22 November, 2016

FAQ – Bible Interpretation Methods and Hermeneutics—“Systematic Theology” vs. “Biblical Theology”; “Atomistic” vs. “Holistic” interpretation.

Q.  1.I've already held your position, defended it and abandoned it when I started studying the Old Testament in particular in context. It was especially helpful to learn to exegete the Psalms properly, they are poetry and differ from, say, the narrative portions of the Old Testament.”

The Psalms are indeed poetry. Hebrew poetry especially uses parallel statements. How, though, does their being poetry mean they don’t serve to teach us the truth? What about the use of Psalm 110:4 in the book of Hebrews? or all the other Old Testament passages quoted in the New Testament? In fact, the Psalms are the most quoted book in the New Testament! Job, Proverbs, etc., are also poetry, and there are poetic portions in other Old Testament books. Why should the Psalms being poetry negate out arguments from the Psalms against common grace? Do you not quote bits from the Psalms to defend things you believe? (Rev. Angus Stewart)


Q. 2. “What is the correct method of interpreting Scripture?”

“[The] word of God is one organic whole that presents the same teaching throughout … The whole of Scripture must be considered when one interprets any particular passage, so that every text must be explained according to the “rule of Scripture” (regula scripturae), the current teaching of the Bible. (Source: Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “God’s Goodness Always Particular,” p. 52)


Q. 3. “Why can’t individual texts be interpreted in isolation apart from any connection with what you call ‘the current teaching of the Bible’?”

“[Such a method of interpretation] does not lead to the true word of God, but must lead to a distorted meaning of Holy Writ. Word interpretation is not Scriptural interpretation, even though it superficially may appear to be such. Interpretation of individual texts is not interpretation of the word of God, although both for the writer and the reader it may be an easier method to follow. The same is true of many sermons that are praised as clear and convincing. Such sermons explain every word of the texts, but fail to explain the texts in the light of the whole of Scripture. Because of this, such sermons are unworthy of the name “ministry of the word of God … Those who believe and defend the truth of God’s absolute predestination have never accepted this method of interpreting the Bible, but have always condemned it as conflicting with the unity of the word of God. The Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians have always used this method.” (Source: Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “God’s Goodness Always Particular,” p. 52)


Q. 4. “Why is this method of interpreting texts in isolation dangerous?”

[First], because it means death for all systematic theology. According to [this] method, [presenting] individual texts to support a certain theory and [refusing] to explain the texts in the light of the whole of Scripture, all true dogmatics becomes impossible. From this perspective one cannot even speak of a current teaching of Scripture. “Wretched human logic” (so-called) cannot build a system of truth, so we must be satisfied with a concoction prepared by biblical theology that does not care to proceed beyond a literal quotation of Scripture. This is the death of the entire Reformed faith and confession. Then there is nothing positive. All unity of view and conception is condemned as rationalistic, as we have nothing left but a few separate and mutually contradictory texts.

Second, [this] method is dangerous because the result must be that the doctrine of sovereign grace cannot be maintained. It was not without good reason that our Reformed fathers always emphatically demanded that certain passages of Scripture be interpreted in the light of the whole of the Bible. They did not hesitate to tell the opponents of the doctrine of predestination that individual texts mean nothing to them. The doctrine of sovereign grace stands of falls with the method one applies in the interpretation of Scripture. If one follows [such a] method … the doctrine of sovereign grace certainly must fall. (Rev. Herman Hoeksema, “God’s Goodness Always Particular,” p. 52)


Q. 6. “You say that the Reformed fathers always emphatically demanded that certain passages of Scripture be interpreted in the light of the whole of the Bible. Do you have examples of this?


The following is taken from chapter 4 of God’s Goodness Always Particular, by Rev. Herman Hoeksema:

Example 1: Augustine.

