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.

Covenant Theology IV | The Covenant of Works

Covenant Theology IV | The Covenant of Works

So far, we’ve addressed exegetical assumptions which lie behind covenant theology in general. These did not get us to the key differences between 1689 federalism and paedobaptist federalism, but they did help us to contrast our hermeneutics with those of Henebury’s. We have also looked, briefly, at the covenant of redemption. In the event Henebury is writing an explainer rather than a critique, his material on the covenant of redemption fell far short on what would have been considered sufficient. He dealt incompletely with his interlocutors and, in doing so, was unable to produce for his readers a clear picture of what the covenant of redemption is along with its exegetical groundwork. I want to be clear, I am not accusing Henebury of purposeful omission. It is just my honest opinion that he lacked thoroughness.

In his fourth and fifth articles he attempts to deal with the covenant of works. I will take this opportunity to address both in one. In his fourth article, he concludes by saying, “I shall continue next time by looking more at what CT’s say about the covenant of works before looking at what the Bible has to say about it.” However, in the fifth installment, there is very little interaction with Scripture. I would urge those reading both his and my posts to pay careful attention to Henebury’s appeal to Scripture, whether there is one, and whether or not such appeals offer exegetical demonstration or are simply claims about what the text says.

An Innovative Hermeneutic

This is as good a time as any to discuss what Henebury calls the “Rules of Affinity.” He calls these rules a “grid of category formulations.” This is fascinating, especially since one of Henebury’s charges against covenant theology is its inherent reliance upon deduction. It’s also interesting for the very fact that it’s apparently brand new. Where are these rules in the history of the church? In the Bible itself? Has the church missed it for 2,000 years? We should exercise extreme caution when it comes to interpretive and theological innovations. Christianity is very old. New is rare, and when something new is discovered, it’s not by a single individual. The Bible was written to the elect (plural), not an elect individual. We must do theology in community for the sake of accountability.

Henebury proposes five a priori categories for guiding the interpretive task. I will not write at length to explain these categories, but they are listed below:

C1: a doctrinal proposition based on a straightforward quotation of Scripture.

 

C2: a proposition based on a strong inference from the witness of several C1 passages combined, thus producing an inevitable doctrinal conclusion.

 

C3: a doctrinal proposition based upon a plausible inference from the shared witness of the cumulative direction of C1 and C2 texts of Scripture.

 

C4: a proposition based on a theological inference usually from another doctrine instead of any plain statement of Scripture.

 

C5: a proposition based on a theological inference which itself based on other theological inferences without reference to plain statements of Scripture.

These categories represent an a priorism in Henebury’s method which, by definition, requires deduction. An a priori category, or assumption, is that which comes prior to conclusions one may hold as a result of said assumption. Furthermore, since Henebury, I believe, has misunderstood the hermeneutical axiom of “good and necessary consequence” (or inference), his (C2) is essentially a restatement of “good and necessary consequence” as it has been historically understood. There isn’t a formal difference between (C2) and the confessional notion of inference. Regardless of this apparent inconsistency, I can appreciate our agreement on this point.

A necessary conclusion is a conclusion which follows necessarily from two or more premises. In this case, the premises would be explicit data points in Scripture necessitating a certain doctrinal conclusion not explicitly stated. This is stronger than plausibility. A plausible conclusion is one that seems reasonable and lacks compelling force. A necessary conclusion is one that follows from premises, and, given the truth of the premises, cannot be false. An example of a doctrine gleaned from good and necessary consequence is the doctrine of the Trinity—that God is one essence subsisting in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We would, hopefully, not venture to say the doctrine of the Trinity is merely plausible, but necessary for a Christian to be, well, a Christian.

My purpose is not to spend too much time here. It is only to once again point out the fact that Henebury has his own a priori assumptions he makes in drawing interpretive conclusions. This, in itself, is not wrong. Again, the question is: Does he make true assumptions? I would say that he does not, for the simple reason that biblical interpretation is not always reducible to plausible conclusions, given the laws of logic and the principle of causality. But this is not the place for a full-blown examination of the “Rules of Affinity.” Moving on.

What Is the Covenant of Works?

Quoting Brown & Keele, Henebury defines the covenant of works as follows, “God’s commitment to give Adam, and his posterity in him, eternal life for obedience or eternal death for disobedience.” He offers a secondary definition from O. Palmer Robertson:

The creation bond between God and man may be discussed in terms of its general and its focal aspects. The general aspect of the covenant of creation [aka “works”] relates to the broader responsibilities of man to his Creator. The focal aspect of the covenant…relates to the more specific responsibility of man arising from the special point of probation or testing instituted by God.

Brown & Keel’s definition is sufficient for our purposes here. In substance, all that is meant by “covenant of works” is the divine imposition of conditions upon man in the garden with blessings for obedience to those conditions and curses for failing to obey. The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677/89) puts it this way, “…God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof…” (2LBCF, 6.1) While there is disagreement as to the nuances of Adam’s eschatology, the definitive core of the covenant of works concerns the above—a law, blessing for obedience, curse for disobedience. This is distinct from the new covenant (covenant of grace) which is not conditioned upon our obedience. Adam broke covenant with God, received the penalty for himself and his posterity. Christ keeps covenant with God, recevies the blessings of obedience for Himself and His posterity (those who are born again).

Is the Covenant of Works Built Upon Mere Conjecture?

