Personal Thoughts About Commentaries (10): Daniel

As with the selections on the Book of Revelation, this list will display some bias towards Dispensational works, although I don’t want to fill it up with just those. One big reason for that is because Dispensationalists have not written many great commentaries on any book of the Bible. Often-as-not they have been content to furnish basic commentaries for the masses. The fact is that if a person wishes to go deep into an inspired author he will need to be conversant with many writers who he may not see eye to eye with. So here goes:

  1. Stephen Miller (NAC) – This is a mid-level Dispensational commentary that holds its own against the usual contenders (see below). Miller thinks through the text and asks the right questions. This is the most helpful interpretation of Daniel that I know.
  2. Leon Wood – Thorough and very competent. Good to have on hand when preaching through the book.
  3. John Goldingay (WBC) – He doesn’t believe the book was written in the 6th Century B.C. (he puts the author in the 2nd Century), and he comes up with some odd explanations (e.g. of the four kingdoms), so why have him so high on the list? Because he is an excellent exegete. Because he provides the depth one needs if the student is to know what mainline scholarship, plus much of evangelicalism, thinks about Daniel. And because it does contain a lot of insight.
  4. J. Paul Tanner (EEC) – I’m going out on a limb here, but by the looks of it Tanner’s forthcoming large commentary on Daniel is not to be missed. Tanner is a Hebrew specialist and careful scholar. I expect much from this work.
  5. Gleason Archer (old EBC) – Archer was a great OT scholar and linguist who wrote the still excellent A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. He makes very good use of his page limit and his work teems with insights.
  6. Andrew Steinmann (CC) – Steinmann is a Lutheran scholar you ought to know. He is very conservative and practical, but also analytical. I own several of his works and he seldom disappoints. This commentary is not brilliant on the prophetic portions, but is great on the early chapters and the authenticity of the Book. Focusses on the “Son of Man” theme.
  7. John Walvoord – A reliable, straightforward Dispensational commentary which does not interact much with other works. Walvoord was a top prophecy scholar.
  8. Peter Steveson – A very worthwhile effort from a conservative Dispensational scholar, with good word studies.
  9. Joyce Baldwin – Baldwin was well known for solid thinking and her pithy style. Again, the use of this work for the prophetic chapters is as a foil for the futurist view, but there is much helpful material in this little book.
  10. E. J. Young – Old, dogmatic, staunchly conservative amillennial work from a great OT scholar. This thorough commentary should not be overlooked.

The above list will not impress those readers who must have the latest cutting edge commentaries, but I stand by it. Of other works I like Zoeckler’s contribution to the Lange set. He is liberal but he is surprisingly useful. Keil’s work in the Keil and Delitzsch set is good. J. J. Collins is an expert on “apocalyptic” (for what it’s worth) and writes clearly, but he also writes as one who doesn’t believe the text he is writing about. E. C. Lucas can’t seem to make up his mind what the Book of Daniel is about, while Sinclair Ferguson is not as good as Young. J. A. Motyer is a great scholar and his small commentary on Daniel nearly squeezed out Baldwin’s.

Finally, Tony Garland is writing a massive commentary on Daniel, which, if he isn’t careful, will remain unfinished until we’re in the Kingdom. He’s just beginning chapter 5. A wise person would get to know this work and its numerous appended studies as soon as he can.

I forgot to add Robert D. Culver’s fine Daniel and the Latter Days. It is not a commentary, but a study of premillennial eschatology with emphasis on Daniel.

Review of ‘The New Testament Commentary Guide’

A Review of Nijay K. Gupta, The New Testament Commentary Guide: A Brief Handbook for Students and Pastors, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020, 124 pages, pbk.

Nijay Gupta is a Professor of NT at Northern Seminary and a busy author.  This little book is his attempt at writing a NT Commentary survey that is up to date and judicious.  No attention has been given to NT Introductions or NT Theologies, only commentaries are included.  Gupta’s introduction covers several questions about commentary sets, one-volume works, and Study Bibles.  When speaking about one-volume NT works the author says that he knows of no non-technical ones.  I find this surprising as Robert Gundry’s Commentary on the New Testament is very worthy attention.

