The Sufficiency of Scripture, the Insufficiency of Man

The Sufficiency of Scripture, the Insufficiency of Man

Scripture, tradition, and the relationship between the two—it’s a conversation that needs to be had.

But the present manifestation of this conversation includes two sides talking past one another in a big way. One reason for this is the emerging divergence between two very different epistemologies. Presuppositionalism, broadly speaking—with its idealist DNA—makes Scripture the epistemological starting point of the Christian individual. Man’s idea of Scripture and Scripture itself are nearly the same. And this results in very little attention paid to man’s insufficiency once Scripture is presupposed as sufficient. It is generally assumed that the individual Christian has sole right in determining the proper interpretation of any given verse, chapter, or book of the Bible. Hence, the disdain of some for the tradition.

The classical Reformed position, on the other hand, understands there to be a distinction between Scripture as a source for our theology and our theology as it exists in the fallible mind. In other words, the fount of man’s theology is the text of Scripture, the principium cognoscendi, and man’s theology derives from that principle in an imperfect manner. (1 Cor. 13:12) This means Scripture is presupposed, but it is presupposed as a principle that leads to conclusions drawn by the fallible intellect. Naturally, therefore, we can admit these theological conclusions drawn from biblical exegesis to be fallible as well, while the source itself, Scripture, is infallible. Subsequently, a team effort in biblical interpretation becomes a needful service.

Scripture & the Tradition

Given the above explication, we should be readily able to see why the presuppositional milieu seems so allergic to the ministerial authority of tradition. Man presupposes the Scriptures in such a way that there’s functionally no difference between Scripture and man’s knowledge of Scripture. This cashes out in an infallible presupposition, or an infallible idea in man. In this one area, the knowledge of man is raised to an apostolic quality of infallibility. If Scripture is infallible, and there is no distinction between Scripture itself and man’s idea of it, man’s idea is infallible. And thus, it is no longer subject to peer scrutiny, say, from the tradition. It’s a simple matter of applying the law of identity and following the implications.

On the other hand, if classicalism is true, and Scripture acts as a perfect reservoir for our  imperfect theological knowledge, it follows that we might maintain Scripture’s unique attribute of infallibility while at the same time admitting man’s fallibility. And this leads us to the good and necessary use of secondary authorities. If man is fallible, he needs help to understand the infallible Scriptures aright. Biblical interpretation is not purely an individual exercise. It requires the Holy Spirit, as He works in the individual, but also as He has worked in believers past and present. Francis Turretin writes:

When we dispute at any time from the fathers against our adversaries, we use them only as witnesses, to approve by their vote the truth believed by us and to declare the belief of the church in their time. We do not use them as judges whose opinion is to be acquiesced in absolutely and without examination and as the standard of truth in doctrines of faith or in the interpretation of the Scriptures.[1]

In other words, while the fathers are not determinative of biblical meaning, as Rome conceived of them, they are witnesses unto the truth. They are the Democracy of the Dead. The peer review of theological discourse.

But not even this minimalized view of tradition may be granted if indeed our presupposition of the Scriptures is one and the same with the Scriptures themselves. If this is the case, to criticize the presupposer is to criticize what is presupposed. If Scripture and our idea of Scripture are identical, then subjecting ourselves to the voice of history is as bad as subjecting Scripture itself to the voice of men! In this scheme, to make man accountable to other men is to make Scripture accountable to man.

The Protestant View of Tradition

During the Reformation, two different views of tradition were forcefully advanced. There was “tradition 1” (T1), which taught the magisterial authority of Scripture, the meaning of which is witnessed by ministerial authorities, like creeds, confessions, the early church fathers, and biblical commentators. But “tradition 2” (T2) taught that there were two magisterial authorities, Scripture and tradition—the latter being able to create doctrines not found in the former. In the modern discourse, a “tradition 3” (T3) seems to emerge which rejects the place of tradition in theology entirely. Charitably, we might credit the (T3) position with maintaining a use for tradition, but what that use is is not abundantly clear. On (T3), tradition may be interesting, but it isn’t authoritative in any measure, and it rarely maps to the church’s contemporary situation.

