overlooked, but of great importance.

Scope in the History of Interpretation

The most helpful essay on our topic is "Between Reformation and Modern Commentary: The Perception of the Scope of Biblical Books" by Gerald T. Sheppard. It was printed as one of three introductory essays prefaced to the 1989 reprint of William Perkins Commentary on Galatians.[3] Sheppard argues that the "technical use of the term 'scope' became commonplace among English expositors from the middle of the sixteenth until the end of the nineteenth centuries, and is highly significant because it indicates the debt this period owes to the Greek church fathers . . . ."[4] Perhaps the most prominent incidence among the Greek fathers of the use of skopos is found in Athanasius,[5] who argued that the Arians, in their attempts to undermine the orthodox defense of the deity of Christ, misunderstood and thus misused certain texts because they did not comprehend the "scope" of Scripture as a whole--i.e. its testimony to Jesus Christ as true God and true man. Refuting the Arian interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 he said, is necessary to demonstrate how far they go astray through not knowing the scope of divine Scripture . . . . the heretics have a bad understanding of a good statement. For if they knew and understood the character of Christianity, they would not have called the Lord of glory a created being, nor would they have tripped over what is written well.[6]

For Athanasius, the clear testimony of the whole of Scripture presents Christ as true God. Every Christological text points to this fact, and must be understood in its light. As James Ernest says, "the fundamental continuity underlying . . .  the anti-Arian polemic, in which the scope of Scripture is central, . . . is in the unfailing focus on Christ as the Word of God incarnate for human salvation. . . . it is [ungodly] to ask ['who, what, of what kind?'] concerning the Father or the generation of the Son."[7] This was a brilliant tactic to use in defense of orthodoxy, and served Athanasius well. Since all texts in unity point to this theological fact, they must all be understood in consonance. The Arians' hermeneutical problem is based in this--they isolate texts from one another, divorce the individual from the whole, and draw damning conclusions as a result. Fundamentally, they misuse and thus abuse the texts they seek to employ in support of their position. According to Sheppard, in this usage, the scope of the Bible...

...corresponds to the creedal core found clearly within the larger context of Scripture and, from this vantage point, delimits the purpose of any part of Scripture on the basis of the whole. In this way, the description of a text's scope vacillates between a vision of the larger context and appeals to the core content of Christian Scripture, so that the latter resembles a restatement of some element in the rule or analogy of faith. As an example, Athanasius contends that the Arians find biblical support for their Christology from a narrow reading of biblical texts in the Old Testament and in the Gospels because they have missed 'the scope' of all these texts, which is the dual nature of Christ, as shown clearly elsewhere in the New Testament."[8]

This citation helps us immensely, for it points us in the direction of a definition for our term. In modern usage, the scope of something often refers to its full range; for example the scope and sequence of a curriculum for children refers to all of the subjects covered during its course. But this is not how the term was used by Athanasius, nor by the sixteenth and seventeenth century divines. In fact, for them, it had almost the opposite meaning, referring instead to the design, or goal, or purpose of a particular text. Richard Muller makes this point well:

It is particularly important that the contemporary English meaning of 'scope,' the full extent, range, or intention of a thing, be excluded. The original Greek (skopos) and Latin (scopus) indicates the center or bull's eye of a target. Indeed, in the First Helvetic Confession, scopus translates der Zweck of the German original. The term is rightly understood, therefore, not as the full extent, range or intention of Scripture, but as the aim, purpose, goal, and center, indeed the 'bull's eye' of the biblical target.[9]

This comment leads us to make an important point. The scope of Scripture should not be confused with the analogy of faith. Analogia fidei has to do with the sum total of doctrine in the text. It aims at internal consistency; scopus is the target that the text points to.  They are similar, but look at the picture from the opposite ends: scopus may be illustrated by the ornithologist's spotting scope--he seeks to observe the bird on the limb;  analogia fidei looks through a wide angle lens in order to notice, not just the bird on the limb, but the entire vista and the bird's place in it. We might put it this way: in the case of Christological texts, when one looks at them, one always sees their testimony to the true deity and humanity of Christ. They are all spotting scopes, aimed at the one target.

When one speaks of the scope of Scripture, or of a particular text, one speaks of that to which it points, in the way that an archer aims his arrow towards the center of a target. To change the figure, scope might be understood as true north to which the needle of the compass always points. This pointing explains the sense of the text and delimits its purpose and meaning. It must be understood in this light; to do otherwise is to confuse the compass by means of interference; to send the arrow into the air without purpose. The simple raison d'etre of the barbed shaft is to hit the target; that of the compass, to provide true direction--anything less is a waste. While Longfellow may have mused about sending an arrow into the air without purpose, the exegete must never do so. He must ensure that the target is in sight, for the text always points to it.



[2] B.B. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield. Vol. 6, The Westminster Assembly and its Work (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981 reprint), 210ff.  It should be noted that 2nd LCF 1:5 is almost identical with the same paragraph in both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Savoy Declaration of Faith.

[3] Gerald T. Sheppard, "Between Reformation and Modern Commentary: The Perception of the Scope of Biblical Books" in A Commentary on Galatians ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1989), xlviii-lxxvii.

[4] Ibid., lix.

[5] James D. Ernest, "Athanasius of Alexandria: The Scope of Scripture in Polemical and Pastoral Context", Vigiliae Christianae 47 (1993), 341-362.

[6] Ibid., 343.

[7] Ibid., 352.

[8] Sheppard, lix-lx.

[9] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 2:209. The text of the First Helvetic Confession may be found in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983 reprint), 3:211-231. The language is quite interesting. Article V is titled in Latin "Scopus Scripturae" and rendered in German "Was der Zweck der heiligen Schrift sei, und worauf sie zuleßt hinweise;" Muller translates this as "What the center of the Holy Scripture is, and toward what the Scripture ultimately points" (Muller, 209). Article XII is titled in Latin "Scopus Evangelicae Doctrinae" and rendered in German "Was der Zweck der evangelischen Lehre sei." This might be translated "What the center of evangelical doctrine is."

James Renihan (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is President and Professor of Historical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary, Mansfield, TX. His academic work has focused on the Second London Baptist Confession and its broader Puritan theological context. He has been published in many journals, and is the author of multiple books including Edification and Beauty, A Toolkit for Confessions, True Love, and Faith and Life for Baptists.

Related Links

Our Glorious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain

Athanasius (Christian Biographies For Young Readers) by Simonetta Carr

Editor's Note: This post has been adapted with permission from the Reformed Baptist Theological Review. It was originally published in Vol. II, No. 2.


Affirming Ignorance, Certainty and Intellectual Death


In Col 3:10, the apostle Paul describes one of the most stunning aspects of the Spirit's re-creative work in uniting us by faith to the risen Christ. In that verse, we read that the natural man is, by that Spirit, suddenly and irrevocably "renewed in knowledge after the image of Him who created him." 

This raises a key question: what does it mean to be "renewed in knowledge"?  Hodge answers admirably by clarifying the significance of the Greek preposition: "This renovation is said to be εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν, not in knowledge, much less by knowledge, but unto knowledge, so that he knows. Knowledge is the effect of the renovation spoken of" (Systematic Theology, 2:99). This is a renewal that issues in knowledge, a newfound knowledge that that is altogether true because it reflects the mind of God ("after the image of Him who created him").  In short, it is a God-given knowledge that self-consciously relates all created things to the God who gives this world its meaning and purpose.  

Prior to our fellowship with Christ, we knew things (and for some of us, many things) only so well, and in spite of our sinful impulse to deny the beauty and coherence of this dazzling theater of divine glory. But now in Christ we are enabled to see the world for what it really is and seek to live accordingly.  As Hodge goes on to say, "The knowledge here is not mere cognition. It is full, accurate, living, or practical knowledge" (ibid., 100). It is the kind of Spirit-fueled knowledge that qualifies the Christian to judge all things rightly (1 Cor 2:15), especially the goodness and majesty of God in Christ (John 17:3). As Francis Schaeffer might say, it is a true knowledge of true truth.

Lest the postmoderns pounce, we must be clear that such saving epistemic renewal in no way derives from an autonomous appropriation of self-evident principles, nor does it transform Christians into paragons of genius. But neither does it lead to wimpish shoulder-shrugging as we blissfully affirm one other's ignorance! Rather, by this epistemic recreation in the Christian the Spirit infallibly and progressively opens to him the infinite implications of Christ's triumph as far as the curse is found (John 16:13), resulting in deepening praise and increasing humility in the hearts of those who bow before the One who is Truth itself (John 14:6). Contrary to the shifting winds of our hyper-hermeneutical age, we can indeed have certainty concerning the things taught by the Spirit (Luke 1:4; cf. Acts 2:36). 

With such truth in mind (!), I heartily recommend listening to a chapel message by Dr. James Anderson of RTS-Charlotte--wonderfully titled, "The  Atheist's Guide to Intellectual Suicide." In this crisp, 30-minute message, Dr. Anderson very helpfully unpacks the biblical teaching that the atheist's denial of God's self-revelation is, as Dr. Anderson provocatively puts it, "the philosophical equivalent of lopping your head off." In fact, to the extent an atheist still speaks, he shows himself not only to be intellectually moribund, but self-contradictory as well. Don't believe it? Have a listen for yourself! While I might quibble with Dr. Anderson's language of common sense (preferring instead the language of common grace) your time will be well spent.

*This post originally appeared at Reformation21 in September of 2012. 

Van Til's Limiting Concept


I have recently been wading into the thought of the 20th century Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til in order to consider his use of the term "limiting concept." These words appear throughout his collected works, both in his full-length books and his shorter articles. Our ability to define them is therefore key to understanding both Van Til and his successors in the theological world. I will attempt to explain this notion for you, and I must begin by stating that it was not Van Til who first developed it.

Kant's View of the Limiting Concept

The principle of a limiting concept was first suggested by Immanuel Kant, the famous German philosopher. Kant's influence was so great that nearly every philosopher who has come after him has been forced to respond to his work in some way, either by integrating it into his or her own philosophical program or reacting against it. It is nearly impossible to overstate Kant's influence on the thought patterns of the modern world, and one of the things he is best known for is his differentiation of the phenomenal and the noumenal in his work Critique of Pure Reason.

