My Take on Chapter 3 of ‘The Gospel as Center’

I thought I would put this up here as I put a little effort into it and I need to post  🙂

Some of the men in our Church are reading through the new book edited by D. A. Carson & T. Keller, The Gospel as Center.  I was given the chapters on Scripture and Creation to write about.  Here is what I wrote about chapter 3, “The Gospel and Scripture: How to Read the Bible.”

“Hello,

Pastor asked me to write something on chapters 3 and 4 of our book.  Here are my thoughts on chapter 3:

Chapter 3 is by M. Bullmore on “The Gospel and Scripture.”  Because I am rather pressed for time I shall have to record some problems with the chapter in with its good points.  It is a rather simplistic chapter written with broad strokes, but it is clear that it is written from a point of view decidedly biased toward covenant theology (Hereafter CT).  CT basically teaches that salvation in the Church is the main theme of Scripture.  All the elect are under a “covenant of grace” which means all the elect from Adam’s time to the second coming are in the Church.  Since neither I nor many evangelicals who believe the Gospel hold to CT it is quite wrong for it to be given preference like this in a book purporting to be written for a broad evangelicalism.

On his beginning page (41) the writer declares that by the Gospel he means “God’s eternal purpose to redeem a people for himself (1 Pet. 2:9) and to restore his fallen creation (Rom. 8:19-21),” though later he will define it as “the message of Christ.” (44).  1 Pet. 2:9 does not say what Bullmore states in that first clause.  It simply refers to those to whom Peter is writing (probably the whole Church but some say the Jewish Church), as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” etc.  But CT teaches that all the saved in both Testaments are in the Church (thus “a people”).  Then he says, “God’s purposes in revelation can never be separated from His purposes in redemption.” (42).  In an important sense he is right.  But since very many are not saved and since the Bible presents to man the right way of looking and thinking about the world, this is too reductionistic.

He goes on to quote from Isa. 55 twice: first the famous verses about the efficacy of the Word of God, and then some slightly earlier verses which refer to the “everlasting covenant” God made with David and Israel.  Now, if God’s Word will “accomplish everything that God purposes it to do” then surely it will accomplish the promises in the Davidic covenant to Israel? (e.g. “He has glorified you”).  I say this in passing but it is worth filing away.

Is it correct to say that the Gospel is the cause of biblical revelation?  Actually, only in a secondary, though important sense.  You see Biblical revelation (Scripture) is necessitated because of the Fall.  Hence, the primary cause of biblical revelation is the separation that exists between the Creator and the creature – not all of whom will be saved.

What about the Gospel being the effect of revelation?  Yes.  The Bible exists for the Gospel, although it exists for more than the Gospel.  For example, the Gospel cannot be found in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.  These may help clarify aspects of the Gospel (e.g. justification by faith not law and sanctification after faith), but they are not the Gospel itself.  I’m sorry, but critical thinking is needed.

Pages 44-47 outline the attributes of Scripture and is very good, although I was surprised there was no clear statement about inerrancy there.  These pages are the best part of the essay.  Also, the section on our need of humility is well done.  But then we come a-cropper.  The section on “Hermeneutics” (i.e. interpretation) is pretty awful.  This may seem like a harsh statement because it reads so piously.  But therein lies the danger.  Let us examine a few things.

First, using Lk. 24:25-26, 44-45 and Jn. 5:39 Bullmore makes the common claim that “if we are going to read the Bible rightly. we must see it in all its parts as it relates to Christ.” (49).  What does “in all its parts” mean?  Well, he had just quoted Bryan Chapell’s claim that Jesus can be seen in every text of Scripture in some way.  Then he says, “Jesus’ words presuppose that every passage does indeed point to him.”  That sounds pious!  But which words of Jesus presuppose this?  Are we really to believe that on the two or three hour trek to Emmaus Jesus went through EVERY OT verse and showed Christ was there?  Do you know how long that would have taken, even if it were possible?  Conservatively, it would have taken several days!  No, this is NOT what Jesus’ words presuppose!  All Jesus was doing was going to every OT Book and showing predictions and illustrations of His person and work within them.  He is in Gen. 3:15 and 18:17 and 49:9-10 and Num 14 and 24 and Job 19:25-26 and Isa. 7:14, 9:6, 61:1f. and Mic. 5:2 and Zech. 9:9 etc.  But when Satan causes the deaths of Job’s children we don’t find the Gospel there!  When Doeg the Edomite shows his true colors Jesus isn’t seen.  Yes, like Spurgeon we ought to be able to get to Christ from any passage.  But not before rightly expounding the passage and THEN relating it to Christ.  But that is not what Bullmore is saying.  He wants us to read all the Bible through the lens of Christ.  That is, he is recommending we read Christ into every passage!  That’s typical CT and it leads to gross spiritualizing of Scripture.

