Trinitarian-Theological vs. Historial-Critical Interpretation of the Old Testament

An erudite methodological point by Craig Bartholomew from his contribution to the book Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (eds. Bartholomew & Beldman; Eerdmans, 2012):

The fragmentation of the Old Testament at the hands of historical criticism is no new problem, and scholars concerned with theological interpretation deal with it in different ways. Barth’s approach was to acknowledge its legitimacy but to position it in the context of a larger theological hermeneutic. The problem with such an approach is that a nature/grace (historical criticism/theological interpretation) dichotomy remains uneasily at work in such scholarship. The most serious challenge to the fragmentation of historical criticism has come from literary readings, but before this could be fully appropriated the postmodern turn was upon us with its wild pluralism. A curious result is that much of the historical-critical paradigm lingers as a sort of lowest common denominator for academic biblical studies.

In my opinion the sort of trinitarian hermeneutic I articulate in Chapter 1 in the present volume provides a helpful barometer for measuring the extent to which historical criticism has helped us attend to the voice (or voices) of Old Testament wisdom. While there are many things to be grateful for in terms of the historical legacy in Old Testament wisdom studies, when it comes to attending to these books for God’s address one is generally confronted with the aridity of historical criticism. On all accounts books like Job and Ecclesiastes are great literature, but in Old Testament studies our energy is directed toward speculative determination as to whether the earliest Israelite wisdom was secular, the different layers in Proverbs, whether Job 28 is original to Job, how many different voices there are in the epilogue of Ecclesiastes, and so on. Academic rigor is nonnegotiable, but there is a real sense in which a consistent historical-critical reading and a literary, final-form, theological reading are incommensurate paradigms. Each needs to tell its stories of these Old Testament books as best it can, and then the results can be compared and, perhaps, real discussions begin. In favor of the latter paradigm it should be noted that all historical criticism depends upon an initial reading of the text as we receive it, even if the conclusion is that the text does not make sense as it stands and that speculative critical reconstruction is therefore essential. Surprisingly, this initial reading is rarely foregrounded in historical criticism, a move one would think essential in the light of literary readings.

Craig Bartholomew, “Hearing the Old Testament Wisdom Literature: The Wit of Many and the Wisdom of One,” in Hearing the Old Testament, Pgs. 303-304 (bold emphasis added).

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA


Preaching What God’s Word Says about the World

Should pastors inform their congregation during corporate worship about how to fill out petitions or how to vote in an election? Or should pastors avoid speaking to any biblical issues related to aspects of public life lest congregants hear them as endorsing particular policies or candidates? This quote by R.B. Kuiper struck me as being not only measured and nuanced, but timely as well:

[T]he principle that the Christian minister is to preach only the Word of God most certainly does not forbid him to apply the teaching of Holy Writ to the specific needs of his hearers and the peculiar conditions of his day. Application, as well as explanation, is of the essence of preaching. It may even be said that, in preaching, the exegesis of Scripture must itself be applicatory. P. Biesterveld has said of Calvin’s preaching: “The exegesis in his sermons is always genuinely homiletic exegesis. He explains in the pulpit not in order to explain. It is ministry of the Word: explanation and application together …. No exegesis scholastica, which belongs in academic circles, but genuine exegesis popularis ….”

May it be said, for example, that the minister who militates from the pulpit against the rampant state totalitarianism of this second quarter of the twentieth century is preaching the Word of God? To answer that question is not difficult. If he is conscious of being Verbi Divini Minister, he will not deal with this phenomenon from the viewpoint of political science, but he will be content to view it in the light of Holy Scripture. But if he does that, he is certainly preaching the Word. Nor may it be thought that the Scriptures shed no light on such a matter. From the Scriptural teaching that the individual, the family, the church and the state are all of them divine creations it follows by good and necessary inference that they are severally sovereign in their own spheres and that not one of them may impinge upon the rightful authority of another. And in the Scriptural avowal that Christ is “head over all things” it is unmistakably implicit that the state is not head over all things. When God inspired holy men of old to write his Word, he had in mind, and made provision for, all the moral and religious exigencies that would arise in future centuries to the end of time. The Bible is the Word of God for all ages. As such it is ageless. A lecturer of high repute once advised a gathering of ministers to turn from the preaching of the Word to the preaching of the world. That was wretched advice. The minister should preach the Word, and only the Word. But this does not at all mean that he must ignore the world. It is his business to declare what the Word has to say about the world. To do that is, beyond cavil, to preach the Word.

