The Word of Sauron, The Word of Tolkien, and the Word of God

sauronA long time ago, I used to argue with people on blogs. Wait…yeah, I guess I still do. But the story I’m setting up was a long time ago. One of said blogs I argued on was that of my buddy Mike, an old youth pastor of mine who was going the way of the Bell and McLaren (pre-the really, really lame stuff). He’d post some controversial thought to ‘ask a question’ and I’d be the little gadfly college philosophy student who’d jump in and jostle with him. (Also, this was pre-Reformedish days. I would have laughed in your face if you’d have told me in 6 or 7 years I’d be quoting Calvin.)

In any case, he had raised the issue of Scripture one of those posts. Among other questions he was asking whether ‘all’ of the Bible was the Word of God, or only some of the parts, especially those where Divine Speech is specifically denoted, such as in the Prophets. Are the horrifying narrative sections, or the sections where the thoughts and emotions of the prophets, the psalmists, or the god-hating pagans with speaking parts, are speaking truly God’s Word?

In response to this, I came up with an analogy, on the fly, once again Lord of the Rings-related, to answer how I thought, at a minimum, even those sections could be considered the ‘Word of God.’ Once again, remember this is my 21-year old, still-really-piecing-it-together self:

“One way that I think about the way that the whole Bible is the Word of God, is thinking about it much like I think about The Lord of the Rings being the word of ‘Tolkien.’ It is at least all the Word of God in that he is its Divine Author. (I don’t mean to imply some kind of dictation theory of Scripture. I think its possible to have more than one author of a text at different levels. See Wolterstorff or Vanhoozer on this.) That said, not every word spoken in the text can be taken as his direct ‘word’ revealing his thoughts and desires in normative sense–certainly not those uttered by Sauron or Saruman. But, at the same time, those words are there in the text at Tolkien’s prerogative and are part of the overall “Word” that he speaks through the text and so can be taken as his Word.

In the same way, the words of the pagans in Scriptures are God’s Word in the same way that Sauron’s words are Tolkien’s word. There is a way that Tolkien can show us something about or say something about the nature of evil, through the evil words and actions of Sauron, which Tolkien himself would never do or say. In this way, the words and actions are properly Sauron’s, but they are also Tolkien’s in the context of the larger story he is authoring. In an analogous way God says things through these texts in a way that accounts for and does not reduce the multiple human voices, genres, etc, but also accomplishes his specific purposes in the world through the Text as its over-arching Author. Of course, this is an analogy and it kind of breaks down, but I think captures part of the picture.

A few years on, I’d probably massage a few phrases here and there, but in the main, I still find the analogy useful. God’s authorship of Scripture is a nuanced and layered one. That I affirm the Bible as God’s Word in its totality, does not mean I’m proposing a flat reading of the text, that fails to take into account narrative or genre dynamics. Far from it. In fact, it means I have to take care to read it even more carefully, not brushing past or carelessly dismissing any of God’s words, in order to discern just what exactly the Spirit is communicating through the inspired Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

It’s all the Aragorn Parts

aragonrSo, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in the way I read fantasy or sci-fi novels (aside from the fact that I have less time to read it). Whenever there is a multi-thread plotline, with the author following multiple, inter-connected story-lines, I tend to have one or two favorites that I follow very intensely, and one or two that aren’t quite as compelling.

For instance, when reading the Lord the Rings Trilogy, in the later books when the Fellowship breaks up and we split to follow the various story-lines of Frodo and Sam, and Aragorn & Co. I always found the Aragorn bits far more compelling. I’m not saying that the Frodo thread wasn’t fabulous as well, but, let’s be honest, the Dead Marshes can be a bit…well, less lively than one of Aragorn’s romps through Rohan.

Interestingly enough, I found early on that my reading habits were much the same way with Scripture. There were passages and threads that were enticing and compelling, and some that…well, while still God-breathed, seemed like he wasn’t breathing as hard.

What do I mean? Well, while the Chronicles have their moments, the Gospels capture our attention from beginning to end. Jesus’ doings and saying are never boring, or tedious, or to be suffered though in order to get to the good part. In this way, and, actually, in many others, the story of Jesus is the Aragorn bits of Scripture. The rest of it, well, I might get that they’re necessary and, yes, good, but at times I feel myself ‘getting through’ them. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Now, the funny thing about this is that ever since I listened to Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney’s lectures on preaching, I’ve been an advocate of a Christ-centered hermeneutic of the sort taught to us by Jesus, the disciples, the Fathers, and the Reformers, emphasizing both the redemptive-historical and typological reading of Scripture. In other words, to read and apply the text properly you have to see how this somehow this leads, points, foreshadows, or is fulfilled in Christ.