For example, in a recent journal article, James White writes:

Just as in the days of the Reformation, citations and counter-citations of earlier church writings appear in the battles of our own day, whether in reference to the positions of Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, or any other system that claims to honor both Scripture and other external sources of authority (whether those sources are necessary for the interpretation of Scripture or whether they exist as co-equal or even superior authorities alongside of Scripture). But it is here that we must insist upon this maxim: Let the early church fathers be the early church fathers. That is, we must allow them to speak in their own context, to their own battles, in their own language. We cannot demand that they answer our questions and engage in our conflicts, nor can we assume that the battles back then were identical in form and substance to ours today. It is far, far too easy to abuse historical sources in the service of a cause or a movement. Rome has done this, and has done so authoritatively, by claiming her dogmas have been the “constant faith of the church” down through the ages. But Protestants, free of the dogmatic constraints of Rome’s infallible pronouncements, can still emphasize a particular lens through which the statements of earlier generations and previous centuries are filtered, giving a distorted view of earlier theologians’ actual beliefs. Ironically, such modern lenses are often constructed with carefully selected citations of the fathers by contemporary historians who insist that they are, in fact, simply walking in the tradition that has come down to them.[2]

Apparently, there is a severance between our time and their time. The issues they dealt with were their issues, and the issues we deal with are ours. The implication is startling. Their doctrinal conclusions were formed from issues unique to their time. And this leaves the reader scratching his head, asking, “Are their doctrinal conclusions to be left behind, as unique to their own day, as were their theological disputes?” Of course, Ecclesiastes 1:9 tells us there is nothing new under the sun. So, one has to wonder what White intends to achieve by seemingly isolating the fathers and their problems to their historical context.

Furthermore, White’s engagement of his interlocutors simply fails to remark upon crucial aspects of (T1) and the Reformational doctrine of Sola Scriptura as the norma normans over subordinate authorities, norma normata. The “contemporary historians,” though not named in the above quote, presumably includes the historians and theologians White has been interacting with over the last year—a year which no doubt contextualizes the entire journal issue in which White’s article appears. And those particular historians and theologians, as far as I can tell, do not accept White’s presupposition that historical figures are adopted as idealistic “lenses” through which Scripture must be filtered. It has been unequivocally stated that Scripture is the source and principle of true theological knowledge, and that this source of knowledge is a document read by the Holy Spirit-filled individual with Holy Spirit-filled voices from the past. To use Turretin’s language, employment of the creeds, confessions, and historical commentary is the employment of “witnesses”—other minds which demonstrate that we ourselves are not going it alone.

The Insufficiency of Man

This brings me to what should be an elephant in the room: the insufficiency of man. Fundamental to the task of theology is the theologian’s humble acknowledgment of his own inadequacy. He has a keen awareness of Romans 3:23, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” noting especially the present tense of his fallenness in that text. He confesses that his heart is accurately diagnosed by Jeremiah when he writes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9)

Because of man’s inadequacy, the Holy Spirit turns the Christian to his fellow man, “Without counsel, plans go awry, But in the multitude of counselors they are established.” (Prov. 15:22) Through consort with his brothers, he gains a wider periphery. A single man can see, but many men can see more. He also gains accountability, and is less likely to chart his own, novel path. Heretics, though claiming love for the Scriptures, gain nothing but their own innovative opinions leading to their spiritual shipwreck. A helmsman needs a navigator to chart the sea.

Conclusion

Once we acknowledge the difference between the primacy and adequacy of the Scriptures versus our own inadequacy, we will clearly begin to see the need for a “multitude of counselors” when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological formulation. So long as Scripture and our commitment to it are seen as one and the same (some corners of presuppositionalism), man’s insufficiency figures less into the exegetical picture. So long as Scripture and man’s idea of it are the same, Scripture’s adequacy and man’s adequacy are one and the same. The result is an unfalsifiable, individual Bible interpreter that sets himself above the collective voice of the historical church. A self-made pope.

For these reasons, it would be best to understand Scripture as sufficient, man as inadequate, Scripture as chiefly authoritative, and tradition as a ministerial aid to man’s intellectual and ethical handicaps.

Resources:

[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. I, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 163.

[2] James White, “What Is Sola Scriptura,” Pro Pastor,Vol. 1, No. 1, FALL 2022, A Journal of Grace Bible Theological Seminary, 3-4.

The Divine Dominion

The Divine Dominion

Power, as a divine attribute, leads us to consider the administration of it in God’s sovereign dominion. There are basically three ways in which God exercises or has exercised sovereign dominion over the created economy. We may as well call these “the three modes of His kingdom” or modes of His sovereign rule. First, through nature, God rules and reigns over the kingdom of creation, or what some have called “the common kingdom.” Second, through the typological-redemptive kingdom of Israel as revealed in the Old Testament. Third, through the kingdom of His grace which especially terminates upon His church, that is, God rules His church in a distinct way from that of Old Testament Israel and also the common kingdom.

