REVIEW: The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation

REVIEW: The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation

The below is a book review article submitted in fulfillment of a recent hermeneutics course at International Reformed Baptist Seminary. The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation is authored by Keith D. Stanglin.

Hatched within the cradle of Enlightenment skepticism is the obligatory and incessant quest for certainty. Over the last few centuries, science has undergone a mutilating transformation only to appear now in the form of a proud scientism. Everything is about process, a process that promises certainty. Rules rule the day. System and method, if correctly followed, will automatically garner the right conclusions. The employment of method and the proper outflow of process are givens within the context of a chemical laboratory or doctor’s office. But what happens when methods proper to the natural sciences are imposed upon higher sciences, such as theology or philosophy? The 19th and 20th centuries have especially produced the same air of obligatory certainty within the biblical-exegetical community. As Keith Stanglin puts it, “If the interpreter would simply approach the Bible in the same objective, reasonable way that the scientist approached nature, then, as long as enough information is available, the single message of any passage could be discerned.” (179)

Such an approach to the science of exegetical theology leaves one with the impression that biblical interpretation is a shut case. All the Bible reader must do is follow the correct method. Stanglin’s contribution to the retrieval of historical exegesis in The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation is an asset precisely because it shows that such an approach to Scripture is not only a-historical, but also categorically erroneous.

The majority of Stanglin’s volume (19-187) takes the shape of historical survey. Readers entering this area of study for the first time will quickly discover that the modern era of biblical studies has not been entirely transparent about its own place within the historical timeline of exegetical practice. In the second chapter, which deals with “Earliest Christian Exegesis,” Stanglin writes:

…it is important to get the hermeneutical priority clear. Although the New Testament writers were already recipients of a scriptural tradition, they began their interpretation of Scripture with assumptions outside of Scripture—namely, the revelation of Christ, their witness of the Christ evet. (21)

Already, those trained in the modernist interpretive tradition will likely start to become uneasy. But in chapter six, Stanglin helps us to understand the assumptions most probably causing the uneasiness. Speaking of Alexander Campbell, he writes, “He was influenced by a Baconian inductive approach (that is, the scientific method), and like most Enlightenment thinkers he assumed that this was the most reliable way to truth and knowledge in human endeavour.” (170)

In chapter three, Stanglin moves from the first two centuries of Christian biblical exegesis to the third century, the beginning of what he called “Later patristic Exegesis.” (47) This chapter spends a large amount of space surveying Origen and his surrounding controversy. Origen was controversial in his own day largely due to his supposed over-allegorization of the biblical text. However, as Stanglin shows, Origen needs to be carefully qualified. For example, some of Origen’s exegetical conclusions were taken as allegory though today they would be understood as the literal interpretation of the text. Stanglin writes:

Porphyry’s contemporary, Methodius of Olympus, opposed Origen’s interpretation of the dry bones story in Ezekiel 37. Methodius insisted that the story is about the future, bodily resurrection of the dead, and he accused Origen of “allegorizing”… the text. Origen’s allegedly allegorical interpretation, by the way, took the story to be about the restoration of Israel from exile, which, ironically, happens to be the “literal” interpretation now preferred by modern commentators. (49)

In the latter portion of the same chapter, Stanglin very helpfully surveys the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools of interpretational thought. He shows that the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools were not fundamentally opposed along literal versus spiritual party lines. Rather, Stanglin demonstrates that both schools maintain the theoria, or the fuller sense of Scripture beyond the historical meaning. The crux of the divide between both schools rested within their Christology. And it wasn’t as if they had principally different Christologies either, they did not; but they had different emphases within the same Christological conviction. Quoting Frances Young, Stanglin clarifies the divide, “Alexandrian and Antiochene is not spiritual versus literal, for both schools knew that ‘the wording of the Bible carried deeper meanings and that the immediate sense or reference pointed beyond itself.’” (68)

Whereas the Antiochene school has been heralded as the ancient champion of the historical-critical model of exegesis by moderns, Stanglin sets the record straight by concluding, “the Antiochene school of interpretation has more in common with Origen than it does with modern, historical-critical exegesis.” (68) And indeed, given Stanglin’s observation of the Antiochene maintenance of the theoria, such a conclusion seems entirely warranted. Contrary to the modern scientific mindset where rightly following the correct method automatically yields true exegetical conclusions, Stanglin finishes chapter three with the spirit and sentiment of the ancient interpreters when he says, “Biblical interpretation calls for humility, a desire to be formed morally, willingness to listen, and openness to spiritual illumination and understanding.” (76)

In chapter four, medieval exegesis is the object of author’s historical survey. He begins with Augustine (4th c.), who carries the necessity of virtue into exegesis following those who preceded him. For Augustine, it wasn’t only about methods. Morals were also necessary. Stanglin, quoting Augustine, writes, “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” (82)

Augustine does not imbibe the modern assumption of methodical automation. Rather, moral concern, especially as it appears in a faith-induced humility, is of prime importance. The same could be said of John Cassian of whom Stanglin notes, “that spiritual maturity and understanding are prerequisites for the right interpretation and application of Scripture.” (93) Cassian (4th-5th c.), though not the inventor of it, further develops what is called the quadriga, or the fourfold sense. He maintained two senses—historical and spiritual. But he also understood that the spiritual sense may be distinguished further into tropological, allegorical, and anagogical sub-senses. Gregory the Great apparently continued in Cassian’s footsteps. Henri De Lubac, Stanglin notes, “calls Gregory an ‘expert’ in the four senses, ‘one of the principal initiators and one of the greatest patrons of the medieval doctrine of the fourfold sense.’” (95)