For example:

  • Adam- Jesus is the Second Adam who brings righteousness with one righteous act.
  • Abraham and Isaac- Jesus is the only Son, sacrificed by the Father for us to provide salvation.
  • Moses- Jesus is the Greater Moses who brings his people out of a greater Exodus, not from slavery to Egypt, but out of slavery to sin and death and the devil.
  • Passover Lamb- Jesus is the greater Passover Lamb whose blood was shed to cover you so that the destroyer would passover.
  • Day of Atonement- Jesus is the Great High Priest who enters once and for all to offer up sacrifices, as well as the final sacrifice offered.
  • David- Skipping ahead, Jesus is the greater Son of David, who, like David, defeats our enemies in single-combat, winning a great victory for his people.

We could go on for days here, but those are some easy and obvious ones to give you a picture what I’m talking about. If you’re looking at it from a canonical perspective, everything points to Christ, whether law, prophets, wisdom literature, or poetry.

So where am I going with all of this? Well, it struck me the other night as I was teaching my college students about this way of reading Scripture that, essentially, when read properly, it’s all the ‘Aragorn bits’. There isn’t any bit that somehow isn’t connected, or can’t be seen in light of Christ.

This is why it pays to not skim, to eventually read and study it all. Admittedly it takes a bit more work for some to see Christ in Leviticus, or a genealogy in the Chronicles. But as any mountain-climber knows, when the hard work is done, when we scale the summit of the text, the view we get of Christ is spectacular.

For those interested in learning more about how to read the Scriptures with Christ at the center I’d recommend these resources:

The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament by Edmund Clowney
Jesus on Every Page: 10 Simple Ways to Seek and Find Christ in the Old Testament by David P. Murray

Soli Deo Gloria

Vanhoozer’s 10 Theses On “Remythologizing” in Plain(er) English

remthologizingOne of the things I enjoy most about college ministry is that I’m often forced to think through whether I actually understand all the nerdy, academic theology I read. Exhibit A: Kevin Vanhoozer’s Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship is easily one of the top five most nerdy, theological texts I own. I’ve read it twice and constantly find myself coming back to it, even though it’s not something I’d teach a college Bible study through.

Case in point: just last week I happened to mention the text around one my college students and she immediately wanted to know what “remythologizing” was.

I mean, when someone asks you about Vanhoozer, what are you supposed to do? Ignore it?

That launched us into an hour-long discussion explaining the difference between systematic theology and biblical theology, Bultmann and demythologizing, the confluence of God, scripture, and hermeneutics that Vanhoozer calls “first theology” and so much more. (She asked very good questions.) In the middle of this crash course, I ended up talking through Vanhoozer’s “10 Theses on Remythologizing.”

Inspired by Lewis’ dictum that, if you can’t put it in common English, you probably don’t know it, I attempted to translate the theses into normal-person speak for my intelligent, but non-expert student.

Given that not many people have read this very important text yet–and it is very important text, one of the most important in the last 20 years, probably–I figured I’d attempt a command performance of the on the spot translation summary act I did for my student the other night, only in print, and maybe not as sloppy. Maybe. I’ll essentially be trying to translate Vanhoozer’s own elaborations on the theses, in plain(er), Rishmawy-language.

Ten Theses On Remythologizing
Briefly, in many ways Vanhoozer’s project is kind of a counter-point to Bultmann’s program of ‘demythologization’ that de-storifed (mythos is story) the Gospels into timeless existential truths. In contrast, Vanhoozer’s aim is to take seriously the shape and form of the story of Scripture as God’s own communication to us of Who he is, while also avoiding Feuerbach’s notion that all god-talk is simply human projections of our best attributes onto the screen of eternity. So Vanhoozer puts forward his own program of “remythologizing” that he initially summarizes in these ten theses.

One key term to know is “theodrama”, which simply smashes “theos” and “drama” together in order to speak of the divine actions in redemptive history (God doing stuff in the story of the Bible). When Vanhoozer says, “theodramatic”, it basically means “having to do with God doing and saying stuff in the Bible.”