While Henebury claims that all this sits upon inference after inference, this is not the case. God certainly does give Adam a law, “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Gen. 2:16-17) The Hebrew term for “command” (swh) is the same term used within the context of the giving of the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 19:7, “So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him.” Furthermore, God gives a blessing, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat…” “Every tree” certainly includes the tree of life. God also issues a curse in the event of disobedience, “for in the day that you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die.” This is all that is required for a covenant of works in the garden. The curse in Genesis 3 exposes more details about what is entailed here. All men die in Adam; hence, our federal theology. (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22)

Henebury does not interact with any of this. Instead, he says:

As there are zero examples of oaths taken in respect to the covenants of redemption, works, or grace in Scripture, what we have is yet another inference taken from reading the biblical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic, and New) and supposing that the “covenants” of CT do the same thing as those clear covenants stipulate.

Of course, such a statement takes for granted his very own deduction, namely, that every covenant must include a formal oath given that some covenants in Scripture do. But where does the Bible itself require this of every covenant? We know oath-making is a feature of covenants among men, “For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute.” (Heb. 6:16) And we know that God has made a covenant with an oath, “Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath…” (Heb. 6:17) But such an oath was by way of confirmation, something wholly unnecessary for men prior to the fall. For Adam had certain knowledge of God and His will apart from any doubt. He wasn’t in a state of misery rendering him needful of a guarantee, which is the very purpose of oaths in the first place—to offer assurance to the vassal party of the Suzerain’s faithfulness.

In his fifth article, he writes, “In my view the biblical doctrine of the atonement does not require a doctrine of Christ’s ‘active obedience.’ The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not say that Christ’s perfect life atones in any way for either Adam’s sin or for our failure to live righteously.” Depending on how Henebury is using the term “atone,” this statement is disconcerting, and it shows us the consequence of failing to “get the garden right.”[1] If Christ did not live perfectly for us under the law, all humanity is doomed. His active obedience is directly related to our right standing before God. The necessity of Christ’s perfect life lived unto God under the law is made clear in texts like Romans 5:10, “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” 

One might be tempted here to reduce “life” to Christ’s resurrection. But Christ’s resurrection would be impossible apart from His active obedience. Furthermore, Jesus Himself says, “A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also.” (Jn. 14:19) Here, the verb in the phrase, “Because I live,” is in the present tense. The whole of Christ’s life is here in view, including that which the disciples were then in the process of experiencing prior to His resurrection. 

Philippians 2:8-9 shows us that Christ’s exaltation, of which His resurrection was a part, was the conclusive result of His active and passive obedience, “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name…” Romans 5:14 explicitly compares Adam with Christ, construing the first Adam as a type, or pattern, of the one who was to come, “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.” But if Adam is an imperfect pattern of our Lord, then his responsibility before God anticipates the responsibility of Christ before God in the stead of Adam’s sinful posterity. And this just means that getting Adam wrong is to risk getting the gospel itself wrong.

Henebury goes on to say:

As for the biblical merits of the Covenant of Works it has to be said that they are slim. The arguments that are constructed for it out of Scripture and reason are all propounded on the basis of eisegesis. That is to say, the texts of Scripture are not being expounded to see what they say in the places where they say it, but are being located and dug-out of their contexts…

However, if Christ came as the antitypical fulfillment of the first Adam, as Romans 5:14 declares, a covenant of works appears necessary. Christ came to merit the life Adam himself failed to obtain for his posterity. “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.” (1 Cor. 15:21)

Conclusion

In light of the above, which is only the tip of the iceberg, I hope it can be seen that the “biblical merits of the Covenant of Works” are anything other than slim. Apart from quoting another author questioning the biblical warrant for a covenant of works in the garden, Henebury never actually interacts with any of the exegesis used in support of the covenant of works from “our side.” To claim the covenant of works is the product of “eisegesis,” Henebury at least needs to show this to be the case. He does not do this. The lack of biblical engagement gives the impression that Henebury effortlessly writes off his interlocutors simply because they disagree with his preconceived system.

Resources

[1] Richard Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2021).

Covenant Theology III | The Covenant of Redemption

Covenant Theology III | The Covenant of Redemption

In this installment, I’ll be addressing Henebury’s third article in his series. Therein, he attempts to take on the covenant of redemption. Admittedly, this is a difficult article to interact with because he cites very little from his interlocutors, makes a lot of claims, and then fails to substantiate many of those claims with either circumstantial or exegetical evidence. This may be because Henebury only writes by way of summary and introduction—for those who are not yet familiar with this subject. However, if that were the case, his conclusion says too much:

What ought to be clear here is that the covenant of redemption depends upon assumptions about the salvation of the elect as the one people of God. These assumptions were already in place before the search was made to piece together verses to support it via inferences.

That the covenant of redemption depends upon assumptions is a conclusion that does not follow from the available premises throughout the article. He never actually defines what these assumptions are, much less does he show those assumptions to be false through rational demonstration. He just asserts their presence and opines their insufficiency. That’s not good enough. Henebury’s article tells us much about what the author thinks, but it doesn’t actually succeed in proving anything beyond his own opinion. We must go to the text of Scripture to learn of the covenants of Scripture.

The One People of God?

