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.
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, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc05/Page_229.html.
"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.). 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.
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.
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.
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.