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.