R.B. Kuiper, “Scriptural Preaching,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, pgs. 220-222.

Such application can no doubt go awry. Ministers who are Democrats might be tempted to identify God’s word with democratic policies, and ministers who are Republicans might be tempted to identify God’s word with republican policies. Whether Independents, Libertarians, Green Party members, Constitution party members, Reform Party members, and any other party that Wikipedia lists – the same holds true. Brothers, be careful!

And yet should Scripture speak clearly to the issues that lie behind particular policies, let us indeed allow it to speak clearly and directly should the text we are preaching occasion itself to such an application.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

A Triune Perspective on Limited (Definite) Atonement

The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide Edwin Palmer (d. 1980) wrote a helpful book called The Five Points of Calvinism.  This is a good resource for those who want a detailed yet readable and relatively brief explanation of the doctrines of grace.  Here’s an edited summary of Palmer’s discussion of Limited (Definite) Atonement which he explains in a Trinitarian and biblical way.  The doctrine of Limited Atonement is based on:

1) The Father’s Election.  Since the objects of the Father’s saving love are particular, definite, and limited (Amos 3:2, Rom. 1:7, 8:29, 9:13, Col. 3:12, 1 Thess. 1:4, Jude 1) so are the objects of Christ’s death.  Because God has loved certain ones and not all, because he has sovereignly and immutably determined that these particular ones will be saved, he sent his Son to die for them, to save them, and not all the world.  Because there is a definite election, there is a definite atonement.  Because there is a particular election, there is a particular atonement.  God’s electing love and Christ’s atonement go hand in hand and have the same people in view.  There is unity between the work of the Father and the Son.

2) The Son’s Atonement.  The Bible teaches the death of Jesus in at least four different ways.  When Christ died, 1) he made a substitutionary sacrifice for sins (Heb. 9-10); 2) he propitiated, that is, appeased or placated, the righteous wrath of God (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17, 2 John 2:2; 4:10); 3) he reconciled his people to God – that is, he removed the enmity between them and God (Rom. 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:20, etc.); and 4) he redeemed them from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). …The nature of the atonement – what did Christ actually do? – answers the question: For whom did Christ die?  The noun (atonement) defines its adjective (limited).  If the atonement does not actually save, does not really remove God’s curse from people, does not actually redeem them, then it indeed can be for all the world, even for those who are in hell.  But if the death of Jesus is what the Bible says it is – a substitutionary sacrifice for sins, an actual and not a hypothetical redemption, whereby the sinner is really reconciled to God – then obviously, it cannot be for every man in the world.  For then everybody would be saved, and obviously they are not.

3) The Spirit’s Indwelling. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Paul notes (in line with Romans 6) that if Christians are dead to sin, then they are made alive in Christ.  If they are spiritually buried with Christ, they will spiritually rise with him.  Although Paul does not state it explicitly in this passage, we know from the rest of Scripture that this is possible only through the Holy Spirit’s work.  …There is an inexorable chain of events in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: a) Christ died for all believers; therefore b) all believers die spiritually in Christ; and c) they all rise again spiritually in Christ.  If (a) is stated, (b) and (c) must follow.  …The Holy Spirit does not apply the death of Christ to all people, leaving it in their hands ultimately as to whether or not they would be saved.  Rather, the Spirit comes to those people whom the Father had chosen and for whom the Son had died and he causes them to die to sin and be born again.

In summary, the purpose of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit coincide.  They strive for and accomplish the same purpose: The salvation of those whom the Father has loved with a special love.

To read these three points in their entirety, see pages 52-60 in The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010).

shane lems

The Old Testament in the New Testament

There are several helpful articles in volume one of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Frank Gaebelein).  One of them that stands out is Roger Nicole’s “The Old Testament in the New Testament.”  Here is Nicole’s introduction and his main points (edited and summarized).

“One very notable feature of the NT is the extent to which it alludes to or quotes the OT.  It appeals to the OT in order to provide proof of statements made, confirmation for positions espoused, illustration of principles advanced, and answers to questions raised.  …[There is] a very close relationship between the Testaments.  Eight propositions clarify this relationship.”

1) The NT writers assumed that the OT in its entirety was meaningful and relevant for their own time.

2) The NT writers were convinced that many of the events of the life of our Lord and indeed of the beginnings of the Christian church had been prophesied in considerable detail by OT writers.

3) The ground of the NT writers’ faith in the prophetic vision of the OT was their conviction, frequently and variously expressed, that the OT is the Word of God.

