An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 1)

This is a revision of a series I wrote some years back.

The history of the interpretation of the Bible is a long and involved one. For many centuries some have approached the Scriptures supposing that they should be interpreted literally whenever possible. Others have believed that one ought to look deeper than the surface meaning to find its true spiritual center. Still others have believed that the Old and (to a lesser extent) the New Testament is opened up by means of three or four hermeneutical strategies. Today, the amount of interpretative proposals for various parts of Scripture is dizzying.

In this article I shall try to review the main schools of interpretation throughout the history of the Church. But we’re going to start off where I intend to end: with the Bible’s own witness.

1. Pointers within the Bible.

If we take certain statements in the Bible itself as our guide, it will help us to see how the Holy Spirit wants us to interpret His Word. For example, Isaiah wrote,

To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isa.8:20).

What is important about this verse is that it implies a standard by which false teaching can be measured. For that standard to have any credence it has to be stable and clear. The prophet’s reference to “the law and the testimony” (cf.v.16) implies that the whole Old Testament is to be viewed as possessing this stable character. Taking a different example, in the opening lines of the Book of Ezra we read,

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. (Ez. 1:1-2)

A simple passage like this presupposes a lot. For one thing it assumes that what God said to Jeremiah could be easily verified by Ezra. It only follows from this that if Jeremiah’s prediction of a return from exile after 70 years had not actually come to pass the rest of the Book of Ezra would have never been written. In the Law the test of a true prophet was whether what he said came true (See Deut. 18:22). For that to be a reliable benchmark the fulfillment would have to match the wording of the original prophecy literally. If this were not the case then anyone could spiritualize the prophecy and claim its fulfillment, no matter what the original wording said.

In John 21:21-23 the Evangelist seems to want to make a point that what God says must be grasped before we can correctly interpret. Thus, we think there is scriptural warrant for stable and plain hermeneutics. The anchor-points for this hermeneutics are God-given and are themselves clearer than perhaps anything else in the Bible. These are the Covenants which God Himself has made with men. But this is something we shall have to return to.

2. The First Two Centuries of the Early Church.

Before anything else is said, we must stress that the Post-Apostolic church was not inspired and should not be looked upon as authoritative in matters of interpretation. However, their use of Scripture is often instructing.

We cannot understand the church of the second and third centuries without knowing something about the difficulties which these early Christians encountered. On the one hand there was the very real threat of persecution from a Roman state not at all sympathetic to the beliefs and aims of these people. And on the other hand there was the persistent problem of heresy, which dogged the early church. These two major issues both played their parts in the formulations of hermeneutics. As a defense against the polemics of the influential anti-Christian Roman writers, such as Pliny the Younger, Menander, Celsus, and Porphyry, believers had to produce apologies that could address them, and in particular, their attacks upon the Old Testament, and their misunderstanding of the Christian God.

But alongside this the Christians had to respond to the rise of Gnosticism and the proliferation of Gnostic writings. To cite two examples, Valentinus (born, c.A.D. 100) was an extremely effective communicator who was perhaps even on the verge of becoming a bishop before his heresies were discovered. It was his followers who first composed commentaries on New Testament books. Second, Marcion (active ca. A.D.140-155) taught that the Old Testament was useless as a Christian document. He also severely edited the New Testament, producing one in which only Paul’s epistles were included, together with a condensed version of Luke’s Gospel, carefully purged of any Jewish “contamination.” All the Gnostics held that the God of the Old Testament was another lesser deity than the God of the New.

This then, was the kind of pressure that was being applied to these early saints and their Scriptures. It is hardly surprising then, that the most prominent Christians of the second century were apologists. The main three were Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-163), a converted Platonist who was the first to use the term “Israel” to describe the Church (A.D. 160). Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200), Bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern day France), who wrote extensively against the heretics, produced the first formulation for biblical interpretation: the so-called “Rule of Faith.” This formulation was really a short statement of doctrine. Irenaeus believed that a Trinitarian meaning attached to both Testaments. This Trinitarian schema was observed in the apostolic witness, which, in turn, placed an emphasis upon the Christological interpretation of the whole Bible.

Hence, the Rule of Faith gave a kind of unity to the Church. Consequently, any interpretation which did not measure up to this Rule of Faith (such as the teachings of the Gnostics) could be rejected as contrary to the preaching of the Apostles. The Rule of Faith also made the interpretation of the Bible a province of the Church, and so, of Church tradition. But Irenaeus also promoted non-literal interpretations. In the midst of dealing with heretical teachings he allowed for hidden meanings in some passages of the Bible. As one writer puts it:

“…the early Christians acknowledged that their claim to the Christian meaning of the Jewish Scriptures [i.e. the OT] was less a matter of what these documents said, and more a matter of how they were to be read…For passages obviously commensurate with the Rule of Faith, the reading would be literal (with allowance for genre distinctions and figurative expressions) whereas, for passages that required a second reading to agree with apostolic teaching, that second reading would be figurative.” – William Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader, xviii.