Kantian terminology can be very difficult to understand, and I certainly do not claim to be an expert, but I will give it a go. The phenomenal world, according to Kant, is that which can be perceived with our senses. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant associates the phenomenal with "sensuous intuitions"1 and "the medium of sense".2 But Kant also draws a distinction between "external objects in space" which "might be a mere delusion" and "the object of my internal perception" which "is undeniably real".3 So far, perhaps so confusing.

Of greater interest to us is the noumenal world (also referred to as "the true world"), which is beyond the power of the human senses to perceive or experience. The key Kantian term here is the "thing in itself", first mentioned in this passage:

"That space and time are only forms of sensible intuition, and hence are only conditions of the existence of things as phenomena; that, moreover, we have no conceptions of the understanding, and, consequently, no elements for the cognition of things, except in so far as a corresponding intuition can be given to these conceptions; that, accordingly, we can have no cognition of an object, as a thing in itself, but only as an object of sensible intuition, that is, as phenomenon--all this is proved in the analytical part of the Critique..."4 

What you should take away from that paragraph is Kant's clear statement that we can only know an object as a sensible intuition or phenomenon--that is, we can only know what our senses perceive. Anything beyond that is not a phenomenon, but a noumenon or thing in itself.

"Noumenon, plural Noumena, in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the thing-in-itself (das Ding an sich) as opposed to what Kant called the phenomenon--the thing as it appears to an observer. Though the noumenal holds the contents of the intelligible world, Kant claimed that man's speculative reason can only know phenomena and can never penetrate to the noumenon. Man, however, is not altogether excluded from the noumenal because practical reason--i.e., the capacity for acting as a moral agent--makes no sense unless a noumenal world is postulated in which freedom, God, and immortality abide."5 

From that encyclopedia definition, we can see that in Kant's philosophy God, the spiritual dimension, and abstract concepts belong to the noumenal world rather than the phenomenal world. They are therefore not subject to the perceptive powers of "pure reason" but can only be considered part of "practical reason", the medium through which we act as moral agents, again referring back to that encyclopedia definition.

Now, you will be hard pressed to find the term "limiting concept" in Critique of Pure Reason, but you will find many references to the limits placed upon human reason and sensibility. That which falls beyond the limits of our experience would, for Kant, be a limiting concept. Therefore, as God belongs to the noumenal world along with every other thing in itself, he must be considered a limiting concept.

William Edgar argues in his notes to the second edition of Cornelius Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology that, "For Kant, a limiting concept means a barrier beyond which human reason cannot go. God, as a concept, limits human thought, whether or not he exists."6 Note the interesting wrinkle that what exists in the true world of the noumenal may be either God or simply the idea of God, but it limits us in both cases.

Kant was living in the midst of the Scientific Revolution, and one general interpretation of his philosophy is that he hoped to preserve God (or simply belief in God) by placing him in this other realm which is not subject to the dictates of pure reason. The result was that God became essentially unknowable in Kantian philosophy. One might even say, according to this viewpoint, that his existence is non-confirmable.

Van Til's View of the Limiting Concept

Against this definition of Kant, we must raise the definition of Cornelius Van Til. In his works, Van Til attributed the origin of the term to Kant but also stated that the Christian notion of a limiting concept was completely different.

"If we hold to a theology of the apparently paradoxical we must also hold, by consequence, to the Christian notion of a limiting concept. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept has been developed on the basis of the non-Christian conception of mystery. By contrast we may think of the Christian notion of the limiting concept as based upon the Christian conception of mystery. The non-Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of would-be autonomous man who seeks to legislate for all reality, but bows before the irrational as that which he has not yet rationalized. The Christian notion of the limiting concept is the product of the creature who seeks to set forth in systematic form something of the revelation of the Creator."7 

Note here that when Van Til speaks of a "non-Christian notion of the limiting concept", he is thinking back to Kant and other philosophers. Particularly disagreeable to Van Til was the method of thought known as dialecticism, but some extra explanation is needed here. The dialectic method of logic goes all the way back to ancient Greece, where it was employed by Socrates. Two different people would debate, hence the term dialectic, which in the original Greek simply referred to conversation. (Compare with the word dialect.) However, later philosophers such as Kant and G.W.F. Hegel adjusted the meaning of dialecticism to fit their own needs. It gradually came to refer to a process by which two opposing ideas are brought into conflict with one another until they form a synthesis.

By the time Van Til came on the scene, he perceived a dialectical school of theology that was taking hold. He objected to the tendency of this viewpoint to place the relative and the absolute in conflict with one another and to accept outright contradiction within theology. In one passage, he bemoaned, "I know it is the fashion of dialectical theology taught at the New Princeton, based as it is on existential philosophy, to reject the idea of God as he is in himself except as a limiting concept. But then that is not the theology of Hepp, of Machen, of Calvin, of Paul."8 The "New Princeton" was Princeton Theological Seminary, the institution from which Van Til had departed due to its liberalization.

In his work Common Grace and the Gospel, Van Til explained how the proper Christian view of paradox--that is, two spiritual truths that stand in apparent tension with one another--differs from the outright contradiction of the dialectic school.

"It might seem at first glance as though we were willing, with the dialectical theologians, to accept the really contradictory. Yet such is not the case. In fact we hold that our position is the only position that saves one from the necessity of ultimately accepting the really contradictory. We argue that unless we may hold to the presupposition of the self-contained ontological trinity, human rationality itself is a mirage. But to hold to this position requires us to say that while we shun as poison the idea of the really contradictory we embrace with passion the idea of the apparently contradictory. It is through the latter alone that we can reject the former."9 (italics in original)

Van Til was prepared to embrace the apparently contradictory in theology, which we might call the paradoxical. In the passage above, he provides the "self-contained ontological trinity" as an example. Christians confess that the Triune God is one God in three Persons, or to speak more technically, the divine substance is equally shared by the three Persons without creating any parts in the Godhead. Speaking this way can seem nonsensical to human beings. How can one thing also be three things? Well, it is not three things. It is one thing, but it is three Persons. This is a clear paradox from a human perspective: two truths arranged in apparent tension with one another, beyond the power of human reason to fully comprehend.

A Muslim would charge that this view of a Trinitarian God is an outright contradiction rather than simply an apparent one. Indeed, Muslims often state that Christians worship three Gods, knowingly or unknowingly. Unitarians have gone the opposite route of removing the personal distinctions altogether. But Van Til would argue that the paradox must be embraced, for the Trinitarian God is not an outright contradiction, but only an apparent one. It is just this kind of theological paradox that caused Van Til to coin the term limiting concept to refer to two truths which must be understood in relation to one another.

According to Van Til, a limiting concept "should never be employed to do duty by itself,"10 but must be viewed in light of its paired limiting concept. Such a concept is "apparently paradoxical"11 and "incomplete without its correlative". 12 Indeed, two limiting concepts should "be regarded as implying one another."13 

In his explanatory notes on Van Til's Introduction to Systematic Theology, William Edgar writes, "A 'limiting concept' for Van Til is one that needs another if it is to be properly understood. It implies a complementarity. For example, one part of the Bible will not be properly understood without the other parts."14 K. Scott Oliphint also discusses the term in his notes on The Defense of the Faith.

"Though for Kant a limiting concept presupposed his agnosticism with respect to our knowledge of the noumenal, for Van Til a limiting concept is that which is, at one and the same time, determined and defined by another, limiting, concept. Thus, the doctrine of election is a limiting concept with respect to our choices. It should be remembered that limiting concepts are not necessarily on a par with each other. God's election precedes our choices. Given creation, however, one (freedom) is defined and determined by the other (election)."15 

It should be noted that at various points in his writings, Van Til uses the terms "limiting or supplementative concepts" as well as "limiting notion" fairly synonymously. Whether this reflects an ongoing development in his thought or simply an effort to better explain his meaning, I cannot say.

What is of greater interest is the variety of examples Van Til gives of limiting concepts in theology. Here are just a few that are mentioned in the three works I have referenced.

  • Predestination and free agency
  • Regenerate and unregenerate consciousness
  • Different portions of scripture
  • Natural and supernatural revelation
  • Innate and acquired knowledge of God

Many more could certainly be mined from the totality of Van Til's work.

Conclusion: A Useful Concept?

Van Til's notion of the limiting concept is useful to us to the extent that it helps reveal how apparent contradictions in scripture or theology can be harmonized with one another. However, like so many theological principles, the limiting concept could be misapplied, in this case allowing for what Van Til would consider outright (rather than apparent) contradiction. Again, I am not suggesting that a proper use of limiting concepts would produce this result, but rather an improper use.

A key part of Van Til's Christian notion of the limiting concept requires us to harmonize different scriptural passages by considering them to be limiting concepts of one another. For example, when Paul writes that "man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28) and James writes that "faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself", (James 2:17) we understand that those two passages only present an apparent contradiction. In reality, they are in harmony with one another. However, simply acknowledging that fact does not tell us which passage should be understood more "literally" (to use a popular but somewhat misleading term), or if they may in fact be addressing two different circumstances.

Clearly, the task of interpretation is not entirely removed by appeal to the limiting concept. Therefore, when you see the words limiting concept being used to discuss theology, take care to note the type of hermeneutic the author is using to harmonize the apparent contradictions of scripture, and whether it is indeed the correct one.

There you have it. Go forth and read!

All scripture passages are from the 1995 New American Standard Bible, copyright the Lockman Foundation.


1. Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, Aegitas Kindle Edition (Toronto: Aegitas Digital Publishing, 2016), 40.

2.  Kant 57

3.  Kant 51

4.  Kant 15

5.  "Noumenon" in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 10 July 2019.

6. Van Til, Cornelius. An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God, Second Edition, ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2007), 68, n. 25.

7.  Van Til, Cornelius. Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, NJ: P&R, 1972), 11.

8.  Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith, Fourth Edition, ed. K. Scott Oliphint (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2008), 396.

9.  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 9.

10.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 68.

11.  Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel, 11.

12.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 171.

13.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 136.

14.  Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 136, n. 51.

15.  Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 71, n. 46.

