…In Studying Things of No Use (Calvin)

Institutes of the Christian Religion

When it comes to the fact that God has revealed himself in his Word, we do well to remember that what he revealed to us there is what he wants us to know about him and faith in him.  The Word is sufficient for our theology, our faith, and our practice.  We may not add to it, nor may we go beyond it.  We humbly accept what God has revealed and we stick with that revelation.  We won’t – and can’t! – have all the answers to all the questions we ask about God, his Word, and other doctrinal or theological things we might wonder about.  John Calvin discussed this point very well in one section of his Institutes.  These are the words of a humble expositor and interpreter of Scripture:

…Let us here remember that on the whole subject of religion one rule of modesty and soberness is to be observed, and it is this — in obscure matters not to speak or think, or even long to know, more than the Word of God has delivered.

A second rule is, that in reading the Scriptures we should constantly direct our inquiries and meditations to those things which tend to edification, not indulge in curiosity, or in studying things of no use. And since the Lord has been pleased to instruct us, not in frivolous questions, but in solid piety, in the fear of his name, in true faith, and the duties of holiness, let us rest satisfied with such knowledge.

Wherefore, if we would be duly wise, we must renounce those vain babblings of idle men, concerning the nature, ranks, and number of angels, without any authority from the Word of God. I know that many fasten on these topics more eagerly, and take greater pleasure in them than in those relating to daily practice. But if we decline not to be the disciples of Christ, let us not decline to follow the method which he has prescribed. In this way, being contented with him for our master, we will not only refrain from, but even feel averse to, superfluous speculations which he discourages….

…The duty of a Theologian…is not to tickle the ear, but confirm the conscience, by teaching what is true, certain, and useful.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 193–194.

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

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Fundamentalism and Interpretation (Vanhoozer)

Vanhoozer

I have always been skeptical and uneasy about a fundamentalist method of interpreting Scripture. Although I have several other reasons for my unease, one worth mentioning is Kevin Vanhoozer’s helpful critique of the fundamentliast hermeneutic in Is There a Meaning in This Text? Below are a few excerpts.

Though fundamentalists cry “back to the texts themselves!” In reality they tend to confuse the text with their way of reading it. “What it meant” becomes “what it means to us now.” Fundamentalism thus preaches the authority of the text but practices the authority of the interpretive community.

Or, I might add, fundamentalism preaches the authority of the text but practices the authority the community’s leader. Vanhoozer continues:

Thus what appeared as one of the most conservative approaches to the text, fundamentalism, ironically turns out to have more in common with one of the most radical, for in privileging their own interpretive community, fundamentalists discover a strange bedfellow in Stanley Fish. The irony is acute and painful: while professing to stand under the Word, the fundamentalist is actually a User.

…An insubordinate desire for objective certainty ultimately affects the way some read the Bible. A misplaced desire to honor “Holy Scripture” leads many fundamentalists to read the Bible as a book of true statements. The problem, in my opinion, is not so much their identification of The Bible with the Word of God as it is their theory of meaning and reference. A picture of meaning holds fundamentalists captive. This picture equates the meaning of a text with its referent, that is, with its empirical or historical correspondence. Is this is essentially modern theory of meaning and truth that generates literalistic interpretations and harmonizes where all parts of the Bible are read as though the primary intent were to state historical facts. Whereas Bultmann dehistoricizes historical material, fundamentalists may historicize unhistorical material.… Though the Bible contains propositions…it is much more than a collection of proof texts.


Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? p. 425-426.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Eschatology, Prophecy, and Foreshortening (Vos)

 When it comes to the OT prophets and eschatology, one area of discussion is the “literalness” of prophetic language.  Though not everyone agrees, in Reformed theology we see the prophets as speaking the truth in poetic and sometimes apocalyptic ways (similar to the Psalms, Revelation, and other parts of Scripture).  Therefore we don’t read the prophets with strict literalism, though we do read them with a view that they are part of the infallible Word of God.

There’s another thing about prophetism worth mentioning: it isn’t always chronological.  Sometimes prophecy is unchronological or non-chronological.  This matters in eschatology!  Here’s how Vos described it:

“Whenever the prophets speak in terms of judgment, immediately the vision of the state of glory obtrudes [imposes] itself upon their view, and they concatenate [join] the two in a way altogether regardless of chronological interludes.  Isaiah couples with the defeat of the Assyrians under Sennacherib the unequalled pictures of the glory of the end, and the impression might be created that the latter was just waiting for the former, to  make its immediate appearance.  The vision ‘hastens’ under their eye.  The philosophy of this foreshortening of the beyond-prospect is one of the most difficult things in the interpretation of prophecy in the Old Testament and New Testament alike.”