Not surprisingly, he writes about “spiritual interpretation of Scripture” next.  This is not the same as spiritualizing but it often ends up in the same court.  This can be seen in the opening remark under that head on page 49: “The Bible is qualitatively different from every other book and requires that we read it in keeping with its nature.”   I entirely agree with the first part of that statement.  The Bible is the Word of God so it is qualitatively different than non-inspired books.  My problem is with what lurks behind the second part.  You see, he goes on to say (in a rather confused outline of “Illumination”) that not only does the Spirit help us to know the Bible is true.  he also states that one cannot understand the Bible without the Spirit (50).  That is not what Paul is saying in the 1 Corinthians passage and it is obviously untrue – otherwise Bullmore has undermined one of his earlier proof-texts (Jn.5:39) where Jesus exhorts unbelievers to search the Scriptures.  How could they unless they had the Spirit?  And how can any unsaved person read the Bible unless the Spirit helps him interpret it?  This is not the doctrine of Illumination!  Scripture addresses the lost in many places.  It even addresses Satan here and there!  Furthermore, the underlying assumption is that the Bible is only written to believers.  If that is true then an unsaved person cannot logically be condemned for ignoring it.  I hope you see this.

The illustration using Matt. 12:1-8 is poor and unenlightening.  Bullmore is right to say that Jesus was focusing the narrative on Himself.  But He did so because He was “Lord of the Sabbath.”  David was not above the Law – no king was (53?).  But Jesus should be followed by the religious leaders for who He is.  Will they join the disciples instead of condemning them?  That is the crux of the passage.

The last page is also the worst (sorry!).  the “plan of salvation” is not “what scriptural revelation is all about.”  It is a large part of it.  But only a covenant theologian would say such a thing.  And only a CT would be so bold as to announce “The good news is the singular and majestic theme of Scripture” which “should inform and control our “handling” of God’s Word.”  Sounds good doesn’t it?  For one thing, there seems to be more than one usage of “gospel” in the Gospels (e.g. how much of the death and resurrection of Jesus did the disciples understand at first? (Mk. 9:32).  Did Jesus preach it in Mk. 1:13 or Matt.4:23?).  But it is plain rubbish!  What he is recommending is that we come to every verse of Scripture with our mind already made up that we will find Christ in it.  That is not how we do exegesis.

Further, that is not how he got an understanding of the Gospel in the first place.  He did what we all should do: he read what the good news is to us in John 3 and Romans 3-5 and Gal. 1-3 and Eph. 1-3 and he believed what it said.  As all Scripture is equally God’s Word should it not be treated with the same respect?

Your brother,

Paul H.”

Postscript: I wanted to say something here about chapter 4 on “Creation” by Andrew M. Davis because I’m out of town till Tuesday night and may not get a chance to review it.  It is simply outstanding!  Without a doubt it is the best introductory presentation of the subject I have read.  His use of Scripture is superb, and as a piece of composition it is a marvel.   

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11 comments

  1. Well said, about the difference between “finding Christ in every passage” and “finding the road to Christ.” I first heard the story Spurgeon told, from someone with the first view (who told it often): he distorted the story to have the old preacher telling the young preacher to find Christ in every text.

    Later I heard the accurate account (in an S. Lewis Johnson sermon), and what a difference in the way the story was told, as well as the difference in the overall approaches. The first preacher with the “find Christ in every passage” stopped any “teaching” at that point and just started acting pious and devotional, “oh how great Christ is” and lofty, flowery words about that idea — as contrasted with the accurate telling, in which SLJ was indeed focused on the particular text and expositing it.

