Historical Interpretation of the OT: Three Requirements (Long)

 V. Philips Long wrote a helpful article for the NIDOTTE called “Old Testament History: A Hermeneutical Perspective.”  It’s a very level-headed discussion about interpreting the history recorded in the OT.  One section of the article gives three requirements for the interpreter of OT history.  Here’s a summary of those three requirements:

  1. Literary competence.  It may seem surprising to begin this section on requirements for historical interpretation with an emphasis on literary competence, but any who wish to include the OT among their sources for the history of ancient Israel or, for that matter, those who may wish to dismiss it, must at least recognize that competent literary reading of the OT with a view to discovering its truth claims (historical or otherwise) is a necessary first step….  By ‘literary competence’ I mean a developed awareness of the conventions and workings of a given literary corpus and a consequent ability to discern what kinds of claims a given text within that corpus may be making (cf. Barton, esp. 8–19; Baron, 93). When one is learning a foreign language, one studies the grammar of that language (i.e., the linguistic principles by which it communicates) so as to increase linguistic competence and the ability rightly to interpret individual utterances. By the same token, when one’s aim is to understand individual passages of a “foreign” literary corpus such as the OT (which originated at a time and place far removed from our own), it is immensely useful to learn what one can of the “grammar” of that literature (i.e., the literary principles by which it operates).  …One of the best ways to improve one’s literary competence is to read as much of the literature under consideration as possible….
  2. Theological comprehension.  A second requirement for those who would interpret the OT historically is theological comprehension. Again, just as it may have seemed odd in the preceding section to highlight literary competence as a requirement for historical interpretation, so it may seem odd to stress theological comprehension as a requirement for those who would use the OT responsibly in historical reconstruction. But the fact is that in the narratives of the OT God is a central character, not only present behind the scenes but occasionally intervening directly in the action of the story—e.g., sending plagues, parting seas and rivers, destroying city walls, appearing in visions, throwing enemies into panic, protecting his people, speaking through his prophets, fulfilling their words, and so forth. In short, the God depicted in the OT is not only transcendent but is also immanent in human (historical) affairs. As G. B. Caird succinctly puts it, “the most important item in the framework within which the people of biblical times interpreted their history was the conviction that God was the Lord of history” (217–18; cf. Westermann, 210; Wolff).

  3. Historical criticismThe core story of the OT presents itself as a true story, and not just in the sense that it is “true to life.” The central events of the sweep of redemptive history are presented as real events that happened in the lives of real people (cf. Arnold, 99; Halpern, 1988; Licht, 212–16). Whatever artistic traits may be present in the narratives of the OT (and they are many), it remains the case that most of these narratives present themselves as more than just art for art’s sake. They present themselves not merely as realistic narratives but as referential narratives, as the verbal equivalent of portraits, not just generic paintings. Therefore, unless it can be demonstrated that this assessment of the character of the narratives is incorrect—and there are some who think so (e.g., Smelik, Thompson)—then any legitimate literary reading must take their historical truth claims seriously, whatever one may believe about the truth value of the claims.

    It is necessary to acknowledge the Bible’s historical truth claims not only for literary reasons, but for theological reasons as well. For “in point of fact, the Bible consistently presents theological truth as intrinsically bound to historical events” (Arnold, 99). The religious faith propagated in the OT is dependent not simply on some “story world” but on the real world about which the stories are told. As noted earlier, the God of the OT is the Lord of history, and his self-disclosure and salvific actions are accomplished in both event and word (see Long, 1994, 88–119).

 Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), chapter 4.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Native Language of the Law (Gurnall)

 Here are two sections of William Gurnall’s discussion of “the gospel of peace” (Eph 6:15):

The news which the gospel hath in its mouth to tell us poor sinners is good.  It speaks promises, and they are significations of some good intended by God for poor sinners.  The law, that brings ill news to town.  Threatenings are the ‘lingua vernacula legis’ – the native language of the law.  It can speak no other language to sinners but denunciations of evil to come upon them, but the gospel smiles on poor sinners, and plains [smooths] the wrinkles that sit on the law’s brow, by proclaiming promises.

1 Timothy 1:15.  This bridge which the gospel lays over the gulf of God’s wrath, for poor sinners to pass from their sins into the favor of God here, and into the kingdom of God hereafter, is supported with no other arches than the wisdom, power, mercy, and faithfulness of God….