The rest of the Introduction provides a survey of the commentary sets (e.g. Anchor, ICC, Baker, NICNT, Pillar, etc.). The author puts in a good word for the Smyth & Helwys series, which I am not familiar with. I have always thought it was a bit pricey.

The main part of the book is entitled “Commentary Recommendations.” These are separated into Technical, Semi-Technical, and Non-Technical, with an additional category called Hidden Gems. Gupta writes from the perspective of the evangelical left. His knowledge of the choices is extensive, but more conservative shoppers (like me) will need to augment this guide to ensure the right balance. Only modern commentaries are listed.

So what about the commentary recommendations themselves? As might be expected Davies and Allison gets top billing on Matthew for scholars. Among others on Matthew, Craig Keener’s volume fairs better than he does in many lists. Hagner does well, as does R. T. France. There is no place for Grant Osborne or D. A. Carson (whose commentary on John also doesn’t make it).

On Mark’s Gospel, R. T. France, A. Y. Collins, and Mark Strauss are among the top picks. I appreciated the inclusion of Larry Hurtado’s short commentary, but where oh where is James Edwards? The same applies to Luke. Edwards is nowhere to be seen, although his commentary is excellent. Darrell Bock, Joel Green, and David Garland are among the books that Gupta commends.

Moving on to Romans, the top choice is C. E. B. Cranfield’s classic, with his successor at Durham J. D. G. Dunn next. I have a high opinion of Dunn, not because he is conservative (he is not), but because he asks the right questions and, in lucid prose, has such fertile suggestions for exploration. Moo makes the cut. Schreiner does not.

Elsewhere, I thought that Gupta’s suggestions for 2 Corinthians were very good. On Ephesians he tells us which interpreters believe the epistle is authentic or pseudonymous. Rather astonishingly, there is no place for Harold Hoehner’s massively detailed work! Gupta’s recommendations on Hebrews were overall a disappointment.

At the back Gupta includes a list of “Commentaries by Women and People of Color.” I have no time for such politically correct nonsense. Either a commentary is good or it isn’t. The “accidental” characteristics of the writer are hardly relevant.

At $18.99 this Handbook may be priced a little above what some people are willing to pay. Since I received my copy free from the publisher I didn’t have to come up with the money. Would I have done otherwise? Possibly. It’s good to have an alternative to Carson. I thought many of Gupta’s comments were informative.



Renewing Dispensational Theology – Revised (Pt. 2)

Part One

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 content 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 – just as Reformed Covenant Theology does! 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 Dispensational 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, Bibliology, Anthropology, Christology, and 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. Dispensationalists are forceful in their claims for “a Dispensational hermeneutic”, but they fail to understand what they mean by it, and even if they do, they often fail to give it the theological sponsorship it deserves. The main problem here is one of methodology – a study of which is dearly wanting in Dispensational circles. Let me give an example: if a certain universally applied hermeneutic is necessary to have Dispensational eschatology, then one cannot cease applying it in all other areas. Our of a consistently applied reading of the Bible a full Systematic Theology will inevitable come!

5. Method

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. Why? Because that triad is what we are confronted with as creatures in God’s image every day of our lives.

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.

6. Worldview

Contrary to some views, Systematic Theology sets out the Bible’s teaching on reality (viz. 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.

Continue reading “Renewing Dispensational Theology – Revised (Pt. 2)”

Renewing Dispensational Theology – Revised (Pt. 1)

I thought this article could use a second airing.  I have taken the liberty to revise bits here and there. 

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 areas where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be improved and renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by ‘dispensations’ is more restricting than defining oneself by the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT).  The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of a plain reading of the Bible.  Hard as it may be to hear it, they are non-essentials, which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to ask if they actually power the hermeneutics or the system.  It is assumed that the names of the dispensations characterize the various epochs, but what do the concepts “innocence”, “conscience”, “government”, “promise”, “law”, “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

Why, for example, would “government” be a stewardship given more emphasis than “conscience” after Noah?  Has anyone given it much thought? 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.