  2. There are those who are amillennialists who do not hold to covenant theology. They strongly hold to the “one people of God” idea but deny that the Church is in the Old Testament. In what way do they differentiate the “one people of God” from the Church ?

    1. @David, I’m exposed to that strain of non-CT amillennialism. The idea is God’s sovereign rule is expressed over a Kongdom over the ages so man can be reconciled to God. This kingdom was manifested as a model (type) through the Old Testament Israel, and when it is shown by history to be not working (by Babylonian captivity) God initiated the next stage which is the promise that the kingdom will be ushered, which is then fulfilled by Jesus’s first coming. The Kingdom is deemed to be invisible rule of people gathered to the church, and will be consummated when Christ returns.

      This strain is similar to CT but there are important differences. I understand the Anglican (reformed) evangelicals by and large accepts this theology, you can find examples from the UK Conservative Evangelical Anglicans and Sydney Anglicans.

      The best 2 books I can think of that explains this strain is Vaughan Roberts’ “God’s Big Picture” and Graeme Goldsworthy’s “According to Plan”. I don’t think many of us dispensationalists have offered decent response to this close relative of CT yet. I asked Arnold Fruchtenbaum personally and he is not familiar with this brand of replacement theology ( and indeed he confirms personally that he has never read any works by Sydney Anglicans like Phillip Jensen, etc)

    2. David,

      This is a problem for all who hold to one people of God. In my debate with Steve Hays I asked him this question and he could never provide a clear answer. He just switched his labels about (of course, he never addressed one major point of mine in the whole discussion, but that is another thing).

      Fact is, if you believe in one people of God then you have to believe it is the Church, which is the Body of Christ. If you deny the Church is in the OT then you have the people of God who are not the Church in the OT and the people of God who are the Church in the NT: two peoples of God! To overcome this you have to say the Church is a part of the one people of God. Then you can no longer refer to the one people of God as the Church (which, as I proved to Hays, puts you in conflict with the Westminster Confession – and 1689 London and Savoy Confessions – as well as men like Turretin). What then is one to call the whole people of God? And whichever label they come up with is both clumsy and has been used by others to describe the Church!

      It just gets nutty brother!

  3. Joel,

    I am familiar with Goldsworthy’s books and cited him to Hays if you recall. In “According To Plan” he tries to make the case that when one interprets the OT typologically then everything finds fulfillment in Jesus Christ (141, 160-161, 204). Christ is Israel and all the promises to Israel are fulfilled in Him ( Because the Church is in Him it is also the antitype which Israel pointed to (68). Goldsworthy is certainly a CT. He speaks of the cov. of grace on page 124 of the book, and it is clear that he means by that the ONE COVENANT (192).

    The trouble is that these guys have gotten slippery with their terminology. It’s harder to track them. E.g., O. P. Robertson calls the cov. of grace the Cov. of redemption (as does Goldsworthy sometimes), whereas in classic CT the cov. of redemption is that made between the Father and the Son before time.

    Typology is the key. Nearly everything in the OT is typical of Christ (this is one way they say Christ is in every text). Scripture must therefore be interpreted through Christ (76, 82-83,123). This is a case of taking what you need for your theology and then reading that theology into everything else you meet in the Bible. It’s eisegesis on speed.

    1. Paul, I admit I’m still to read Goldsworthy (which may be on my next list though). From the notes given in Bible studies and camps which are written by teachers who have read Goldsworthy, I’m certain they don’t believe the church and Israel is the same – but there is “only one people of God” manifested through God’s rule to the world.

      Also I have seen on the internet someone ex-Sydney Anglican with a full CT background blasts the Sydney Anglican kingdom dominion theology, saying it’s not theological enough and the conception of the people of God informs why the baptism and the Lord’s Supper are as such. An example of the criticism of that theology from CT is here:

      http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.co.nz/2005/07/all-good-evangelical-anglicans-end-up.html

      I would see example as such as an indirect proof that the kingdom dominion theology is different from CT, even though the two are close relatives. And the “true Reformed” can live with the churches that subscribes to kingdom dominion theology, but they see them as incomplete as they don’t believe in CT.