In other words, although it is a difficult aspect of interpretation, the words of judgment and glory in the prophets aren’t necessarily chronological.  For more helpful insight into OT prophetism, see Vos’ Biblical Theology, chapter six, part D (The Judgement and the Restoration: Prophetic Eschatology).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Learning How to Read Scripture from Jesus

Dennis Johnson has done some excellent work in the areas of Christ-centered preaching and Bible interpretation.  In one of his more recent books, Walking with Jesus through His Word (2015), he takes the time and space to explain how the central story line of Scripture is all about Jesus.  In this book, Johnson basically teaches readers how to find Christ in Scripture by using Scripture itself – specifically Christ’s teaching.  There’s more to it, but that’s a short summary.

One of the first texts Johnson digs into is Luke 24 – the Emmaus road story.  In this story, among other things, we learn that 1) “we need Jesus to open our minds and hearts” and 2) “we need Jesus to open the Scriptures”:

…Here is the first key to our seeing Christ in the entire Bible: We need him to open our minds, to ignite our hearts, to take away the foolishness and sluggishness and unbelief and low expectations with which we approach his holy written Word.  Since we need Jesus to do this for us, one indispensable key to walking with Jesus through the pages of Scriptures is simply this: Pray!  Face the sobering fact that, left to yourself, you will not ‘get’ what God designs to show you of his Son in his Word by your own research and ingenuity.  Pray that as you read the Word, his Spirit will remove the veil of misunderstanding that keeps you from seeing Jesus’ ever-increasing glory (2 Cor. 2:14-18)….

Not only do we need Jesus to open our minds and hearts, but we also need Jesus to open the Scriptures to us.  Luke 24 uses several words to describe the process by which Jesus disclosed the real meaning of Old Testament passages.  We read that he ‘interpreted’ to the two on the road in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (v. 27), and that they recalled how he had ‘opened to us the Scriptures’ (v. 32).  …In this way, Luke quietly shows that we not only need God’s Spirit to give us the grace to repent of our unbelief and spiritual sluggishness, but also need Jesus to teach us how to read the Bible, to show us a sound method of interpreting God’s written word that honors its origin and its authors…, its unity…, its variety…,and its purpose.”

I’ll come back and note more from this helpful book at a later time, God willing.  For now, if you’re looking for a solid Reformed resource on Christ-centered Bible interpretation, I very much recommend this one: Dennis Johnson, Walking with Jesus through His Word (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2015), p.19-20.

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

The Psalter Knows Christ (Athanasius)

Some of our readers may remember how Luther and Calvin loved the Psalms and spoke of them often.  Luther said that the Psalms were a mini Bible.  Calvin said that all the emotions of the soul are found in the Psalter.  In saying these things, neither Luther nor Calvin were being novel or cutting edge.  Others in Christian history said similar things before them.  Specifically, I’m thinking of Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century.  In a letter to Marcellinus bishop Athanasius gave an excellent interpretive discourse on the Psalter.

One thing he wrote was that the Psalms contain truths about creation, the patriarchs, the wilderness years, the kingdom years, the exile, and so forth.  Athanasius also said that the Psalter “knew” Jesus as the Coming Savior and Lord.  Basically, long before Luther, Athanasius said that he loved the Psalter because it was a mini Bible – or garden rather:

“Yet the Book of Psalms is like a garden containing things of all these kinds [Bible stories and doctrines], and it sets them to music, but also exhibits things of its own that it gives in song along with them.”

After taking some time pointing out how the Psalms teach the main stories and truths of Scripture – with Christ at the center – Athanasius even wrote how the Psalms contain “even the emotions of each soul.”  This means that the Christian can read the Psalms “as if he is speaking about himself.”  We can learn how to live and pray as we read the Psalter:

“And it seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them.”

There are many other excellent observations about the Psalms in Athanasius’ letter.  I don’t have time or space to note them all here and now.  But let me commend this letter to you.  Although I have it in e-book form (thanks, Logos!), you might be able to find it online or just get it from Amazon.  It’s not overly long but it is quite profound and edifying.  Find it, read it, then turn to the Psalms, where we find a treasure box containing Bible stories/truths, guidance for Christian living, and Jesus himself!