This issue will be raised again as we continue our interaction. However, Henebury mentions it here, so I will do the same. Quoting W. J. Grier, Henebury writes, “Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11).” Henebury appears to take issue with this. And while it is true that I and my paedobaptist counterparts would have serious disagreements as to what the above quotation implies, it stands to reason that every Christian should be willing to confess a single people of God. Such is explicit biblical teaching. Ephesians 4:4 states, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling…” And, speaking of the Old Testament saints, “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.” (Heb. 11:39-40)

Furthermore, the Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew references to Israel as an assembly to ἐκκλησίαν on several occasions, e.g., Deut. 23:1, 3; 1 Kgs. 8:55, etc. This Greek term is often translated to “church” in the New Testament. Thus, linguistically, labeling the people of God under the old covenant a “church” should not be problematic beyond a semantic scruple.

Sometimes, this one people of God is referred to by theologians as “the church under the old covenant,” and the “the church under the new covenant,” respectively. Reasons for this vary. From my perspective as a 1689 federalist, this single people of God refers to the elect through all ages, i.e., under both old and new covenants united by a common faith in a common Messiah. For the paedobaptist federalist, they would view this one people of God externally under both old and new covenants. In other words, regeneration does not determine one’s covenant status so much as their external participation in the ordinances of the covenant do. For them, God’s covenant people are mixed (corpus permixtum), not only under the old covenant, but also under the new—since both are but distinct administrations of the same covenant. More on this later.

As a 1689 federalist, I grant that the church under the old covenant was a mixed body, composed of believer and unbeliever. A major hope of the Old Testament saints was the purification of Israel, a purification that takes place under the new covenant. And this is precisely the reason for the distinctively Baptist doctrine of regenerate church membership. One of the major changes inaugurated by the new covenant was the abolition of unbelieving covenant membership. Under the old covenant, one could be a covenant member by obedience to the external letter of the law. (cf. Gen. 17:14; Ex. 12:15, etc.) Under the new covenant, however, only the regenerate may lay legitimate claim to covenant membership, “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (Jer. 31:34) More on this in a later post.

The Covenant of Redemption

The covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) is a controversial doctrine for a number of reasons, but two major points of departure currently come to mind. First, some think the covenant of redemption necessitates a form of process theology. Process theology alleges process, of one kind or other, in the Godhead, e.g., motion, transient passions, time-boundedness, give and take with creatures, etc. Though none of the earlier adherents to the covenant of redemption believed in process theology, they were inconsistent, so it seems, by alleging a covenant transaction in the Godhead prior to creation. A “transaction” in eternity seems like a contradiction to the very idea of that which is eternal. For creatures, transactions are always temporal and transitory. Second, even if some kind of agreement is granted amongst the Persons of the Godhead prior to the foundation of the world, should such an agreement be termed a “covenant”? Many would answer in the negative since a covenant, it is imagined, requires an act of solemnity, such as an oath.

Foregoing a thorough survey of the covenant of redemption as it appears in the literature apart from some very brief quotes by Guy Richard, Richard Belcher, and O. Palmer Robertson, Henebury writes, “We’re not exactly off to a good start.” Why not? Because all these men admit the difficulty of the covenant of redemption and, in Robertson’s case, question the exegetical support. However, reluctance in a theologian is not proof of error in the same. Otherwise, we might as well conclude the same of Henebury’s position, being the self-proclaimed “reluctant dispensationalist” that he is.

Henebury, then, says, “if there is controversy around whether there even was a covenant of redemption before creation got underway, there can hardly be a great expectation of finding exegetical foundations for it in Scripture. Otherwise there would be no dispute.” Controversy, however, does nothing to signify falsehood. For it is the most orthodox and fundamental tenets of the faith that have suffered the most controversy. Trinity, creation, incarnation, and justification are some of the most controversial doctrines among those who call themselves Christians. Yet, such controversy does not, nor should not, erase the objective certainty of these doctrines, without which there is no Christian faith at all.

Moreover, Henebury doesn’t actually engage his interlocutors on their exegetical defense in favor of the covenant of redemption. Instead, he sweeps their work aside as if they had nothing to offer when he says:

So, for instance, in their Introduction to the impressive book Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, the editors, Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid and John R. Muether, we have a sub-heading which reads, “Covenant Theology is Exegetical” (Covenant Theology, 32). In a big book of well over 600 pages one would expect a lot of exegetical proof for the covenants of redemption, works, and grace. Is that what we get? Sadly, no.

This is a claim that is never substantiated. Henebury is free to believe that his interlocutors are failing to interpret the Bible correctly. But, at minimum, he must attempt a demonstration of why he believes this to be the case.

The book in question begins with a chapter on the covenant of redemption well over twenty pages long. In that single chapter, we find sub-headings such as: “Language of Scripture,” “Dialogues Between Father and Son,” and, “Individual Passages.” In the case of “Language of Scripture,” Guy Richard notes the “sending” and “giving” language in John 5:36, 37. Henebury quotes Richard’s citation of Patrick Gillespie, who says, “Patrick Gillespie argued that agreement is the essential ingredient of all covenants…” But he stops there rather than engaging Richard’s use of Isaiah 28:15, “We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we are in agreement.” Commenting on Gillespie’s appeal to this text, Richard notes, “He concluded from this that because the two words occur in parallel, they must be synonymous. This meant that all that was required to prove the existence of a covenant between the Father and the Son was to show that there was an agreement between them.”[1]