I realize 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.  I do understand that ‘promise’ is used as a marker in the progress of revelation, but it really is an imprecise label to stick on the main idea in Genesis 12-22, which is not promise but covenant!  I may add here that although one can have a promise without a covenant, the reverse is not true, but the covenant is the thing. The artificiality involved in wrongly defining a dispensation as “promise” is a big problem, since it obscures what the text is actually saying.

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 system of 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 I believe 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.

On a separate note, I wonder how familiar many Dispensationalists are with the method of Covenant Theology?  We can’t just slap ‘dispensational hermeneutic’ onto the CT formulations with which we agree and claim to do them justice.  Just what is a ‘dispensational hermeneutic’ anyway?  G-H hermeneutics?  What is that nowadays, and have dispensationalists always employed it?  Mike Stallard’s dissertation on the Hermeneutics of A. C. Gaebelein for instance, says no.  

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. 

 Using something like the revised definition of DT given above, it is possible to trace out what I like to call “the Creation Project” using the two hermeneutical guidelines previously discussed.  When this is done we begin to see something like the following:

a. Creation involves both a teleology and an eschatology (thus a study of the End Times involves a study of the Beginning Times)

b. The Fall introduces the noetic effects of sin which resets our default from dependence to independence.  Genesis 3:15 covers the major work of Christ in a fallen world.

c. The Noahic Covenant provides a predictable framework for history till the consummation, and further stresses the nature of Divine covenants as reinforcements of language – since all interpreters take this covenant ‘literally.’

d. The Abrahamic Covenant sets out a blessed future for at least two lines of humanity: those from Isaac and Jacob who inherit “the land of Canaan” and “the Nations.”  It also picks up on the Promised Seed idea from Eden.

e. The Davidic Covenant promises a great King who will pull the strands of the Noahic and Abrahamic Covenants together.

f. The New Covenant brings all the other everlasting covenants into itself in the Person of Christ, through whose redemptive death and new life the covenants must pass in order to find their specific fulfillments.

g. The Church as a “new man” created after the resurrection of Christ also enters into specific blessings of the Abrahamic and New Covenants.  In fact, in a real sense, it enters them before those with whom they were originally promised. 

h. The Second Coming, which is given more emphasis in the Bible than the First Coming, brings the earth’s Owner and the second Adam back as King to judge, restore and beautify it.  Just as all the covenants run through Christ, so Christ is Maker, Owner, Redeemer, Restorer, and Ruler as the physical world as a physical Being in the world.  The two comings of Christ are in reality one work separated by time, as is evident from the Messianic prophecies in the OT and the Lord’s Supper in the NT.  This fact also shows us that the teleology/eschatology motif inaugurated at Creation and instilled in the biblical covenants is yet unfolding.  

i. Because this world is cursed even Christ cannot remove the ravages of God’s curse on the ground without constantly exercising His miraculous restraint on it.  This explains the need for a New Heavens and New Earth wherein there is no more curse.  This completes the original “Creation Project.”  The whole Bible program is radically (but not artificially) Christological.            

That, I submit, is a lot more promising than talking about the dispensations and restricting it to the Church and Israel.  I call it, for want of a better term, ‘Biblical Covenantalism.’

The Parameters of Meaning in Order

It took me an eternity (well, ten years) to complete this series. The Parameters of Meaning (as well as the Rules of Affinity) are meant to guide the interpreter of Scripture as the Bible is studied. They are not a hermeneutics manual. They are, however, a set of principles designed to prevent the reader from drifting too far from the biblical text in context.

If anyone spots a weakness in thee “rules” I would be grateful if they would let me know.

The Parameters of Meaning: Introduction

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4a

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4b

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 12: Never confuse application with hermeneutics and exegesis. It is always “explanation before application.” Making application a part of one’s interpretation is a subtle instance of putting an unrestrained ‘theological’ cart before an ‘exegetical’ horse.

