Reading It Rightly

This is the final part of James Renihan's essay on the scope of theology. Read part one here, and part two here.

Scope as a Theological Tool

There is another function of scopus, already alluded to, but which now deserves at least brief treatment. This is its theological use. We noted above the method used by Athanasius in refuting the Arian doctrines--he appealed to the total testimony of Scripture on any one doctrinal point, and argued that any texts which seem to teach a contrary doctrine must be understood in this light. Men like John Owen used the same tactic. When, for example, he expounded at length the doctrine of justification, he knew that it was necessary to take up the apparent differences between Paul and James. While his treatment is lengthy and detailed, we may have a sense of the course of his argument by means of a few excerpts. Listen to what he says:

The seeming difference that is between the apostles Paul and James in what they teach concerning faith, works, and justification, requires our consideration of it; for many do take advantage, from some words and expressions used by the latter, directly to oppose the doctrine fully and plainly declared by the former. . . .

It is taken also for granted, on all other occasions, that when there is an appearance of repugnancy or contradiction in any places of Scripture, if some, or any of them, do treat directly, designedly, and largely about the matter concerning which there is a seeming repugnancy or contradiction; and others, or any other, speak of the same things only "obiter," occasionally, transiently, in order unto other ends; the truth is to be learned, stated, and fixed from the former places: or the interpretation of those places where any truth is mentioned only occasionally with reference unto other things or ends, is, as unto that truth, to be taken from and accommodated unto those other places wherein it is the design and purpose of the holy penman to declare it for its own sake, and to guide the faith of the church therein. And there is not a more rational and natural rule of the interpretation of Scripture among all them which are by common consent agreed upon.

According unto this rule, it is unquestionable that the doctrine of justification before God is to be learned from the writings of the apostle Paul, and from them is light to be taken into all other places of Scripture where it is occasionally mentioned. Especially it is so, considering how exactly this doctrine represents the whole scope of the Scripture, and is witnessed unto by particular testimonies occasionally given unto the same truth, without number . . . . As unto what is delivered by the apostle James, so far as our justification is included therein, things are quite otherwise. He does not undertake to declare the doctrine of our justification before God; but having another design in hand, as we shall see immediately, he vindicates it from the abuse that some in those days had put it unto, as other doctrines of the grace of God, which they turned into licentiousness. Wherefore, it is from the writings of the apostle Paul that we are principally to learn the truth in this matter; and unto what is by him plainly declared is the interpretation of other places to be accommodated. . . .

That they have not the same scope, design, or end, in their discourses; that they do not consider the same question, nor state the same case, nor determine on the same inquiry; and therefore, not speaking "ad idem," unto the same thing, do not contradict one another. . . .

As to the scope and design of the apostle Paul, the question which he answereth, the case which he proposeth and determines upon, are manifest in all his writings, especially his Epistles unto the Romans and Galatians. The whole of his purpose is, to declare how a guilty, convinced sinner comes, through faith in the blood of Christ, to have all his sins pardoned, to be accepted with God, and obtain a right unto the heavenly inheritance; that is, be acquitted and justified in the sight of God. . . .

The apostle James, on the other hand, had no such scope or design, or any such occasion for what he wrote in this matter. He does not inquire, or give intimation of any such inquiry; he does not state the case how a guilty, convinced sinner, whose mouth is stopped as unto any plea or excuse for himself, may come to be justified in the sight of God; that is, receive the pardon of sins and the gift of righteousness unto life. To resolve this question into our own works, is to overthrow the whole gospel. But he had in hand a business quite of another nature; for, as we have said, there were many in those days who professed the Christian religion, or faith in the gospel, whereon they presumed that as they were already justified, so there was nothing more needful unto them that they might be saved.[18]

While these excerpts do not do justice to Owen's argument in its entirety, they help us to understand his method of reasoning. Too a large degree, the differences between the two authors are resolved by a proper understanding of the scope of their writings. Paul points to the free justification of a sinner, James to the problem of Christian professors who demonstrate no godliness. We may see the concept of scope working at two levels here. On the one hand, all of Scripture testifies to Paul's doctrine of justification--we might say that the scope of the whole concerning justification points to Paul's doctrine. On the other hand, we see that Paul and James must be understood in terms of the scope of their own particular writings. Together these perspectives produce the orthodox doctrine of justification, solve the problem of an apparent discrepancy, and effectively cut off the objections of those who promote alternate positions.