Henebury does mention Richard’s appeal to David Dickson and James Durham in their use of John 6:37, asking, “Is there any hint of a covenant in the verse?” This, of course, is a word/concept fallacy. A word/concept fallacy occurs when the concept is reduced to its explicit mention. Some might say that because “Trinity” is nowhere mentioned in the Bible that, therefore, the concept is not present. This is a word/concept fallacy, and it’s fallacious precisely because the technical term doesn’t have to be present for the concept it signifies to be present. John 6:37 reads, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” The Father gives, the Son receives, the Spirit seals. Of course, trinitarian theology must qualify our notions of sending, receiving, agreement, etc. It is not as if one Person wills one thing and another Person willfully agrees to it. There is but one will in God. Yet, Scripture appropriates the works of God to specific Persons in correspondence to their relations of origin. The Father qua eternal begetter gives the Son a people, the Son qua eternally begotten receives that people, etc. 

At this point, however, there is no reason we shouldn’t think of the covenant of redemption according to minimal facts. According to Richard, a covenant is an agreement. With Gillespie, he appeals to Isaiah 28:15 to justify this definition, and that text does not require the narrow association of “covenant” with a “a solemn act.” Though some covenants take place as solemn acts or oaths, not all covenants do. A confirmatory oath may as well be a revelation to man rather than a necessary feature of all covenants. In other words, an oath is present in covenants made to man because that is how God “stoops” to us, whereas a covenant in the Godhead would not require any stooping whatsoever. Furthermore, if the term “covenant” is just a term that refers to God’s eternal decree specifically as it relates to the trinitarian work of redemption, then there shouldn’t be any substantial issues beyond that of semantic scruples.

There is one last thing I would like to address prior to concluding this article. Henebury registers the use of Psalm 2 in support of a covenant of redemption. He starts by saying, “The psalm does not speak of a covenant, but it does speak of a decree in verse 7. That’s enough if you need to find a covenant of redemption somewhere. Is the decree pretemporal? And is every decree covenantal? An affirmative to those questions reflects guesswork and wishful thinking respectively.” Unfortunately, Henebury doesn’t actually examine the text, and this is per the usual throughout this series. There is little to no exegesis in the articles with which I’m interacting. So, let’s look at Psalm 2:7, “I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.’”

Now, maybe it’s Henebury’s conscious avoidance of the New Testament use of the Old, but Psalm 2:7 is clearly recapitulated in Hebrews 1:5, and there, it’s explicitly applied to the Son of God, not David. Yet, as Richards notes, Psalm 2 immediately refers to David, “I have set My king on My holy hill of Zion.” This indicates that there is a typological relationship between David and Christ. Hebrews 1:5 invites the reader to consider the “coronation” language of Psalm 2, included in which is the notion of decree, but specifically in relation to the sending and mission of Christ, as v. 8 indicates, “Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, And the ends of the earth for Your possession.” It is this mission of Christ that warrants the language of “decretal agreement” or “covenant of redemption,” due to the sending and giving of the Son by the Father for that definitive work of salvation.

Henebury concludes this article speaking of the hermeneutics behind covenant theology, “Such a hermeneutics is utterly foreign to my way of reading, being injected with assumptions about CT rather than listening to the text itself.” We should note, however, that no one arrives at the text as a blank slate. Everyone brings their assumptions, and everyone “injects” something of them into their reading of the Bible. The question is whether or not those assumptions are accurate. Even Henebury himself admits to bringing a distinctively dispensationalist hermeneutic to the text when, in his own bio, he writes:

As far as it goes, my contribution is to offer courses, lectures, seminars, and other materials, and to explore a new and very promising avenue of inquiry – the Biblical Covenants. These covenants can be mined via the dispensationalist hermeneutics to produce far more than they have been made to in the past. Enter “Biblical Covenantalism” (a clumsy phrase coined by yours truly). This method contains hermeneutical, theological and worldview truths which, I think, can really give a shot in the arm to contemporary Dispensationalism.

In spite of his critical observation of assumptions made by covenant theologians, it seems Henebury brings a somewhat voluminous set of assumptions of his own to the text. But are those assumptions true? Perhaps we shall find out as we continue this series.

Conclusion

At this point in his critical analysis, Henebury has not allowed for an impartial presentation of covenant theology by its adherents. They are sparsely quoted, and when they are quoted, Henebury fails to include the relevant context. Not only this, but in an article series concerned with biblical theology, one would expect a fair amount of exegesis in order to introduce biblical defeaters against the position of covenant theology which, we’ve been told, is largely constructed upon conjecture. If the artificial nature of covenant theology were true, Scripture would certainly provide ample exegetical ammunition to the contrary. Yet, throughout Henebury’s series, the text is hardly dealt with at all. Henebury states what he thinks the text means, but he rarely moves to actually substantiate his opinions. I applaud him for his opinionated clarity, but the exegetical theology is simply lacking in this series overall, and this particular post is no exception.

Lastly, lest anyone forget, I have strong disagreement with the paedobaptist version of covenant theology. But, thus far, we’ve largely only dealt with introductory matters. The covenant of redemption is not distinct to paedobaptist covenant theology, but to the orthodoxy of high Calvinism in the post-Reformation era. In other words, these are matters concerning which both Baptists and paedobaptists have historically agreed. In part six, the divergence will become all the more apparent as we begin to talk about the covenant of grace.