Many modern hermeneutics writers tell us that we cannot omit application of a biblical text when we interpret it. I find that to be confusing. In fact, the more I think about it the more confusing it seems. Take the sentence “The NT is composed of 27 Books.” I know what it means, but am I applying it at the same time? When Jesus tells us to pray “Thy Kingdom come” how does He expect us to apply it? Mustn’t we first understand what “kingdom” means here? Again, when we are told to love our enemies, isn’t there a big difference between interpreting what that means and actually doing it?

Asking such questions alerts us to the meaming of application. It boils down to two things: the belief that “this text applies to me,” and the belief that “I need to act on this.” Since acting on something depends upon whether one believes a passage is directed at them the first belief is primary. That is to say, when we believe that a text of Scripture is aimed directly at us we are applying it to ourselves. So if we look again at the three sample sentences above it should be possible to show when application is happening.

  1. “The NT is composed of 27 Books.” – This sentence is an objective observation. It only applies to me to the extent that is describes a state of affairs, similar to “the cat sat on the mat” describes something that occurred. I believe both statements, yet neither one is directed at me. There is nothing to apply. I either believe it or disbelieve it.
  2. “Thy Kingdom come” – In this case I believe that Jesus was referring to the future Kingdom of God after He returns. That is something to pray for, therefore it applies to me. Yet such a kingdom applies to me in a certain way. I pray for it, but it is in my future. I do not participate in the kingdom now. So the type of kingdom to come is not decided by my application, it is decided by the interpretation of this along with other passages. Ergo, my hermeneutic should be separate from the application. If however, a person believes that the kingdom has come; that we in the church are the kingdom, then he believes in his present participation in it, because he has applied the kingdom in the present to himself. Why has he done this? Because the steps of hermenutics and exegesis have been fed by a theology which guides the interpretation and application.
  3. Finally, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. The application of Matthew 5:44 to ourselves is based on the universalistic tone of the Beatitudes and the fact that there are imperatives addressed to the Church that imply the same thing (e.g. Rom. 12:17-21; Gal. 6:10).

The reason why some readers of Scripture hold that application is part of interpretation is because they indulge in forms of theological hermeneutics. Theological hermeneutics is undergirded by the theory of preunderstanding and the postmodern critique of objectivity (e.g. a hermeneutics of suspicion). This appears to move the ground from under the interpreter’s feet. The question of which theology is to be granted a hermeneutical pass comes to the fore, and it is difficult to think of a way to resolve the issue without repairing to a non-theological, non-applicatory form of exegesis. If one is reading oneself into a passage (say in OT prophecy) while trying to understand it in context the exegesis will be skewed. This means that the interpreter should try to hold apart the application of a passage from the determination of what it is saying and to whom (it’s explanation).

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

Parameters of Meaning -Rule 10

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11: While interpreting Scripture with Scripture is valid, it is only to be employed as a check upon interpretation. Using the Analogy of Faith as part of one’s hermeneutics introduces it prematurely and may smuggle ones assumptions into the interpretation.

All evangelical Christians believe that Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture. We all can recite at least some words from 1 Corinthians 2:13:

“These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.”

But of course, 1 Corinthians 2:13 does not say we compare Scripture with Scripture; that is just assumed. And it’s a decent assumption, since we know that one part of the Bible (say Text B) may be used to throw light upon the part one is trying to understand (i.e. Text A). Scholars refer to this as “the Analogy of Faith” rule, and it is a good rule. The real problem is when Text A has not been sufficiently studied in its context before Text B is brought in to clear things up. Or to put it differently, trouble can ensue when Text B is called upon before Text A has been exegeted to smooth over “issues” foreseen in Text A. The Analogy of Faith is being misused by being introduced too early in the interpretive process. Let me provide an example.

In Ephesians 2 we meet with a verse whose interpretation has caused some controversy:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins – Eph. 2:1

This verse is then interpreted by some Reformed writers through John 11:

Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying.  And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me… Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.” – Jn. 11:41, 43-44.

A classic case of this is to be seen in R. C. Sproul’s book Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, where he relies completely on the Raising of Lazarus story to interpret Paul’s words in Ephesians 2. In fact, Sproul barely expounds Ephesians 2:1 at all, and certainly not in context.