The italicized quotations are his, and again, the rest is my attempt at translation:

1. “Remythologizing is not a “fall back into myth” but a spring forward into metaphysics.” (27) This is not about mythologizing the text, taking us back to all-too-human gods of myth, but taking seriously the mythos, the plotof the biblical storyline to see what it reveals to us about the nature of God and the world. What must the God who acts in this story be like in order to do and say the kinds of things we see in the biblical narrative. To do that, we have to pay attention to the narrative very closely.

2. “Remythologizing means recovering the “who” of biblical discourse.” (28) At its heart, remythologizing is a project focused on the main character of the drama, God, who presents himself to us in the Scriptures through Word and Spirit. What attributes and characteristics does this God show himself to have in light of what he says about himself?

3. “Remythologizing means attending to the triune “who” of communicative action.” (28) Remythologizing is necessarily trinitarian theology because the one doing the saying in the narrative is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or, Father, Word, & Breath). That will shape the way we understand God’s self-communication.

4. “Remythologizing conceives the God–world relation in primarily communicative rather than causal terms.” (28) Instead of more classical categories like ‘causality’, which has some more physicalist connotations, Vanhoozer wants to rethink God’s relation to the world on the analogy of communication. The God of Scripture is a speaking God who brings us the world into being through speech and saves it through his Word. That should shape the way we conceive things.

5. “Remythologizing means rethinking metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics alike in theodramatic terms.” (29)  Instead of trying to shove the story of the Gospel into some pre-made grid like modern science, history, or secular metaphysics, Vanhoozer wants us to do things the other way around. Instead, the story of the Gospel is the criterion by which we judge all else. In fact, it generates its own metaphysical categories around God’s communication made flesh, Jesus Christ.

6. “Remythologizing means faith seeking, and demonstrating, theodramatic understanding through fitting participation in the triune communicative action.” (29) Theology is not a neutral affair. To understand God’s actions in Christ truly, there is an active element. I must be trying to situate myself within the story appropriately for this work to be properly undertaken. (This was a tough one.)

7. “Remythologizing means taking Christ, together with the Spirit-breathed canon that the living Word commissions, as the chief means of God’s self-presentation and communication.” (29) “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” ( Heb. 1:1–2). Remythologizing pays attention both to the grand story of Scripture and the Incarnation at the center, as well as the various genres, modes, and methods God has used within it to communicate himself to us. In fact, the Scriptures not only report God’s communication, but are, in fact, part of the action.

8. “Remythologizing is a form of biblical reasoning, a matter of thinking about the subject matter along the various forms of biblical discourse that present it.” (29) It’s not a matter of thinking or reading the Bible, but thoughtfully paying attention to the way the Bible teaches us to think. For instance, paying attention to the particular way a metaphor is used to communicate truth as opposed to a straightforward syllogism.

9. “Remythologizing means attending to biblical polyphony and recognizing the dialogical nature of theodramatic testimony and theological truth.” (30) God isn’t a boring communicator and the subject matter is too grand to be captured in simple fashion. Vanhoozer’s project is about paying attention to all the different ways and means, as well as angles (history, eschatology, ontology) and perspectives (divine, human, powers) from which the truth is communicated in order to “do justice” to the diverse voices in Scripture. Remythologizing shouldn’t result in flat theology.

10. “In sum, remythologizing is best defined in contrast to demythologizing as a type of first theology.” (30) First theology is how your doctrine of God, Scripture, and hermeneutics all play into one another. Remythologizing is Vanhoozer’s proposal for how that all should go together in light of the triune God’s communicating activity in the theodrama of Scripture.

Of course, Vanhoozer does much more than just put forward a methodology in this work. He shows you what he means by all of this in the process of doing some real theology involving close reading of texts, addressing issues in the doctrine of God in like the Creator/creature relationship as well as God’s impassibility, developing a doctrine of the Trinity along the lines of communicative categories, and bridging the gap between Thomism and Barthianism.  Among other things.

The long and the short of it, though, is that remythologizing is a renewed program of thinking about God on the basis of what God has said and done in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures in the power of the Spirit. In many ways, it’s simply a retooling, a new articulation of a very old approach. Of course, as Pascal says, “Let no one say I have said nothing new; the arrangement of the material is new. In playing tennis both players play the same ball, but one plays it better.”