Resources

Nicholas Piotrowski, In All the Scriptures: The Three Contexts of Biblical Hermeneutics, (Westmont: IVP Academic, 2021).

[1] Guy Richards, Guy Prentiss Waters, et al, Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), 46.

Covenant Theology II | Jesus, Plus Some Other Stuff?

Covenant Theology II | Jesus, Plus Some Other Stuff?

In this second installment I will be addressing more of Henebury’s efforts to explain covenant theology to his readers. At this point, he still has not descended into the weeds because he’s just trying to steelman covenant theology by discerning its controlling principles. He’s setting up the rest of his series, and this is commendable. Where many might not take the time to do this, Henebury is genuinely attempting to understand and represent his interlocutors well. I hope I can return the favor in this article and the forthcoming installments.

What (or Who) is the Old Testament about? That is the central question of this piece. I am particularly focused on three paragraphs in this second article of Henebury’s. They read as follows:

What I want to point out is that there are two assertions here not one. The first assertion is that without the NT the OT “would remain largely veiled to us.” The second is that “we would see Christ only dimly.”

 

While there is no doubt that the second assertion is spot on, what about the first opinion? Notice that the whole OT is basically being boiled down to the figure of Christ. But although Christ is certainly crucial to the OT, isn’t it true that the Hebrew Bible is about more than Him? What about the covenants that God pledges to Israel and His election of them? What about Jerusalem and the temple? What about David’s throne in Jerusalem? Aren’t these perfectly clear as given by the OT? According to CT (and NCT’s) the answer is No! How come?

 

I think Brown & Keele answer this question well from a CT perspective. The thing to keep in mind, they tell us, is that there are in fact two distinct stages of fulfillment. The first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts. But the second level of fulfillment is different.

What Is the Old Testament About?

Earlier, in his illustration designed to describe how outsiders perceive the hermeneutics of covenant theology, Henebury compares the interpretive priority of the New Testament required by covenant theology to a person who uses a secondary source (authored by a radical liberal critic) to understand a primary source (Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo). To bring our understanding of the New Testament into Old Testament interpretation is, for the dispensationalist, an “intrusion of an outside view upon the plain text of Scripture.”

In my lengthy quotation of Henebury above, he takes aim at the covenant theologian’s assumption that the Old Testament is reducible to the “figure of Christ,” at least as it regards understanding the significance thereof. But what if the New Testament itself invites us to make such an assumption? For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul writes, “But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.” Required to understand the Old Testament is repentance and faith in Christ, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (v. 16)

In this instance, Henebury is responding to Brown & Keele’s book, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored. In that book, they essentially second what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:14. They write:

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for our preoccupation with the New Testament. If the Bible were a building, the New Testament would be the penthouse suite; it reveals in glory and clarity Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior. The gospel in all its simple sweetness graces the pages of the Greek portion of Holy Scripture. Without it, the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us, and we would see Christ only dimly. (101-102)

Henebury implies Brown & Keele deny that the Old Testament concerns covenants other than the gospel, the nation of Israel, David’s throne, etc. But even if they did elsewhere, that is not what Brown & Keele say in the section Henebury interacts with. Instead, they insinuate Christ as the interpretive key to a full understanding of the Old Testament. There is nothing substantially different in what they say and what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians. One must understand the Old Testament in light of Christ, otherwise, it will remain veiled as Moses’ face was veiled, thus preventing the people from seeing the glory of God. (Ex. 34:35)

What About All the Other Stuff?

I doubt Henebury would deny the need for evangelical faith in order to rightly understand the Old Testament. The controversy resides in what to do with all the other stuff: Israel, the Davidic throne, the promised land of Canaan, future promises revealed in the Old Testament for Israel, etc. How do we account for these things? Henebury, presumably, would argue that we need to account for these things on the Old Testament’s own terms. But, given that these sweeping categories virtually subsume the whole of the Old Testament, they themselves could only be understood properly in light of Christ. If we try to understand them on the Old Testament’s own terms, neglecting the fuller revelation of God in the New Testament, we essentially try to read the Old Testament as the unconverted Jew does, practically rejecting the significance of the new covenant.

To be consistent with such a hermeneutical commitment would eventually land us in messianic Judaism or simply Judaism, being unable to read the Pentateuch in light of Hebrews 8:13 with its abrogation of the Mosaic covenant. To be clear, I’m not accusing Henebury of actually being a messianic Judaizer. But his method of understanding the Old Testament revelation strictly according to the Old Testament’s own terms would seemingly lead to a systemic rejection of any interpretive import from the New Testament.

Furthermore, what about Isaiah 53? How would one see the full sense of Isaiah 53 apart from the New Testament? To this day, Jews do not see Jesus in Isaiah 53. They see national Israel. Why is this? Could it be because the veil remains drooped over their hearts? They must turn to Christ, the Great Expositor of the Old Testament, to understand Isaiah 53 correctly. What about Isaiah 7? I’ll never forget my Old Testament survey class at a notoriously dispensational institution located in Southern California. We were not permitted to read Christ out of Isaiah 7. Isaiah 7, we were told, was all about Mahershalalhashbaz. This might as well have been our conclusion if it weren’t for the formula quotation in Matthew 1:22-23, “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” The New Testament teaches us how to understand the Old Testament.