What Sproul is doing (and many others who employ this same device), is that he is trying to establish one of the storied “Five Points of Calvinism” and the teaching of regeneration preceding faith as a necessary part of the order of salvation (ordo salutis). Whether Sproul is right about that or not is not the point. The point here is that he is straying outside of good interpretive parameters in his zeal to prove his case. John 11 refers to a real corpse where the soul has left the body. It is inanimate and cannot think or respond to any stimuli. But the persons being referred to in Ephesians 2:1-3 were never in that state. Paul distinctly characterizes them (unsurprisingly) as conducting their affairs under the influence of the godless world system and of its spiritual ruler, Satan (Eph. 2:2). They were living and thinking. Added to this (again unsurprisingly) their thinking and behavior was dictated by their sinful “flesh.” (Eph. 2:3).

Paul’s description of the state of Christians before they became Christians is that they were living, thinking, planning persons who lived their lives under the thrall of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They were not corpselike. “Ah,” the rejoinder comes back, “they were like corpses because they were utterly unable to respond to the Gospel before being re-vitalized (i.e. regenerated) by God.”

But there’s a problem here. Lazarus’s dead body was literally unable to respond to anything, whereas we are told in Ephesians 2:3 that unbelievers do respond – in disobedience! It makes no sense to speak about a dead body as “responsible,” but sinners are responsible. In Ephesians 2 the deadness (nekrous) is not literal. They hear, they think, they reject. This is because they are “dead in trespasses and sins” – a phrase that is expanded upon in the following verses, as well as in Ephesians 4:17-19, and which is utterly nonsensical if applied to a corpse. Therefore, since the “deadness” of unbelievers includes their active response to the Gospel it does not follow that they need to be regenerated in order to believe, in which case the Jn. 11 analogy is inappropriate. Rather, the “deadness” might require only that they need rousing or convincing or alerting, or all three; something that the Holy Spirit is said to do (Jn. 16:8). We might refer to someone who is sleeping as “dead to the world.” Similar figures of speech are found on the lips of Jesus (e.g. Lk. 9:60 and 15:24, 32). One would not run to either of those passages to prove regeneration before faith of course, yet they are semantically closer to Ephesians 2:1 than John 11:41-44.

My goal here is not to argue with the doctrine so much as to point out how the Analogy of Faith was brought in before the parameters of meaning of Ephesians 2:1 were determined.

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10

Parameters of Meaning – Part 9

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 10: Never interpret the Bible via assumptions based on extra-biblical data (e.g. “science”, philosophy, history). These can help but they should never preempt Scripture.

This “parameter” is of course just a reiteration of the principle of the Sufficiency of Scripture, although the emphasis is upon the whole of Scripture’s content, not just that pertaining to the doctrines of our salvation.

The Bible is made up of all kinds of literature, some of it clearly defined, some of it less so. We are often told that each of these “genres” demand their own forms of hermeneutics, which is bolstered by studies in many non-biblical disciplines. I am not here talking about the work of men like Richard Burridge (What Are The Gospels?) and Craig Keener (Christobiography) on the Gospels as a special type of biography, but about ideas like the latest attempts to interpret the Bible through a Cosmic Temple motif, John Walton’s views on the ANE background of the Genesis creation story, the views of all and sundry about apocalyptic, and likewise those who interpret Bible books (esp. Revelation) in terms of intertestamental apocalyptic writings, or the philosophical hermeneutics which have caused so much confusion in the definition of the discipline in recent years.  

One should not use the supposed findings of science to interpret Genesis 1-3.  I respect a person’s right to be an old-earth creationist, but many of them fall foul of importing the conclusions of scientists into their understanding of Genesis 1-3, essentially using say Big Bang cosmology or distant starlight or radiometric dating to guide their hermeneutical approach to the chapters.  R. C. Sproul quotes Bertrand Russell’s “proof” for the unreliability of Jesus’ as a prophet on Matthew 24:34, since “this generation” (i.e. J. S. Mill’s and Bertrand Russell’s belief that it was Jesus’ own generation) did not witness the things He predicted.  This led Sproul to a Preterist view (The Last Days According to Jesus).  But it’s not only covenant theologians who do this.  Pop Dispensationalist Hal Lindsey’s interpreting the scorpions of Revelation 9 as helicopters (There’s A New World Coming). 