Chapter four isn’t nearly as extensive as it could be since it deals with a lengthy period of Christian history. For this reason, Stanglin is not overly specific. Instead, he hits the wavetops of medieval exegetical history. He helpfully notes the major shift in exegetical practice resulting from scholasticism, where biblical commentary and the church’s theoretical discussions make for an influential distinction between the sacred page (sacra pagina) and the church’s sacred teaching (sacra doctrina). He includes a section on Thomas Aquinas, concerning whom he makes a rather unexpected (for some) observation:

This limitation of basing necessary doctrines on the literal sense is an important control on interpretation and doctrinal application. On the one hand, as Beryl Smalley has shown, Thomas is in a long line of high medieval commentators who gave increasing attention to the literal sense, essentially equating it with human authorial intent… On the other hand, recall that when Thomas emphasizes that the literal sense is the basis for the spiritual sense and for necessary doctrine, he is not saying anything qualitatively different from what the early church fathers said, who also based their interpretations and applications on the literal sense. (105)

Stanglin concludes chapter four with Nicholas of Lyra and, lastly, some principles of medieval exegesis, which include: further systematizing, quadriga and its controls, emphasis on the literal sense, academic setting, and exegesis & theology. (109-111)

Chapters five and six are the last two chapters in part one of the book. Here, Stanglin covers modern exegesis along with historical-critical exegesis. Regarding modern exegesis in chapter five, Stanglin characterizes the debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics as follows:

Those who emphasized biblical obscurity the most also tended to stress the role of external biblical interpretation and the need to supplement Scripture with church tradition. Specifically, the Roman Church’s insistence on the need for the teaching magisterium (ultimately vested in the papacy) to step in and interpret Scripture was a corollary to its claim of biblical obscurity. Thus again the Council of Trent declared: “No one… shall dare to interpret the sacred scriptures either by twisting its text to his individual meaning in opposition to that which has been and is held by holy mother church, whose function is to pass judgment on the true meaning and interpretation of the sacred scriptures.” (129)

Contrary to a modern take of the Reformation, the divide between Protestant and Catholic was not anti-tradition versus tradition. It was between tradition as a ministerially helpful guide and source of personal accountability versus tradition as decided by a specific institution being forcefully imposed upon the general public through tyrannical governmental means. Moreover, the Protestant Reformed use of tradition did not, nor does it currently, presuppose the natural obscurity of the Scriptures but the sinful tendencies of the individual reader. Of the Protestant Reformed, Stanglin writes:

Between the two extremes of Tridentine Catholicism and Radical Reform fell most of mainstream Protestantism, which, against the former, stressed perspicuity as a way to counter the Roman Catholic attempt to regulate biblical interpretation but, against the latter, also saw the benefit of church tradition as a lens for biblical interpretation. (131)

John Calvin is a hinge-point in the turn of the exegetical tide. Stanglin makes a stunning observation when he says:

Calvin goes on to say that it is indeed collective humanity, presumably the church, who will conquer the serpent, which he does associate more directly with Satan, and that it is certainly by Christ that humanity conquers Satan. But Calvin explicitly denies the association between the woman’s seed and Christ; the reference is to humanity in general. (134)

For Calvin, the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 is not Christ, but those for whom Christ dies, i.e. the church (Eph. 5:25). To reach this conclusion, Calvin “appeals to grammar, a philological reason, for dismissing Christ as the referent of seed.” (134) While Calvin is certainly no modernist per se, various emphases in Calvin may have paved the way for what is now known as modern exegesis. Modern exegesis eventually gives rise to the historical-critical method through several philosophical shifts. One of those shifts came in the form of Remonstrant thinkers Simon Episcopius (1583-1643) and Etienne de Coucelles (1586-1659). (156) Stanglin notes that, “For Episcopius, the reading and understanding of Scripture was not necessarily a spiritual exercise, but a rational one.” (157)

The last two chapters close the book by reviewing the extent of the differences between exegetical approaches, unbridled allegorization along with unbridled historical criticism. It finishes with a discussion on exegetical controls. Controlling the spiritual sense are the sensus literalis, the analogia scripturae, and the analogia fidei. (205-206) Controlling the literal sense is the spiritual sense, the analogia scripturae, and humility. (207-209) The last chapter looks at a way forward through retrieval exegesis, literal-spiritual exegesis, and applies these considerations to various texts as case studies.

Overall, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation is an extremely helpful book. The most helpful part is the way in which Stanglin engages the historical approaches to biblical interpretation. The last part of the book is not especially necessary. The last chapter might be summarized as “the way forward is the way back.” Stanglin doesn’t bring anything especially new to the table. And this turns out to be a refreshing strength of the book. The overall point seems to be the exegetical continuity through the history of the church, especially when the pre-modern era is considered. Christians must return to pre-modern exegesis, and Stanglin’s book is a very helpful first step for anyone who senses the need to do so.

John Calvin & Tradition

John Calvin & Tradition

John Calvin, the 16th century Reformational giant, highly regarded the theological tradition preceding him.