Examining the Three Modes of Kingdom Rule

First, there is the kingdom of creation is God’s administration of His sovereign might through not only creation but also the providential ruling of all creation. In Isaiah 66:1, the LORD says, “Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool.” In psalm 103:19, we read, “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, And His kingdom rules over all.” The kingdom of creation is God’s universal rule over the entirety of the natural world. The Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have an unlimited and unqualified rule over all the universe. It’s within this kingdom where we find the laws of nature, every society and culture of man, every civil institution, and every king and prince whom God is pleased to either establish or destroy.

This kingdom of creation is administered through covenants—the creational covenant between God and Adam, and following its violation, the second creational covenant which God made with Noah. The covenant of creation made in the garden, sometimes called a covenant of life or covenant of works, is mentioned in Hosea 6:7, where we read, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; There they dealt treacherously with Me.” Rashi, the Jewish Rabbi and Old Testament commentator of the middle ages agrees that this term, commonly translated “man” in English, ought to be translated to the proper name, “Adam.” Following the violation of this covenant, and proceeding the flood, God was pleased to make yet another covenant, this time with Noah, where He would regulate the world by civil justice on account of sin.

In addition to this kingdom of creation, which is nothing less than the administration of God’s sovereign might over all things, the Lord has been pleased to establish kingdoms within this kingdom. Not only are all the kings of the earth established under the creational kingdom, but on account of God’s special purpose, He establishes particular kingdoms through which He accomplishes His redemptive purpose in a very explicit way. And this brings us to the second way in which God has exercised His sovereign rule.

Second, there is the typological-redemptive kingdom of Israel, which came through the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants. Israel is God’s Old Testament nation, located right in the midst of the pagan world. And the purpose of His rule in and through that kingdom was chiefly the preservation of the Seed of the woman, the Lord Jesus Christ. Genesis 49:10 says, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; And to Him shall be the obedience of the people.”

Third, God rules through His special grace the “kingdom of the Son of His love,” established in the blood of Christ. Colossians 1:13 states, “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love…” And this is the kingdom wherein the Beatitudes we are promised as an inheritance, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:3) And in Luke 6:20, “Blessed are you poor, For yours is the kingdom of God.” This is the kingdom mentioned in Matthew 12:28, when Jesus says, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Speaking to the religious elite, who rejected the “chief cornerstone,” Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” (Matt. 21:43)

Conclusion

The purpose of this survey is to give an example of how our Lord administers His sovereign dominion in a multifaceted way: through creation, through Israel, and through the church. These are three domains, or three kingdoms. Interestingly enough, this doctrine of God’s sovereignty actually informs our political theology as Baptists. Whereas the kingdom of Israel is no more, there being only the kingdom of creation and the kingdom of the Son manifest in the church, we have two domains wherein God rules—two kingdoms.

When it comes to the kingdom of creation, God rules through prescripts (natural law) and providence. When it comes to Israel, God ruled through prescripts (natural + positive laws) and special providence. When it comes to the kingdom of grace, God rules through the incarnate Son, the Son’s law of love, and special, gracious providence, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 1:6)

Trials & Their Outcome

Trials & Their Outcome

In James 1:2-3, James begins his letter with a near-paradoxical consolation. Trials are nasty. And we are all bound to experience them to one extent or another. But here, James gives us a sound reason for why Christians should remain joyful in the midst of affliction. Let’s look at our text under four headings: (1) the command to joyfulness; (2) the occasion; (3) the ground of joy; and (4) the outcome of the testing of faith.

The Command To Joyfulness

James begins by addressing his words to his “brethren…” These are not merely brethren according to the flesh (they do seem to be Jewish converts along with James), but they are brethren according to the Christian faith, as v. 3 makes plain. And he commands his brethren to, “count it all joy…” Or, “consider it joy…” This is a command and an encouragement to count those things as joy which the world would count as occasions for despair and cynicism. Joy here is not to be taken as a fleeting emotion or passion, but a perennial disposition of the Christian person grounded in the knowledge of faith. This is a gladness to be had by the Christian.

The Occasion

As mentioned, the occasion is that which the world would deem undesirable. The world teaches us to escape our issues and problems. The Christian faith teaches us to trust God and embrace what God sends our way with gladness. And in this case, James has trials in view. These trials are not specified. They could be anything from persecution to false teaching; from financial hardship to famine, etc. In our context, we might think of political upheaval, job losses, general uncertainty, economic unsurety, cultural perversity, etc. James says that upon the occasion of falling into any one of these trials, we should “count it all joy.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that we ought to be glad for wickedness itself, but for what God is doing for us in spite of it and even through it.