Even in terms of what we know about the beliefs of people in the biblical period is impacted by this concern.  For example, OT scholar Richard Hess has said that,

In terms of the future and the Messiah, Routledge views things from an amillennial context.  Everything prophecied in the future was symbolized and fulfilled in Jesus.  There is no future temple or time of peace before the new heavens and new earth.  So when Ezekiel 40-48 describes this in detail, he was just condescending to people who could not otherwise understand except by making them think there was really going to be a temple and a repopulated Promised Land.  Somehow Routledge doesn’t find this deceptive in the least, despite the fact that every example we have until after the New Testament was written believed in a literal fulfillment of a restored temple.” (my emphasis)

– From Richard Hess’s review of R. Routledge’s OT Theology in Denver Journal, Volume 14, 2011.

I have used this quote before, but here my focus is not to prove a point relating to Temple expectations per se, but to call attention to the fact that the Hess comment corroborates the plain-sense interpretation of passages such as Ezekiel 40-48.  Being corroborative it ought never to be given the authority to be a decisive influence on the interpretation of a text.  This is why the lauded Grammatical-Historical hermeneutic cannot be trotted out as a sort of “Band Aid” for “what to do” without knowing what one is doing.  For instance, as John Sailhamer pointed out, G-H interpretation is really G (i.e. grammatical) interpretation, and that for the reason that how much one really knows from history is up for grabs. 

The basic issue being addressed in this “parameter” is that God has infused the Bible with a self-sufficiency; no one needs to grab for external helps to interpret God’s Book.  The principle boils down to a concerted belief in the Holy Scripture’s self-attestation, even in its self-interpreting character.  I have provided reasons elsewhere for the validity of this belief.  These include the “God’s words – God’s Actions” motif wherein what God says He is going to do is what He does; and the nature of the biblical covenants as hermeneutical fixed points to which everything else in the Bible must agree.  


The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9

I was wondering what I ought to write about when I stumbled upon my old unfinished series on The Parameters of Meaning.  I think these parameters are quite helpful guides for interpreters, but I clean forgot about them.  Well, I’m going to try to put things right!  Here’s “Rule 9” with a link to the previous eight:

The Parameters of Meaning Rule 8.  

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale spiritualizing or allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal”. There will always be another literal meaning available that preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.

Reminding ourselves that by “literal” interpretation I am just talking about a prima facie or plain-sense reading of the text in its right setting, taking special care to examine the surrounding context before employing a text theologically.  Strange as it may seem, more than one literal reading of a text is possible (hence, these “parameters”).  It is possible to take a literal view of one text which will skew the rest of the passage, or a whole theology.  A few examples will show what I mean:

Prolepticism in Christ’s Sending Out of His Disciples: Matthew 10:5-23

“Prolepsis” involves the representation of an event that is in the future as if it were happening now, or about to happen.  It is a rhetorical way of anticipating an outcome that lies afar off, especially in prophecy.  When Jesus says in John 14:3, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also,” The “You” in the verse extends beyond the disciples and contemplates those who come after them.  The pronoun is proleptic in verse 3 even though in verse 1 (“Let not your heart be troubled”) it may not be.

In Matthew 10 we read of the sending out of the twelve to minister to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (10:6), with basic instructions about what they were to do.  This included preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”; a message proclaimed before by both John the Baptist (3:2). and Jesus Himself (4:17).  So far so good.  Let us get to the example I have in mind.  At Matthew 10:23 the Lord says,

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

Many Preterists take this verse literally and believe it means that Jesus must have returned before the disciples had traversed the entire land of Israel.  Many would locate this “return” around A.D. 70 in the guise of the Roman armies.  Now certainly they would be taking verse 23 literally, but their literal interpretation would result in a great deal of spiritualization of many other parts of Scripture.  For one thing, one would necessarily have to make the “coming” of Jesus spiritual not physical.  The context helps us see what is going on.  From Matthew 10:16 Jesus begins to warn the disciples about persecutions in a manner akin to the eschatological passages found in Mark 13:9-13 and Luke 21:12-17.  This is prolepsis, just as in John 14:1-4.  The Son of Man (a term most clearly associated with Daniel 7) did not “come” midway through the carrying out of Acts 1:8.  This is an instance when the wrong literal interpretation is being chosen (it may surprise some readers, but rarely is there just one literal interpretation to choose).  Another will fit the context better, perhaps in this case one that reads Matthew 10:16-23 proleptically as reaching into the end times.