The "Cereal-Aisle" Syndrome


The grocery store cereal aisle has become a common metaphor for distinguishing the West from the rest of the world, and rightly so. Just after we moved to Eastern Europe years ago, my family and I began the hunt for cereal in our city. In due course, we found three cereal options. Yes, three. First we were disappointed, then resentful. Really? Only Honey Nut Cheerios, off-brand corn flakes and Muesli? 

Yet our internal pushbacks did not last for long. Oh, not because our (children's?) yearning for Cocoa Puffs and Tony the Tiger got completely snuffed, but something even more satisfying and freeing took over. Limitation birthed newfound freedom, a liberty far preferable to our former cornflake cornucopia. We discovered the clarity and joy of simplicity. No longer was the cereal aisle an enemy of contentment, but in its simplicity we discovered a peaceful, non-confusing, isle of contentment. 

When we returned for visits to the United States, we found ourselves simply undone, even freshly disgusted by the cereal attack. Too many choices. Rainbow-colored boxes of all sizes--complete with nutritional charts, cartoons, crossword puzzles, and chances for free vacations at Disneyworld--launched their crusade against our souls. Which cereal should we buy? Whose label do we trust anyway? Who can possibly decide which cereal is the legitimate breakfast of champions?

A message lies behind the plethora of choices. It is actually quite simple. Cereal choice is completely up to me. I really am Cap'n Crunch. I am Count Chocula. 

Yet there is a problem. So is everyone else. And who decides when each member of the family reigns as King Kellogg and leads as General Mills? Family feuds can even erupt over which flavor of Cheerios to buy. War ensues and, in the end, no one finally wins the Lucky Charm.

Cereal choice produces cereal chaos, because serial choice produces serial chaos. Despite the relentless rhetoric to the contrary, unlimited choice does not free us; it binds us. Autonomy at work does not bless, it curses. To put it more contextually, the unalienable rights of Americans are not the unalienable truths of Scripture. 

In a manner combating the "cereal aisle" of contemporary thought, Scripture puts us in a distinct place, and it is not a place of autonomy or sovereignty. We are created, not Creator. We are servants, not masters. We are stewards, not owners. We are dependents, not independents. We are the children, not the Father. 

These categorical truths, which dominate the pages of the Scripture, must take their rightful place in our study of it. We are recipients of Scripture's meaning, not creators of it.

Historic categories of the doctrine of Scripture include authority, sufficiency, necessity, and perspicuity (clarity). Many in recent years have argued that the real battle for the Bible is more about its sufficiency than its authority. With thanks to Kantian thought construction which deems the Bible irrelevant to science and many other fields, surely biblical sufficiency needs fresh and ongoing address. 

Yet today something even more basic than biblical sufficiency suffers. The Bible's sufficiency, necessity, clarity and even authority as commonly expressed, do not get to the bottom of the current crisis of confidence in Scripture. 

In a 1975 visiting lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, James I. Packer addressed the formulation of a faithful and useful doctrine of Scripture for the coming ages. Contending that the bifurcation of biblical and theological disciplines had practically ripped Scripture's essence from its interpretation, he insightfully (even prophetically) argued for integration.

As he imagined it, the way forward in a positive articulation of the doctrine of Scripture was to draw our doctrine of Scripture explicitly together with hermeneutical method. I think he nailed it. "What Scripture is must determine what we do with it. In addition, who we are (dependent creatures, children) must determine how we treat the Word of God."

The virtually ubiquitous contemporary alternative - a doctrine of Scripture divorced from the implications of that doctrine - has effectively neutered orthodox claims about the Bible. Some former evangelicals, to be sure, have openly abandoned biblical inspiration and inerrancy.

Other evangelicals profess a "high view" of Scripture, but their "high view" floats lightly above their exegesis, never touching down on the ground of actual interpretation. When what we claim about Scripture disengages from what we do with it, our high view of Holy Scripture becomes a wholly irrelevant view. Confession of biblical inspiration loses all clout, all meaning.

As it is, contemporary infatuation with choice dominates biblical interpretation. "Ours, it is fair to say, is a 'hyperhermeneutical' age. Most readers do not need to be reminded how in recent decades issues of interpretation have burgeoned in an overwhelming, almost unbelievable fashion and taken on unprecedented dimensions." (1) The field of biblical studies has become its own "cereal aisle," with the hermeneutical options menu claiming a life of its own.

The options now come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. After all, not everyone has the same tastes, likes and goals. The selection aisle is wide and long; the options seem endless. But one thing remains constant. You get to choose. You pick your hermeneutical box or boxes.

Resulting problems abound. As D. A. Carson has pointed out, "it cannot follow that every reading is equally valuable or valid, for some of the interpretations are mutually exclusive. The tragedy is that many modern 'readings' of Scripture go beyond inadvertent bias to a self-conscious adoption of a grid fundamentally at odds with the text--all in the name of the polyvalence of the text and under the authority of the new hermeneutic." (2) Despite Carson's and others' well-articulated protests, we have seen little relenting in the creation and advocacy of new interpretive approaches. 

Scholars present their new versions of the so-called "new" hermeneutic, and seek to defend the value, usefulness, and appropriateness of their interpretive approaches. In many cases, unrelenting diversity of readers, cultures, languages, traditions, and religions drives the method, making interpretation a relativized constellation of relativistic factors. 

In some cases, the hermeneutic chosen simply can advance our own agenda (e.g., feminist, gay, liberation . . . the list could go on), ensuring that the Bible delivers us to our desired destination. In other cases, our methods reflect our lack of methodological self-consciousness and we adopt simply what comes naturally (the new hermeneutic usefully corrects us here, calling us to greater methodological self-consciousness). 

We have not stopped to think about what we are actually doing. We carry on an interpretive method without sufficient consideration of what Scripture says about it. With interpretive negotiability corresponding to the choice between Kix and Raisin Bran, we pick our hermeneutic according to our own tastes, circumstances, and goals.  

The problem thus prevails. Whether willful or blind, autonomy is still autonomy. And interpretive autonomy and biblical authority remain enduring enemies. 

Calvin complained, "In our own day there are many who, in order to display their acuteness in handling the word of God, allow themselves to sport with it in the manner as if it were profane philosophy." (3) Five hundred years later, it is not uncommon to hear someone sporting with the Bible: "I'm testing this out" or "I'm playing with this idea" or "I'm enjoying this hermeneutical approach." WWCS? What would Calvin say? 

Much more importantly, what does God say about such contemporary self-determined approaches to interpreting his Word? 

Following Packer's counsel, we must allow the authority of Scripture to exercise its Spirit-given interpretive weight. We must rely upon the functioning authority of Scripture for our interpretation of it. As dependent children, creatures made in God's image called to receive God's Word as stewards, we must remember hermeneutical method is not autonomous turf. Exercise of an interpretive method is matter of faith and obedience to the God who has spoken. Bible study is an act of stewardship, of worship. 

Where do we turn? Away from such "cereal aisle" mentality. Navigation out of the current hermeneutical chaos will come only by a functional trust in Scripture's authority - studying in a manner that derives what Scripture is. God has spoken and done so without stuttering. He has given the Church, in the canon of Scripture, what we need "for life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3). His Spirit guides the Church to understand what he intends for us (1 Cor. 2:12-16).

There is surely risk here in over-simplification, and let it not be said that biblical interpretation is easy or formulaic. Nor let it ever be said that the work in linguistics, history, language, and other biblically informing fields need be trashed or dismissed. But children of the heavenly Father will always ask what he means in a less clear text on the basis of what he has said clearly elsewhere. Stewards of the divine Word will suffer long to avoid speculation for the sake of submission. How?

Echoing the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.9), John Murray wrote, "The infallible rule of the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself. But there is no infallible interpretation of that rule and hence there has never been complete agreement in the church respecting every detail of interpretation and application." (4) Murray was hardly naïve. A rigorous exegete, he knew that the self-interpreting authority of Scripture does not answer every hermeneutical question. He argued for "limitation and restriction," but did so with an eye towards the Church's shared understanding of Scripture as expressed in confessions like Westminster. 

Historic confessions and creeds protect the Church from foolish "cereal aisle" autonomy. The Spirit who authored Scripture has through the years drawn the Church to understand it, and the great Church confessions greatly aid us in employing faithful hermeneutics. We are not advocating a paper pope, but a biblically grounded confidence in the historic analogy of faith. God is able to reveal clearly in his Word precisely what he wishes - not only to this generation, but consistently over the entire life of the Church.

Sadly, biblical interpretation has lost these confessional moorings. Assumed serial choice has produced serial chaos in biblical interpretation, and the drifting effects have been disastrous. The growing quantity of interpretive options works in inverse proportion to the Church's confidence in Scripture. Functional autonomy in biblical interpretation has birthed theological anarchy, and God's Word viewed according to self-selected interpretive paradigms appears elusive, messy, and even downright impossible. Uncertainty survives as the only certainty.(5) 

That God is the Author of Scripture (2 Pet 1:19-21; 2 Tim 3:16) is the game changer. As the Word of God, Scripture renders clear and certain boundaries for our belief and confession, and also necessarily for our interpretive method. Paul urges Timothy to be a student of Scripture who "correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15). Not every question will be answered in the same way, but the chaos of comprehensive uncertainty evaporates when the Church submits to what "the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 2:29), truth preserved and proclaimed through the ages.

Contemporary debates on divine accommodation in revelation, the relationship between history and theology (e.g., historical Adam), the locus of meaning (author and/or reader), the New Testament's use of the Old, and all the other live (and sometimes deadening!) debates in the academy and the Church drive us to a foundational focus: the functional authority of God's Word for its understanding. Future expressions of the nature of Scripture must manifest divine authority by concrete, clarifying, consistent, and confidence-evoking implementation of that authority. 

Accordingly, we would do well to heed the words of Geerhardus Vos, who warned against hollow claims to biblical authority: "When once the sense of allegiance to the Word of God as the only authoritative rule of faith has become weakened, or, while still recognized in theory has ceased to be a living force in the minds of believers, then the hope of a return to the truth once forsaken is reduced to a minimum." (6) 

Many find themselves reduced to that minimum. When our hermeneutical method suffers the "cereal aisle" syndrome, we find ourselves in hope-defying darkness. The only way out of the dark is the guiding light of a functioning trust in God's Word, where divine authority defines interpretation in a manner consistent with the illumining work of the Spirit over the history of the Church. 