And this brings us to the ground of our joy in trials. What does the Christian have that the world doesn’t have which allows the Christian to count these trials as instances of joy rather than despair?

The Ground of Joy

James began his letter with what he will assume throughout: the possession of the good news of Jesus Christ and our slavehood to Him (Jas. 1:1)—in both trial and tribulation. But in v. 3, he adds a further reason why the Christian ought to have gladness in tribulation, “knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.” The reason for gladness, in this case, is essentially Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” God is doing something for us, even in the midst of trial, and for that we ought to be grateful. We ought not try to thwart God’s providences, we ought not shake our fist to heaven. We must be grateful for what God is achieving in us through trial, trusting that a trial is a providential test for our good.

The Outcome of the Testing of Faith

By the way, What is a test?

A test is a metallurgical procedure whereby a metal is purified from its ore. Our faith is the precious metal buried in the human being, which is like ore, having many imperfections. And this spiritual testing of faith purifies the faith in the believing subject which in turn results in a stronger substance, able to take the beating of the world. Hence, such testing “produces patience,” or, more accurately, “perseverance.” How pure and how strong would our faith be without trial? Constant world-comforts often lead us to a  growing complacency and laziness. But God is pleased to refine us, like metal, through the fires of trial. Through these means, He casts our attention upon Him rather than the pleasures of this life. Through trial, He increases our trust and comfort in Him whilst weaning us from our trust and comforts in the world.

What Does Jesus Think About Adultery?

What Does Jesus Think About Adultery?

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the very God who inspired the Mosaic law. Therefore, when in His incarnate state He teaches us the law, His interpretation of it is the full and perfect exposition of the true sense of the law. Remember, Jesus did not come to eradicate the law, but to perfect or complete it. (Matt. 5:17) Christ is the point at which the law finally meets its goal. So, when He apparently sets Himself against the law, we have to remember that He’s not contradicting what He Himself revealed to Moses all those years ago. Instead, He’s teaching the fuller sense of the law, and in the process, He is rebuking and correcting what we might call a Pharisaical “letter of the law onlyism.”

Matthew 5:28 & Our Lord’s Teaching on Adultery

After stating the letter of the law, He says, “But I say to you…” He does not appeal to another authority outside Himself. He does not, as the prophets of old did, begin His message with, “Thus saith the LORD.” He just says, “I say to you.” The Author of the law comes to deliver the law according to its fuller sense.

He internalizes the command forbidding adultery, “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Just as Jesus forbids soul-murder, (Matt. 5:21-22) here He forbids soul-adultery. We need to make a few observations regarding v. 28. First, what is it to “look at a woman to lust for her”? Second, what forms do this “looking,” and the resulting adultery take? Third, how is this adultery especially present and promoted in our culture today?

What is it to “look at a woman to lust for her”? It is probably necessary to note at the outset that this doesn’t apply to physical, and even sexual attraction, which is good and right. It is right for a man to be sexually attracted to a female, and a female to be sexually attracted to a male so long as that attraction is aimed toward marriage and occurring within the context of marriage. Sexual desire is good when ordered properly. Lust, however, is an inordinate sexual desire out of step with God’s purposes in and for creation.

Frederick Dale Bruner notes how the Christian church has both overreacted and under-reacted to this commandment throughout history. He writes, “The early church in particular tightened Jesus’ Command too intensely as the result of an occasionally dualistic antipathy to sex of to pleasure as sinful…”[1] And this is why forced celibacy of clergy and celibacy in general came to be seen as an exalted Christian virtue whilst marriage was more or less perceived as a necessary evil for those who couldn’t control their sexual desires. But Bruner then notes a more modern interpretation of the text. He goes on to say, “But later a losing occurred under the influence of an increasing secularity, where, for example, some interpreters said that Jesus did not forbid looking to lust at a woman but to lust at someone else’s wife…”[2]

Thus, Jesus’ words came to be understood by the modernist not as an exposition of the seventh commandment, but was limited only to the tenth, which says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Ex. 20:17) According to this interpretation, lust is perfectly acceptable, so long as it isn’t toward someone else’s wife. But this couldn’t be a more fatal mistake.

The language of the phrase, “look at a woman to lust for her,” is notable. Given the preposition in, “to lust for her,” we might render it, “look at a woman in order to lust for her.” In view here is an extremely foreboding law that condemns the very look, even prior to the formal act of lust. A look that is intended to lust is what is here identified as spiritual adultery according to Christ Himself. A look or a glance ordered to lust is what is what Jesus condemns. And this brings us to the several forms such a look takes.