Scope and Canonical Interpretation  

This study has briefly investigated the older understanding of the scope of Scripture and its function at a variety of levels. Gerald Sheppard asserts that this perspective was "rare" "by the end of the nineteenth century."[19] But its use by expositors and theologians for centuries calls for a re-examination of its effectiveness for contemporary interpretation. While it is only a part of the complex necessary to interpret the text, it nonetheless may serve the church well in her quest for the understanding of truth. While it would seem to be useful at each of these levels, the "scope of the whole" is of special interest.

This comprehensive view of Scripture as a unified totality is tremendously helpful, for it reminds the expositor of the necessity to keep the big picture always in mind. Interpretation must not degenerate into the examination of disparate paragraphs, sentences, phrases or words; it must remember that the divine author who stands behind the human authors has a comprehensive purpose in mind throughout His book. This is, as the Confessional statements indicate, to bring himself glory in Christ. Brevard Childs has expressed this beautifully:

The Christian canon consists of two different, separate voices, indeed of two choirs of voices. The Old Testament is the voice of Israel, the New that of the church. But beyond this, the voice of the New Testament is largely that of a transformed Old Testament which is now understood in the light of the gospel.

He continues a few pages later,

Serious theological reflection seeks to come to grips in some way with the mystery of the faith. Yet it is equally important to stress once again that the element of Scripture's simplicity, perspicuity, and unity be maintained and affirmed. The role of Scripture in the life of the church cannot be identified with the efforts of technical theology, which perform a much-needed but ancillary function for the community of faith. It is a basic Christian confession that all scripture bears testimony to Jesus Christ. In this sense, there is a single, unified voice in Scripture. When the church Fathers and Reformers spoke of the 'scope' (scopus) of scripture, they were addressing the kerygmatic content of the Bible which the interpreter of the Bible was urged always to keep clearly in sight in order to comprehend the true nature of the biblical witness. Matthias Flacius stood firmly within this exegetical tradition when he admonished the readers of Scripture to direct their attention first of all 'ut primum scopum, finem, aut intentionem totius eius scripti" ('to the perspective, goal, and intention of the entire writing') (De ratione Cognoscendi,' Clavis Scripturae, Tract 1 Praecepta 9). The basic hermeneutical problem of the Bible, therefore, is not adequately formulated by using the terminology of unity and diversity. The oneness of Scripture's scope is not a rival to the multiple voices within the canon, but a constant pointer, much like a ship's compass, fixing on a single goal, in spite of the many and various ways of God (Heb 1.1), toward which the believer is drawn . . . .

The recognition of the one scope of Scripture, which is Jesus Christ, does not function to restrict the full range of the biblical voices. It does not abstract the message, or seek to replace a coat of many colours, with a seamless garment of grey. It was the great insight of Calvin at this point to see that each individual passage, whether in the Old or New Testament, was able to bear a truthful witness while at the same time retaining its discrete literary, historical and theological integrity. Indeed the purpose of his Institutes was not to offer a propositional summary of the Christian faith, but to instruct in the nature of Scripture's proper scope precisely in order to be able to discern the true subject matter of scripture among its full range of notes.[20]

This is theology on target. It is the task of the Christian interpreter, who, as a servant of the text, must remember this fact: it is master. For those who receive and accept the divine authority of Scripture, confessing that this inerrant Word ultimately derives from one author, this perspective may be acknowledged with joy. Let us hear Athanasius, Calvin, Owen, Keach and the rest of the Confessors. Their voices should ring in our ears. They were master marksmen, sharpshooters without peer. We must not take arrows from our quiver and release them randomly, for they all are intended to serve one purpose. Let us ensure that the target is always in our aim. In this way, the final Reformation sola will achieve some measure of fulfillment. Soli Deo Gloria. This is the scope of the whole.


[18]John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith in Works 5:384-88.

[19]Sheppard, "Between Reformation and Modern Commentary", xlix.

[20]Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (London: SCM Press, 1992), 722, 725-26.

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

These Speak Of Me: The Glory Of Christ In All Of Scripture [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

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

Jesus on Every Page, by David Murray

A Study Guide to John Owen's Communion With God by Ryan McGraw [ Print Booklet  | Download ]

John Owen (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.