      1. The article is written by someone who has converted to Presbyterianism and who therefore believes that “the people of God” in the NT include both saved and lost. Many CT’s would deny this. In truth Joel, Covenant Theology is far from monolithic, as a comparison of Witsius with Robertson with Horton with Goldsworthy clearly shows. But they all end up saying similar things. A good place to go to see this is Greg Nichols’ new work: http://www.amazon.com/Covenant-Theology-Baptistic-Perspective-Covenants/dp/1599252627

  4. Paul,
    Thanks for this. It was very helpful. If you could elaborate on the following, I hear exactly what you stated all the time: that “the “plan of salvation” is “what scriptural revelation is all about.” And “The good news is the singular and majestic theme of Scripture” which “should inform and control our “handling” of God’s Word.” And that we must find Christ in all Scripture. My struggle is how to respond? you’re right, it does all sound very good, but its always kind of rubbed me wrong.

    And have you seen this? and how would you respond?
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2012/05/11/why-i-believe-in-the-covenant-of-works/

    1. Gary,

      Try this example: “Grudem’s “Systematic Theology” is all about the plan of salvation.” Or, “the biblical worldview is all about salvation.”

      The fact is, many things are discussed in the Bible (Creation, Sin, Satan, Angels, Scripture, Epistemology, Foolishness and Wisdom, Ethics, Judgment, Hell, the Temple, etc.). The plan of salvation is one subject among a host of others. Now, it is very important! But could a person be given a piece from Exod. 19-24 or Rev. 12-16 and come away with the plan of salvation? Of course not.

      Because all truth is essentially one the plan of salvation impinges on all other truths to one degree or another. but that is very far from saying everything is ABOUT salvation.

      CT is very soteriological to the exclusion of many other things in Scripture. It tends to be too narrow in its reading of the Bible because it reads everything through the lens of salvation. Rather, Scripture should be read through the lens of “God has spoken” and we need to hear!

      As far as Taylor’s article is concerned: well, it’s a long article and I don’t have time to interact with it. I’ll say this. It’s true that because a certain word isn’t present doesn’t mean the subject is not. But it doesn’t mean it is either! Ergo, one must prove the presence of a covenant of works in Gen. 2. What do we find? We find a prohibition. Do we find a promise? No! It is inferred. Does a promise, even if present, always imply a covenant? No! Is Hos. 6:7 a clear enough verse to prove a cov. of works? No, it is normally thought to be correctly translated as “and as men.” It is an unclear verse to base a doctrine on. Is Isa. 24:5 a good verse to prove a cov. of works? No. It’s an “uncreation narrative” and the everlasting covenant in the verse is probably the Noahic covenant with creation. Further, Dumbrell’s notion of a pre-existing covenant in Gen. 6 & 9 is strained exegesis. There is no reason to think that God was not first predicting the Noahic cov. and then instituting the covenant.

      Much in Taylor’s article is pure speculation (e.g. the tree of life is symbolic). This is how this theology proceeds: tenuous inferences from unclear verses tied to a lot of speculation. If you haven’t read them yet, perhaps my “Rules of Affinity” posts will help you see this.

      Your brother,

      Paul

      1. Paul, I have also heard a common aying that the reason salvation is the ultimate single point of God’s plan for the ages is God created man to be the dominion over all creation. Without redemption His whole plan will unravel. Another point is salvation is important because it shows fully God’s character of justice and mercy rolled into one.

        How would you respond to these two points? I certainly agree they are very important, but not the most important points.

  5. Joel, you ask:

    “Paul, I have also heard a common aying that the reason salvation is the ultimate single point of God’s plan for the ages is God created man to be the dominion over all creation. Without redemption His whole plan will unravel. Another point is salvation is important because it shows fully God’s character of justice and mercy rolled into one.

    How would you respond to these two points? I certainly agree they are very important, but not the most important points.”

    Notice that your first point is a theological one. Yet the second aspect of it; that without it God’s plan would unravel, does not follow from the first part. Of course, salvation is necessary for God’s plan to save us along with THIS EARTH (viz. Creation). Trouble is, most who hold this don’t believe (or haven’t done historically) that God will save THIS earth – they believe God will re-create everything at the Second Coming. If that is the case this reasoning is unsound.

    The point about the display of God’s justice and mercy is very common in CT and is plain false. If it is true then the display of God’s character is contingent on Him showing justice and mercy (which are manifestations of His Veracity, Holiness and Goodness), thus attacking His Aseity!

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