One may notice how already the assumed doctrines protected by the Rule of Faith begin to authorize the kind of interpretations deemed acceptable. This side-effect would have serious repercussions later on.

It is worth noticing that all the early fathers of the Church were premillennial in their eschatology. Nevertheless, they also tended to drift to and fro between literal or face value interpretations and spiritual interpretations.

Roy Zuck notes that, “From these early church fathers it is obvious that while they started out well, they were soon influenced by allegorizing.” This form of interpretation became the dominant one from the middle of the second century until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It would therefore be helpful to review this phenomenon before examining the major figures of Jerome and Augustine.

To be continued…


Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective – PT. 3

Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective – Pt. 1

Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective – Pt. 2

In this third and final article on the roles of faith and reason I want to turn to examine some biblical passages, which, I think, really help us to understand why reason must be driven by faith.  The first of these comes from the Garden of Eden.

Autonomy: Our Default Position in the Use of Reason

Although we do not have a protracted narrative of all that went on between the serpent and Eve, we do have everything necessary for us to learn what God wants us to learn.  The culmination of the devil’s temptation of the woman was in the words, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:5).  Of course this was a lie.  No one could know good and evil like God without being God.  But the promise of “being like God” was what did it.

Ironically enough, Eve and her husband were already like God.  They had been created in the image and likeness of God.  Also, they were with God.  The Lord fellowshiped with them in the Garden, and it is certain that these regular interactions would have expanded both the knowledge and the image of God in our first parents.  What Adam and Eve most needed was not to be “like God” in the way Satan promised, but rather they needed to be with God.  As it happened their disobedience left them less like God and deprived them of His close fellowship.

But what led up to it?  We can begin to see the answer if we compare the two descriptions of the trees in Eden in chapter 2 and chapter 3.  In chapter 2:9 we get an appraisal of the trees, via Moses, from God’s point of view:

And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.  The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Notice the twin description of the trees of the garden as being (1) “pleasant to the sight”, and (2) “good for food”.

Now take a look at the woman’s appraisal of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.  She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.

I have again underlined the pertinent parts of the verse for comparison.  Notice how Eve’s independent analysis of the tree agreed with the Lord’s appraisal in 2:9.  After listening to the serpent Eve in effect stood back and sized up the tree, and she concurred with God that the tree was (1) “pleasant to the sight”, and (2) “good for food”, but she reasoned independently from God that the tree was (3) “desirable to make one wise.”

The main point here is that there was a movement from dependence on God’s Word and authority to independent evaluation, and hence reasoning.  In the autonomy of her reasoning about the tree Eve put reason before revelation.  It didn’t matter that she agreed with God (at least some of the time).  What really mattered was that she arrived at her conclusions apart from Divine prescription.

Since the Fall we have functioned from a default position of independence from God and His Word.  False religions sprang from false notions of God.  from false notions of God come equally false notions about ourselves and our world.  Hence, the triad God, Man and the World is crucial to a correct Christian Worldview.  Get any one of these wrong and the other two will be affected.  Even in militant atheism the triad remains; only now “God” is substituted for “no God”.  An autonomous view will warp all of these because of the idol of independence in the determination of final truth.

To give one example, in a recent work on Hegel’s mature thought, John McCumber (according to this reviewer), provides some added insight into Hegel’s (and Kant’s) theory of ethical drives:

What makes McCumber’s reading of the Philosophy of Right so striking is his emphasis on the role Hegel assigns to our natural drives, and on the idea that for Hegel, ethical theory must explain how these drives can be purified and ordered, or rationalized, so as to achieve genuine human autonomy. (Emphasis added).

And again,

The goal of Hegelian practical philosophy is thus very similar, on McCumber’s view, to the goal of theoretical idealism: ethical theory seeks to take our desires, motivations, and needs as they are, reducing them to moments in a larger whole, and reappropriating them for the project of freedom through their systematization.

Within biblical Christianity too, this default of human independence shows itself in our reasonings about the interpretation of texts, particularly those texts which might make us feel uncomfortable about any number of subjects.  Among these subjects I might mention the age of the earth, evolution, the global flood, the covenants made with Israel, the beginning of the Church, the headship of the husband, women in the ministry, Christian counseling, and a whole lot more.  It is not that everyone who uses the Bible to guide their reason will automatically come out at the same place.  There are variables in things like competence and experience which may effect interpretation.  But placing faith before reason will tend to hold off interrogative approaches to the text like, “Are you saying that….?” or “But what about….?” etc.

The great Methodist Bible commentator Adam Clarke (d. 1832) wrote:

“Prayer is the language of dependence; he who prays not is endeavoring to live independently of God; this was the first curse, and continues to be the great curse of mankind.”

Christians are not immune from thinking independently of God.  We do it when we think we can circumvent clear passages which we would rather say something other than what they say.

Jesus on Faith and Reason

We can see this in two episodes in the life of our Lord.

In the first, Jesus warns the disciples to “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6).

The narrative then says the disciples “reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘It is because we have taken no bread.”