This is not to say that he wholesale adopted everything handed down to him from previous generations. It is to say, however, that he highly valued the continuity of the core Christian faith as it had been transmitted from the early church onward. As Dr. Richard Muller mentions, “Calvin assumed the catholicity of the Reformation and, accordingly, the continuity of the Reformation with the Christian truths taught by the church fathers…”[1] While Calvin in no wise considered the truth of the Scriptures contingent upon the judgment of the church, he nevertheless made the assumption that there were some things Christians have always believed concerning what the Scriptures teach, and that these things couldn’t be denied without calling into question the integrity of the Scriptures themselves.

The goal of this article is to set forth an earnest and brief survey of Calvin’s use of those subordinate authorities, particularly as they exist in the early creeds of the Christian church.

The Use of the Term “Tradition” In the Early Reformation

In the 16th century, “tradition” was a technical term denoting a coordinate authority alongside Scripture. The “tradition” of the Roman Catholic church was an ecclesiastical prerogative to infallibly interpret Scripture and implement long-standing practices that themselves did not exist in Scripture at all. Tradition was something other than the Scriptures, and it was binding. Pope Pius IX once remarked, “Tradition! I am tradition!” An apt summary, perhaps, of how the collective whole of the Romish institution thought of itself.

Since “tradition,” as a term, was technically limited to Rome’s conception of it, such a word did not enjoy wide-spread positive use among the Reformers. Today, when we say “tradition,” we might be referring to anything and everything that may have been handed down from one generation to the next. Family traditions, political traditions, and religious traditions are all considered traditionary. We no longer assume Rome’s monopoly on tradition, rightly so. And, within the writings of the Reformers, it can be seen that they themselves made appeal to what would formally constitute exegetical and theological traditions, indicating they did not, of course, do away with tradition, per se.

Calvin on the Superiority of “Conciliar” Interpretation Over Individual Interpretation

Calvin generally thought of biblical interpretation as a task to be done in concert with the rest of the Christian church. It was not predominantly an individualist effort, but a churchly one. He writes:

We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined. Such a definition, upon which the pastors of the church in common, invoking Christ’s Spirit, agree, will have much more weight than if each one, having conceived it separately at home, should teach it to the people, or if a few private individuals should compose it.[2]

That the whole would have more weight than the parts becomes an evident sentiment throughout Calvin’s work. It’s obvious enough that he’s working within an interpretive tradition. For he cites Augustine almost more than anyone else. Chrysostom might be a close second. He marshals the words of these men, not in order to undermine Scripture’s authority, but to show that he’s working within the accepted interpretive scheme of Christ’s people. He’s simply making himself accountable to his brethren. As Muller says, “Calvin’s theology evidences a healthy respect for the patristic tradition.”[3]

While anticipating certain reactions to his own placement of councils, Calvin clarifies where he situates creeds within the order of churchly authority. Scripture always remains primary, but the creeds, he says, have a “provisional judgement,” which must be considered. He writes:

What then? You ask, will the councils have no determining authority? yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded, and (as the saying goes) to be canceled at one stroke. But, you will say, you degrade everything, so that every man has the right to accept or reject what the councils decide. Not at all! But whenever a decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination which I have mentioned.[4]

Calvin expressly denies the notion that private interpretation should be given place to overturn the earliest conciliar decisions. At the same time, he does not regard every council to hold equal weight. And in this particular paragraph, he’s not so much referring to the ancient councils, like Nicaea I, Ephesus I, or Chalcedon. He’s referring to councils moving forward. In  other words, he’s not casting a blanket of skepticism over age-old orthodoxy, thereby making the individual exegete the final arbiter of biblical interpretive meaning. But he’s situating the councils themselves within the overall framework of biblical authority. Whether or not councils are true depends upon whether or not those same councils prove themselves to be bibline.

Calvin on Biblical Interpretation

Today, individualist assumptions are often brought to the text of Scripture. Now, by “individualist,” I do not intend an individualism concerning which a case might be made that a person should care for himself as a matter of principle.[5] By “individualism,” I mean the general assumption that the individual bible-reader, apart from corporate discourse or accountability, has sufficient ability to make interpretive decisions when it comes to the serious matters of orthodoxy. As has been observed in the previous section of this article, Calvin grants the possibility and reality of individual biblical interpretation. But he understands that a gathering or assembly of God-gifted men adds more weight than the individual is able to bear. The Westminster Assembly is of greater weight than Bob’s private interpretive musings. Calvin considers this a biblical dynamic:

Paul prescribes this method in distinguishing doctrines. For when he assigns the distinguishing of doctrines to the separate churches [cf. 1 Cor. 14:29], he shows what should be the order of procedure in more serious cases—namely, that the churches should take common cognizance among themselves.[6]

Therefore, in terms of biblical interpretation, the individual must put the whole before himself. This basically cashes out in a use of creeds and confessions in the biblical-interpretative effort when it comes to theological disputes over serious matters. Since such documents are products of the gathered churches, they are to be taken more seriously than a single person or their innovative takes just as two or three brethren within a local church hold more authority than a single person. Biblically, individuals, and even groups, who find themselves in disagreement, especially when it comes to “more serious cases,” must make appeal to the chorus of saints. Those who intentionally fail to do so would apparently be considered, by Calvin, haughty or unhinged.