Julian, the arch opponent of the doctrine of sovereign grace, urged against the doctrine of Augustine the objection that such scriptural passages as I Timothy 2:4 [which is often used to support common grace and the well-meant offer] teach that God wills the salvation of all men and is merciful to all men. But how did the great church father answer the heretic? He spoke of three possible explanations of I Timothy 2:4: First, “all” in the text means all of whom God wills to save, for it is certain that no one can be saved contrary to His will (Augustine, Enchiridion, 103). Second, “all” refers to all classes of people not to all individual men. Third, “all” refers to all who will be saved by virtue of the new will infused by God (Augustine, Contra Julianum, 22:2).

How did Augustine arrive at those interpretations? Simply by explaining them in the light of the expression in Scripture to which he referred frequently, and which Calvin also quoted in a similar connection: God is in the heavens, and he does all His good pleasure. And if God performs everything He willed, He certainly cannot have willed what He does not perform. For that same reason Augustine explained the goodness of God that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4) as referring only to the elect (A. D. R. Polman, De Predestinatieleer van Augustinus, Thomas van Aquino en Calvijn [The Doctrine of Predestination of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Calvin], 98).

Example 2: John Calvin (I)

John Calvin followed the same method as Augustine. More than once Calvin’s opponents confronted him with I Timothy 2:4. How did he reply to their objections? He wrote,

I answer, first, That the mode in which God thus wills is plain from the context; for, Paul connects two things, a will to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. If by this they will have it to be fixed by the eternal counsel of God that they are to receive the doctrine of salvation, what is meant by Moses in these words, “What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them?” (Deut. 4:7). How comes it that many nations are deprived of that light of the Gospel which others enjoy? How comes it that the pure knowledge of the doctrine of godliness has never reached some, and others have scarcely tasted some obscure rudiments of it? It will now be easy to extract the purport of Paul’s statement. He had commanded Timothy that prayers should be regularly offered up in the church for kings and princes; but as it seemed somewhat absurd that prayer should be offered up for a class of men who were almost hopeless (all of them being not only aliens from the body of Christ, but doing their utmost to overthrow his kingdom), he adds, that it was acceptable to God, who will have men to be saved. By this he assuredly means nothing more than that the way of salvation was not shut against any order of men; that, on the contrary, He had manifested His mercy in such a way, that He would have none debarred from it. Other passages do not declare what God has, in His secret judgment, determined with regard to all, but declare that pardon is prepared for all sinners who only turn to seek after it. For if they persist in urging the words, “God hath concluded all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all” (Rom. 11:32), I will, on the contrary, urge what is elsewhere written, “Our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:3). We must, therefore, expound the passage so as to reconcile it with another, I “will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy (Ex. 33:19). (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 3.14.16; emphasis added)

The above is a clear illustration of the method of interpretation Calvin applied to the word of God. First he referred to Deuteronomy 4:7 to show that God sovereignly determines who will come to the knowledge of the truth and who will not receive that knowledge, in order then in the light of that truth to interpret I Timothy 2:4. If the opponents still objected that Scripture clearly teaches that God will show mercy to all, Calvin replied that such expressions must be explained in the light of others, such as Psalm 115:3 (often appealed to by Augustine) and Exodus 33:19.

Example 3: John Calvin (II)

Calvin writes in his Institutes (3.14.16):

A stronger objection seems to be founded on the passage in Peter; the Lord is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). But the solution of the difficulty is to be found in the second branch of the sentence, for his will that they should come to repentance cannot be used in any other sense than that which is uniformly employed [everywhere in Scripture]. Conversion is undoubtedly in the hand of God, whether He designs to convert all can be learned from Himself, when He promises that He will give some a heart of flesh, and leave to others a heart of stone (Ezek. 36:26). It is true, that if He were not disposed to receive those who implore His mercy, it could not have been said, “Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 1:3); but I hold that no man approaches God unless previously influenced from above. And if repentance were placed at the will of man, Paul would not say, “If God peradventure will give them repentance” (I Tim. 2:25). [emphasis added]

Calvin consistently followed the same method of interpretation. He explained the Scriptures in their own light and did not hesitate to explain apparently general texts in the light of those that clearly teach God’s particular grace.

Example 4: Herman Bavinck (I)

Bavinck writes,

Scripture is the principle of theology. But Scripture is no statute book; it is an organic unity. The subject-matter for theology, more especially for dogmatics, is scattered through the whole of Scripture. Even as gold out of a mine, so the truth of faith must be delved out of the Scriptures with the exertion of all spiritual power.