Vanhoozer plays the ball quite well in our postmodern context and theologians of all stripes would do well to learn from this master theological re-arranger.

Soli Deo Gloria

That Time Calvin Disagreed with Augustine (Or, How to Read the Fathers Like a Protestant)

Augustine-JohnCalvinIt doesn’t take a specialist to know that Calvin loved the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. After the Bible, he quotes Augustine more than anybody else in the Institutes (I think, but don’t quote me on this) more than all the other Fathers combined. Whenever he wanted to establish the antiquity of a doctrine, or its soundness with the interpretation of the Church universal, it’s a safe bet he’s going to pull out an Augustine quote, especially since he was an authority both he and his Roman interlocutors agreed upon.

Calvin’s Quibbles

That said, Calvin wasn’t a slavish admirer of the great bishop as we see here in his comments on the story of Pentecost:

And when. To be fulfilled is taken in this place for to come. For Luke beareth record again of their perseverance, when he saith that they stood all in one place until the time which was set them. Hereunto serveth the adverb, with one accord Furthermore, we have before declared why the Lord did defer the sending of his Spirit a whole month and a half. But the question is, why he sent him upon that day chiefly. I will not refute that high and subtle interpretation of Augustine, that like as the law was given to the old people fifty days after Easter, being written in tables of stone by the hand of God, so the Spirit, whose office it is to write the same in our hearts, did fulfill that which was figured in the giving of the law as many days after the resurrection of Christ, who is the true Passover. Notwithstanding, whereas he urgeth this his subtle interpretation as necessary, in his book of Questions upon Exodus, and in his Second Epistle unto Januarius, I would wish him to be more sober and modest therein. Notwithstanding, let him keep his own interpretation to himself. In the mean season, I will embrace that which is more sound.

-Commentary on Acts 2:1-4

While according him great respect and noting his interpretation, Calvin says that the great Augustine has put forward what he considers to be a less “sober” and “modest” interpretation which he simply cannot follow. So what explanation does he find more plausible?:

Upon the feast day, wherein a great multitude was wont to resort to Jerusalem, was this miracle wrought, that it might be more famous. And truly by means hereof was it spread abroad, even unto the uttermost parts and borders of the earth.  For the same purpose did Christ oftentimes go up to Jerusalem upon the holy days, (John 2, 5, 7, 10, 12,) to the end those miracles which he wrought might be known to many, and that in the greater assembly of people there might be the greater fruit of his doctrine. For so will Luke afterward declare, that Paul made haste that he might come to Jerusalem before the day of Pentecost, not for any religion’s sake, but because of the greater assembly, that he might profit the more, (Acts 20:16.) Therefore, in making choice of the day, the profit of the miracle was respected: First, that it might be the more extolled at Jerusalem, because the Jews were then more bent to consider the works of God; and, secondly, that it might be bruited abroad, even in far countries. They called it the fiftieth day, beginning to reckon at the first-fruits.

-Ibid

We see here the difference I’ve mentioned before when it comes to the Reformers and the earlier, especially medieval, hermeneutical tradition; they will usually privilege the ‘literal’/historical-grammatical sense of the text over any spiritualizing, allegorizing, or typological senses. Calvin isn’t opposed to typological interpretation in principle–he engages in quite a bit of it himself and accepts the prefigurement of Pentecost in the sense of first-fruits pointing towards the initial fruitfulness of the Gospel by the Spirit’s power. He’s concerned, though, that the interpretation first be grounded plausibly in the history of the event. In other words, in a text like this, he insists that the intentionality of the human actors be made sense of and that “the profit of the miracle was respected.” Only then may we move on to the typological meaning without it becoming over-subtle.

Now, that said, I myself think Calvin was being a little over-cautious here; Augustine’s got a point linking Pentecost with the giving of the Law, and the Spirit who writes the Law on our very hearts. Part of the point of typology is that God’s authorship of history can transcend even the human actor’s, or author’s original intent, without violating them. Also, given modern studies in the theological dimension to the authorship of the Gospel writers, it doesn’t strike me as improbable that Luke intended for multiple resonances to be in play in the text connected to as rich a concept as Pentecost.