This is not to say the whole church is bound to the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Second London Baptist Confession, as if either of those two documents carried the same exact weight of Scripture. But it is to say that those documents, as they sit within their respective theological traditions, supersede the individual’s biblical engagement and should also be utilized by churches, not only as a way to define their doctrine, but also as a means of remaining accountable to their brethren who went before them. The provisional doctrinal judgment of church history as its represented in creeds and confessions must have a voice today.

John Calvin & “The Great Tradition”

As a term, “the great tradition” doesn’t enjoy much precision. This is partly due to the nature of the term itself. It would be like trying to define the word “Scripture.” We might be able to say, “God’s Word.” But then, obvious questions of the nature of canon may arise. With the great tradition, we may be able to define it as such: inspired doctrine and practice as it has been transmitted from generation to generation, from the first century onward. But even this definition falls short, since it does not take into consideration the Old Testament backgrounds of the New Testament, interpretive method, etc. And, of course, the question arises, “Who decides what is biblical and what is not?”

As we look at Calvin, we quickly notice that he perceives the source of such a tradition to be Scripture alone, or sola Scriptura. There is no other source from which to derive articles of faith, or specially revealed religion. It does not come from the church. It does not come from the heathen. The Christian religion has its genus in special revelation as it has been recorded in the pages of the Bible.

What accounts for the transmission of that revelation to us? Issues arise, such as the lack of original Scriptural manuscripts, the early church that knew nothing of a fully-printed New Testament, and so on. Moreover, the philosophical assumptions of the Old and New Testaments, whilst largely lost in today’s society, continue to be assumed by Scripture since Scripture doesn’t change with the times. How, then, do we account for all these variables? I want to suggest we appeal to interpretive and doctrinal history in order to provide ourselves with accountability on both fronts. Calvin writes:

Thus, when Arius rose up, the Council of Nicaea was summoned. By its authority it both crushed the wicked efforts of that ungodly man, restoring peace to those churches which he had troubled, and asserted the eternal deity of Christ against his sacrilegious teaching. Then, when Eunomius and Macedonius stirred up new tumults, the Council of Constantinople provided a like remedy for their madness. At the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius’ impiety was overthrown. From the beginning, then, this was the ordinary method of maintaining unity in the church whenever Satan began any machinations.[7]

Consider modern-day aberrations of the doctrine of God. We know the Scriptures have all we need in order to know God. However, as individual persons, we need help. Otherwise, we are prone to twisting and contorting the text to fit our fancy. Thus, a “peer review” is needed in terms of how we interpret God’s Word. This is the accountability of the brethren, both within our respective local churches, but also throughout the whole history of Christianity. Calvin assumes the purity of the creeds and statements formed in the earliest centuries of the church’s history when he writes:

Thus those ancient Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, the first of Ephesus, Chalcedony, and the like, which were held for refuting errors, we willingly embrace, and reverence as sacred, in so far as relates to doctrines of faith, for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine interpretation of Scripture, which the holy Fathers with spiritual prudence adopted to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.[8]

Biblical interpretation should take place within a corporate setting, that of the Christian church as it exists throughout history. The local church should be able to find itself within the interpretive and doctrinal tradition of creedal and confessional history, otherwise, they become a law unto themselves. And orthodox confessions ought to find continuity with the earliest creeds of the Christian faith, and they do. Of course, all the above must be fully and finally grounded in the text of Holy Scripture.


Scripture and tradition, unlike the Roman Catholic understanding, do not have to be two different sources of divine revelation or authoritative teaching. Scripture is the source, which means “tradition” is the general continuance of the church in the belief and practice of the Holy Scriptures. This doesn’t make Christians infallible. But it does recognize that there is a general continuity throughout the past two millennia of Christian belief and practice that is the result of special revelation; and, that this belief and practice has been accurately reflected in creeds and confessions. Calvin himself seems to have this same understanding.

As we deal with the current effort to overturn these age-old creedal imperatives among those who claim a “Reformed” heritage, we should remember that the Reformed themselves would not have given up so easily on the subject-matter of the historic creeds. Divine simplicity, trinitarian consubstantiality, and inseparable operations are creedal and confessional imperatives. And, though certain men seek to throw these long-held doctrines into question, we can be confident that the Reformers and the post-Reformation Puritans would unhesitatingly point them to the earliest ecumenical creeds and the confessions.[9]


[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 342.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1176.

[3] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. II, 74.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, 1171.

[5] Cf. The Metaphysical Foundations of Love by Anthony T. Flood.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 1176.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 1176–1177.

[8] Calvin, John. The John Calvin Collection: 12 Classic Works. Waxkeep Publishing. Kindle Edition. Loc. 21663.

[9] Cf. Herman Witsius’ Sacred Dissertations on the Apostles’ Creed (2 volumes).

All That Is God Is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit

All That Is God Is Father, Son, & Holy Spirit

It takes time and humility to think through the far-reaching theological implications of trinity. When we confess, “God is triune,” what do we mean? An initial answer to that question might be, “We mean that God is one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” True enough. But in the pell-mell of current trinitarian debate, the implications of the simple, uncontroversial statement, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are stunted by a strange, yet understandable, adversity toward certain extra-biblical terms and the scholastic oven in which they were baked.