With a few proof texts one can do nothing [emphasis added]. Not on the basis of a few separate texts, but on the Bible in its entirety a dogma must be built; it must evolve organically out of the principles that are present everywhere in Scripture. For the doctrine of God, of man, of sin, of Christ, and the like is not to be found merely in a few expressions, but is spread throughout the entire Bible—not only in a few proof texts but also in sundry figures of speech, parables, ceremonies, and historical narratives. No part of Scripture may be neglected. The whole of Scripture must prove the whole of the system. Also in theology separatism must be avoided. A distinguishing mark of many sects is that they proceed from a small part of Scripture and leave the rest of it severely alone. (Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek [Reformed Dogmatics], 1:644–66; emphasis added. Trans. Herman Hoeksema)

According to Bavinck, Reformed theology refuses to acknowledge a few individual texts as a basis for dogma, but with the exertion of all its spiritual powers elicits from Scripture the truth of faith. Reformed theology has always considered the doctrine of particular grace as being the current doctrine of Scripture, and Reformed theologians never hesitated to interpret other texts that apparently teach general grace in the light of that current doctrine.

Example 5: Herman Bavinck (II)

Bavinck writes in his Reformed Dogmatics:

The theologian must bestow some mental labour on the material he thus obtained. The dogmas are not literally in Scripture, but in principle and according to their idea they are conclusions of faith. The doctrines of the Trinity, of the two natures of Christ, of the atonement, of the sacraments, and the like are not based on a single declaration in Scripture, but are construed from data scattered throughout Scripture. Dogmas are a brief compendium in our language of everything the Scriptures teach about the subjects concerned.

Romish and Protestant theologians have always maintained over against various tendencies that insisted on literal expressions of Scripture, the right of dogmatic theology. According to those theologians, complete justice was done to Scripture not by literally quoting a single text, but by reflecting the entire truth comprised in many texts. (Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 1:665–66; emphasis added)

Example 6: Abraham Kuyper, Sr. (I)

Since it is a matter of complete indifference to us whether our confession of the truth is in harmony with what some people please to think of God; and since it is our sole purpose to see to it that our confession completely harmonizes with the living God as He really is and exists we can and may do nothing except busy ourselves with Holy Writ, which alone knows and says and shows who God is and how He actually is.

On the contrary, if there is in Holy Writ a revelation of positive truth, as we confess with humble gratitude, it is not only my privilege, but also my solemn obligation to attack your presentation concerning the scope of grace so consistently and perseveringly, that it no longer encroaches on all that is revealed to us in those holy records concerning the essence of the Supreme Being. (Abraham Kuyper, Dat De Genade Particulier Is, 54; emphasis added; all translations from Dat De Genade Particulier Is are mine.)

According to Kuyper, the scope of grace must be determined by what the Scriptures teach concerning the essence of God. He compared Scripture with Scripture.

Example 7: Abraham Kuyper, Sr. (II)

In opposition to those who wanted to prove the doctrine of general grace from the words “he died for all” in II Corinthians 5:15, Kuyper wrote,

But even this more limited allegation (that the expression in II Cor. 5:15 refers to all baptized people, H.H.) cannot be maintained. For though it be true that every one who belongs to the church of Christ, be it only externally, shall be judged by the death of the Lord and by the holiness of His atoning blood; and though the blood of the Son of God concerns such a one, if he does not repent, so truly that he can only perish an apostate and hypocrite; yet may we never draw the conclusion from this that the apostle of Christ presented the death of Jesus as being intended to be beneficial for such a one personally. The very fact that the apostle addresses the entire church as elect proves without a doubt that his epistle is directed to the congregation in its ideal character, that is, the letter is addressed exclusively to all and every one who essentially and as living members belong to the church, without figuring in the least with the counterfeit, false, and unsanctified elements, that adhere to her, wear her uniform, and present themselves as belonging to her. (Kuyper, Dat De Genade Particulier Is, 210–11)

Kuyper explained the apparently general expression “he died for all” in the light of the particular expression in II Corinthians 1:1: “Paul an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia.”