The above quotes are found in Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, ed. Richard J. Payne, trans. Robert C. Gregg, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

The “Forward Tilt” of the Bible (Ortlund)

The Deity of Christ (Theology in Community) by [Morgan, Christopher W., Peterson, Robert A.] As Christians who follow in the steps of Christ and his apostles, we view the Old Testament as God’s Scripture that portrays Christ by way of promise, prophecy, foreshadow, type, and so on.  Raymond Ortlund calls this the “forward tilt” of the Bible.  After examining and explaining a handful of OT texts that speak of Christ’s divinity, Ortlund writes,

“…There is a forward tilt built into the Bible. It is not imposed by the dogmatist. It is embedded within. As the story moves forward from the “unfinished symphony” of the Old Testament to the denouement of the New, its truths intensify in clarity. There is no reason why that progress of thought should not include the deity of the Christ. Not all Christian exegesis of the relevant texts is convincing in all respects, and doubtless some of my proposals here have failed to satisfy some readers. Still, ‘the Scripture, foreseeing’ [Gal. 3:8] requires the faithful interpreter to allow for the clearer light of the New Testament to dawn in the Old. I believe that is warranted in the case of the divine Christ.

Disciplined by cautious exegesis – indeed, compelled because of that caution – I must conclude that the deity of the Christ is unmistakably, if mysteriously, revealed in Old Testament texts. The key passages raise questions more than they answer questions. But that is a valid function of the Old Testament, for incomplete revelation is still revelation and a fitting preparation for the full Christ of the New Testament. Psalm 45 rejoices in one who is both royal groom and eternal Ruler. Psalm 110 esteems the son of David who also towers over David as God’s final answer to worldwide human rebellion. Isaiah 9 celebrates the birth of a child who, as our divine warrior and endless benefactor, will advance David’s kingdom successfully and infinitely. Daniel 7 reveals heaven’s decree of worldwide, eternal authority conferred on a celestial being who stands forth also as a man. These passages cannot convincingly be made to say less, and their assertions are consistent with the later faith of the Christian church.

I appreciate these insights, especially how Ortlund said that Christ is “unmistakably” yet “mysteriously” revealed in OT texts.  That’s a great way to say it as we think about the progressive nature of the Bible which has Christ at the center.  Like Augustine famously said, “The New is concealed in the Old, and the Old is revealed in the New.”

Raymond C. Jr. Ortlund, “The Deity of Christ and the Old Testament,” in The Deity of Christ, ed. Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 58–59.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Understanding and Interpreting the Commandments

Marrow of Modern Divinity Although the Ten Commandments in their biblical form (in Ex. 20 and Deut. 5) are quite short, their meaning is deep and broad.  Using other Scriptures, we can properly talk about how to interpret the Ten Commandments.  For one example, the Westminster Larger Catechism in Q/A 99 talks about biblical rules for the right understanding of the Ten Commandments.  For another example, Edward Fisher echoed those rules in his Marrow of Modern Divinity.  These rules for interpreting and applying the Ten Commandments are helpful; I’ll give an edited/summarized version of Fisher’s rules below.  (Note: though Fisher didn’t give a list of proof texts, he was clearly alluding to Scripture in his discussion, so I’ve added some texts for further thought.)

1) Every commandment has both a negative and affirmative part contained in it.  That is, where an evil is forbidden, the contrary good is commanded, and where any good is commanded, the contrary evil is forbidden (Deut. 6:13, Mt. 4:9-10, Mt. 15:4-6, Eph. 4:28, etc.).

2) Under one good action commanded, or one evil action forbidden, all of the same kind or nature are comprehended; yea, all occasions and means leading thereunto.  [For example, ‘do not commit adultery’ includes the forbidding of lustful looks that lead to adultery; consider the David and Bathsheba story.]

3) The law of God is spiritual, reaching to the very heart or soul, and all the powers thereof, for it charges the understanding to know the will of God; it charges the memory to retain, and the will to choose the better and to leave the worse; it charges the affections to love the things that are to be loved and to hate the things that are to be hated.  It bids the powers of the soul to obedience, as well as the words, thoughts, and gestures [which arise from the heart – Mt. 22:37-39].

4) The law of God must not just be the rule of our obedience, but also the reason of it.  We must not simply obey the law, but obey it because the Lord requires it; we must do what it says out of love for God; the love of God must be the fountain, the impulsive, and the efficient cause of all our obedient to the law (see 1 John).

5) Just as our obedience to the law must arise out of love for God, so it must also be directed to a right end – that is, that God alone may be glorified by us.  Otherwise obedience is not the worship of God, but hypocrisy.  In seeking to please God in our obedience, we glorify him, and these two things always go together (1 Cor. 10:13).

6) The Lord does not only take notice of what we do in obedience to his law, but also the manner in which we do it.  Therefore we must seek to obey the law after a right manner – that is, humbly, reverently, willingly, and zealously (cf. Mic. 6:8).

Or, put in a different yet parallel way, the Heidelberg Catechism goes like this:

What do we do that is good?  Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on human tradition (Q/A 91).

For the above quotes by Fisher, see p.275-276 of The Marrow of Modern Divinity.

shane lems