In the final paragraph I quoted in the introduction of this article, Henebury describes “two distinct stages of fulfillment.” According to Henebury’s understanding of Brown & Keele, covenant theology holds that “the first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts.” A more preferred term for this “first level,” in my estimation, might be the immediate sense. Some have called it the historical sense. But Henebury notes an additional level, but “[this] second level of fulfillment is different.” This “second level” we would rather call the fuller sense (sensus plenior). I believe this is what Brown & Keele are getting at, though the term “level” isn’t ideal.

The fuller sense isn’t wholly different from the historical sense anymore than a tree is wholly different from an acorn. The genetic coding for a full-grown tree resides inside the acorn, otherwise the acorn could never finally give way to the tree. The information inherent within the acorn anticipates and provides for later growth. Conversely, this later growth reveals the potential and purpose of the acorn in the first place, that is, to grow into a tree of this or that height, girth, etc. This analogy rings of Augustine’s well-known maxim, “The new [testament] is in the old [testament] concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” The tree is in the acorn concealed (DNA), the acorn is in the tree revealed (brought to its telos or goal).

Thus, it is not so much that there are two discontinuous and unrelated “levels” of meaning in the Old Testament, the second of which is only to be disjointedly introduced in the New. Rather, it is the case that the fullness of the Old Testament’s original meaning is brought to maturity in the pages of the New Testament or, more simply, in Christ Himself. For it is Christ who explains the whole of the Old Testament in light of Himself, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (Lk. 24:27) Note, the text does not tell us that Jesus interpreted some of the Scriptures in light of Himself, but it was “in all the Scriptures” (ἐν πάσαις ταῖς γραφαῖς) that our Lord had occasion to teach the things concerning Himself.

Introducing the Land “Problem”

This will be a theme to which we will return later on in the series. However, at this point Henebury introduces the issue of the land of Canaan and its eschatological significance and so I will speak to it briefly. He writes:

According to this “levels of fulfillment” view the covenant promises of God about seed and land were fulfilled in OT times. Brown and Keele, following many CT’s, say that the land promise was fulfilled at the time of Joshua (see Joshua 21:21:43-45, Ibid, 92). Having placed the land promise in the past the next stage of fulfillment can be given all the attention. In CT God ‘s fulfillment of the land promise to Israel, having occurred already, can be made into a foreshadowing of something else; something greater. And this “something greater” is realized at the first advent as a result of “Christ’s person and work.”

According to Henebury, Brown & Keele note the unequivocal fulfillment text in Joshua 21:43, “So the LORD gave to Israel all the land of which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they took possession of it and dwelt in it.” This is a significant problem for those who make the claim that the land promise was never fulfilled in the Old Testament. It obviously was. But nothing in dispensationalism requires such a hard claim. Some dispensationalists may as well make room for two or more fulfillments of the same promise, and even view a measure of escalation in each fulfillment.

However, given my above thesis, that the New Testament itself requires we read the Old Testament in light of it, the land of Canaan, like the acorn, was certainly destined for a higher purpose. Its purpose was to grow into something greater. I believe this can be seen in the Old Testament, such as in Isaiah 57:13, where the land is given by faith, which was not how the land was originally given to the descendants of Abraham. Those descendants were required to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law inherently implied by circumcision following the Sinaitic covenant. (Gal. 5:3) Nevertheless, it is the New Testament that unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land, “But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:16)

Texts like Hebrews 11:16 teach us that the land of Canaan was only a foretaste of that which was to come and that which was ultimately desired by the Old Testament saints. The heavenly country in Hebrews 11:16 isn’t the land of Canaan, per se, and it isn’t distinctively Jewish as many dispensationalists would have it. Hebrews 12:18-24 later defines this heavenly Jerusalem as something possessed by the saints. It comes with the receiving of the kingdom (v. 28), and it is unshakable. Its immovable nature suggests transcendence of the millennial period which most dispensationalists envisage to represent a temporary state of affairs taking place just prior to the new heavens and new earth. Such a heavenly Jerusalem should be connected to the new Jerusalem in Revelation 21, “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (v. 2) More on this throughout.

Conclusion

None of the above, of course, registers as valid hermeneutical discourse if the New Testament is set aside during the process of interpretation. If the Old Testament can only be read in terms of the Old Testament, then we are forced to do what the New Testament authors themselves did not do, namely, refuse to read the Old Testament in light of the incarnation, sufferings, and glory of our Lord. 

I like the illustration Henebury uses to describe how the covenant theologian thinks of his own position, “People had been watching everything in black and white and they were used to it. When color TV’s were brought home they brought so much life to the screen. It was a new world. People were seeing the actors and their backgrounds and their cars in a brand new and vibrant ways. You could see better! That is similar to the way CT’s understand the way the NT changes the way we look at what had come before it.” The Old meaning doesn’t become irrelevant with the New. Rather, it comes into focus. It comes into its own. And it does so only in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Resources

Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2020).

G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012).

 

Covenant Theology I | The Bible According to the Bible

Covenant Theology I | The Bible According to the Bible

This will be the first installment within a series of a number of posts. It will be in partial response to Paul Martin Henebury, who calls himself “Dr. Reluctant”—being what he terms a “reluctant dispensationalist.” He is the innovator of a position called “biblical covenantalism,” which appears to be a relatively new project aimed at synthesizing(?) elements of covenant theology with dispensational theology. He wrote a lengthy post series critical of covenant theology per se, usually poking at the Westminster brand represented by men like Guy Waters and Geerhardus Vos. I will be responding to this post series as a Baptist, disagreeing with both Henebury and his main interlocutors—the Presbyterians—as I go along.