This brought forth a rebuke from Jesus:

“O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves….do you not understand…How is it you do not understand that I did not speak to you concerning bread? – but to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt. 16:8-11).

Then the narrative tells us that “they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

clearly the reasoning of the disciples was faulty and brought forth a righteously indignant response from Jesus.  They were reasoning this way because faith was not guiding their reason.  Notice that Jesus does not explain His meaning to them in verse 11, but simply repeats the warning of verse 6.  That was because there was sufficient information in what He said to them for them to gain the right understanding - provided they let faith guide their reason! (more…)

John Byl Critiques Groothuis’s ‘Christian Apologetics’

I really appreciate John Byl’s stand for young-earth creationism against all the accommodationist nonsense of old-earthers.  He has written some thoughts about apologist Douglas Groothuis’s big book Christian Apologetics which should be pondered.  I think he shows the problems which inhere in the ‘two books’ view and in cow-towing to Big Bang cosmology.

I agree with Byl that Groothuis’s book has good things in it, although I cannot recommend it as an apologetics book.  I feel okay about it though since Groothuis cannot bring himself to recommend one presuppositionalist work in his annotated bibliography at the end of his book.

Should ‘Presuppositional’ Apologetics Be Rebranded As ‘Covenantal’ Apologetics?

Recently K. Scott Oliphint of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia has published a book which he has called Covenantal Apologetics.   I reviewed the book here and recommend it.  But I expressed reservations about the writer’s agenda of rebranding Van Til’s apologetic teaching in line with the book’s title.  Coming as it does from one of the foremost representatives of Van Til’s presuppositional approach around the thesis deserves attention.  As I said in my review, by “Covenantal” Oliphint means the ‘covenants’ of covenant theology.

Now nobody is going to disagree that Van Til often spoke about fallen man as a covenant-breaker.  And no one will dispute that by that designation he had in mind the theological covenants of Reformed Covenant Theology.  You cannot read Van Til very far before running into statements he makes about ‘the Reformed apologetic.’  For example,

All men are either in covenant with Satan or in covenant with God. – Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith, 4th edition, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, 300.

This is the kind of thing covenant theologians say (or used to say).  Van Til did not refer to his approach as ‘Covenantal Apologetics’, but I think he might not have minded too much.  Still, is it right?

Van Til’s argument for allying his apologetics with the resources of covenant theology should be seen against the backdrop of his conflating covenant theology with Reformed Calvinistic theology.  But any reader of the Jacob Arminius is well aware that he too was a covenant theologian.  This needs to be noted because Van Til’s point is mainly anthropological and soteriological.  He memorably observes,

We should add that according to Scripture, God spoke to man at the outset of history.  In addition to revealing himself in the facts of the created universe, God revealed himself in Words, telling man about what he should do with the facts of the universe.  Since the fall, all men, as fallen in Adam (Rom. 5:12), continue to be responsible for this twofold revelation of God given to man at the beginning of history. – Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 19

This is a point which can be made from the Bible through exposition of Romans 1:18-32 or Psalm 19.  Among his other contributions to theology Van Til stressed this revelatory nature of knowledge before and after the Fall:

For Adam in paradise God-consciousness could not come in at the end of a syllogistic process of reasoning.  God-consciousness was for him the presupposition of the significance of his reasoning on anything. – The Defense of the Faith, 113

But he did not always appeal to the Bible for his authority.  Like so many covenant theologians of the past and present he counted on the Westminster Standards to support his contentions.  So right after the above statement we read this one:

To the doctrine of creation must be added the conception of the covenant.  Man was created an historical being.  God placed upon him from the outset of history the responsibility and task of reinterpreting the counsel of God as expressed in creation to himself individually and collectively.  Man’s creature consciousness may therefore be more particularly signalized as covenant consciousness.  But the revelation of the covenant to man in paradise was supernaturally mediated…Thus, the sense of obedience or disobedience was immediately involved in Adam’s consciousness of himself.  Covenant consciousness envelops creature consciousness. In paradise Adam knew that as a creature of God it was natural and proper that he should keep the the covenant that God made with him. – Ibid.

Here, as Oliphint explains in a footnote in this edition, Van Til is appealing to the WCF 7.1.  The “covenant” to which Van Til is referring in this quotation is not any covenant found in the description of paradise in the first chapters of Genesis.  The “covenant” is the ‘covenant of works’ invented, along with the ‘covenant of grace’, by covenant theologians as a theological explanatory device to describe our relationship with our Creator.  No Scripture is provided to show the presence of this covenant, and for good reason: there is none.  

In arguing for the name covenantal apologetics, Oliphint uses the same method.  In all his argumentation for the idea there is a noticeable dearth of scriptural appeal.  For instance, for his definition and understanding of the term “covenant” he does not go to the Bible but to the Westminster Confession (See K. Scott Oliphint, Covenantal Apologetics, 39, 49, 61-62, 93).  The Confession does indeed refer to God’s condescension in relating to us as “covenantal.”  But is that the way the Bible itself uses the idea of covenant?  I think not.