Scripture's authority functions or it is no authority at all. To uphold our high view of Scripture, our hermeneutics must show it. Consciously. Consistently. Redundantly. Reverently.

1. Richard Gaffin, "Speech and the Image of God: Biblical Reflections on Language and Its Uses," in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine; edited by David Van Drunen; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2004, 191.

2. D. A. Carson, Collected Writings on Scripture (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2010), 101.

3. John Calvin, The First Epistle to Timothy, Calvin's Commentaries Vol. 21; Grand Rapids, Baker: 1989, 14.

4. John Murray, The Claims of Truth, vol. 1, 4 vols.; Collected Writings of John Murray; Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976, 283.

5. The subtle and damaging effects of this relativizing approach to missiological hermeneutics have been profound. See, for example, David B. Garner, "High Stakes: Insider Movements and the Gospel," Themelios 37.2 (July 2012): 

6. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Publishing, 1980), 412.

Dr. David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Bryn Mawr, PA.

Editors' Note: This article is an unedited and longer version of "Cereal-Aisle Hermeneutics" which originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition blog and is used by permission. It first appeared at Reformation21 in September of 2013.

Tripping on Scripture


Humans are amazing pattern finders. We detect patterns everywhere in the world around us: contorted faces in the wood grain, mythical creatures in the clouds, phantom ailments in our aches and pains--there's no end to the patterns our vibrant and active minds discover in the world around us.

Detecting and Projecting Patterns

The curious thing is that many of those patterns are not really there, not in the things themselves in the same way that the pattern or form (in philosophical jargon) tree is in the massive pine specimen in my front yard or even the way the moonlit sky is in Van Gogh's The Starry Night. This is because the face in the wood grain and griffin in the clouds is a projection of our mind--something we impose on the raw material of reality.

The grain in the wood is certainly there and is given to the mind in all its particularity. That particularity is telling too. A dendrologist can discern not only what kind of tree it came from but how old it was, which way it faced, how many fires or hurricanes it endured, and so on. There is much for science to ponder and sort out in the wood's grain.

That same particularity, however, becomes the imagination's fertile field as our pattern-detecting minds turn to it. If the grain of the wood were not just as it is, and if the plank had not been cut and planed and erected just as it is, then our minds would never see that eerily drawn out Munchian face. The wooden plank is not an empty canvas and the face we see in the grain is both there--ready for us to see; seemingly impossible to un-see--and yet it is not really there at all. There is nothing for dendrology in that face; there is a great deal for the artistry of our pattern-projecting imaginations, however, and perhaps also for psychology's interest in this imaginative knack we have.

The Problem with Projecting

If we swap out the wood grain for the text of Scripture the exegetical problem becomes clear. Responsible exegetes and biblical theologians devote significant energy to justifying the patterns they detect in the pages of the canon. They aim to demonstrate that their interpretations are actually there in the text like the moonlit sky is in The Starry Night--as an intentional creation of its author rather than the mere projection of their active imagination on the grain of the text.

It is not enough to demonstrate the possibility of seeing this or that supposed pattern of meaning in the text. We are capable of seeing all sorts of things in a text. Just because we see it, and see it so vividly we find it nearly impossible to un-see it, does not mean it is actually there by authorial intent. It really could be nothing more than a face in the grain.

What we want to expound is just what is there to be known and understood by science, if you will.

Not Just a Postmodern Problem

This is what divides Augustinian exegesis, which aims at the divine author's intended meaning, from that family of postmodern approaches that locate meaning in the interplay between the raw material of the text and the reader's pattern-detecting and often pattern-projecting imagination. Though we can never eliminate our subjectivity in the act of reading--ought not even to try to do so if we would read the Bible as God intends--we can certainly do better than reduce Scripture to a Rorschach ink blot or muse for pious psychedelics to trip on.

But this is not just a postmodern problem; we are all inclined to project our own meaning onto the grain of the text. Augustine understood this and warns us about it:

"Whoever takes another meaning out of Scripture than the writer intended, goes astray, but not through any falsehood in Scripture...For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author whom he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one: and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him" (De Doctrina, 1.36-37).

Destroyed, that is, by the meaning we "put upon Scripture" that is not actually there-not there by authorial intent--however much the grain of the text might suggest it to our pattern-projecting minds. Destroyed, we might say, by loving the meaning we supply, with all its false intricacy and novel insight, more than the meaning God intends.

Dr. Bruce P. Baugus is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS. He is the editor of China's Reforming Churches: Mission, Polity, and Ministry in the Next Christendom

Read Like an Apostle


The early disciples gave evidence of the concept of Christ as the target of the Old Testament; but, should we read the Old Testament like they did? That is an ever pressing hermeneutical question. I want to suggest that the answer is a resounding "yes!" Consider John 2:13-22 as a case study:

"The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. And He found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a place of business." His disciples remembered that it was written, "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME." The Jews then said to Him, "What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?" But He was speaking of the temple of His body. So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken."

John 2:17 begins, "His disciples remembered that it was written..." This is John's commentary on the thought process of some of Christ's disciples in the first century prior to the writing of the New Testament. The words "it was written" refer to what was already written at that time. John tells us what "was written" and what Old Testament text these disciples were thinking about by quoting Psalm 69:9, "ZEAL FOR YOUR HOUSE WILL CONSUME ME" (see John 15:25 and 19:28 where Jesus applies this Psalm to himself). The disciples were interpreting the Old Testament (independent of the New Testament) during the life of our Lord. John's comment informs us that they started connecting the dots from the Psalms to Jesus while our Lord was on the earth. In other words, their minds were making hermeneutical moves while Christ's zeal for God's temple, his Father's house, was being manifested. As the Word who became flesh manifested himself among men, those who believed in him began to interpret Scripture in light of him (or him in light of Scripture!).

In John 2:22 we read, "So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken." Note first the time when "His disciples remembered that He said this," that is, "when He was raised from the dead..." The resurrection, among other things, triggered the memories of these disciples. Note second what "this" of "He said this" refers to. It refers to what Jesus said as recorded in verse 19, where we read, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Note third John's comment about what Jesus said. "But He was speaking of the temple of His body" (John 2:21). Note fourth that "they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" (John 2:22). The "Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" are not the same thing. The "word which Jesus had spoken" is recorded in John 2:19. The Scripture must refer to the Old Testament. The disciples were interpreting the Old Testament (not only during the ministry of our Lord, but also after his resurrection and prior to the writing of the New Testament, and surely during and after its writing). The resurrection became an interpretive event through which the early disciples "believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken." Just as they began connecting the dots during our Lord's life-unto-death sufferings (John 2:17), so they continued to connect the dots when he entered into his glory, his resurrection (John 2:22; see John 12:16 for the same phenomenon with reference to connecting the dots between our Lord and the book of Zechariah).

Though it is true that we interpret the Bible in our day, it is also true that the early Christians interpreted the Bible of their day-i.e., the Old Testament. Some of their interpretations made it into the New Testament, as illustrated above. Though this does not mean that all of their personal interpretations of the Old Testament reflected the divine intention of the ancient text, it does mean that their interpretations recorded in the New Testament and affirmed by the authors of the New Testament (e.g., John) are infallible interpretations (This is not the same as claiming they were infallible interpreters.), reflecting the intention of God who first gave the text. This is so because "All Scripture [i.e., Old and New Testament] is inspired by God" (2 Tim. 3:16) and inspiration implies infallibility.

It is obvious that interpreters of Scripture today have an advantage over the first-century interpreters mentioned above. We have God's own interpretation of the historical sufferings and glory of Christ-our New Testaments. But I think there is a good lesson for us to learn from the discussion above. When our Lord Jesus was on this earth, the Spirit of God was causing the disciples of Christ to recall texts of Scripture due to the presence and ministry of Christ. What their musings on the Old Testament contained in the New Testament show us is that the Old Testament points to Christ. The early disciples saw this more and more as they contemplated our Lord and the Old Testament. The inspired documents of the New Testament confirm that they were right. Not only was Jesus Christ the promised One, he was that to which the Old Testament pointed (e.g., Luke 24:44ff.). The early disciples did not reinterpret the Old Testament in light of Christ; they interpreted it as pointing to Christ. And our New Testament is God's confirmation that they were right to do so. If it was right for them to do so, then it is right for us to do the same. The Old Testament is not about Christ simply because the New Testament says so. It is about Christ because that was God's intention from the beginning. This is how the early Christians (and our Lord) read the Old Testament. This is how we ought to as well.

The disciples were interpreting the Old Testament as their Lord did (e.g., John 5:39, 45-47). The entire New Testament is based on Jesus' view of himself in relation to the Old Testament. The sinless Son of God saw the Old Testament as that which pointed to him. The authors of the books of the New Testament not only agreed with this assessment, they wrote in light of it. And since the writings of the New Testament are inspired documents, this is also the divine view of Jesus and the Old Testament. In other words, the New Testament is the infallible interpretation of Jesus in relation to the Old Testament. This is no small matter, indeed! Jesus understood the Old Testament to be the Word of God and he understood it as pointing to him. Jesus' view of the Old Testament became the view of the writers of the New Testament. It seems to follow that Christian interpreters ought to follow the lead of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament. Unfortunately, not all agree. But the conclusion seems inescapable. If Jesus viewed the Old Testament as a witness to himself and the authors of the New Testament did as well (utilizing the same hermeneutic as Jesus), then all Christian interpreters ought to follow them.