The other purpose of this “counter series” will be to hopefully clarify the confessional Baptist position, and to show that, without it, there is no such thing as Baptist theology, let alone Particular Baptist theology. I, of course, do not mean that every Baptist holds to Baptist covenant theology (henceforth, 1689 federalism). But many Baptists want the conclusions of Baptist distinctives without the exegetical-theological assumptions that actually get them there. Dispensationalism and its hermeneutic, though popularly held in Baptist circles, is not a Baptist system, originating with John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. That said, its assumptions cannot consistently bring one to a conviction of Baptist polity, the law/gospel distinction, or baptism.

In this first post, I only want to summarily define my own position and address some of Henebury’s starting assumptions. 

My Position

When I say “1689 federalism,” I mean the view of the biblical covenants set forth by the 1677/89 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith and its framers. In that confession, readers will pick up on a few relevant terms: the covenant of redemption which the confession alludes to as a “covenant made between them both,” i.e., Father and Son, appearing in chs. 7 & 8; the “covenant of works,” mentioned in chs. 19-20; and the “covenant of grace,” mentioned in chs. 7, 14, 15, and 17. It should be noted that there are multiple covenants of works in addition to the Adamic covenant in the garden found throughout the Old Testament, each obliging the vassal party to some kind of obedience in view of a reward with curses in the event of disobedience. A few of these are the covenant of circumcision, the Mosaic covenant, and the Davidic covenant. The only free grace covenant is the covenant cut in the blood of Christ—the new covenant/covenant of grace. These covenants of works serve, but are not themselves, the new covenant. Historically, Baptists have made these distinctions in order to preserve believing church membership and the integrity of the free offer of the gospel, both of which concerns arise from the nature of the new covenant itself.

Looking now at the language of the confession, the “covenant made between them both,” refers to what has been called the pactum salutis, or the covenant of redemption. This has typically been characterized as a “covenant transaction” (cf. ch. 7) occurring eternally in the past amongst the members of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our modern notions of “transaction” need to be qualified. The confession is not intimating a give and take dynamic between Father, Son, and Spirit. We consider transactions this way because, as creatures, to transact we must undergo a process. Since process is altogether removed from God, given His immutability, we are pressed to understand transactionary language, as applied to the Godhead, as a creaturely way of speaking about the plan of redemption as it exists eternally and incomprehensibly in God’s decree. The sending of the Son, the obligation of the Son to fulfill what He was sent to do, and the reward the Son receives as the outcome together warrant the language of covenant. Though all these things terminate upon the human nature of Christ in time, they reflect something of the timeless decretal plan of God which, as it unfolds in the economy, is covenantal in nature.

The “covenant of works” is, broadly, any covenant in which one’s participation requires an act of obedience on his or her part. Adam, for example, was obligated to obey God. Upon his failure to do so, he was estranged from the terms of the original agreement. This may be called a covenant. Though the word “covenant” is not present, the essential ingredients are. For the 1689 federalist, the covenant of works first appears in the garden. There is also a covenant of works made between God and Abraham’s descendants in Genesis 15 and 17. Presbyterians deny that the Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of works, instead seeing it as a covenant of grace. But Baptists have always been keen to point out the violable nature of the Abrahamic covenant apparent in Genesis 17:14, i.e., the possibility of being “cut off.” A covenant from which a person can be cut off is, by definition, not a covenant given by free grace.

The “covenant of grace,” for the 1689 federalist, is synonymous with the new covenant. The new covenant is the covenant of grace because it is neither entered into nor sustained by means of the participant’s obedience. For the 1689 federalist, the new covenant is the only saving covenant. And though it had not yet been established in the Old Testament, it was nevertheless revealed and served as the object of faith for Old Testament saints. Christ and His shed blood, which just is the new covenant (cf. Is. 49:8), affects the salvation of all those in Him, regardless of whether they lived under the Abrahamic and/or Mosaic covenants.

The above is a brief overview of my position. I’m sure questions remain. However, more details will hopefully be brought forth and clarified in my interaction with Henebury.

Henebury’s Starting Assumptions

First, and most importantly, Henebury begins by implying his rejection of deductive interpretation. The deeper assumption at play here is that of methodical naturalism, which, as applied to biblical hermeneutics, treats the Bible as any other document in terms of deciphering its subject-matter. As long as the literary-scientific method is applied properly, it will yield the correct exegetical conclusions… or so it is thought. Unfortunately, this is the method taken for granted at University, Seminary, and even in most churches. It rolls downhill from the 18th century Enlightenment, a time foreboding of supernatural assumptions and allergic to the application of faith to any contingent phenomena, including the Bible. Intertextuality is only observed, never employed as an exegetical informant. On this view, Bible readers should not follow Christ or the apostles in how they interpret the text. They must, instead, foist their own methodological assumptions upon it in the form of the exclusive employment of the historical-critical method.