The Moral of the Story

More interesting than the specific interpretation given to the passage however, was Calvin’s treatment Augustine’s interpretation. Here he offers us a model for a Protestant engagement with the interpretive tradition of the Fathers: respectful, but critical listening. He doesn’t do what so many pop-Protestant approaches do and simply ignore the tradition because, “All I need is my Bible.” Calvin knows that the Church, at least some segments of it, has been reading the Bible well enough for a very long time, so he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. He knows the arrogance it takes to approach the text in a way that says the Spirit has skipped 20 centuries of interpreters in order to finally reveals the Scriptures to me. In fact, it is precisely through the teachers of the Church that he works most of the time.

At the same time, in order that the Spirit may truly rule through the Word, Calvin reads the Fathers critically–not disrespectfully, but with a knowledge that they are fallible men, who can err just as he might. As you would treat a respected pastor who has faithfully labored over the texts for years, so with the Fathers: pay careful attention to what they have to say, consider deeply, and go back to the text. Indeed, this lesson is valuable, not only for Protestants looking to read the Fathers, but for Protestants looking to read the early Reformers; Calvin teaches me by his disagreement with Augustine that it’s permissible for me to disagree with Calvin!

Soli Deo Gloria

On the Difference Between “Literal” and “Idiot-Literal” Interpretation

literalI’ve already written once before on the issue of a ‘literal’ hermeneutic. I want to take time once again to clarify, from another angle, that there is a difference between a ‘literal’ hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and what I’m calling an ‘idiot-literal’ hermeneutic.

Classic Literal
A classic “literal” hermeneutic was the favored interpretive method of the Magisterial Reformers such as Calvin and Luther, which, at its better moments, has been followed by their Protestant heirs. It also might be called the “historical-grammatical” method because, in a nutshell, its aim is to first understand what the author’s intended use of a given word, sentence, paragraph was in accordance with the historical, cultural, and literary context and usual grammatical rules. As Kevin Vanhoozer has said, “the literal sense is the literary sense.” Interpreting a text ‘literally’ in this sense did not mean ignoring figures of speech, metaphors, analogy, or running roughshod over genres, context, or linguistic anomalies. Essentially, if the biblical author is trying to write history, you read the text like history; if poetry, like poetry; if a letter, then as a letter.

The Magisterial Reformers were, for the most part, humanist scholars trained in rhetoric and an appreciation for literary art, so they championed this sort of exegesis as a corrective against the spiritualizing, or rather allegorizing, interpretive methods favored by some in the Middle Ages, and passed down from some of the Fathers such as Origen and Augustine that could, and I say this with great respect for those classic interpreters, could go off the rails a bit as they found all sorts of hidden, “spiritual” meanings in rather straightforward texts. While the Reformers didn’t rule out certain typological interpretations–for instance it’s fine, and even necessary, to see a figure of Christ when discussing OT sacrifices or King David–they worried that some of the allegorizing that went on led to the Scriptures becoming a “wax nose” of sorts, that could be shaped and reshaped at will. Any typological interpretation must come after and be in line with the original story, or law that was set forth according to its intended purpose. (From what I understand, Thomas Aquinas was actually a champion of rooting the “spiritual” sense in the literal sense as well.) Now, admittedly they weren’t perfect at this themselves, but by and large this was a good move for biblical studies and theology in general.

My point here is to clarify that a “literal” interpretation in the classic sense is not what might be called a “literalistic”, or illiterate approach to the text, but rather it is one concerned with discovering the author’s intended meaning in accordance with sound rules of literary interpretation. Which brings me to our next category: the idiot-literal hermeneutic.

Idiot-Literal
An idiot-literal hermeneutic is the interpretive method that is favored mostly by liberalizing critics for straw-manning conservative  opponents. It consists of finding the most obtuse, ham-handed, or silly interpretation of any given biblical text that fails to recognize a textual or literary clue that we’re dealing with figurative language and holding it up as the necessary reading for anybody holding a “literal” hermeneutic. Often-times it’s linked in these presentations to the doctrine of “inerrancy” (which, for some reason, is usually also caricatured, confused, and conflated with a straight dictation theory of inspiration).

Now, I’m not denying that often-times you can find conservative/fundamentalist interpreters whose readings border on self-caricature. In fact, along with Beale, I do think the time might come when we need to start using the phrase “literate” hermeneutic, or something of that sort in order to distinguish things. Still, I do think it’s important to clarify that just because someone self-identifies as adhering to a “literal” hermeneutic, or because the Reformers held to one, it does not mean they must adopt whatever silliness is imputed to them by their critics on pain of inconsistency.