William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armor, Direction seventh, 1.1, 1.5.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Problem of Evil in Atheism (Groothuis)

Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by [Groothuis, Douglas] In chapter 25 of Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothuis discusses the problem of evil from a Christian perspective.  In this chapter he gives five unsatisfactory answers to evil.  The first one is atheism.  I thought this was quite helpful:

Given the surfeit of evil, atheism advances itself as intellectually and morally superior to Christianity (and any religion).  Atheism is not burdened with attempts to explain evil in relation to God. Evil just exists in a godless world. The problem vanishes.

But it does not so vanish, for two main reasons.  First, in order to speak of the problem of evil, a person must believe that objective evil exists. To justify this claim, the person needs to adequately explain the existence and nature of evil.  In order for objective evil to exist, objective goodness must exist as well, and good must exist in a more fundamental way.  This is because evil is a corruption or twisting of the good.  Evil does not exist in and of itself….  Evil is the rust on the iron or the hole in the roof.  While a person or an event may be truly evil (the evil is not illusory), that evil could not have existed without an antecedent and original good.

This discussion harks back to our argument for God from the existence of morality, where we argued for the existence of objective moral goods.  These goods eliminate both relativism/nihilism and pantheistic monism, since neither can rationally support the existence of objective moral goodness.  Neither is objective moral goodness a brute fact in a godless world.  Objective moral goodness, therefore, is best explained by the character of a Creator God who made the universe good and gave us the capacity to recognize the good as such, even now in our fallen state. (…)

Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, p. 617-618.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

Three Great Negations of Presbyterianism (Hodge)

What is Presbyterianism? An Address There’s more to presbyerianism than this, but these points by Charles Hodge are for sure worth highlighting:

…The three great negations of Presbyterianism—that is, the three great errors which it denies are—1. That all church power vests in the clergy. 2. That the apostolic office is perpetual. 3. That each individual Christian congregation is independent.

The affirmative statement of these principles is—1. That the people have a right to a substantive part in the government of the Church. 2. That presbyters, who minister in word and doctrine, are the highest government officers of the Church, and all belong to the same order. 3. That the outward and visible Church is, or should be, one, in the sense that a smaller part is subject to a larger, and a larger to the whole.

It is not holding one of these principles that makes a man a Presbyterian, but his holding them all.

Charles Hodge, What Is Presbyterianism? An Address (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1855), 6–7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Amos Then and Now (Motyer)

The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion (Bible Speaks Today) I’ve always appreciated Alec Motyer’s commentaries on various books of the Bible (e.g. Isaiah, James, Philippians, etc.).  I recently began studying Amos to prepare for an upcoming sermon series and I was immediately impressed with Motyer’s introduction to Amos in his commentary on the same.  Here’s one section I underlined:

…The third emphasis in Amos’ message to the church is that religious profession and religious practice are invalid—to be more precise, repulsive to God and therefore not just useless but also dangerous—unless verified by clear evidences. Throughout his book, by implication, but in a succinct fashion in 7:7–8:10, Amos makes clear what the evidences of true religion are. It is the task of the expository studies at that point to explain them, but here they are in summary. In personal terms, true religion is to respond fully to the grace and law of God, living out the law in a life of obedience, resting on the grace both for ability and forgiveness; towards God, true religion is a reverent hearing and receiving of His Word; and towards other people it appears as honesty, considerateness and unfailing concern for the needy. Take these things away and what remains does nothing more than invite the adverse judgment of God.

In all this Amos speaks directly to the church today, and we must banish any thought that he speaks primarily to some other people or to other situations and that it is only by some exegetical gymnastics that there is a message here for the Christian. Amos addressed ‘Israel’ and we are ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16). It is to be noted that Paul does not say ‘the new Israel’, and nowhere in the Bible does such a phrase (or notion) occur. Jesus designated His people as the inheritors of the new Covenant predicted by Jeremiah (31:31–34; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25); Paul spoke of them as the children of Abraham, along with Isaac (Gal. 4:28); he also said that ‘we are the circumcision’ (Phil. 3:3). It is precisely because this is the true situation that James can take the prophecies of Amos as a handbook for the church’s mission (Acts 15:15 ff.). In doing this he sets an example in the realms of both principle and practice: in principle, in that Amos brings a Word of God directly (not mediately) to us for our direction, admonition and instruction, and in practice, in that we are to see all that he says in the light of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, a kingdom not of this world, not promoted by the methods of the world, nor seeking political fulfilments in a geographical location.