I say it is both strange and understandable. Strange because this is an age-old orthodoxy. The timeline of church history spans much further back than the last few decades and should cause us to regularly re-examine ourselves in light of Scripture and what Christians have believed Scripture has taught for the last 2,000 years. It shouldn’t be a surprise when we find we’ve made mistakes, and it shouldn’t be a problem to adjust course once we discover them. But the adversity is likewise understandable precisely because of this decades’ old ignorance we’ve all experienced to one extent or another. These terms and their meaning may not be new, but they are new to us. Yet, the last few years have enjoyed a constantly flowing stream of historical resourcement and doctrinal retrieval, not only from the high medieval period, but also from the patristics, the Reformation, and the post-Reformation.[1] Thus, a learning curve ought to be expected.

The following article is intended to be an irenic assistance in overcoming such a learning curve. I have decided to build off a statement most people reading this article will agree with, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I will seek to show that this statement is but a simple summary of the more technical formulation, that God is one essence subsisting in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

God Is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

I’m not going to jump through hoops in defense of this statement. It will suffice to note that its denial would imply that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not coequal. If all that is God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then one or more Persons may be said to be “less God” than another—a nonsensical suggestion, to be sure, but one that is substantively identical to Arianism.

If God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then all that can and must be said of the one God of Scripture must be likewise said of all three Persons. To quote the Athanasian Creed, “Similarly, the Father is almighty, the Son is almighty, the Holy Spirit is almighty. Yet there are not three almighty beings; there is but one almighty being.”[2] If God is power, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just are that power. If God is glory, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just are that same, single glory that God is. More technically, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith reads, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided…” (2LBCF 2.3)[3] Ergo, God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What is lost in the current discussion is the fact that when we say “divine essence” we just mean “God.” So, when we say “the divine essence just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” or that it “subsists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we are saying “God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The purpose of the more technical language of “essence” and “person” is to denote the manner in which the one God (divine essence) exists or, more properly, subsists. So, when we say, “God exists in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” we might more technically say, “the manner in which the one divine essence subsists is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Hence, the now-unfamiliar language of the Second London Confession, “In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit…” A “subsistence” just being the manner in which the one God subsists.

Some Implications

We need to think through our theology, and part of thinking through our theology is a conscious effort to remain consistent. The simple statement, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” is uncontroversial, but it’s also incongruous with several contemporary beliefs about God. For example, eternal relational authority submission (ERAS) teaches that Christ is in eternal submission to the Father. This means that the Father must have a superior authority to that of the Son’s. How does this fit with what we’ve already said above? Remember what we said above, “…all that can and must be said of the one God of Scripture must be likewise said of all three Persons.” But since ERAS opines a higher authority in the Father than is in the Son, all that may be said of God cannot be said of both Father and Son. We cannot say that the same divine authority, or power for that matter, may be commonly said of both Father and Son. For the Father has a higher and thus distinct authority from that of the Son.

Fundamentally, ERAS must reject the clause in the Athanasian Creed that says, “Nothing in this trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons are coeternal and coequal with each other.” Not only this, but it must also reject the very uncontroversial claim that “God just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” What that one God is cannot be commonly asserted of all three Persons. Of course, ERAS proponents verbally affirm the unity of divine nature among Father, Son, and Spirit. Bruce Ware writes:

[ERAS] holds that God reveals himself in Scripture as one God in three persons, such that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity as each possesses fullyand eternally the one and undivided divine nature; yet the Father is revealed as having the highest authority among the Trinitarian persons, such that the Son, as agent of the Father, eternally implements the will of the Father and is under the Father’s authority, and the Holy Spirit likewise serves to advance the Father’s purposes fulfilled through the Son, under the authority of the Father and also of the Son.[4]

Ware confesses the unity of nature between Father and Son. At the same time, he alleges that the Father has a higher authority than that of the Son. But if the authority of the Father isn’t the authority of the Son, how could Ware possibly maintain the orthodox Trinitarian formula, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? All that may be said of God cannot be said of all three Persons. We could not say, “God’s authority just is the authority of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” since that would make God’s authority common to all three Persons. As it is, Ware has denied a common authority in the Godhead, and this devastates creedal and confessional orthodoxy. For Ware, all that is God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this renders his statement on the unity of the divine nature rather meaningless.

Ware wants to (rightly) say, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fully equal in their deity.” But what about the authority of that deity? For Ware, authority is proper to the Persons rather than the divine nature making the three Persons three distinct willing agents. The question then becomes, “What is the divine nature?” If the divine nature isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then what is it? A fourth thing in the Godhead? If it is a fourth thing, then there is no trinity, but a “quadrinity.”

Anticipating a Question

If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit just is God, then what distinguishes them from one another? After all, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, and neither Father nor Son are the Holy Spirit. The “several peculiar properties” are the only distinguishing factors between Father, Son, and Spirit, and these “peculiar properties” are the relations of origin described by the divine processions. Unbegottenness, begottenness, and spiration, respectively. 

These relations of origin are but the manner of subsistence of the one divine essence (the one God). So, when we say “Father,” we are not saying anything other than God or the divine essence, we are speaking of the principle manner in which the one divine essence subsists, that is, as unbegotten, eternal generator—the Father of the only begotten Son. Likewise, when we say “Son,” we are not saying anything other than the one divine essence (the one God), we are speaking of the second manner in which God subsists, that is, as begotten, eternally generated—the only begotten Son of the unbegotten Father. And so on.


Those who overtly or otherwise flirt with differentiating Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from the divine essence should reconsider their position in light of the implications, some of which have been discussed above. If God (the divine essence/nature) is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot each be said to be the one true God, and thus trinitarianism is utterly ruined. (Deut. 6:4) All that is God must be and is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit if orthodox trinitarianism is true.