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

Content to Know Enough

When addressing the subject of the inerrancy of Scripture in light of difficulties with which we are confronted in Scripture, E.J. Young would teach his students the following truth: "The believer," he said "will labor to reconcile seemingly contradictory details we encounter in various portions of Scripture. The unbeliever automatically insists that they are errors." Young suggested that we must labor to come to a settled position on attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions in Scripture; however, if while doing so, we find that we cannot come to an absolutely certain conclusion about how to reconcile those seeming contradictions, we should rest content in the fact that we know there is a solution though we have not been able to reach it. In short, we need to labor to know God's word as accurately as possible; but, in the end, we need to rest content that we will never know it exhaustively. Young developed this classroom advice in his important work on inerrancy, Thy Word is Truth, where he wrote:

"There are good Christian people who would like to believe in the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, yet who hesitate because they are convinced that there are mistakes in the Scripture. With such people we have great sympathy. In serious Bible study one often encounters difficulties, and the solution of these difficulties is not always readily apparent. Foolish indeed is the man who thinks that he has the answer to every problem in the Bible...If, however, it is rash to profess to solve all of the problems which the study of the Bible brings upon us, it is yet more rash to make the dogmatic assertion that there are actual errors in the Bible."1

After considering a few of the more significant "alleged errors" in the Bible, Young concluded: 

"The Bible is inerrant. The Word which the Holy God gave to man is a word that is to be trusted...He who dogmatically proclaims the presence of error in the Bible, has, as a matter of fact, arrogated to himself an amount of knowledge that he does not actually a result of further study and as a result of archeology much of what formerly was regarded as error has been demonstrated to be no error at all. There is no other document from antiquity which for accuracy can even begin to compare with the Bible. When therefore we meet difficulties in the Bible let us reserve judgment. If any explanation is not at hand, let us freely acknowledge that we do not know all things, that we do not know the solution. Rather than hastily to proclaim the presence of an error, is it not the part of wisdom to acknowledge our ignorance?" 2

It would do us a world of good to adopt this mindset when giving ourselves to a careful study of God's word. We will never err in undermining the faith of others if we are ready to say that we have sought out solutions to reconcile various passages while acknowledging that we may not have come to a completely settled conclusion. That is true humility that honors the trustworthiness of God's word, without proudly exalting ourselves to deny the divine superintendence of it or to act as though we have mastered everything in it.  

1. E.J. Young Thy Word is Truth (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997) p. 163

2. Ibid., p. 182

Interpreting Scripture with Scripture


We cannot properly interpret what God does, as He has recorded it for us in Scripture, unless we know something about the God who effects what is recorded for us in Scripture. In other words, there must be a hermeneutical (i.e. interpretive) dialogue between the text which confronts us (e.g., Gen. 1:1, 2, 3, and 26) and texts which inform us about who the God of those texts is and how he works. There must be a hermeneutical circle that not only helps us recognize and respect but consistently employ, if we are to speak of God as God has revealed himself to us in his written Word. Done properly, this will keep interpreters from making statements which contradict Scripture, such as concluding God must have vocal chords, a larynx, or voice box, and a mouth due to the words of Genesis 1:3 (i.e., "Then God said..."). Moses tells us that God spoke, yet we are told elsewhere in Scripture that God is invisible (e.g., see 1 Tim. 1:17 and 6:16). We must account for both, and accounting for both often requires hearing from God from other texts different from the ones under consideration. Prioritizing ontological affirmations about God (i.e. statements about who He is in Himself) will keep us from becoming neo-anthropomorphites. This, in turn, will help guard us from the naive biblicism that is present and becoming more prevalent in our day.1

Consider Genesis 1:2: "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters." Assuming the translation is accurate, how should we explain this statement? What or who is the Spirit of God and how can we best account for the fact that Moses asserts he was "hovering over the face of the waters?" Is this some sort of primordial, quasi-divine, pneumatological hover-craft given creative power? Or is this an operation of the Holy Spirit independent of the Father and the Son? How should we account for these things? What is the most important written source outside Genesis 1:2 that we ought to consult for help? The answer ought to be obvious. We should consult Scripture, for Scripture interprets divine acts for us and explains who and what the divine agent who act is

Since Scripture is the written Word of God, infallible and inerrant, when it interprets previously recorded divine acts, it does so infallibly. In other words, there are places in Holy Scripture where we have the Word of God on the Word of God. We have "divinely inspired and infallible interpretation by the divine author himself. John Owen says, "The only unique, public, authentic, and infallible interpreter of Scripture is none other than the Author of Scripture Himself . . . that is, God the Holy Spirit."2 The Bible's interpretation of itself is infallible. When it utilizes itself in any fashion, it is God's interpretation for us and, therefore, the divine revelation of how texts should be understood by men. This often means that later texts shed interpretive light on earlier texts, and upon the divine acts contained in those texts. This occurs not only when the New Testament consults the Old Testament, but it occurs in the Old Testament itself. We could put it this way: subsequent revelation often makes explicit what is implicit in antecedent revelation. In the words of Vern S. Poythress, "The later communications build on the earlier. What is implicit in the earlier often becomes explicit in the later."3

Taking these things into consideration, let's consider Genesis 1:2 once again. While Genesis 1:2 says, "And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters," Psalm 104:24 says, "O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions--" and in verse 30 we read, "You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth." In Job 26:13 we read, "By His Spirit He adorned the heavens." These texts outside of Genesis (and there are others like them) echo and further explain Gen. 1:2 to us. These are instances of inner-biblical exegesis within the Old Testament.

When the Bible exegetes the Bible, we have an infallible interpretation because of the divine author of Scripture. Scripture not only records the acts of God, it also interprets them. If we are going to explain the acts of God in creation, God's initial economy, with any hope of accurately accounting for those acts, we must first know something of the triune God who acts. And the only source of infallible knowledge of the triune God who acts in the Bible is the Bible alone.


1. For a more informed discussion on biblicism see James M. Renihan, "Person and Place: Two Problems with Biblicism," in Southern California Reformed Baptist Pastors' Conference Papers, Volume I (2012), ed. Richard C. Barcellos (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2012), 111-27 and Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 84ff. and 117-41.

2. John Owen, Biblical Theology or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth in Six Books (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994), 797.

3. See Vern S. Poythress, "Biblical Hermeneutics," in Seeing Christ in all of Scripture: Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary, ed. Peter A. Lillback (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2016), 14.


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA, and Associate Professor of Exegetical Theology at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?


I've heard it uttered dozens of times. Friends, family members, and strangers have looked at me, a Presbyterian pastor, and said, "Well, you know what the Bible says, 'God helps those who help themselves.'" I politely smile, but inside I've just died a little. If you find that phrase in your Bible, it is only because it's on the other side of your bookmark with the poem about the footprints in the sand. But if you're reading a website like Ref21, you probably already know that.

A majority of Americans believe that this is a biblical phrase. Even those who know it isn't a biblical phrase usually attribute it to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack includes this phrase in it. But Franklin was not the originator of it. Some would point back to early Greek and Roman folklore or Aesop's fables where versions of this saying are found. Versions of this saying also appear in George Herbert's poetry in the early 17th century. Others see it as originating in Algernon Sidney's Discourses Concerning Government (1680). But the form in which it usually appears today most likely originated with the Reformed and Puritan Bible commentator, Matthew Henry--yep, that Matthew Henry.

Matthew Henry was one of the most published and widely read authors in the early 18th century. At that time, it was common that if you had three books, you had the Bible, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and Henry's Exposition of the Old and New Testaments or The Complete Commentary. Spurgeon, Whitefield, and Wesley all commended Henry's commentary. It was noted that Whitefield read through it four times, the last time on his knees. And Spurgeon said, "Every minister ought to read it entirely and carefully through once at least."1 Matthew Henry's writings were thoroughly saturated and filled with Scripture.

Henry's commentary on Joshua 5:13-15 reads, "God will help those who help themselves." In his 2015 Twin Lakes Fellowship lecture on Matthew Henry, Ligon Duncan speculates that one reason people think this phrase is in the Bible is because Henry's writings were so thoroughly biblical, if he wrote it, it might as well be in the Bible. People began to assume that it was actually in the Bible; therefore, it entered into popular biblical vernacular.

But the way Henry intended this phrase is most decidedly not the way most people use it today. Michael Horton has pointed out repeatedly that this phrase is usually used in an entirely unbiblical way. The broadly evangelical use of this phrase is usually freighted with American exceptionalism, a healthy dose of what Christian Smith calls "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," and Arminian theology. The result is something that means do better and try harder. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. God will work out everything for those who try hard. Do your best and God will do the rest. In salvation, it tends to mean that at the end of time, God will pull out the cosmic scales of justice. He'll empty out all of your good works on one side. He'll empty out all the bad things on the other side. And then he'll place his thumb on the good side to give everyone a healthy nudge in the right direction. God is going to grade on a curve. Get yours and God will work it out.

Perhaps this fit well with Franklin's deism. Do good and God will intervene when necessary. If Matthew Henry meant the phrase in this way, then he was most certainly wrong. But this was not how Matthew Henry intended it. Henry was certainly no Arminian or deist. Duncan pointed out that Henry mentions over 40 times in his commentary that we are unable to help ourselves toward salvation. We are spiritually dead. We do not initiate, assist, or respond to something before regeneration and then God responds to our work by saving us. Salvation is thoroughly and completely monergistic.

So what did Henry mean when he said, "God will help those who help themselves?" In this passage Henry points out that just before the city of Jericho was conquered, Joshua was "by Jericho." It was here that Joshua met the Commander of the Lord's Army. Joshua was in Jericho by "faith and hope, though he had not begun to lay siege to the city. He was in it in thought and expectation." Joshua went through the front line and up to the enemy city to pray, plan, and prepare. Without fear Joshua stood by Jericho knowing that soon those walls would fall and the city would be taken.

"There he was meditating and praying; and to those who are so employed God often graciously manifest himself." Joshua was there because the Lord had promised victory. He was sure of that victory. He had no fear. He knew what God was going to do. And yet, he went up to the city to prepare, because Joshua also knew that God uses means. God executes his will through means, and sometimes we are those means. God uses us as his instruments to affect his will in this world. And when he does, God will help us accomplish those ends. God will graciously manifest himself to us as we seek to see his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God will help us as we do what he has called us to do. "God will help those who help themselves. Vigilantibus non dormientibus succurrit lex - The law succors those who watch, not those who sleep." 

This is a very Reformed understanding of God's providence and sovereignty. God will bring His sovereign will to pass and he will so orchestrate all of human history in such a way as to use us to accomplish his purposes. As we help ourselves in doing these things, God will help us succeed. Trust in God's calling on your life. Do the things God has called you to do. And God will help you in those works. God helps those who help themselves.


