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

Christ’s Spirit, the OT Prophets, and Sobriety in Learning (Calvin)

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)Of the various aspects of John Calvin’s writings that I appreciate, I always love to hear him talk about modesty and humility when it comes to the study and interpretation of God’s Word.  More than a few times he mentions how we should never go further than God’s Word because that’s dangerous territory.  Here’s a similar exhortation from his commentary on 1 Peter 1:10-12:

…He [Peter] does not say that the prophets searched according to their own understanding as to the time when Christ’s kingdom would come, but that they applied their minds to the revelation of the Spirit. Thus they have taught us by their example a sobriety in learning, for they did not go beyond what the Spirit taught them. And doubtless there will be no limits to man’s curiosity, except the Spirit of God presides over their minds, so that they may not desire anything else than to speak from him. And further, the spiritual kingdom is a higher subject than what the human mind can succeed in investigating, except the Spirit be the guide. May we also therefore submit to his guidance.

John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 39.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

…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

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