alien righteousness

God’s Written Word: Scope and Clarity (Worth a read)

This section, from Pilgrim Theology is worth a read. If you read it, hope you benefit from it.

Taken from Mike Horton’s Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples, under Chapter Two, titled God’s Written Word. Below is the content (minus about 100 words in the beginning) from heading II:

 II. Scope and Clarity: Revealing Everything We Need for Faith and Practice

…Scripture is clear only to the extent that we recognize its scope, both in its parts and in its whole teaching. As the evangelical doctrine of Scripture was refined in the aftermath of the Reformation, Protestant orthodoxy emphasized the point that the law and the gospel, with Christ at the center, are the scope of Scripture. This is not an a priori decision to accept only that which preaches Christ, but the recognition that when the pieces of the puzzle are put together, the whole Bible focuses on the unfolding drama of redemption. If we go to the Bible looking for answers to questions that are beyond its purpose and scope, we will turn it into an entirely different book, like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said: ‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’ (Jn 5:39-40)

The unfolding drama of redemption has its roots in eternity, but it is executed in history through various covenants. Reformed theology is hardly alone in recognizing the significance of covenants in the Bible. Combating the mystical flight away from history exhibited by the Gnostics, the second century church father Irenaeus emphasized the unity of God’s plan of salvation from Genesis to Revelation. The history of salvation is disclosed through various covenants, he argued. The covenant, “under Adam,” was a promise of immortality on condition of obedience; the second covenant was with Noah; the third, “under Moses,” was a ‘law of work’ that intervened between Abraham and Christ, while the fourth is the new covenant ‘which renovates man and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and breaking men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.’(A) Irenaeus distinguishes frequently between a ‘covenant of works’ (also ‘economy of law’) and ‘a Gospel covenant.’(B) Each covenant has its role to play, ‘but the treasure hid in the Scripture is Christ, since he was pointed out by means of types and parables.’(C)

Even before creation, the persons of the Trinity entered into a covenant of peace, known in Reformed theology as the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis). This plan was then executed in history through the covenant of creation (also called the covenant of works) and then, after the fall, through the covenant of grace. The covenant of creation, between God and Adam as the federal representative of the human race, was conditioned on Adam’s perfect obedience in the trial that God placed before him. The covenant of grace began with God’s promise to Adam and Eve after the fall that a redeemer would come. These three overarching covenants form the architecture of Reformed theology, with other biblical covenants as subsets under these broader categories.(D) Like the framework of most buildings, these covenants are not always explicitly visible, much less the focus of a given passage. That is why we have to ask ourselves where a certain passage is located in the history of redemption, and how different covenantal economies are functioning in that period. This helps tremendously in identifying the scope of the passage. We will encounter these distinct covenants as we go along.

The scope of Scripture, then, is God’s commands and promises—law and gospel—centering on the unfolding plan of redemption in Jesus Christ. It is crucial to recognize this point, because we can easily turn the Bible into a “handbook for life,” an answer book or manual of supernatural information on anything that interests us. When we go to the Bible with our questions, demanding that it speak to whatever we find important or relevant, we force it to speak about things that it does not actually address. As Calvin observed, Moses was not an astronomer and the Pentateuch is not a science textbook.(E) Whatever Scripture does not teach explicitly about such matters is authoritative, but its purpose is not to provide data for determining the age of the earth, the orbit of planets, or precise details concerning the earth’s condition prior to the creation of human beings.

Others come to Scripture as one might explore the writings of Nostradamus, trying to correlate the Bible’s prophecies with the daily headlines. However, the Old Testament prophets were not just predicting the future; they were pointing to Christ (1 Pe 1:10-12). Jesus’ own prophetic teaching turned on his crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and return in glory (Mt 24-25). The book of Revelation was written to comfort persecuted saints in all times and places with the triumph of the Lamb in a consummated kingdom without sin and death.