Conclusions
This was necessarily rough and probably simplistic, but hopefully it sufficed to make my point–a literal reading of the text is not the same as an idiot-literal reading of the text. You haven’t refuted conservative hermeneutical approaches by simply picking the dumbest reading possible and saying, “Here, this is what you have to believe, right?” Also, if you pride yourself on your conservative view of scripture and hermeneutical approach, please don’t play into the caricature–do your homework.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. For those looking to learn how to read their Bibles better:

1.  How To Read Your Bible For All It’s Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart is an excellent place to start.
2.  Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William W. Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robbert I. Hubbard Jr. is also excellent, although a bit more advanced.

Were the Westminster Theologians “Proof-texting”?

Eventually in any discussion of good exegesis and theological method, the issue of proof-texting will come up. Proof-texting is that time-honored method of biblical interpretation that consists in citing a verse to justify some theological conclusion without any respect for its context or intended use. If you’re nerdy to care enough about this sort of thing, please keep reading. If not, here’s a video of a cute cat.

Now, as I was saying, proof-texting is often brought up in discussions as a prime example of decontextualized readings–readings that irresponsibly ignore the literary and historical setting of the text. As the popular saying goes, “a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Daniel Treier notes in his article on the “Proof Text” (pp. 622-624) in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible that the charge of “proof-texting” is almost universally negative, and usually aimed at pop-preaching, or increasingly by exegetes at theologians’ handling of texts. Indeed, it’s fairly common to read biblical scholars prattling on in their commentaries about theologians abstractly “theologizing” and “propositionalizing” texts. (Of course, this happens and it shouldn’t and it ought to be called out. Literary and historical contexts must be respected. I’ll just confess I’m annoyed with biblical studies types acting as if attending a Methodist church instead of a Presbyterian one has no effect on their readings, as opposed to those theologians.)

The crew doing some “theologizing” at Westminster Abbey.

In any case, chief among the alleged offenders are the post-Reformation scholastics such as the Westminster Divines (pastors and theologian-types) who wrote the Westminster Confession. Indeed, at first glance the classic confession seems to be a prime example of it. In traditional printings, a quick review of the various chapters will show you very short statements with footnotes listing various single verses allegedly supporting the proposed doctrines. On their own, a number of the verses seem only tenuously connected to the doctrine at hand.

Carl Trueman has an excellent article on the way recent historical work has led to critical re-appraisal of the development of Reformed Orthodoxy and the Post-Reformation scholastics, which, in part, sheds light on their alleged proof-texting:

…the new approach has demonstrated that Reformed Orthodoxy was grounded in exegesis but engaged in constant dialogue with the history of theology. This is in part evident in its eclectic nature but also has direct application to some contemporary issues. For example, one common complaint about the Westminster standards is that they are based upon proof texts. The concern seems to be that Reformed theology has thus been built on simplistic, decontextualized reading of isolated texts. Many, of course, will be aware that the divines themselves did not want the proof texts included and that they were overruled in this by Parliament. That in itself should give pause for thought about how such texts function. Yet [Richard] Muller has explored this issue further and demonstrated that the divines were not only competent exegetes themselves and that Reformed Orthodoxy is exegetically grounded but also that proof texts in the seventeenth century were not intended as simple, blunt answers to complex questions. Proof texts operated rather as exegetical markers, directing the reader to the key verse but doing so in the expectation that the reader would check the classical expositions of that verse.

So, first off, the Westminster Divines didn’t even want the proof-texts included precisely because they were aware of the dangers of poor exegesis and context-less readings. Second, the texts were supposed to be used as pointers to further research, both of the text, and of the deeper history of interpretation. Basically, they wanted readers to do their homework.

Trueman then uses the example of the “covenant of works” to highlight the way this re-appraisal might shape our judgment about historical, Reformed orthodoxy.

One criticism is that the only reference to the pre-Fall arrangement with Adam in the garden as a covenant is Hosea 6:7. The Hebrew is ambiguous and could indeed be read as “like a man.” As such, it seems remarkably slender textual ground upon which to build such a crucial doctrine as the covenant of works. In fact, as Muller has shown through his study of the Westminster Annotations, the divines were well aware of this ambiguity. Their use of the language of covenant to refer to Adam in Eden was not built on this text, but upon Romans 5, which they saw as pointing to the conceptual presence of covenant in Eden, even as it was linguistically absent. Such a point would seem significant in assessing John Murray’s criticism of the covenant of works.*

Were the Westminster divines proof-texting then? In the sense that they are usually accused of, apparently not. Now, does that mean every reading of every text they cited was absolutely perfect? No, but the giants of Westminster probably deserve more credit than they’re typically given on this point.