To cut through these bad assumptions, we might simply ask whether or not such assumptions are exemplified by the biblical authors themselves. The answer, of course, would be clearly negatory upon final analysis. For example, let’s take Henebury’s claim, “If these covenants have good biblical standing and are not superimposed upon the Bible via a deductive system of theology then they will surely put in an appearance in the scholarly literature of all kinds of interpreters.” The implication here is that deduction, or beginning with a concept from which may be deduced further implications, is something to be shunned by the Bible interpreter. Ironically, there is nothing in Scripture itself forbidding deductive interpretation in principle. And there are countless examples of the biblical authors making deductions from Old Testament texts in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ.

The whole  first chapter of Hebrews is a stunning example of how this is the case. In particular, Hebrews 1:5b directly applies 2 Samuel 7:14 to Christ. Such was a text that itself historically applied immediately to Solomon. But, in light of the finished work of our Lord, the author of Hebrews reads 2 Samuel 7:14 in a Christocentric and Christotelic way, not because the meaning changed (and thus needed re-interpreted), but because the meaning that had always been present was subsequently illumined by the coming of Son of God. The several formula quotations in the gospel according to Matthew are another such example of reading the Old Testament in light of the coming of Christ, that is, deductively.

The first move in response to the above might be an appeal to the doctrine of inspiration. The author of Hebrews was inspired, therefore, he could make such verbose interpretive conclusions. But such implies that, given inspiration, the author of Hebrews could perceive a meaning no one else could have seen. Talk about “hidden meaning”! Furthermore, such an appeal to inspiration virtually neuters the concepts of Christologic and apostolic examples. Is Jesus our example? If so, isn’t Jesus’ method of interpretation our example as well? Are the apostles our example? If so, should we not then follow their interpretive practice? Who else’s example do we have, after all?

Henebury may have a point if by “deduction” he referred to extra-biblical concepts read into the text which would do harm to the meaning of the text itself. But he’s not using the term in this way. Instead, he chides Brown & Keele for reading Genesis 3:15 in light of Galatians 3. The Enlightenment skepticism Henebury has inadvertently imbibed and worked into his own biblical exegesis causes him to doubt the traditionally accepted reading of Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium. Henebury writes, “I realize that this ‘proto-evangelium’ is supposed to promise a Savior, but does it?  The remarks are addressed to the serpent and imply his doom.  There is nary a word about redemption from sin.” The obvious question, of course, is, “If Genesis 3:15 doesn’t promise a Savior, how could anyone living between Adam and Abraham be saved, e.g., Abel?” If salvation came in any other form than Christ, there would have had to be a different way of salvation for them than there is for us. A startling implication to be sure, and one of the main reasons the hermeneutical commitments undergirding dispensationalism ought to be rejected.

Furthermore, if God is the single-unifying mind behind the Scriptural narrative at large, given inspiration, then it follows He is the best commentator upon His own Word. When we “read Galatians into Genesis,” we’re not doing violence to Genesis anymore than the biblical authors themselves were. We’re reading Genesis in light of what else the Supreme Author of Genesis has said in relation to the topic at hand, which, in this case, is the gospel itself.

The second thing Henebury does in his first post is allege that covenant theologians are “storytellers.” He says, “Covenant theologians tell ‘stories.’  The stories are persuasive because they are God-centered, Christological, NT oriented, and coherent (at least apparently).” Leaving aside the fact that “God-centered” interpretation must necessarily be correct, this only works to form a bias in the mind of his readers against covenant theology at the outset of his prolonged series. It muddies the waters and makes it seem as if Henebury lacks objectivity in the evaluation of his interlocutors. 

Furthermore, given the limited extent to which he actually interacts with the relevant source material throughout his series, he is unable to demonstrate the truth of this statement to any sufficient degree. Of course, if by “story” he means the Bible’s own intertextual nature, then he would once again be hard pressed to demonstrate that such a “story” is, in fact, unbiblical. All 66 books of the Bible are related to one another and work toward a central and climatic goal at the beckon call of its Divine Author. This means something for our interpretation, especially as we observe how subsequent revelation regularly and directly clarifies and explains antecedent revelation. More on this as we continue.

Conclusion

At the outset of his criticism, Henebury made two mistakes that will affect his own later critique and the objectivity of his readers. His first mistake is the unequivocal rejection of deductive interpretation. At this point, he has not even tried to demonstrate why deductive interpretation is wrong. And I do not think he could successfully do so while assuming his own hermeneutical pre-commitments. Leaving aside the fact that deduction, at some level, is necessary, there is neither biblical command nor example against deduction per se in Scripture. And, in fact, there is ample instruction and example in the other direction, that is, deducing Old Testament meaning in light of the illumination offered by the incarnation, sufferings, and glory of our Lord. (cf. Lk. 24:27)

Furthermore, Henebury unfortunately characterizes his interlocutors as “storytellers.” This muddies the waters by poorly characterizing those with whom he’s interacting. It makes it sound as if we prefer our stories rather than the biblical text. As someone who was once a dispensationalist and is now a 1689 federalist, I can confidently say that I would not have reached this position if I thought it had been crafted upon conjectural stories. The main reason I left dispensationalism was precisely because its hermeneutical principles could not keep up with that of Scripture’s own self-interpretation. The method of dispensationalism is not the method of the Bible. We must interpret the Bible as the Bible teaches us to interpret the Bible.

Resources:

Samuel Renihan, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), (Oxford: Center for Baptist History and Heritage Studies, 2018).

Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2020).

Nehemiah Coxe & John Owen, Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, (Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005).

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 event. (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.