Still others turn to Scripture expecting to find a catalog of moral advice for practical living, and they turn parables of the kingdom into quarries for defending capitalism or socialism, managing personal finances and family life, and so forth. When we rifle through the Old Testament narratives for moral examples (‘Dare to be a Daniel’), as if they were Aesop’s Fables, we miss the point. In most cases, the lives of ‘Bible heroes’ are quite mixed, morally speaking. Above all else, in these narratives, God is the real hero. David slays Goliath because the Spirit comes upon him, in contrast to Saul, whom the Spirit has abandoned. In each instance, the purpose is not to provide life lessons that we may apply directly to ourselves, but to see how God is fulfilling his purposes, which lead history to Jesus Christ. It is certainly true that the Bible includes wisdom for daily living (especially in Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon), but even these books direct us ultimately to Jesus Christ, ‘who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption’ (1Co 1:30).

So we must allow Scripture itself to identify its scope and purpose. We come to Scripture with humility, allowing it to give us its own questions as well as answers. This means that we need to interpret Scripture in its natural sense, recognizing the differences in genre between historical narrative and apocalyptic, poetry and prose, parable and doctrinal exposition. There is much in Scripture besides literal proposition, and a literalistic interpretation of nonliteral language is as misleading as is an allegorical reading of historical narrative. We also need to recognize the difference between covenant based on law and covenants based on promise, and covenants that are no longer in effect and covenants that are everlasting. In short, we come to Scripture expecting it to testify centrally to the interests that it has already displayed. Each passage has to be interpreted in the light of the whole doing justice to each part.

When we approach Scripture in this way, its clarity becomes obvious. To justify its claim to be the infallible interpreter of Scripture and therefore the ultimate authority, the medieval church claimed that Scripture was a dark and mysterious book. However, this was at least in part due to the dominance of an interpretive method that included allegorical and other sense alongside the natural way of reading a passage. So, for example, the historical narrative of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to meet with God and receive his law became a spiritual allegory of our contemplative and moral ascent toward the beatific vision. A natural reading of the Song of Solomon might suggest that it is about the God-glorifying love between husband and wife, but the medieval church (and some Protestants) turned it into an elaborate allegory of Christ and the church. Most tragically, the clarity of the Bible’s testimony to the gospel promised and fulfilled was obscured in medieval interpretation.

The Reformers called for a return to the Scriptures in their original languages, looking for Christ, following the natural sense of each passage. This did not imply a naïve or simplistic view of the interpretive task. As the Westminster Confession observes, different interpretations can arise, both because of the difficulty of certain passages and because of a diversity of understanding among interpreters: ‘All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.’ ‘Yet,’ the Confession immediately adds, ‘those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them’ (1.7). The conviction of the Bible’s clarity—specifically with respect to its scope or purpose—gave the Bible back to the people of God, translated into their own languages.

The Confession’s counsel avoids the error that we easily fall into on either side. Scripture is clear enough in its principal commands and promises, sufficient for salvation and godliness. However, the Bible is not equally clear about everything, and while all of its teachings are to be received, it gives greater importance to some of its own teachings than others. The enduring consensus reflected in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds is a testimony to the fact that the Bible’s central message, it’s basic plot, can be easily discerned and summarized by believers around the world throughout history, in a diversity of cultures and languages.” (58-62)

Horton’s footnotes for this heading:

A. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.3 (ANF, vol. 1, pp. 429)

B. Ibid., book 4, ch. 25 in ANF: 5.16.3 (1:554), 4.13.1 (1:24); 4.15.1 and 4.16.3 (1:25-26).

C. Ibid., 1:496

D. I explore these covenants more fully in Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009)

E. For example, “Moses refers to two great luminaries [sun and moon], but astronomers prove, by conclusive reason, that the star of Saturn, which account of its great distance, appears the least of all, but is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference: Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction all ordinary persons, endured with common sense, are able to understand, but astronomers investigate with great labor…Nevertheless, this study [astronomy] is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them.” Moses “was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned,” and his teaching is adapted to ordinary experience rather than to scientific exactness (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Genesis [trans. John King; Grand Rapids: Baker, repr. 1996), 1:84-87

Here are the following headings for Chapter Two:

1. The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture

2. Scope and Clarity: Revealing Everything We Need for Faith and Practice

3. Form and Function: Covenant Canon

4. Conclusion: From Drama to Discipleship

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