1. Samuel Macauley Jackson and Lefferts A. Loetscher, eds., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1953), 229,

Formulating Doctrine


"It pleased God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for the manifestation of the glory of his eternal power, wisdom, and goodness, in the beginning, to create, or make of nothing, the world, and all things therein, whether visible or invisible, in the space of six days, and all very good." (Westminster Confession of Faith, 4.1)

The Savoy Declaration (1658) and the Second London Confession of Faith (1677/89) contain very similar statements. Our triune God is the Creator of all things (i.e., "all things" other than Himself, of course).

Formulating Christian doctrine, especially as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity, is not as simple as counting texts which use the same words. Biblical texts ought to be weighed to determine their importance. Weighing texts is especially important when considering creation in relation to the Creator. If only one text of Holy Scripture informs us about a crucial element of the divine act of creation, that text is of great importance. This is the case because creation involves everything in relation to God. The doctrine of creation, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, is a distributed doctrine. John Webster's words capture what is meant by creation and the Trinity as distributed doctrines. He says:

"...the doctrine of creation is one of the two distributed doctrines in the corpus of Christian dogmatics. The first (both in sequence and in material primacy) distributed doctrine is the doctrine of the Trinity, of which all other articles of Christian teaching are an amplification or application, and which therefore permeates theological affirmations about every matter...The doctrine of creation is the second distributed doctrine, although, because its scope is restricted to the opera Dei ad extra [i.e., the external works of God], its distribution is less comprehensive than that of the doctrine of the Trinity. Within this limit, the doctrine of creation is ubiquitous. It is not restricted to one particular point in the sequence of Christian doctrine, but provides orientation and a measure of governance to all that theology has to say about all things in relation to God."1 

Because both creation and the Trinity are distributed doctrines, it is of utmost importance that we allow the Bible to speak on these issues, even if it does not speak as often as it does on other issues. We do not need a plethora of biblical texts indicating the work of the Spirit in creation, for example. One text would suffice, and its truth would extend to the entirety of Christian thinking on creation, conservation, re-creation, and consummation.

Formulating Christian doctrine is also more involved than a rehearsal of redemptive history. Though the study of redemptive history (i.e., biblical theology) is a vital aspect of the theological encyclopedia, it concerns itself with the revelatory process presented to us in Holy Scripture. Its method is not designed to conclude its work by presenting full statements on the various places of systematic theology. Unlike biblical theology, systematic theology is designed to collate various aspects of revelation under pre-determined headings (i.e., Scripture, God, creation, providence, etc.).[2] When systematic theology does its work properly, each topic's statements are formulated by a canonical consultation, a consultation of Scripture as a finished product of divine revelation, and in conversation with historical theology. Systematic theology reduces all the truths of Holy Scripture concerning given topics to propositional form. Similarly, confessional formulations seek to reduce large swaths of biblical truth into brief compass (e.g., 4.1 quoted above). In order to do this successfully, these formulations must weigh texts in order to ensure the formulations are brief, though comprehensive, enough to accurately convey the major emphases of Holy Scripture.

It is important to remember that the confessional documents mentioned above are confessions of faith. They contain, in summary form, what subscribers to them believe the totality of the Bible teaches on given subjects. The confession is not merely a reference point from which one subsequently develops doctrinal conclusions; it is the doctrinal conclusions on the subjects that it addresses. Because the confession summarizes what the Bible teaches on given subjects, this means the whole of the Bible is considered in the formulation of chapter 4. You can see this by noticing the Scripture references (and their order) at 4.1 in the WCF: Hebrews 1:2; John 1:2-3; Genesis 1:2; Job 26:13; Job 33:4; Romans 1:20; Jeremiah 10:12; Psalm 104:24; Psalm 33:5-6; Hebrews 11:3; Colossians 1:16; and Acts 17:24. Citing Scripture references indicates to readers that the members of the Assembly formulated the doctrines, in part, by the fruits of previous exegetical work in the biblical text. In other words, this is not some form of simplistic proof-texting. Stefan T. Lindblad helps us understand the rationale behind the practice of citing biblical references in the confession. He says:

...To call this a "proof-texting method" in the modern derogatory sense is misleading. By citing specific texts in support of their statements, the authors of the Confession were indicating their adherence to methods of biblical interpretation and doctrinal formation that was characteristic not just of Reformed orthodoxy but also of the whole sweep of pre-critical exegesis. The texts cited...are regarded as the primary seat of the doctrine, the primary (not exclusive) place in Scripture where the doctrine was either explicitly taught or "by just consequence deduced."3 By citing...texts the [Confession] was not arbitrarily appealing to texts out of context. Rather,...the [Confession] was drawing on the interpretation of these texts as argued in the biblical commentaries and annotations of the era. The statement of the Confession is thus a doctrinal result resting on the foundation of Scripture and its proper interpretation. The biblical texts cited thus point in two directions: back to biblical interpretation and forward to doctrinal formulation. Such texts, the dicta probantia or "proving statements," function as the necessary link between biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation. A confession was not designed to reproduce the work of biblical interpretation, but to affirm its fruit, given that Scripture was the only authoritative and sufficient foundation for every doctrinal topic and for a system of theology as a whole.4

The texts cited are not the only scriptural bases from which the confessional formulations were derived. Also, the formulations are not mere recitations of the words of Scripture. Doctrines taught in Scripture must be formulated into words other than Scripture in order to explicate their meanings for us.

Finally, WCF 4.1 assumes all that comes before it. It assumes the doctrine of Scripture (along with a working hermeneutic [cf. 1.9]), God's attributes and triunity, and the decree. These doctrinal formulations provide background and context for the statement in 4.1. For example, the Creator at 4.1 is the same triune God confessed in chapters 2 and 3. He does not refashion Himself in order to create or while creating. If that were the case, 4.1 would contradict previous assertions of the confession.

Far from displaying a simplistic proof-texting method, the confession evidences a careful methodological approach. This includes exegesis of texts and synthesizing various scriptural emphases, as well as the assumption of doctrinal formulations previously contained in the confession.


1. John Webster, God without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Volume I, God and the Works of God (London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2016), 117.

2. We must not think that these pre-determined headings come from outside of Holy Scripture, imposed upon it to make sense of it. The doctrinal places of systematic theology come about due to contemplation upon Scripture.

3. This is a citation from Nehemiah Coxe, Vindiciae Veritatis, or a Confutation of the heresies and gross errours asserted by Thomas Collier in his additional word to his Body of Divinity (London: for Nathaniel Ponder, 1677), 9.

4. Stefan T. Lindblad, "'Eternally Begotten of the Father': An Analysis of the Second London Confession of Faith's Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son," in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan, eds. Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, and James P. Butler (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2015), 338-39.


Richard C. Barcellos, is pastor of Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Palmdale, CA and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at IRBS Theological Seminary. He is the author of Getting the Garden Right: Adam's Work and God's Rest in Light of Christ and The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis.

Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels


One does not have to preach, teach, or even read the New Testament for long in order to discover how steeped its authors are in the Old Testament. The OT surfaces on virtually every page of the NT. It serves a range of purposes, whether for witness to unbelief or for the instruction and guidance of the church. And it speaks with divine authority - like the NT, it is the very word of God.

One salutary trend in the last generation of the academic study of the NT has been a growing estimation of the place and importance of the OT to the NT. Students of the NT increasingly appreciate the degree to which the OT is woven into the warp and woof of the NT message. To attempt to read the NT independently of the OT is to misread the NT.

A pioneer in this branch of recent scholarship is Richard Hays, the George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. His Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (1989) invigorated the study of the apostle Paul's use of the OT. His recent release, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (2016), promises to do the same for the Four Gospels.

The substance of ESG consists of four chapters detailing the method and practice of each of the Four Evangelists in handling the Old Testament. Introductory and concluding chapters frame these four chapters. Although brief, these two chapters set forth the principles and methods that inform the book as a whole. As such, they merit particular attention.

Two terms characterize Hays' understanding of the Evangelists' handling of the OT writings. The first is "figuration." The Gospels evidence what Hays, following Erich Auerbach, terms "figural interpretation." What is "figural interpretation"? It is a correspondence between "two events or persons" that "can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first" (3). Hays distances figuration from "prediction" - "figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the OT authors - or the characters that they narrate - were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ" (2, cf. 359). Positively, the NT writers engage in the practice of what Hays terms "reading backwards." In light of the redemptive and revelatory work of Christ in his death and resurrection, the NT writers "retrospectively" read or "reinterpret" the OT in "transformati[ve]" ways (358). The conviction that Jesus is Israel's Messiah and that he was crucified and raised from the dead comes to define, characterize and distinguish Christian readings of the OT from all other readings of the NT.

The second term that characterizes Hays' understanding of the Gospel writers' engagement of the OT is "metalepsis." Metalepsis is "a literary technique of citing or echoing a small bit of a precursor text in such a way that the reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came and then reading the two texts in dialogical juxtaposition" (11). Metalepsis is hardly unique to the biblical writers. It surfaces in other literature, classical music, and even popular film and music.1 It is a technique that the NT writers use to great effect. They may employ it at multiple levels -when, for instance, they quote the OT, allude to the OT, or echo the OT ("quotations" are "introduced by a citation formula or ... feature the verbatim reproduction of an extended chain of words...;" "allusions" either "imbed several words from the precursor text" or "explicitly mention notable characters or events;" an "echo" is "a word or phrase that evokes, for the alert reader, a reminiscence of an earlier text," 10). As importantly, metalepsis serves the NT writers' greater end of explicating the person and work of Jesus Christ with reference to the Scriptures of the OT. OT quotations, allusions, and echoes, whether they are expressly metaleptic or not, are the brushes and oils with which the NT authors paint the portrait of Christ in their writings.