For one thing, it begs the question to have the Westminster Confession authorize the name-change from presuppositional apologetics to covenantal apologetics.  Without reinventing the wheel, I have tried to show in other places (e.g. here), that covenant theologians have misread biblical covenants, like the New Covenant, in fitting them into their extra-biblical inferential scheme.  Oliphint himself does this on page 59 of his book when confusingly quoting Hebrews 6:17-18, which refers back to the Abrahamic covenant (6:13), and forwards to the New covenant, of which Christ is the Mediator (Hebrews 8 and 9 go on to explain this).  But Oliphint’s quotation is not in reference to either of these biblical covenants, but (as we saw with Van Til) in service of a supposed covenantal relationship enacted at the outset of creation.  

Covenant theology has often been criticized for making their theological covenants ride roughshod over the clear covenants of the Bible, effectively stripping them of any specifications not required by their approach.  The example just given is quite typical.

Like Van Til Oliphint wants man’s knowing to be covenantal (44, 82, 152).  But this is neither necessary nor particularly relevant.  It is not necessary because our relationship to God need not be viewed within the terms of covenant.  We would do better and would stay within the boundaries of the biblical text to speak of “creaturely obligations” or “image-accountability” than introducing covenant language.  Although covenants in the Bible do establish relationships and commitments, no one is free to read and then define the terms of a covenant for which there is scarcely any warrant.  And interpreting our knowing as covenantal is not relevant  for two reasons.  First because Arminians have often been adherents of covenant theology and Van Til was often at pains to try to show that only Calvinism could support his position (see, e.g. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 81ff.).  Therefore, his real emphasis while using the Westminster Confession should more often than not be understood to be Calvinistic.  Second, because nowhere in the Bible is our knowing depicted this way.  While all assent that the new birth brings with it new outlooks (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:17-5:17), such things were hardly necessary in Eden.  Divine covenants obligate God to do something.  But in paradise we read of no such Divine obligation; still less do we read of a covenant oath!  In Scripture, all the covenants which are plainly discoverable come after the Fall: indeed, they come after the Flood!  Covenants are not required where the relationship is not sundered and in need of reconciliation.

In truth, while the genius of covenant theology may be brought to bear on Van Til’s apologetic, the real issue is whether his approach is supportable from the text of Holy Writ.  And the answer to that question is certainly Yes!  As Greg Bahnsen showed in his Always Ready, there is plenty of biblical justification for presuppositional apologetics, without the need to appeal to covenant theology.  While Bahnsen was a proponent of covenant theology, he wisely sought to establish his apologetics on a different and firmer foundation.  What we want to know is whether Van Til’s apologetic is biblical, and indeed it is.  Because that is so the question of nomenclature might be easily solved by calling it, as a recent fine exposition does, simply Biblical Apologetics.

The question of whether covenant theology is biblical is much harder to prove.                 (more…)

Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective – Pt. 2

Part One

A Case Study: Harold Netland and the Demand for Neutrality

As we further consider whether reason should be categorized separately to faith as properly functioning independent of it, I cite the example of an article by Harold Netland entitled, “Apologetics, Worldviews, and the Problem of Neutral Criteria.”[1] In Netland’s 1991 article we see an able but, I believe, misguided critique of presuppositionalist John M. Frame’s epistemology as set forth in his book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. The overall burden of Netland’s complaint is clear, there must be some mutually shared neutral criteria that all people, whether Theist, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Humanist, or whatever, can use to judge each other’s positions.[2] It is the possibility of this neutral ground that Frame, in common with other biblical presuppositionalists (including the present writer) denies.

The first stratagem of Netland is to label Frame’s position “theological fideism,” which quickly becomes “fideism” as the article proceeds.[3] Having done this he presents his position as the one that will use reason instead of eschewing it.[4] The main question he wants answered is this: “Given our religiously pluralistic world an obvious question arises…‘Why should one accept the Christian presupposition instead of the Hindu or Buddhist presuppositions?’”[5] Behind this question is his assumption that Frame is claiming that, “ultimate presuppositions (commitments)…can be accepted or rejected at will.”[6]

It should not take a hard-core Van Tilian to point out that this is exactly the opposite of what theologians like Frame are saying. (more…)

Faith and Reason in Christian Perspective – Pt. 1

This and the following piece are old posts to which I am giving more daylight.  I hope to append a Part Three!


It appears to me that one of the first things a faithful theologian needs to do is to straighten out the confusion brought about by the world’s separation of faith and reason. This relationship is so vital to a biblically fastened worldview that to neglect it will involve the believer in a host of conflicting beliefs and practices. For it is just here that the negligent Christian theologue will be attacked.[1] To the average man in the street, “faith” is that “I really hope so” attitude that many people employ when their circumstances get tough. It is that blind trust that things will turn out all right in the end. Faith thus defined is the opposite of reason. “Reason” deals with the cold hard facts, so it goes, and is what we have to use in the “real world” – in business, in science, in education.