If I might suggest two take-aways for contemporary biblical types:

1. When criticizing the hermeneutical approaches of different periods, we need to be careful of rushing to judgment. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in biblical studies knows that the methods are constantly up for debate (form-criticism, redaction-criticism, literary, etc.). Who knows what readings we’ll find silly, mistakenly or not, in 20 years, let alone 200?

2. This also means we probably could take a cue from the Reformed scholastics at this point. They knew that one way of guarding against our interpretations being over-determined by the cultural and literary prejudices of the day, was by being in dialogue, both with the text, and with the history of interpretation. May we humble ourselves enough to do the same. Who knows? We might even want to throw some scholastics into the mix.

Soli Deo Gloria

*For more on the exegetical grounding of the covenant of works, G.K. Beale has some good stuff on the covenant in Gen. 1-3.

Kierkegaard on Interpreting the Text to Death

It is a truism today to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, it was a truism back when the Bible was being written that it’s not simply a matter of just “reading” the thing all the time. Even the Bible says that it’s hard to understand. (2 Pet. 3:16) Or, as the Westminster Confession comments:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (2.7)

We’ve known for a long time then that even though the basics are clearly laid out, there are at least some parts that are not obvious or plain. For thousands of years now, Christians have wrestled with, commented on, and interpreted the text of the Bible. Today we have seminaries with classes in hermeneutics, study of the original languages and ancient cultures that form the setting and background of the text, dictionaries, commentaries that are thousands of pages long, and journals where scholars devote dozens of pages to analyzing the nuances of a single word in the context of a single verse. (No joke, I wrote 30 pages on 2 verses in Colossians in my MA program and just barely scratched the surface of the literature on the subject.) Without a doubt, our knowledge of the text has expanded and been deepened by the faithful work of scholars and interpreters over the last few generations and this is a good thing.

The people of God need preachers and pastors who will roll up their sleeves and get to work on the task of discerning what the Lord has spoken and is even now speaking in the text. Poor interpretation is at the root of so much bad preaching and teaching in the church, which leads to bad living by the church. Preachers, teachers, and even lay-people who have come to rely on them, still need to work at the task of interpretation.

Now, to some this might seem troublesome and daunting. As someone who has devoted my life to wrestling with the text in order to teach and preach it faithfully, I absolutely love this stuff. Digging into the interpretive issues and the complexity of the Scriptures is what I live for. “What’s that you say about an ingenious new understanding of that obscure verse in Leviticus? Brilliant! Let me read it.”  “Is that a new commentary on a book I finished studying last month? I must have it!” Anybody who’s seen my desk at home or at work knows that I live knee-deep in this stuff. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now why do I bring this up? To alert us to a deadly risk we run when engaging in the interpretive task.

Kierkegaard tells a cautionary parable about the danger that can come with an unbridled focus on interpretation:

Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which out to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king—for thought a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects and so would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that they most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.—Suppose that this kind was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you supposed this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “ The fact that they do not comply with my commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard—that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.” -For Self-Examination, pp. 58-59

With this little parable Kierkegaard throws up a large, flashing, red warning sign for those of us enamored with the endless study of the text. The danger comes when interpretation becomes an excuse for disobedience. Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out that the proper interpretation of the text of Scripture requires performance. Ingenious readings are not the point–hearing and rendering a fitting response to the voice of God is. When the task of interpretation eclipses our actual response to God speaking to us out of the silence, calling us to repentance, commanding us in righteousness, convicting us of sin, consoling us in pain, and drawing us to communion with Himself, things have gone awry. At that point you have sentenced the text to a slow and agonizing death by commentary.

Do not mistake this for an anti-intellectual call to “just read the Bible” without trying to engage with it at that deeper level. Study the Bible. Wrestle with it. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic readings of difficult passages. Go read big books on the subject. At the end of the day though, we must never forget that when the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets it didn’t come as a word to be inspected, dissected, and thereby domesticated, but as the mighty command of the King who intends for his subjects to hear and obey his voice. We study in order to hear–we interpret in order to obey.

Soli Deo Gloria