[1] See the recent translation of Peter Van Mastrcht’s works,; and also Barnardinus De Moor’s extensive works, available here:



[4] Bruce Ware, et. al., One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, 237.

How Should God’s Existence Inform Our Hermeneutics?

How Should God’s Existence Inform Our Hermeneutics?

The following article is adapted from an assignment submitted to International Reformed Baptist Seminary in fulfillment of a hermeneutics class. It is an engagement with an article by Dr. Vern Poythress, found here. All following quotations of Dr. Poythress originate in said article.

There is nothing especially supernatural about the historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics. There isn’t any necessarily spiritual aspect to either history or grammar. They are natural categories. History is, after all, empirically discerned and studied. While grammar might be more mathematical and thus more abstract than history, all communication, supernatural or not, is destined to operate by means of grammatical rules without which words would be unintelligible. The historical-grammatical approach to the interpretation of Scripture is the application of natural, empirical principles to a supernatural document. And if not carefully integrated with the consideration of what caused Scripture, namely God, then the exclusive application of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic to Scripture would be akin to using a microscope to discern God’s intention behind the Song of Songs or turning a telescope to the sky in search of angels. Our tools must be proportionate to our science. No one should use a compass to dissect a fish, nor should purely natural means be expected to yield results within a formally supernatural field of study such as theology.

Vern Poythress, distinguished professor of New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, penned a helpful article titled, “The Presence of God Qualifying Our Notions of Grammatical-Historical Interpretation: Genesis 3:15 as a Test Case,” which appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007. In it, his purpose is to bring God into the biblical interpretive picture. For so long, God has been (sometimes unintentionally) removed from the interpretive landscape, if not dogmatically then practically. But if the existence of God be granted, and furthermore, if it be granted that the Bible is His book, then, as Poythress says:

God as master author limits our understanding of the authorial mind. God the Spirit as inspirer of human authors limits our understanding of human author’s minds. God as archetype for man as the image of God implies the necessity of understanding the divine mind in order to understand the human mind. God as master of history limits our ability to confine the text to its immediate historical and cultural horizon.

Unless the Bible-reader relegates the fact of God to an article of natural creation, or he tries to scoot God out of the interpretive picture altogether, then the historical-grammatical method of interpretation—taken by itself—is insufficient to apprehend the meaning of the supernaturally inspired and divinely intended Scriptures. Of course, as Poythress mentions, it may be convenient to try and eliminate God from the toolbox of biblical interpretation, but Christians are not afforded such a luxury. The atheist is going to look at the text of Scripture as an interesting document that is nevertheless contrived by men. The deist will look at Scripture in much the same way since, while he grants God’s existence, he will no wise grant providence or superintendence in matters such as human literature. But, once God is granted, the question becomes, “Which one?” Poythress writes:

And what God (or god) are we talking about? The rise of process theology and open theism has made us more aware of the fact that questions about the character of God must be confronted. And if our conceptions of God differ, our assumptions about the meanings that he generates may also differ. Thus any hope for a scholarly consensus about the meaning of a particularly text would appear to vanish.

The nature of God determines how we understand His effects. What the Bible reader believes about the nature of God is going to affect how he understands the nature of Scripture. If God changes with His creation, Scripture is necessarily subject to change. If God does not know the future as well as the past, then the promises for the future are necessarily uncertain. This ought to call our attention to the vital issue of theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS). The text of Scripture simply cannot be considered accurately apart from theology proper. Apologetically, this becomes troublesome since atheists often want to debate about the meaning of Scripture even though they have not granted the existence of any God. But it’s also troublesome for professing Christians who have a flawed theology proper and who may walk away from the text of Scripture thinking that God is other than He really is, having approached it with the wrong set of assumptions (e.g., that He indeed has a mouth [Mic. 4:4], nostrils [Ps. 18:8], and hands [Ps. 8:6]).

Historical considerations antecedent to biblical considerations cannot always yield interpretive certainties either. Consider the emphasis on ancient near eastern studies within the historical-grammatical interpretive guild. With such weight placed upon historical backgrounds, how was the medieval Christian supposed to know key facts only knowable through archaeological science?

Utilizing Genesis 3:15 as a test case, Poythress presses the relevant assumptions. He states the pre-eminence of theology proper in this way:

So the affirmation of the presence of God implies, not the end of rational reflection, but beginning rational reflection within the context of obedience and submission to God. It implies, not the end of meaningful historical appreciation, but its genuine beginning, because God as the ruler of history is also the source of its meaning.

Poythress then introduces a model for understanding the nature of God’s presence in biblical interpretation through the Decalogue narrative. He helpfully observes:

Technically speaking, for the Ten Commandments there is no human author. For the oral delivery of the Ten Commandments to Israel, we have simply the direct divine voice. With respect to the written form, the finger of God produced the writing on stone. So what becomes of the typical formula that we are supposed to focus only on the human author? Clearly it does not work. Focusing on the human author alone violates the essential character of the Ten Commandments.