One Christian writer has put the matter in the form of a question: “Is it rational for us to believe in God? Is it rational for us to place our confidence in Him and his revelation to man? Can a person believe in God without performing a sacrifice of his intellect? ”[2]

According to many people, faith and reason are polar opposites. Faith deals with hopes and aspirations and dreams and ‘religious stuff’, while reason concerns itself with the facts of day to day experience, the world in which we live and do science learn about what is and what is not so. As the late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould stated it, in what has become a mantra among secular scientists, “religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go.” To put it in less deceptive terms, “religion deals with gods and heaven and pixies and UFO’s; while science (which knows these things are non-existent) concerns itself with what is so.” Gould even thought up a nice anagram for his concept: NOMA, or “non over-lapping magisteriums”.[3] Secular science gets all the facts; faith gets all the pink elephants. Or as one astute critic observed,

The power to define “factual reality” is the power to govern the mind, and thus to confine “religion” within a naturalistic box. For example, a supposed command of God can hardly provide a basis for morality unless God really exists. The commands of an imaginary deity are merely human commands dressed up as divine law…[N]aturalistic metaphysics relegates both morality and God to the realm outside of scientific knowledge, where only subjective belief is to be found.[4]

It is because of misconceptions such as these that the matter deserves more attention than it gets. We must begin by defining our terms. Gould and his followers are so impressed by their formulation of the issue because they have defined faith away while reconstituting reason so that it mirrors their own opinion of themselves and what they think they are doing. The first thing that any person should do, therefore, is to know what he means when employing specific terminology.

I will define reason along with theologian-philosopher John Frame as, “the human ability or capacity for forming judgments and inferences.”[5] This is employing the word in a descriptive sense. Frame goes on to narrow the definition down to a normative sense “to denote correct judgments and inferences.”[6] The important thing to notice about Frame’s definition is that it houses no built-in biases against supernaturalism. While being itself a perfectly good description it does not contain anything in it with which the secularist can control the debate.

Faith, meanwhile, may be accurately defined as “persuasion of the divine truth,” upon which we rightly presume when we renounce all self-dependence, and upon which all our hope is based.”[7] Carl Henry provides a perceptive yet succinct definition when he calls faith the “knowledge based on and issuing from revelation.”[8] Within this definition it is important to realize that such faith is impossible without the effectual working of the Holy Spirit. Hence, we are not concerned with a general religious belief, but in a living faith which has “its object, basis, and origin” in a relationship “between a human being and God.”[9] This faith is dependent on revelation and can come to certainty through a Divine in-working by means of the Word of God.

We may add one more definition to those given above, this time from the Scots worthy, Hugh Binning: “Faith is the soul’s testimony to God’s truth; the word [i.e. the Bible] is God’s testimony.”[10] To hearken back to a previous set of posts, the Divine Logos who created and structured the world and created us to interpret the world through Him via the Scriptures, has given faith as the mechanism by which the two are brought together.[11] Thus, faith is not opposed to reason; but in fact it is served by reason. We see this taught in Hebrews 11:3, “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word (rhema) of God, so that the things which are seen were not made by things which are visible.” As the “we” in the verse refers to saints, the understanding is available only on the basis of faith (cf. vv. 1 and 6). Since the verse refers either to the created spheres, or, most probably, in view of the historical references in the chapter, to the program of history itself, and it takes the prerequisite of faith to comprehend, then, patently, a Christian view of knowledge places faith before reason. Or as the Puritan commentator William Gouge put it, “Faith is in the understanding.”[12] Therefore, the teachings of the Bible should act as the “control beliefs”[13] of the one who has come under the sway of the Bible. (more…)

How Satisfactory is the Term ‘Presuppositional’ Apologetics?

Intro. I don’t think anyone who employs Van Til’s approach is overjoyed with the label ‘presuppositionalism.’ (PA).  Van Til himself wasn’t terribly happy with it.  Neither was Greg Bahnsen, whose apologetic acuity made him perhaps Van Til’s most faithful and articulate disciple.

Stressing the role of presuppositions did not mean, either for Van Til or Bahnsen, nor Frame or Oliphint, that evidences were not to have an important part to play within this approach.   Van Til stated over and over again that the apologist ought to employ evidences from the various disciplines like archaeology and science.  Bahnsen was in full agreement.  He was happy to refer the inquirer to manuscript evidence for the preservation of the Bible, or statistical data concerning the impossibility of evolution, if he thought it would clear away a problem.

The trouble was and is, of course, that evidence and interpretations of evidence cannot be separated, and this drives the issue back to the presuppositions one brings with them as they interpret.  So, as Van Til would say, ones philosophy of fact would have to be scrutinized.  As advocated by Van Til, the self-conscious Christian will reason by presupposition from the self-attesting Scriptures.