How does Hays see each Evangelist turning to the OT in order to craft his particular portrait of Christ? Hays shows how each Gospel engages the OT in order to tell the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. Mark handles Scripture in a way that, "like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive" (98). There are comparatively fewer citations in Mark than in other Gospels - "Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions" (ibid.). If this is Mark's narrative technique, what, then, is the narrative or story that Mark tells? As the curtain rises on the Gospel, Mark understands "Israel still under exile," requiring nothing less than "divine intervention" for her "deliverance" (16). John the Baptist's sudden appearance at the beginning of Mark heralds both impending eschatological judgment (Mark 1:2-3 and Mal 3:1 [LXX]) and a new exodus (Mark 1:2-3 and Exod 23:20 [LXX]). The one who will bring this restoration is not John but Jesus, whose death, Mark underscores, "stands in direct continuity with God's covenant with Israel" (Mark 14:24-25 and Exod 24:8, Zech 9:11) (35,36). Lamentably, the Jewish leaders' blindness and resistance to Jesus not only signifies that they are under divine judgment, but also serves to bring Jesus to the cross (44). Jesus' parable of the Tenants (Mark 12:1-12), however, deftly engages multiple OT texts (Isa 5:1-7, Gen 22:2, Gen 37:20 LXX, Psa 118:22-23) to point to the vindication of Jesus and the restoration of the people of God (ibid.).

Mark's portrait of Jesus is inexplicable apart from his handling of the OT. Precisely in referencing many passages from the OT, Mark presents Jesus as Davidic king, the Son of Man, the Crucified Messiah, and the God of Israel. Mark, for instance, affirms "Jesus' identity with the one God of Israel" not "explicitly" but precisely "through riddle-like allusions to the Old Testament" (62), such as Isa 40:3, 9-10 in Mark 1:2-3; Psa 107:23-32, Job 38:8-11, Psa 89:9, Psa 106:8-12, Isa 51:9-11, and Psa 44:23 in Mark 4:35-41; and Jer 8:13 in Mark 11:12-14.

Mark also crafts the church's identity with reference to the OT. Mark 13, with multiple echoes of Daniel, Isaiah, and Joel, sets the church's persecution in the context of the "time of crisis that precedes God's final saving action and restoration of justice" (91). The opening lines of Mark (1:1-3), in their echoes of Psa 2:7, and Isa 64:1, 40:15, 17, serve, with other texts in Mark, to characterize the church as "a community that owes ultimate allegiance to God," not Caesar (94). The church, furthermore, has a call to bear witness to Jesus Christ before the nations - a matter less stated than presupposed in Mark, not least in his engagement with the OT (Mark 11:17 with Isa 56:17; Mark 13:10 with Isa 2:2-4; Mark 15:39 with Mark 1:11 and Psa 2:7).

We may offer briefer synopses of the ways in which Hays sees Matt, Luke, and John presenting Israel, Christ, and the church by way of engagement with the OT. Like Mark, Matthew depicts Israel's history, at the opening of his Gospel, in terms of an exile poised to conclude through Jesus. For Matthew, Jesus brings Israel's story to a conclusion as he "embodies the radical covenant obedience that God has already desired of his people" and "gathers around himself a new community within Israel" (139). Matthew shares Mark's conviction that Jesus is one with the God of Israel, expressing it explicitly (1:23, 28:20). Matthew, furthermore, gives Jesus' identity "Israeological specification," even as Jesus brings fulfillment to "Israel's story" (139). That is to say, Matthew's account of Jesus' suffering and triumph echoes the history and experiences not only of the nation, but also of such leading figures of the nation as Moses, David, and Solomon. Since Matthew understands the OT to be a "narrative of God's mercy [that] embrace[s] the Gentiles," the people of God will not only contain Gentiles but be commissioned to go into the world to make disciples of the nations (175).

If Matthew characteristically understands the OT in terms of predictions that find their fulfillment in Christ, then Luke understands the OT in terms of promises that find their fulfillment in Christ, a point especially emphasized in the opening chapters and in the concluding chapter of his Gospel (192, 193). Luke, furthermore, prefers "implicit correspondences, suggested through the literary devices of allusion and echo," the cumulative effect of which is to "create a narrative world thick with scriptural memory" (193). Luke understands Israel in need of "liberation" from "captivity to oppressive powers" (195). She is in need of a new Exodus, and it is Jesus, the Divine Redeemer, who has come to accomplish that work. Luke draws from the OT in order to show that the redeemed people of God must assume a posture of "confrontation" against the "power of empire" and of "revelation to the Gentile world" (265).

John shares the Synoptics' conviction that one must "read backwards" and so "reinterpret Scripture in light of a new revelation imparted by Jesus and focused on the person of Jesus himself" (283, emphasis original). But John differs from the Synoptics in an important respect. While John does cite, allude to, and echo the OT, his "intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory" (284). John prefers selected "images and figures from Israel's Scripture" to shine light on the identity of Jesus (ibid., emphasis removed). Consequently, Israel, her festivals, law, and history constitute the "symbolic matrix for [John's] portrayal of Jesus" (289). For this reason, Hays notes, "it is hard to distinguish the Evangelist's interpretation of Israel from his interpretation of Jesus" (ibid.). In like fashion, John represents the people of God in two leading images with deep roots in the OT - a vine and a flock of sheep. Significantly, both images further illumine the Vine and the Good Shepherd to whom the church belongs (343).

No survey can do justice either to the encyclopedic scope of ESG or the complexities of its exegetical engagement with hundreds of passages from the Gospels (and the OT). What about ESG commends it to the reader as meriting careful study and reflection? We may point to three strengths of the work. First, ESG provides readers with a helpful conceptual and terminological apparatus to reflect with care and precision on the use of the OT in the Gospels. While "figuration" and "metalepsis" may not be household terms, these terms endeavor to capture precisely how the Evangelists read the OT. Acknowledging the distinction among quotation, allusion, and echo proves helpful to readers of the Gospels in ascertaining the "volume" of an OT engagement in any given passage of the Gospels. Hays will occasionally alert readers to a particularly "low volume" engagement. After arguing for an echo of 2 Kings in Luke 24:31, he appends a disclaimer. "This proposed reading of a hypothetical faint echo goes far beyond anything that can be ascribed with any degree of confidence to Luke's authorial intention," not withstanding the "unexpected satisfactions" that "the linkage yields" (242). Hays, then, commendably exercises a measure of restraint in advancing this reading. Whether or not readers agree with his assessment of this (or any other) text, ESG provides them the tools with which to make informed exegetical judgments.

A second strength of ESG is its individual attention to the ways in which each Evangelist interprets the OT. While the Gospel authors share a body of core convictions about the person and work of Christ and the OT's relation to Christ, these convictions come to expression in distinct ways in the Four Gospels. Hays helpfully highlights the ways in which Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John characteristically relate the OT to Christ - Mark's indirect and elusive engagement of the OT; Matthew's preference for prediction and fulfillment; Luke's emphasis upon promise and fulfillment in the context of a grand and global narrative; John's visually oriented selection of images from Scripture that highlight the unique identity of Jesus Christ. Awareness of these patterns will not only assist one to be a more careful reader and expositor of this portion of the canon, but also help one to appreciate the breadth and reach of the ways in which Christ brings the OT to fulfillment.

A third strength of ESG is its strong emphasis upon the deity of Christ as a central message of each of the Four Gospels. Higher critical scholarship has long been dismissive of historic Christianity's insistence that the NT teaches that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God. Among the Gospels, Hays observes, Mark and Luke are "usually thought to have the 'lowest' or most 'primitive' Christologies" (363). It is refreshing, then, to see Hays, writing from within and to historical critical scholarship, argue that that the Four Gospels bear united and unambiguous testimony to the full deity of Christ. Hays does not merely argue this point from such express statements as those of John 1:1, 18. Rather, he primarily argues this point from the ways in which the Evangelists handle the OT in relation to Jesus. When one properly grasps the web of OT interactions evident in Mark 6:45-52, for instance, it is difficult to deny that Mark is calling his readers to understand Jesus' identity with the God of Israel (70-73). Hays patiently demonstrates that the quantity and volume of such evidence vindicates the historic church's longstanding understanding of the NT's testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ.

Reformed and evangelical readers will, at points, find themselves in disagreement with ESG. Even here, however, ESG provokes its readers to reflect carefully upon important dimensions of the study of the Gospels' engagement with the OT. We may take up one such matter that sits near to the center of ESG.

Hays insists that the Gospel writers engage in the practice of "reading backwards." That is to say, the NT writers read the OT retrospectively. Convinced that Jesus is Israel's Messiah, the Son of God, crucified and raised for the sinners, the NT writers scour the OT to discern instances in which the OT writers prefigure Christ. Hays terms this practice "revelatory retrospective reading" (259). Hays alternately characterizes the resultant interpretations of the OT in terms of transformation, transfiguration, and continuation (in distinction from the "negation or rejection" of the OT, 363). Hays insists that the patterns that emerge on the pages of the Gospels evidence "a divinely crafted pattern of coherence within the events and characters of the biblical narratives" (359, emphasis removed). Thus, not "human intentionality" but "the mysterious providence of God" accounts for the correspondences, whether on the micro- or macro- level.

In advancing these claims, Hays is concerned not to insist that the process works in reverse. "Figural reading of the Bible need not presume that the Old Testament authors - or the characters that they narrate - were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ" (2). More polemically, Hays distances himself from the claim that "the authors of the Old Testament's narratives and poems actually did intentionally forecast the details of Jesus' life" (359).

Hays accurately claims and demonstrates that the NT writers testify to their own insensibility prior to the resurrection to the ways in which the OT comes to fulfillment in Christ (see John 2:22, Luke 24:22-27). He is correct to say that the cross and resurrection of Christ were redemptive and revelatory events, and that, in light of this new revelation in Christ, the disciples in community read earlier revelation with new eyes, as it were.

But the NT writers suggest that there is a connection deeper still between earlier and later revelation. To take an example from the companion volume to Luke's Gospel, Peter in his Pentecost sermon, after citing David's words in Psalm 16 (Acts 2:25-28), says of David, "Brothers I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses" (Act 2:29-32). Peter is saying that David, in his capacity as a prophet, spoke in advance of the resurrection of Christ. Peter would later say something similar of all OT prophets - "concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Pet 1:10-11).