If the acid test of meaning are the thoughts and intent of the human author, what are Bible readers to make of the Ten Commandments? Other circumstances could be considered as well, from Balaam’s ass to the intention of the Pharisees’ interaction with Jesus—do their intentions matter? If the human author is the key source of biblical meaning, then it would follow that the Ten Commandments are either meaningless, or the Bible reader must engage in special pleading, excepting the Ten Commandments from the historical-grammatical rule of human authorial intent. And not only this, but as Poythress notes, “The original Ten Commandments, far from being a wild exception, become the original model for understanding what will happen later through Moses.” If the Ten Commandments serve as a sort of foundation for later occurrences throughout the Pentateuch, then one would be hard-pressed to remove God as the Author of the remainder of the Pentateuch. But if this is the case, the human author is no longer the object of concern. The divine Author is the one in charge of what the text means.

Adoptionism is one option scholars have set forth. Poythress describes it as follows, “God looks down at what various people are saying. Those words he approves he ‘adopts’ as his own, and they gain the stamp of his approval. But their meaning is merely human meaning.” Returning to the picture at Mt. Sinai, God did not merely “look down” at the law and approve the words of the law as His own. He wrote them, apart from a human intermediary. And thus, even when God is pleased to use human intermediaries, as He did in the communication of the law to Israel, the words are likewise His. They are original to Him and merely communicated through creaturely instruments. When an author uses a keyboard to type out the words of his book, he doesn’t “look down” at the words and adopt them as his own, attributing the authorship to the keyboard! Instead, the author understands the words to be his, though he used several instruments to compose his work.

A second view, Poythress observes, is “kenotic” inspiration where God “does what can be done, given the limitations of a human being, but is careful never to go beyond the limits of strictly finite human functioning. Again, the meaning is strictly the human meaning, at the cost of a heterodox model of the relation of the divine and the human.” The cognitive periphery of meaning can never go beyond the human author because God makes it that way. But this only seeks to remove God from the equation, albeit more subtly. God’s periphery is necessarily wider than man’s (infinitely so). Therefore, in virtue of what He is, God’s meaning is bound to be deeper than what the creature himself can intend.

Neither the adoptionist view, where meaning is adopted by God yet remains originally the creature’s intent, nor the kenotic view, where meaning is circumscribed to human limitation, can account for things like typology, consistent canonical contextualization, extensive intertextuality, and the predictive prophecy of the text of Scripture. Neither can these models account for the New Testament use of the Old Testament in many cases.

Furthermore, there are inherent limitations on historical understanding and grammatical linguistic understanding. Poythress remarks:

But now what becomes of the historical aspect of grammatical-historical interpretation? I claim that it remains radically undefined. One can focus on people back then and there. But one can never isolate that focus from broader questions. And those broader questions ultimately engage the meaning of the entirety of history. To a sensitive Israelite reader, the enmity between the two seeds or two offsprings in Genesis 3:15 can suggest a principial conflict that extends ultimately to cosmic dimensions and long historical time periods. Any one piece of history is ultimately intelligible only as part of the plan of God for all of history. One must have the mind of God in order even to begin to reckon with any piece intelligibly.

When we examine texts like Genesis 3:15, rarely is the question of human authorial intent raised. But if it were, Adam and Eve certainly would not have understood the full significance of the Seed of the woman. They knew that the Seed of the woman was coming, but they didn’t exactly know what that was going to be to the extent that we who now live under the New Testament do.

Considering grammatical limitations, Poythress cites the futility of reducing all meaning to grammar, limiting our understanding of the text to a dictionary or lexicon. This is because whilst words certainly have definitions, the significance of words must always be determined by context. And the context of every Biblical word is the Bible itself. This necessitates a whole-Bible hermeneutic where the New Testament is allowed to comment on the Old Testament, and where New Testament authors are allowed to be our examples for how we should interpret the text of Holy Scripture. Of the historical-grammatical method, I will close with Poythress’ own words, “But I fear that, as a label, it can also support the illusion that meaning can be ‘scientifically’ mastered in the same way that grammar apparently can.”

To Whom was the Old Testament Written?

To Whom was the Old Testament Written?

Biblical interpretation must be informed by the Bible’s interpretation of itself. The analogy of Scripture states that clearer texts illuminate less clear texts. The Second London Baptist Confession states, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly (1.9).” Such a rule also implies that the Bible is in authoritative dialogue with itself. For example, when we encounter New Testament commentary upon the Old Testament it is a divinely authoritative commentary with which we must reckon.

Having said this, many Christians do not know what to do with the Old Testament or where to place it in terms of its significance for the Christian life. Yet the Scriptures give us numerous examples helpful for discerning the nature of the relationship between Old and New. Before we visit some of these examples, we will ask and answer the question, “Is the Old Testament for us?” 

By “us” I mean the New Testament church, all those in Christ following the incarnation, sufferings, and glories of Christ. We will then ask the question, “Are only some things in the Old Testament for us?” And thirdly, we will consider the Old Testament saints in light of our answers to the first two questions.

Is the Old Testament for us?

Various opinions exist concerning the Old Testament’s relationship to the New. The first is that the Old Testament was written only to its historical audience, though it might be applied to the New Testament church  in various ways. This view holds that the proper recipients of the Old Testament autographa (original manuscripts) were the historical audiences by which they were immediately read or heard. For this reason, the New Testament church might apply Old Testament principles, but it should not attempt to appropriate Old Testament meaning to itself since meaning bears only upon the historically conditioned audience. 

The second view is that the Old Testament was written to the physical offspring of Abraham only, though it might be applied by the New Testament church. The Old Testament is predominantly Judeo-centric. Some who hold this view might refer to the New Testament church as a mere observer of the Old Testament—outsiders looking into revelation exclusive to political and national Israel.