So does this mean that ‘Presuppositionalism’ is a good name for Van Til’s approach?  Most people who follow Van Til would say no.  Here are some reasons why:

1. The word ‘presuppositional’ tends to polarize the minds of friend and enemy alike.  Friends of the approach have often ignored evidences since (as the recent Ham – Nye debate showed), the real problem is not the availability of evidence for the accuracy of the Bible or the Christian Worldview, but the glasses the unbeliever has on through which they interpret that evidence.  And as presuppositionalists have been quick to point out, the dominant ideas lying behind a person’s interpretation of the evidence – ideas which exert such a powerful influence on the way people think – will have to be unearthed if their hearts are to be exposed to the truth.

If that is the case, why not just get to the point and deal with presuppositions?  The answer is because presuppositions and evidence are related and attention should be drawn to both.  If this is not done the apologist can sound like some tiresome bore correcting logical errors in other people.  Or just as bad, someone who tears down without building something in its place.  But we do want to point to the evidences.  We do want to do positive apologetics.

2. On the other hand, Christians who don’t like PA are presented with an easy target to fling their objections at.  Many will think ‘presupposition’ and automatically deduce that all the the vast evidence for Christianity must be ignored if PA is adopted.  Surely the Bible itself speaks of ‘many infallible proofs’ and Jesus implores His detractors to believe for the sake of the works.  How can these passages be swept aside?

3. Other apologists think that if one is presuppositional it means all argumentation is gone.  Certainly, as with evidences, PA criticizes the attempt to reason with the unbeliever as if he were neutral or lacking knowledge of the Divine nature, but it does not mind discussing things like design or causality, so long as these things are not considered more ultimate or perspicuous than God Himself, or providing they did not place the Living God in the Dock to be cross-examined.

I think this is why in his helpful and extensive Bibliography of Apologetics (in the Apologetics Study Bible) Doug Groothuis does not include a single Van Tillian contribution!

4. But another problem with the term is that it was employed by thinkers such as Gordon H. Clark or E.J. Carnell or Francis Schaeffer for their approaches.  Clark stressed beginning with an axiom, which he called a presupposition.  From this axiom (like ‘the Bible is the infallible Word of God’) a system of thought could be forged which would be able to take on all-comers (to paraphrase Carnell).

In these apologetic views the Christian presupposition was not a transcendental.  It was not thought that the Biblical Worldview was the only one which would not make nonsense of experience and validate itself through application.  Rather, a ‘presupposition’ was defined more in terms of a hypothesis admitting verification.

For these sorts of reasons; the temptation to ignore evidence; the implication that evidence was unimportant; the idea that all classical theistic arguments were off the table, and the confusion brought about by the use of the word ‘presuppositional’ in non-Van Tillian schemes, it is unfortunate that Van Til’s apologetic bears the name ‘Presuppositional.’

Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path (2)


This completes the thoughts offered previously.

4. Systematic Theology

Coming now to Systematic Theology the first thing that must be said is that the pretended stand for a partial system must be summarily dropped. Dispensational Theology cannot be switched out for the term Dispensational Premillennialism. In point of fact, I make bold to say that the notion of Dispensational Premillennialism is a bit of an odd bird without a full-orbed system to back it up. Most Dispensationalists have been blithely contented to append their eschatology on to the end of another system – most often the Reformed position. But this is a dubious, and, let us admit it, halfsighted maneuver.

When DT is tagged onto an already developed system of theology it can only present itself as a correction to certain aspects of that system of theology. In so doing it tangles with the methodological presuppositions of that theology. But because it allies itself so often to say, Reformed theology, it must act deferentially towards Reformed formulations in areas other than ecclesiology and eschatology. For if it failed to acknowledge Reformed theology’s right to assert itself in these other areas – the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man and sin, the doctrine of salvation, for example – it could not think of itself as Reformed. This is because in claiming its right to question Reformed assumptions in any theological corpora save in regard to the Last Things (and perhaps the Church), Dispensational theology would be asserting its right to formulate ALL its own doctrines independently of other theologies. It would grow to dislike its assumed role as a beneficial parasite, cleaning up areas of another theological system, and would wish to be “Dispensational” in every area! Ergo, even if its formulations of all the theological corpora were closely aligned with Reformed theology here and there, they would be its own formulations! This is precisely what I am pleading for!

Every knowledgeable person knows that Systematic Theology ought to be an outgrowth of Biblical Theology. The fact that most Dispensationalists are content to tack their views on to an already existing whole system doesn’t speak well for their Biblical Theology. For if Dispensational Biblical Theology cannot produce the impetus to formulate a distinctive and whole Systematic Theology of its own perhaps the trouble goes deeper? I believe it does, and that reformulating Dispensational Theology from a Biblical Covenantalist viewpoint gives you all the main points of traditional Dispensational Eschatology and Ecclesiology, but it also gives you enough material from which to formulate clear and distinctive versions of Prolegomena, Theology Proper, Anthropology, Christology, Pneumatology as well. As I have said elsewhere, I do not think that tracking the “dispensations” produces enough usable doctrine to work up a solid systematics or worldview. If one is going to follow the standard definitions of Dispensationalism as a “system of theology” there will be slim pickings when it comes to forging a Dispensational Systematic Theology. The irony should not be lost on us.