It is for this reason that, when Paul entered the synagogues of Judea and the broader Mediterranean world, he made a point of proving or demonstrating from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22, 17:2-3, cf. 18:28). That is to say, Christians could and did publicly advance the claim to unbelievers from the OT that Jesus was the Messiah, and that by way of rational demonstration. Surely this project was only feasible if these Christian believers were convinced that their convictions resided in the OT text itself and were capable of demonstration or proof independently of one's commitment to Jesus of Nazareth.

The NT writers, to be sure, are largely silent concerning the degree to which the OT authors were aware and conscious of the One to whom they were pointing. They are generally content to affirm that the OT authors pointed to Christ. The NT writers are more concerned to insist that the project of "reading backwards" is a possible undertaking only because of the organic and progressive character of biblical revelation. This character of revelation offers a ready explanation why the NT writers are not doing violence to the text of the OT, much less the intention of the human authors of the OT. None of this is to say that Hays affirms that the Gospels' readings of the OT are violent or contingent. It is to say that "reading backwards" at best only partly accounts for the manner in which the Evangelists read and explained the OT.

ESG is sure to set a new standard for the study of the Old Testament in the Gospels, and deservedly so. For those who are seeking both clarity in how to read the OT along with the authors of the Gospels, and insight into the particular ways in which the Evangelists handled dozens of text of OT Scripture, ESG will not disappoint. On those occasions when readers dissent from ESG, they will nevertheless find ESG a stimulating and worthwhile conversation partner. Thoughtful readers cannot but emerge from ESG with a conceptually clearer grasp of the ways in which the Gospels handle the OT. And since the authors of the Gospels take us to the OT precisely in order to take us to Jesus Christ, the effort expended in reading and reflecting upon ESG will be well spent.

Guy Prentiss Waters 
James M. Baird, Jr. Professor of New Testament 
Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson, MS   

1. To offer but two recent examples of the latter - the Coen brothers' film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) consciously and repeatedly echoes Homer's Odyssey; Beyoncé's "Hold Up" (2016) similarly samples the Andy Williams' 1963 hit, "Can't Get Used To Losing You." One may understand each modern work while ignorant of its earlier quoted material. But knowing and appreciating the quoted material enriches and lends depth to one's understanding of the newer work.

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).

Christ in all the Scriptures and Jesus on every page

I was grateful to be offered an early glimpse of David Murray's latest book, Jesus On Every Page (Thomas Nelson, 2013) (see below for a giveaway and special launch offer). It did not disappoint.

Imagine, if you will, an art gallery devoted to portraits of one particular person by one particular artist. A significant part of it is well-illuminated, clearly open to the public, and the beauty of its displays is fairly readily evident. However, there are substantial portions of the gallery which, though belonging to the whole, showing works by the same artist and portraits of the same subject, and contributing to the whole effect, are being overlooked. Over time, it has been suggested that the early works of the artist are perhaps not his best efforts, and do not show his subject to best effect, if indeed that subject is properly discernible. Such discouragements led to visitors being steered away from that part. Experts, some of them well-meaning, set up barriers to keep the plebs away. When the bulbs went out, no-one bothered replacing them; when rooms fell into disrepair, no one worked to restore them. Over time more than half of the gallery, with the exception of a few well-maintained and often-visited spots here and there, became shrouded in dust and cobwebs, entered only by an intrepid few, peering through the gloom at dimly-seen and barely-appreciated works of art.

Such is the Old Testament to many readers of the Bible, even those who are persuaded in principle that the whole of the book and all its books declare the Lord Christ in some way. I remember hearing of a Westminster Seminary professor who would examine the Bibles of his students, assessing the wear of the gold leaf on the edges of the pages to see if they had been neglecting to read and to study their Old Testaments, and who was often moved to deliver something of a reproof to his acolytes.

But what if some determined soul made it his project to expose the grandeur of that overlooked portion of the gallery, persuaded that the artist was no less skilful in his early phase than in his latter, but rather had deliberately developed a technique over time, making plain his intentions by degrees, and that the subject of his works was of such excellence and beauty that the merest glimpses of his person were worthy of attention? That determined soul begins to move aside the barriers, sweep away the cobwebs, clean the windows, relay the wiring, replace the bulbs, and so brings the neglected rooms and their works back into public view. In certain rooms, in order to emphasize the necessity and profit of his work and to reinforce its value, he sets up special displays to bring into particular prominence certain aspects of the artist's work in highlighting his subject.

That is David Murray's intention in this book. He leaves all the apparatus of his restoration work well out of sight, allowing us simply to enjoy its fruits. After a brief survey of the problem and how it is addressed by our Lord himself and three of the most significant New Testament authors, he sets out to give us "spiritual heartburn" by reviewing (in the style to which he has made us accustomed) Christ's planet, people, presence, precepts, past, prophets, pictures, promises, proverbs and poets, well realising his aim to give us a properly popular and accessible introduction to the topic. Indeed, as the reader works through the book, there will be moments in which you particularly appreciate the precise way in which he has angled the lighting, even as you gape in delight at the portraits which, so lit, reveal something of the beauty and majesty of the Lord Jesus. Perhaps best of all, preachers will, I hope, see a range of exciting possibilities open up at the prospect of giving their own guided tours of the Old Testament.

To be sure, some will have their own particular works that they might like to have seen featured, and different approaches or nuances in the matter of covenant theology in particular might move some to suggest a different arrangement of that particular display, but the point of the whole is to re-introduce us to the riches of the Old Testament and to begin equipping us to delve beyond the masterpieces that the author has brought to immediate prominence. It is appetite-whetting stuff.

So may I encourage you to take David Murray's Emmaus Tour of the Old Testament? I am sure it will richly repay your investment, pointing you in the right direction to begin exploring the Redeemer's person and work as you discover Christ in all the Scriptures and Jesus On Every Page.

* * * * * * *

You can order David's book through the usual sources (for example, / or direct from the publisher. The book has its own website (, and there is also a very generous launch offer of $100 worth of Old Testament resources.

In addition, I have two copies of the book to give away, but - naturally - not without a little effort. So, the first two people to track me down on Twitter @peregrinus75 and tell me (#EveryPage, if possible) which Old Testament portrait of Christ they most appreciate and - if there is space - why, will get a free copy. Others will earn gratitude and appreciation.

A Story That Ends Badly

The popular description of the biblical gospel as "the story of Jesus" and the attendant call to "make God's story part of your story" now appears to have its own tailor-made Bible translation. The newly released The Voice encourages readers to "step into the story of Scripture" by adapting biblical narratives into screenplay or narrative formats. Just watch the account of Jesus' walking on water in Matthew 14 come alive as you read: "Another Disciple: 'A ghost? What will we do?'" (I can already feel myself being absorbed into the dramatic flow of holy Writ as Judas exits stage left).

This story-oriented edition of Scripture also updates traditional plot-disrupting phrases such as "Jesus Christ" and "the Word."  For example, the new opening line of John's Gospel reads, "Before time itself was measured, the Voice was speaking. The Voice was and is God" (cue the floor smoke!). Despite reassurances from the publisher that The Voice remains "painstakingly true to the original manuscripts," one can't help but wonder just whose manuscript they had in mind, and just who is stepping into whose story, since the whole thing appears to be a page one re-write.

On a more serious note, the "my story"/"God's story" way of speaking, even in Reformed circles, is, like so many modern trends, both old and new. In its contemporary form, it appears to have affinities with revived versions of the monastic practice of lectio divina (helpfully evaluated by Carl Trueman here) while also owing a debt to the postmodern theological approach espoused by Yale theologians Hans Frei and George Lindbeck (i.e., so-called postliberalism). In general, the postliberal school argues that the real meaning of Scripture, the meaning that ought to drive our view of "reality", does not lie in its revelation of history per se, but within its own narrative world, fallible and historically inaccurate though it may be. It is the linguistic world of Scripture that matters, they say, not whether it reflects "objective" reality. For all of their crisscrossing emphases and objectives (mystical communion vs. counter-cultural mission vs. "narratival" appeal), all of these approaches to the Bible, in one way or another, call us to forgo the traditions from which we allegedly derive our personal identities, and the project ourselves into the narrative of Scripture itself.

With apologies to the dramaturges out there, I can't help but think that this is an unhelpful way of speaking. To me, the language of story and self-projection obscures what must be made crystal clear--namely, that everyone already stands within the history of redemption simply by virtue of being God's creatures and image. Scripture tells us that, whether or not we realize it, we are those "on whom the end of the ages has come" (1 Cor 10:11) and so are even more responsible to repent and find forgiveness in Christ alone (Acts 17:31). Whether or not we believe it, the Word of God is still able to pierce to our hidden thoughts by the secret power of the Spirit (Heb 4:12) and disclose our deepest sins on the Day when we face the Judge now raised from the dead (2 Cor 5:10).

If this is all true, then it seems that the "story" of redemption is less something to be adopted as one's own "story" and more something I must acknowledge and believe, not only because it accurately reports true history, but because it discloses the divinely revealed meaning of history, the sovereignly created purpose of history, at all times and in all places. To describe repentance and faith as "God's story becoming my story," therefore, tends to present the gospel as a self-contained tradition that lies above and beyond me, but one which I may make my own if I like what I see. Such an approach frames the gospel more as an appealing context for one's personal "story" and less as that which exposes the irrationality of our denial of Christ as Lord of history and His prescribed plans for us in it.

The gospel is a story of sorts, of course, but I fear that appeals to the predilections of postmodernity, rather than Scripture itself, are leading some to refashion the gospel as a "narrative" into which we may insert our lives. The gospel of Christ crucified and raised is not just a compelling narrative, not just a story of meaning for one's life and world. It is the centerpiece of human existence and the consummate revelation of the God who defines all meaning whatsoever.

So, I submit we should keep telling the "old, old story." But let's be sure our congregations know that the Bible points beyond itself, beyond its own "story" (if we must), to the events of redemption in time and space, and to the consummation that will climax the facts of history and expose all rival fairy tales. Proclaiming the gospel this way may mean the difference between a people who see all things according to Scripture and those who see Scripture as a useful story that, for them, will turn out to be a tragedy.  

Modern Debate Over Ancient Texts

[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.

Home Repair and Hermeneutics (Part 3)


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)


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).