Forms of “Lustful Looking”

What forms does this “adultery of the eyes” take? Given the all-encompassing nature of the commandment, there is a twofold restriction: First, against lustful intent. And second, against the steps taken in order to lust, i.e., looking, seeing, or viewing. And this means the following are here expressly forbidden and condemned by our Lord:

Perverse thoughts. All sexual thoughts the include non-marital or extra-martial sexual relations of any kind are here forbidden by our Lord.

Looking at someone else with non-marital sexual intent. That glance at that woman or man at the mall, at school, or at work, which has a non-marital sexual character is explicitly declared a sin by our Lord.

Viewing pornography. Men and women are good enough at conjuring up adulterous images in their imaginations apart from pornography, but pornography plays on this already-present sin by adding fuel to the fire. It sets the mind and flesh on fire with an inordinate passion toward another person—not for their personality, not for their value as a human being, but as an object to be used and abused for one’s sexual pleasure. As Bruner puts it, the woman or man in the magazine or on the website “is no longer really a unique human being; she or he is not simply kindling, tinder, a thing; a way for one to enjoy oneself, to express oneself, to feel one’s powers.”

Conclusion

According to Jesus, the very look ordered to the purpose of lust is itself sin. We, of course, are aware of the obvious cases of adultery found in society—extra-marital sex and explicit violations of the marriage covenant by either husbands or wives. But we are less sensitive to those forms of adultery which go unnoticed by other people. Invisible to man, yet visible to God, adultery of the heart—including looking at another person with lustful intent—is less of a concern. Even worse, it’s generally accepted as a cultural norm. Everybody’s doin’ it!

But make no mistake, if imbibed and habitually practiced, apart from the twin graces of faith and repentance in and to Jesus Christ this invisible sin will do two things: It will, first, destroy your soul. And, second, it will eventually manifest itself in outward relationships in a very visible, destructive way. Silent sins eventually become very loud. The bosom sin of internal adultery is a poison that tastes sweet, but nevertheless kills.

Resources:

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Vol. I, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1987), 221.

[2] Ibid., 220.

Our Pilgrimage

Our Pilgrimage

When the Bible calls believers “pilgrims,” what does it mean?

A pilgrim, traditionally understood, is a sojourner in a land that is not his own. Usually, this sojourner is a temporary resident in view of traveling to some other destination. And there are three senses in which Christians are pilgrims. They are pilgrims in the world of sin, they are pilgrims on the earth, and they are pilgrims in heaven.

Pilgrims in the World of Sin

Christians are pilgrims in the world of sin simply because the world of sin is not their home. The apostle Peter writes, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul…” (1 Pet. 2:11) The world of sin ought to be strange to us and we ought to be strange to it. We are in this world, but should not be of it. (Jn. 17:15) Thus, as good sojourners and ambassadors of our heavenly homeland, we travel through and we travel through as strangers.

Pilgrims On the Earth

The first kind of pilgrimage is uncontroversial. This one, however, may draw some controversy who believe the present earth is our final home. However, Hebrews 11:13 says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” The “earth” no doubt refers to the land of Canaan. This statement has a far reaching redemptive significance. But the principle point remains. On a microcosmic scale, Canaan was given to God’s people. It was a good land. On a macrocosmic scale, the entire earth was given to man, and it is a good land. But being a good land doesn’t make it our final land. Canaan was good, but it wasn’t the final resting place of God’s people. It was but a type of something greater. So too does this present earth point beyond itself to something more glorious.

We receive exhortations in places like Colossians 3:2, where Paul writes, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” We are to look beyond the earth to that which we will receive in Christ which is an heavenly inheritance. There is something yet greater to which we look. Earth is good, but it cannot compare to the glories of heaven.

It is worth noting that this present earth is that on which we are pilgrims. There is going to be a time when Christ judges the inhabitants of the earth, rids it of all wickedness, and brings it into the light of His glory. “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:19)

Pilgrims in Heaven

In a special sense, Christians are strangers in heaven… for now. And this is because prior to the resurrection, Christians are in the intermediate state. Though in heaven with God, they yet look to the resurrection when they will be made whole in Christ. Presently, even in heaven, Christians have an eschatology to which they look. This resurrection is what Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 5:1, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

Christians in heaven are in the place of their eternal destiny. So they are not strangers in the sense of being in a strange land. Rather, they are pilgrims or strangers with regard to state. Man was made body and soul, and redemption entails the eschatological reunification of soul to body upon the resurrection from the dead, “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:52)