“This Generation” Is Not That Generation: Matthew 24:34

Also a favorite landing site for Preterists is Matthew 24:34:

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

Some Bible interpreters understand this verse literally to be referring to the Roman overthrow of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 under Titus.  What this means is that everything else in the chapter has to be fitted in before that time.  This includes things like famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places (v.7), the killing of the disciples (v.9), the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom to all nations (v.14), the abomination of desolation in the holy place (v.15), many false christ’s and false prophet’s performing great wonders (v. 24), and the devastating physical coming of Christ with angels in un-ignorable fashion (vv. 29-31).  This just didn’t happen.  Houston, we have a problem.  And the parable of verses 45ff. also show that no spiritual coming of Christ is in view.  This is the second advent.

Who then is the “this generation” Christ is talking about?  Well, Daniel 12:11 has the abomination of desolation at the end of time (see also Dan. 11:31 and notice the similarity).  And remember, Jesus was answering the disciples questions, in particular the one about “the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age.” (24:3).  Jesus was speaking about “the end” (24:6, 13, 14).  So the generation referred to in Matthew 24:34 is the generation of “the end of the age” who witness “the sign of Your coming.”  Again, if a literal reading forces you to spiritualize everything else, you have the wrong literal reading.  Another will fit the context without you having to resort to spiritualization or allegory.  Not all literal readings are equal.

The World is Not Always the Planet

One more example of this might help.  This one is not about end times prophecy, though it does concern eschatology.  It comes from Romans 4:

For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.

A lot of Christians think that “the promise that he would be heir of the world” is speaking about Abraham being promised the literal planet.  But there is a problem with this.  Abraham was made no such promise!  Neither was Israel.  What he was promised was that his literal descendants (Gen. 15:4-5, with v.6 being cited by Paul in Rom. 4:3) were to be very numerous, that they would be given a literal land (Gen. 12:7; 15:7-21).  Also promised to Abraham was that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3).  Nowhere was Abraham promised the whole literal earth.  But further, Paul is not even thinking about the land promise, at least from Romans 1 – 8.  I have written in another place:

The word “world” appears once in Romans 4 so we must look at what Paul is speaking about to determine what he means by it.  As anyone can see from Romans 4:1-5 the Apostle is thinking in terms of justification and righteousness. Faith, not works, is the bridge from one to the other (hence the insertion of Gen. 15:6). Then David is used to illustrate the point at issue (4:6-9). Then we get a question about whether this imputed righteousness is only for the Jews (circumcision – 4:9), which is answered by the fact that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised (4:10). This means that his faith-justification to righteousness is not bounded by circumcision, so that those not circumcised may receive justification through faith the same way Abraham did (4:11-12). Those not circumcised would be the rest of the peoples of the world. So far, not a word about the physical land!  Now comes their proof text for land=planet earth, verse 13.  

The Apostle is talking about justification, not the land promise, and the land promise was not that Abraham would inherit the whole planet.  This is an illegitimate use of the literal sense; a better use of it is on hand, even if it might not serve the purposes of certain eschatologies quite as well.


Review of ‘An Introduction to John Owen’ by Crawford Gribben

Review of An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life by Crawford Gribben, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020, 190 pages, pbk.

Crawford Gribben is a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and is well known as a scholar of Puritanism, specializing on eschatology. He has written a previous book on John Owen which has garnered him much praise.