In the last part of my series Christ at the Center I tried to sum up the strong Christological emphasis of Biblical Covenantalism with some of the solid by-product from which robust doctrines in Systematic Theology could be constructed. Although I have recorded over two hundred lectures in Systematic Theology along conventional lines, I think if I were to try to write a volume I would use the triad God, Man and the World. Beginning with the title “God Has Spoken” and introducing epistemological and ontological concerns, which in turn require ethical responses, I would ask questions about the knowability of God and (following Calvin) the knowability of ourselves in Creation. This introduces the doctrine of Revelation. Here I would want to press the joint reliance of the Sufficiency and Clarity of Scripture for the job ahead. That would open the door to hermeneutical questions.

Even so, dealing with Christ I would take up the same rubric: God, Man and the World. In this way I would attempt to discuss the pre-existence of Christ along with the incarnation and cross and resurrection. I would want to ‘lace’ the whole Systematics with Eschatological (and teleological) concerns, being careful to converge these themes in the section called “Eschatology” at the end of the work. This way one would hopefully see the inevitability of the convergence rather than now turning to “The Last Things.” The covenants of Scripture, dealing as they do with the same triad of God, Man and the World, could help accomplish this.

5. Worldview

Contrary to some views, Systematic Theology sets out the Bible’s teaching on God, Man and the World. It does not go cap-in-hand to worldly science and unbelieving philosophy because it knows that the Biblical Worldview is the only workable worldview. (more…)

Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path (1)

What is a Dispensationalist Theology?

For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students.  The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary.  Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves.  As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems.  And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.

I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of Biblical and Systematic Theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.

This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by ‘dispensations’ is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT).  The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible.  They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are.  What do the concepts “innocence”, “conscience”, “government”, “promise”, “law”, “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

Why, for example, would “government” be a more emphasized stewardship than “conscience” after Noah?  Wasn’t Israel’s theocracy far more of a government than anything found in Genesis 9?  The time of Abraham is often called the Dispensation of Promise.  But are not promises made to Adam and Eve and to Noah before Abraham?  Moreover, as John Sailhamer has stated, ‘the OT itself does not have a word or expression for the NT idea of ‘promise.’ – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 421.

Realizing that Sailhamer is referring to the promise-fulfillment motif, but this is certainly relevant to the ‘Dispensation of Promise’ which assumes such a motif.  If Sailhamer has a point it would seem wise to replace the imprecise term “promise” with “covenant.”  But once we do that we will be required to drop the theme of “dispensation” too, so as to give the Abrahamic covenant the developmental scope it clearly must have.

In addition to this change of emphasis from what seems nebulous and inexact to what is plainly revealed and stressed in the biblical text there needs to be a rethink about what dispensationalists mean when they refer to their theology as a “system.”  It needs to be made clear that if dispensationalists continue to accept a limited definition of DT as essentially relevant to only two or three areas of theology, or, (which is much the same thing), if they are content to assimilate DT within the narrow band of “dispensational premillennialism,” then they have admitted tacitly that DT is not and cannot be a complete “system.”  Restricting, as many dispensationalists tend to do, DT to ecclesiology and eschatology, militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a systemof theology.”  Patently, any viewpoint which only chips in when either the Church or the Last Things is being discussed does not qualify – neither does it deserve to be identified – as a system of theology.  And this for a very good reason: only whole theologies can be systematized!

For the record, here is my working definition of DT: “An approach to biblical theology which attempts to find its raison d’etre in the Scriptures themselves, and which constructs its systematic presentation of theology around a primary focus on the biblical covenants.”

You will see that I have booted out the dispensations and thrown the spotlight upon the covenants in the Bible.  That may disturb some people, but the profit of this move is immense.

2. Hermeneutics

Dispensationalism has often been associated with grammatico-historical interpretation.  Quite apart from whether many older dispensationalists actually contented themselves with approach, the fact is that the very term “grammatico-historical” no longer enjoys a static meaning.  So it becomes necessary to spell out what kind of hermeneutics is envisioned by that terminology.

In its most basic sense language conveys thought into words.  God is the Author of language and when He speaks in the early chapters of the Bible there is a correlation between His thought, the words selected to convey His thought, and the product brought into existence by His word.  This flow from God’s word to God’s action is so obvious in the Bible that it scarcely needs proof.  Let the reader study the Bible Story with this in mind and he will see it everywhere.  Thus we have an important hermeneutical marker from inside the Bible.

As we have seen God also makes covenants.  We may easily locate Divine covenants, for instance, in Genesis 9, 15-22, Exodus 19-24; Numbers 25; Deuteronomy 29-30; 1 Chronicles 17; Psalms 89; 105; 106; Jeremiah 31, 33, Luke 22 and many other places.  God does not need to bind Himself by an oath, so why does He do it?  One reason, I want to suggest, is because of our propensity judge God’s word by our own capacity for belief.  Like Eve sizing up the forbidden tree, we want to come to our own conclusions independently.  It is our default position, and the covenants set up the boundaries within which our interpretations ought to operate.  The biblical covenants might well be seen as ‘a reinforcement of Divine speech.’  If this be the case then God’s covenants serve to boldly underline the God’s word/ God’s action motif we saw earlier.