The third view, with which I sympathize, is that the Old Testament was written to all God’s elect, who were, are, and will be saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8, 9), called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). There are several texts in the New Testament that teach us not only the applicability of the Old Testament to the New Testament church, but affirms the purposeful intention behind the Old Testament to be for and to the New Testament church.

Paul addresses 2 Corinthians to the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 1:1, 2). But in v. 20, he writes, “For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us.” The Old Testament was, of course, the reference point for this comment. At that time, the canonization of the New Testament was not yet settled, much less known and possessed in common by the first century Christians. The Scriptures that they did know and possess, however, were the Old Testament books. In 2 Corinthians 10:11, we read, “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The wilderness wandering happened as an example to us (the New Covenant church), and they were written for our instruction. Thus, the Old Testament was, in some way, written to Christians living on this side of the first coming of Christ.

This becomes all the more clear in texts like 1 Peter 1:10 which tells us, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you…” The prophets inquired of and searched out “this salvation.” These were the prophets who “prophesied of the grace” that would come to us, namely, the New Testament church. And in v. 12 we read that these things were “revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel…” The “to us” (ἡμῖν) in v. 12 is in the dative case which means “us,” i.e., the New Testament church, are the proper recipients of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is for us, but in what way? Or, to what extent?

Are Only Some Things in the Old Testament For Us?

It may be readily granted that at least some Old Testament passages were divinely intended for the New Testament church. At the same time, some things may be withheld from such an application on the basis that the immediate historical context would not allow this or that promise to be transferred to the church in any way. Usually, these promises consist of the promised land and the eschatological temple since these appear to be uniquely restricted to national Israel. But if the entirety of the Old Testament subserves Christ in some way, then it would seem to follow that the whole of the Old Testament is written to those for whom Christ has given Himself.

In Luke 24:27, Luke tells us how our Lord taught His disciples on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” Notice the grammar. “Moses and all the Prophets” is a gloss for the entirety of the Old Testament. And it was “in all the Scriptures” that Christ found opportunity to expound the things concerning Himself. Not some, but all Scripture provided occasion for Christ’s exposition of Himself. Here, we have an explicit statement in the New Testament that tells us that the Old Testament is both Christocentric, that is, it is all about Christ; and also that it is Christotelic, or aimed at Christ as its end.

Colossians 2:3 says that it is Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” All wisdom and knowledge in the Old Testament are, therefore, fully found in Christ and thus received by all who receive Christ. Romans 11:36 says, “For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.” All things, including the Old Testament, are purposed toward Christ. The entirety of Old Testament canon is for Christ and thus must also be for those whom He represents—His elect lady, the church.

What About the Old Testament Saints?

If the Old Testament Scriptures were written for the church, does this mean that the Old Testament saints are left out? Absolutely not. They were the first recipients, and they, along with us, are the proper recipients of the Old Testament Scriptures. Hebrews 11:39-40 reads, “And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” It is not so much that Old Testament saints were not the proper recipients of the Old Testament. They were. It is that they were serving a larger eschatological purpose than themselves. It is furthermore apparent that the faithless Israelites, whose relation to God was marked only by the external ordinances of the Old Covenant were not the proper recipients of Christ as He was revealed under Old Testament types and shadows since they themselves did not read, understand, or live by faith.

When thinking of the nature of the Old Testament saints’ relevance to Old Testament revelation, I like to think of three “R’s.” Old Testament revelation consists of real historical persons, events, places, and institutions; the Old Testament was relevant politically and redemptively to its historical audience; and it was revelatory of something other and greater than itself, that is, Christ and His New Covenant. To that end, the Old Testament is Christocentric and Christotelic

The three “R’s” help us understand that the Old Testament is historical fact, intended for an historical people, while at the same time recognizing that it is a shadowy, typological revelation of something other and greater, later to be crystalized through the New Testament. And, as we’ve seen, what is revealed in the New Testament remains relevant to the Old Testament saints, “that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” It is, after all, the New Testament to which the Old looked. And it’s the Old Testament upon which the New expounds.

Speaking of the faithless Israelites, Hebrews 4:2 says, “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it.” Though this text has immediately in view the faithless Jews, it also implies that the gospel so clearly presented in the New Testament was the same gospel that was preached to the Old Testament saints. Furthermore, they are explicitly said to be one body with the New Testament church. Ephesians 3:6 reads, “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel…” The same body with whom? The saints of Old Testament Israel. Ephesians 2:18 says, “For through Him we both (Jew and Gentile) have access by one Spirit to the Father.” All this adds up to the fact that the Old Testament was for them as well as to us. As Charles Spurgeon puts it, “The aggregate of all these assemblies of faithful men make up the one Church which Jesus Christ has redeemed with His most precious blood, and of which He is the sole and only Head. Part of that Church is in Heaven, triumphant!” (Emphasis added)


The whole of the Protestant canon, both Old and New Testaments, have been intended for a specific audience by the divine Author. This audience spans several centuries across many different parts of the globe. The reason for this is that God’s book has been authored for God’s people, and God’s people live under both Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, the Old Testament anticipates the New, and so the Old Testament itself serves those who live under the New Testament. Likewise, the New Testament has meaning for the saints of Old as they now experience the effect of Christ’s work in glory, that both the New Testament and Old Testament saints would be made perfect together, as one divinely elected body (Heb. 11:40).