This work represents a modest exploration of the life and thought of the Puritan giant John Owen, and comes at the subject from a different angle than most of the biographies and studies of Owen I had encountered before. It is definitely a book by a historian, not a theologian (Sinclair Ferguson’s John Owen on the Christian Life is a good example of the latter). Gribben employs the device of the stages of life to understand Owen, and he is well-suited to the purpose. In particular, Owen’s experiences during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and then in the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy provide a good lens through which to view him and his writings.

The book consists of a chapter long Introduction followed by four chapters and the Conclusion. The main chapters deal with “Childhood,” Youth,” “Middle Age,” and “Death and Eternal Life,” as seen from Owen’s perspective. These phases of life are approached via Owen’s own thoughts, intermixed with facts about Owen’s life situations and temperament.  All this is preceded by a full timeline.

Gribben’s Introduction (25-45) is very well done.  He gives the reader much helpful information and sets up the four main chapters well, pulling you in to the life and times of his subject.  Of particular note is the use of contemporary diaries and notebooks which make the oft romanticized figure of Owen more concrete.  Owen’s career was carried on in tumultuous times and in the midst of much personal trouble, ill-health, grief, and even fear for his life.  He achieved much in his lifetime, but Gribben explains that by the end he was surrounded by the scent of failure (39).  Yet his impact was and is considerable, and not only as a theologian.  One of the most interesting things in this book is the description later in the book of Owen’s thoughts on religious liberty (e.g. 94-103, 146-149).  John Locke was a student of Owen and Gribben believes that,

Owen’s political theory – undeveloped as it was – made a very significant contribution to the emergence of the political tradition that has since been described as classical liberalism.  His work anticipated by two decades Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), which would make the best-known intervention in this emerging defense of civil and political liberty. (100-101).

Returning to the main outline of the book, the chapter on “Childhood” sees Owen as a considerate minister to the capacities of the young.  The chapter focuses on two topics; a Primer which I shall discuss in a moment, and Baptism, of which Owen became sympathetic to the concerns of the Baptists.  This part of the book is a bit drawn out, occupying more space than one would expect in a slim volume.  Gribben’s discussion of The Primer is of interest.  For whatever reason, this book was not included in the reprint of Owen’s works by the Banner of Truth, but the author says it “deserves to be recovered.” (48. Although it appears that Owen’19th Century editor, William Goold, was not aware of its existence – 65 n. 40).  “The Primer offers a glimpse into the simplicity he expected of childhood piety… as well as the daily routines of thankfulness that he expected parents to exemplify.” (68). 

Chapter 2 on “Youth” records Owen’s regimen as an Oxford student, and how upon his return to Oxford as its vice chancellor he tried to inculcate an inward piety as well as outward academic excellence, a concern that “met with mixed success” (78).  To address this Owen preached and later wrote his classic On Communion with God, which depicts the Godhead as approachable, kind, and gracious.  The author’s treatment of this great book (82-90) is a highlight. 

The chapter on “Middle Age” is mostly taken up with Owen’s views on religious liberty and worship.  Chapter 4 addresses “Death and Eternal Life” and concentrates on Owen’s views about prophetic portents in his age (although Owen was not much interested in millennial questions – 121-122).  Again, for me this section on his prophetic speculations is over-long.  Better is the treatment of the Beatific Vision, which in Owen is not seeing the Father’s glory but the Son’s (136-141).   

The book wraps up with an informative summary, rightly pointing out that “Owen was much more than a theological clinician,” and that, in fact, 

Owen’s discussion of the spiritual life has contributed, and perhaps even shaped, some of the most important religious communities and philosophies of the last several centuries of civilization in the West.  Owen was so much more than merely the most important English theologian. (146).

All in all An Introduction to John Owen succeeds in its purpose.  There are some engaging and uplifting pages in the book, though there are also a few less compelling paragraphs.  The author sets his subject within his troubled milieu, even if sometimes he is guilty of repetition, especially in his mentioning of the display of the heads and limbs of some of Owen’s revolutionary friends at various points of the book.  This little book humanizes John Owen more than other biographies I have read.  I should have liked some interaction with the great devotional treatises in Volumes 6 and 7 of Owen’s Works, and his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, which is probably my favorite, but it is only 190 pages long.  One can’t have everything.   

This book was supplied to me by the Publisher.