Hermeneutically speaking then, we have two powerful interpretive ideas coming at us from the pages of the Bible itself.  And this is given further emphasis in such places as 2 Kings 1 and John 21 where goes out of His way to explain that He means what He says.

This hermeneutics take us a surprisingly long way when applied to all of Scripture.

3. Biblical Theology

If there is one thing that most biblical theologies fail to take seriously it is the doctrines of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture.  These concepts are inseparable.  If Scripture isn’t clear (except, of course, to those highly skilled practitioners in the genres of ANE and typology), then for sure it isn’t sufficient.  When one adds to this the miraculous coincidences wherein each type and genre corroborates the particular theological bent of the writer it all begins to look a little suspicious and question-begging.  Understandably, dispensationalists prefer to stake out their hermeneutical tents on firmer ground.  But the myopia induced by paying too much attention to dispensations prevents them from setting out a sound alternative Biblical Theology.  Once the covenants are seen for what they are and the dispensations are allowed to merge into the background the program opens up invitingly before them.  (more…)

The Transmission of the Soul (Pt.4)

Part One, Two, Three

The Question of the Incarnate Christ

What do we do with Christ’s human soul in this matter of transmission?  Do we commit the Apollinarian heresy of the Early Church, which says Christ had a human body but a divine soul?  Or are we to fall into the Eutychian heresy, where Christ was said to have had a human body mixed with the divine soul?  Those are not orthodox positions.  But there are certain passages which speak to this doctrine and must be clarified.  What is one to do with these texts?

For instance, Romans 1:3 says,

Concerning his Son, who was descended (who was born) from David according to the flesh.

Whether one is a creationist or a traducianist, there is no getting around the need for the miraculous when it comes to the birth of Christ.  The creationist may point to the logic of Christ’s human soul being newly created by the Father at conception, but the traducian realist will ask how that soul remained sinless in a sinful mother, and will again call attention to the implication that if the human body does not stain the soul the only other road open to the creationist is to say that God makes each new soul sinful (all except Christ that is). 

In place of this miracle the traducian view will say that although the soul may be passed on through the female, the absence of a human father could account for why the sin nature was not passed on to Jesus.  If this conclusion seems unsatisfactory the alternative is to say that God protected Christ’s soul from the stain of sin.  Either way, the realist position has less explaining to do than the creationist – federalist view. 

More Evaluations

In his great volume on Sin, the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer spends many pages evaluating both the realist (traducian) position and the federalist (creationist) position.  His problems with the traducian position basically boil down to the imputation of guilt (something which will have to be taken up elsewhere).  But it should be noted that many theologians, both in the early church and after the Reformation, did not tie in the imputation of guilt with the imputation of sin. 

Berkouwer’s problems with federalism are more numerous and severe.  They can be summed up in his statement about the double-meaning of imputation as guilt accounted because of our sinning, and ‘alien guilt’ foisted upon us by God’s ordinance (458-459).  He continues,

Realism has done us the service of sharpening our insights concerning the meaning of imputatio.  Is [this] concept at odds with the very nature of his justice?  Does it contradict the statement of Ezekiel [ch.18:4, 20, 25-26] concerning the activity of God?  Surely the “rule of Ezekiel” underscores the correlation of guilt and punishment in a very unambiguous way. (460).

Certain passages of Scripture clearly imply realism rather than mere federal representation.  Surely John 1:14 designates the human nature of Christ, body and soul?  And what is one to do with Hebrews 7:9-10?

One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.

If Creationism is true this statement would be untrue.  In fact, it would be nonsense.

This genealogical passage in the early chapters of Genesis should also feature in the debate:

This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.Genesis 5:1-3

Regarding the image of God, is this passage just talking about Seth’s physical body and not also talking about his soul? If only Seth’s body is under consideration then surely ‘likeness and image’ in Genesis 5:3 refers just to the physical makeup?  But if we allow that interpretation we must allow it as the right interpretation of ‘image and likeness’ in Genesis 1:26-27.  Of course, no Creationist would wish to assent to that! 

 What about the great proof text for Creationism:

Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? – Hebrews 12:9

Straight away the antenors go up, for the verse seems hardly to be asserting that God the Father is responsible for implanting new spirits within newly conceived human beings. 

As Robert Culver says:

Is this contrasting human males as fathers of our material nature and God as Father of our immaterial nature? Quite to the contrary! Note it is not said that God is Father of our spirits, but simply of spirits. The argument is from the less to the greater to encourage reverence toward God.  So the author is arguing that if we revere the lesser earthly parents of our humanity, we surely should revere the greater universal heavenly Father, God of all spirits. The manner of generating parts of human nature is not even under consideration. – Systematic Theology, 279. (more…)