4) Because they viewed the OT as the Word of God, the NT writers did not hesitate to interpret its statements, not merely in terms of what the human authors could have thought, but in terms of what God himself meant in speaking through the prophets.

5) In many cases the NT writers, illumined by the Holy Spirit, perceived with greater clarity than the OT writers themselves God’s intended meaning behind some prophecies.  What the prophets had seen only dimly and in terms of general principle, the NT writers saw in the glowing light of fulfillment in a perspective in which a wealth of details fall into place.

6) The NT writers had such a deep insight into the fullness of God’s redemptive purposes that they could perceive foreshadowings and parallelisms where others might easily have missed them altogether.  In many such cases it is not necessary to hold that the OT writers completely understood the way their pronouncements would relate to their fulfillment in the NT.

7) In a number of cases the NT authors saw a significant relationship between a diversity of OT passages.  Sometimes they made this plain by a juxtaposition of quotations; in other cases, they appear to have united two or more passages in an illuminating combination.

8) While the NT writers draw attention mainly to the meaning of OT passages, they did not hesitate to build an argument on one word of the original text.  This method of quoting the OT manifests a supreme confidence in the divine authority of even then minutest details of Scripture.

I appreciate these 8 points; Nicole does give a lot of biblical support and examples for each of these points.  I recommend reading the entire article for a stimulating study of how the NT authors used the OT.  Near the end, Nicole says this (and I’ll end with it):

“Our acceptance of the Bible doctrine of inspiration carries with it the assurance that the Holy Spirit enlightened and guided the writers of the NT in their understanding of the OT no less than he enlightened and guided the OT writers in whatever they wrote.”

Roger Nicole, “The Old Testament in the New Testament.”

shane lems

Why The Church Covers Up Abuse Since we live in a fallen world where righteousness does not flourish, there is such a thing as abuse in Christian churches.  People are sinful and church leaders cannot see into peoples’ hearts or houses.  And tragically, sometimes church leaders ignore signs of abuse or even worse, cover it up.  The question then arises: why in the world would church leaders cover up this heinous sin?  Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood give some reasons in A Cry for Justice.  Here are the reasons (edited due to length) explaining why churches sometimes cover up abuse.

1) Fear.  When we receive a report of a particularly ugly sin happening in our own church, we are afraid.   What are we afraid of?  a) Harm to our church (destruction of relationships, scandal reported in the newspapers, loss of unity among members, legal consequences, lawsuits, etc.).  b) Criticism.  Generally, those handling the reported abuse are going to be attacked and criticized by some people before it is over.  c) The criminal justice system.  In a real church, we are simply not very familiar with courts and police and prosecutors and jails.  Suddenly, we are face to face with them when we report abuse.  If we are going to think clearly and effect biblical justice for the abuse victim, then we must learn to get control of our fear very early in the process.

2) A Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Abuse is an evil that feeds upon silence, secrecy, and shame.  Sometimes people are pressured not to ask or tell about abuse, because it would damage both parties, both families by unnecessarily shaming them.  But ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is not help.  And of primary importance, we must affirm that our fundamental duty is to help and protect the victim.  The church, the body of Christ, is the advocate of the weak and innocent.

3) Fantasy Thinking.  …We cover up abuse in the church because we want to insulate ourselves from real life and its evils.  Christians, and in particular, conservative, Bible-believing Christians who truly desire to live for Christ, easily adopt a magical, fantastical worldview in which prayer sprinkles pixie dust and tinsel, removing anything that is ‘yucky.’  As their world narrows to the realm of their own protected, safe Christian community, they can grow blind to daily experience of most people.  But the Bible does not do this.  God names horrendous sins, including sexual ones.

4) The Trauma of the Thing.  Closely connected with fantasy-thinking as an explanation for our bent toward cover up is a phenomenon we might call ‘trauma.’  When we are confronted with something ugly and terrible, our head ‘sets to spinning.’  The thing somehow doesn’t seem real.  Reception of such information often results in… an ‘ostrich-head-in-the-sand’ response as the recipient reacts with denial designed to shield oneself against grief and consequences.  Denial is often a powerful response in us when we are faced with a horrible thing.  Denial works to dilute it.  However, as it is with fear, so it is with denial.  Decisions motivated by denial are neither good nor just.  Nothing good will come from them.