Example 8: Abraham Kuyper, Sr. (III)

A clear illustration of the application of this method of interpreting Scripture is found in Kuyper’s explanation of Romans 5:18, “By the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life,” in the light of verse 21: “That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.”

For most people the weightiest objection against the doctrine of particular grace appears to be what Paul wrote in Romans 5:18. There we read clearly in words that seem to allow only one interpretation: “As by the offence of one, judgment came upon all men unto condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” We do not deny that the expression “upon all men” is sufficiently emphatic and striking to mislead the best men and even to cause confusion for those of strong convictions who quote it according to the mere sound of words.

Yet by a careful study of the context of this passage, there can be no doubt that this confusion and hesitancy must gradually be replaced by the most positive conviction that sound exegesis does not permit the application of “upon all men” to all men who have been born.

To make this clear to our readers we first call their attention to the closing verse of Romans 5, where sin and grace are again contrasted from the viewpoint of their fruit. There it says that sin results in death and that grace is the mother of life. But how is the operation of both represented? Do we read that sin attempts to bring death and that grace tries to work life? Not in the least.

On the contrary, if the verse says that sin irresistibly accomplishes its fatal work, that nothing can oppose it, and that with authority it calls death to appear. To express this emphatically and in all its horror the apostle uses the word “reign”—to be queen. Sin therefore is mistress, ruler, or queen. She had dominion. Her will could not be resisted. Man was subject unto her. She intended to bring death and no one could oppose that intention. Therefore, it was not that she merely threatened death and that after the operation of man’s will interposed she either succeeded or failed to bring death. No, with power she caused death to come. As the ruling lady she brought death, and no one could resist her will. Hence all men died.

After the apostle clearly explains this, he declares that the situation is exactly the same regarding grace. Just as sin has dominion, grace appears as ruler and irresistibly executes her will. For thus we read in verse 21: “As sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign … unto eternal life.”

Now this cannot be true if grace, as death, is extended to all men who have been born. If this were the case, we would have to conclude that sin includes all men who have been born and results in the death of them all, and that grace also extends to all men who have been born. However, in reality not all of them, but only a small part of men, inherit life. In that case sin reaches its purpose, but grace fails to reach its purpose. This means that sin succeeded in reigning but grace failed. Instead of ruling over man, grace remained dependent on man’s will. This is absurd, for the apostle directly and explicitly establishes the very opposite when he writes, “even so might grace reign.” (Kuyper, Dat De Genade Particulier Is, 214–15)

From this interpretation of verse 21, Kuyper concluded that the expression “upon all men” in Romans 5:18 cannot refer to all men who have been born.


Q. 7. “What is the hermeneutical principle (rule of interpretation) when it comes to verses that contain indefinite or general expressions like ‘world,’ ‘the wicked,’ ‘the righteous and unrighteous,’ ‘the unthankful and evil,’ etc.?”

[The rule is] that indefinite and general expressions are to be interpreted in answerable proportion to the things whereof they are affirmed.” (John Owen, “Works,” vol. 10, p. 348)

By noting the words in their context it may readily be seen that the words are not a general assertion at all, because the word wicked [for example] is [in certain places] a certain class of wicked person who is being referred to in the surrounding verses. (Rev. Matthew Winzer, “Murray on the Free Offer: A Review”)


Q. 8. “You’re just interpreting the whole of the Bible in the light of election and reprobation ... You’re just trying to harmonize the entirety of Scripture with the decree of predestination, and not just interpreting texts as they stand.”

Romans 9:6-8 and Galatians 3:16, 29 give us the right to do that. (Rev. Martyn McGeown)

“… such general sentences [that contain words such as “all,” “whosoever,” “the wicked,” “world,” etc.] of necessity must be so restrained, that difference may be kept between the Elect and the Reprobate; else we shall do nothing in explaining Scriptures but confound light and darkness.” (John Knox, “The Works of John Knox,” vol. 5, p. 415)

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