 J. A. Motyer, The Message of Amos: The Day of the Lion, ed. J. A. Motyer and Derek Tidball, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 18–19.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Thoughts on “Reformed Systematic Theology” by Beeke/Smalley

  I’ve always enjoyed reading various Systematic Theologies (STs). Whether in the Reformed tradition (e.g. Berkhof or Bavinck) or in the evangelical tradition (e.g. Grudem or Bird), I like to see how various theologians summarize the Bible’s various doctrines.

I recently took time to read various parts of Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley’s new Reformed Systematic Theology (volume one).  To be sure, it is solid, biblical, and well-written in a clear manner.  It is a bit wordy in places, however; this is not a concise or short ST written for average laypeople.  Reformed Systematic Theology is structured and edited to be exactly like Grudem’s systematics: a point by point outline followed by a hymn/psalm and some questions for reflection (as a side, I admit I never read the questions!).

Reformed Systematic Theology is built upon solid theologians in the past, from Augustine to Luther to Calvin to Ames to Owen to Boston to Bavinck. It’s Reformed and confessional, not calvinistic and baptistic like various evangelical STs.  There are also points of application after different doctrines. For example, one section says that since God has spoken, we must hear him, obey him, teach others about him, and glorify him. To be honest,  sometimes the application seemed a little dry and tacked on in my opinion: “Because of this truth, you must do this or be like that.”

One reason I’m not overly excited about this ST is that it’s not really a needed contribution in the area of Reformed systematics.  There are so many Reformed STs: Berkhof, Bavinck, Vos, Hodge, Turretin, Van Mastricht, Heppe, Brakel, Watson, Shedd, Boston, and newer ones like Horton, Frame, Boice, Reymond, Kelly, and so on.  Beeke and Smalley’s contribution overlaps with those by around 85%.  Granted, Beeke and Smalley do interact with some issues of the day (like Pentecostalism and open theism), but the substance of the theology is nearly the same as the prior Reformed systematics before. Again, this is a solid ST, but as I was reading parts of it I thought: I’ve read this material before. In fact, several times I found myself skimming for this reason.

It’s also worth mentioning that Reformed Systematic Theology has little to no interaction with Biblical Theology (BT) and it doesn’t have a BT or redemptive-historical perspective. I always like it when newer STs overlap and interact with BT (e.g. like Horton).  One other thing: I was surprised that the KJV was used as the primary Bible translation in this book. To me, it doesn’t make sense to use an archaic Bible translation in a modern ST.

Anyway, again, much of the content of Reformed Systematic Theology is five bright stars. It’s solid and in the line of other solid Reformed STs. But many other STs on my shelves contain the same information so I don’t necessarily need this one.  In my opinion, it doesn’t fill a gap in the area of systematic theologies.  However, if you are in need of a new, longer, and more detailed Reformed ST, this is one to check out for sure.

Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2019).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Last Book of the Hebrew Bible: Chronicles?!

Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God's Address I’ve enjoyed making my way through this 2012 Eerdmans publication: Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address. This morning I read chapter seven by Stephen Dempster: “Canon and Old Testament Interpretation.”  Overall it’s a helpful chapter, but I really liked the following paragraph about the Hebrew Bible ending with Chronicles (the last book of the Kethuvim/Writings) as compared to the English Bible which ends with Malachi:

It is sometimes said that the Hebrew Bible, by concluding with the Writings, effectively diminishes the eschatological force of the first three-quarters of the Christian Bible. Concluding with Chronicles rather than Malachi blunts the prophetic thrust of the Old Testament. While this may be partly true, it is not the whole truth. Chronicles sums up the entire story of the Hebrew Bible. In many ways it is a genealogy in search of an ending, concluding with an eschatological hope for a Davidic descendant. It concludes with the ruler of the then-known world, Cyrus—the anointed of the Lord—declaring that all the kingdoms of the world have been given to him so that he can now issue the summons for the Jewish exiles to return home to rebuild the temple. The first book of the New Testament begins with a long genealogy clearly ordered in three groups of fourteen descendants to highlight the Davidic theme, and concluding with Jesus as the ultimate Son of David.  The book of Matthew concludes with this same Jesus, now resurrected from death, declaring to his disciples that all authority has been given to him so that they can now be summoned to “rebuild the temple,” i.e., make disciples of all nations.

Stephen G. Dempster, “Canon and Old Testament Interpretation,” in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew and David J. H. Beldman (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 177–178.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015