Crippen and Wood do say more about these four points and they also note that there are more reasons why churches sometimes cover up abuse.  They go on to offer biblical advice on how to handle and deal with abuse in the church – which will be the topic of a future blog post, Lord willing.  For now, and if you want more info, I recommend this one: A Cry for Justice by Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood.

shane lems
hammond, wi

God, the Infallible Author of the Old Testament

The most recent issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society features an article by Vern Poythress who questions whether something is truly lost when conservative biblical scholars place their emphasis upon the divine author of Scripture rather than the human authors. Though critical scholarship claims that study of the human authors is more controlled and objective, Poythress demonstrates that this is not actually the case. The article is definitely worth reading:

Vern S. Poythress, “Dispensing with Merely Human Meaning: Gains and Losses from Focusing on the Human Author, Illustrated by Zephaniah 1:2-3,” JETS 57/3 (2014): 481-99.

After being impressed with Poythress’ article, I came upon the following quote from Edward J. Young’s contribution to the book The Infallible Word, which likewise struck me as an excellent reminder of the fact that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are authored primarily by God himself:

The Old Testament is the Word of the living and true God. It is not merely the national or religious literature of the ancient Hebrews. It is rather the life-giving oracles of God. It speaks of God the Creator, the Almighty One, who by the Word of his power, brought all things into existence. It speaks of man’s creation and transgression whereby he was brought into an estate of sin and misery. It speaks of God’s promise of deliverance through a Redeemer. it points forward, in its entirety and in its individual parts, to the coming of that one who said, “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have everlasting life, for they are they which testify of me.”

The fact that certain critical scholars choose to refuse to discuss the theological questions involved in the formation of the Old Testament canon need not deter us from so doing. When men endeavor to account for the Old Testament canon upon the basis of historical considerations alone, how unsatisfactory their attempts are! In reality they create more problems than they solve.

The devout Christian need not hesitate boldly to declare his belief in the Old Testament as the inspired Word of God. He need not fear to believe that the authority of these Scriptures resides in the fact that God is their author. True, there is difficulty in adopting this position but, apart from it, the Old Testament must ever remain a mystery. Why it has been preserved we can then never know. One man’s suggestion is as good as another’s. We are left in the hopeless abyss of agnosticism.

E.J. Young, “The Authority of the Old Testament,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. Eds. N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Wooley (2d ed.; Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 90-91.

As he notes, not all will be satisfied with this assertion. But for  those of us who have heard God’s voice speaking in the Old Testament Scriptures, we find great comfort indeed, knowing that these words of promise, description, and instruction are the infallible words of God himself, not the error laden attempts of fallible humans.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

Little Pilgrim’s Progress

Little Pilgrim's Progress Since the original language of Pilgrim’s Progress is too archaic for many of today’s readers, and since I wanted my children to read and understand it, I looked around for an easier to read version or abridgment.  I know there are a few out there, but one that we really like is Little Pilgrim’s Progress by Helen Taylor which was first published over 60 years ago.  Though the story isn’t abridged, the chapters are relatively brief (perfect for reading aloud), there are some illustrations, and most of the language is understandable for most readers (I’d say an average 10-12 year old would understand most of this book).  Here’s an example of the language, in case you were wondering.

‘It is such a tiresome journey,’ continued Unbelief, ‘and if you ever get to the end of it, you will only be disappointed.’


‘Then Unbelief pretended to look sad.  ‘There is no King,’ he said, ‘and no Celestial City.’

‘Oh, but there is,’ exclaimed Christian.  ‘We have heard about it from the King’s own servants!’

‘Unbelief put his hand upon the boy’s shoulder and tried to turn him around.  ‘My dear child, you are quite young, and I am growing old.  Listen to what I have to say.  Long, long ago I heard the very same story that was told to you.  I left my home and came to look for the King’s City. …I have spent twenty years as a pilgrim and I can find no city at all.’  … ‘Come back with me,’ he said, ‘and I will take you safely to your own homes again.’

But Christian answered him bravely, ‘You are trying to deceive us, but we do not believe what you say.  We are quite sure that the King’s word is true and that there is a Celestial City.  We saw its gates when we were with the Shepherds. …And we are going to the King,’ replied Christian.

So they went on again, and Unbelief laughed at them as he turned away.

Taylor does take some liberties in the story, but she doesn’t shorten it up or skip the “scary” parts (the book is 300 pages or so, including Christiana’s story).  If you want a decent adaptation of Pilgrim’s Progress written in an understandable way, I’d recommend looking at this one: Little Pilgrim’s Progress by Helen Taylor (Chicago: Moody, 2006).  Perhaps it will even encourage readers to one day read the classic itself!

shane lems