Reading Scripture Like the Ethiopian Eunuch (Calvin)

 The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 can teach us today quite a bit about reading Scripture.  While on the long ride home from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, this man was reading Isaiah (presumably someone else was driving!).  He kept reading even though he didn’t understand it all.  When Philip asked him about the text, the eunuch admitted he needed someone to guide or lead him in reading the prophet.  He asked Philip about the text as they sat together there in the chariot.  Luke tells us that Philip answered by preaching the gospel about Jesus beginning with Isaiah 53.  I really like how John Calvin commented on this:

Most excellent modesty of the eunuch, who doth not only permit Philip, who was one of the common sort, to question with him, but doth also willingly confess his ignorance. And surely we must never hope that he will ever show himself apt to be taught who is puffed up with the confidence of his own wit. Hereby it cometh to pass that the reading of the Scriptures doth profit so few at this day, because we can scarce find one amongst a hundred who submitteth himself willingly to learn. For whilst all men almost are ashamed to be ignorant of that whereof they are ignorant, every man had rather proudly nourish his ignorance than seem to be scholar to other men. Yea, a great many take upon them haughtily to teach other men. Nevertheless, let us remember that the eunuch did so confess his ignorance, that yet, notwithstanding, he was one of God’s scholars when he read the Scripture.

This is the true reverence of the Scripture, when as we acknowledge that there is that wisdom laid up there which surpasseth all our senses; and yet, notwithstanding, we do not loathe it, but, reading diligently, we depend upon the revelation of the Spirit, and desire to have an interpreter given us.

 John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 354.

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

The Brute Historical Facts of the OT?(Provan)

 Iain Provan’s essay, “Hearing the HIstorical Books” in Hearing the Old Testament is an excellent, helpful, and thought-provoking read.  I really appreciate it and I highly recommend it.

One of the main points Provan makes in this article is that the OT is not just a depository of historical facts.  Typically we think of history as a recounting of brute facts; some people approach the OT in such a manner.  Here’s Provan:

This is simply nonsense. We have no access to brute historical facts. To the extent that we know about the past at all, we know about it primarily through the testimony of other people. There is no way of writing historiography that does not involve such testimony or “story-telling.” Because this is so, interpretation is integral to all historiography as well. All testimony about the past is also interpretation of the past. It has its ideology or theology; it has its presuppositions and its point of view; it has its narrative structure; and (if at all interesting to read or listen to) it has its narrative art, its rhetoric.

Later Provan writes this:

The historical books of the Old Testament likewise address their readers through their rhetorical art. They are of course profoundly interested in the past… but they are not interested in it for its own sake. They tell the story of the past, selecting their material and interpreting it, in order to persuade their readership of certain truths and to advocate certain ways of living. We miss the point if we dwell on the facts themselves—no matter how important it may be to defend the idea that these texts are indeed rooted in real events. We shall only get the point if we are able to overcome false modern notions about the nature of historiography that lead to false expectations as to what our biblical historical texts should be able to do for us. We shall only get the point if we pay attention to the story itself that our biblical authors have woven out of the facts, which is also the story (interpreted properly within the context of the whole biblical story) through which God addresses the church. That should be the focus of our attention: the story itself, in all of its artfulness, through which God speaks.

Provan then goes on to give examples from the OT that show aspects of its story, including rhetoric, literary forms, subtlety, the big picture, and so on.  Again, this is a very helpful article when thinking about the OT from a Christian/NT  point of view.

Iain Provan, “Hearing the Historical Books,” 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), 258.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Use of the OT by NT Writers

Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, 2nd ed.

One obvious reality of the NT is that it is full of OT citations, allusions, echoes, and so on. This is a topic that has been discussed and debated often and for quite some time. I recently read Joel Green and Richard Hays’ chapter in Hearing the New Testament called “The Use of the Old Testament by New Testament Writers”. Here’s a summarized section of the chapter that I thought was helpful – it’s about how NT authors utilized the OT Scriptures:

1. Among the ways in which NT texts are linked to Israel’s Scriptures, the most obvious is direct citation, which may or may not be introduced with an introductory formula. For example, in Luke 3:3–6 the ministry of John is said to be continuous with the prophecy of Isa 40:3–5….

2. In other cases, the NT writer’s dependence on the OT is evident in summaries of OT history and teaching. The sermon of Paul in Acts 13:16–41 is of interest in this regard….

3. The influence of the OT is also seen in the use of type-scenes in NT narratives. Type-scenes constitute a form of repetition in biblical narrative, an episode composed of a fixed sequence of motifs, often associated with recurrent themes. They reiterate similar events—say, the announcement of birth or the trial in the wilderness—by drawing on a common inventory of actions….

4. Finally, the dependence of NT writers on the OT is recognized in allusions or linguistic echoes…. In attuning our ears to register OT echoes in NT texts, we account for the way in which the great stories of Israel have served the writer as a trove of symbols and metaphors that shape the author’s understanding and representation of the world and of God’s salvific activity.

The above quotes are found in Richard B. Hays and Joel B. Green, “The Use of the Old Testament by New Testament Writers,” in Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation, ed. Joel B. Green, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), 129.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI





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