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Some Hermeneutical Principles of Seventeenth-Century Federal Theology (Part 2)

We will now identify and discuss four principles utilized by the federal theologians.

1.      The Holy Spirit is the Only Infallible Interpreter of Holy Scripture.

2.      The Analogy of Scripture (Analogia Scripturae)

Here is Richard A. Muller’s definition of analogia Scripturae: “the interpretation of unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with clear and unambiguous passages that refer to the same teaching or event.”[3] An example of this would be utilizing a passage in Matthew to help understand a passage dealing with the same subject in Mark. This principle obviously presupposes the divine inspiration of Scripture.

The principle of analogia Scripturae gained confessional status as follows: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…” (2LCF 1.9).


[1] John Owen, Biblical Theology or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth in Six Books (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994), 797, referenced as BTO here on out.

[2] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 36.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985, Second printing, September 1986), 33, emphasis added.

Some Hermeneutical Principles of Seventeenth-Century Federal Theology (Part I)

 

We will now identify and discuss four principles utilized by the federal theologians.

1.      The Holy Spirit is the Only Infallible Interpreter of Holy Scripture.

As an example of this principle, John Owen says, “The only unique, public, authentic, and infallible interpreter of Scripture is none other than the Author of Scripture Himself…that is, God the Holy Spirit.”[1] Nehemiah Coxe says, “…the best interpreter of the Old Testament is the Holy Spirit speaking to us in the new.”[2] This meant that they saw the Bible’s interpretation and use of itself as infallible and with interpretive principles embedded in it. When the Bible comments upon or utilizes itself in any fashion (e.g., direct quotation, fulfillment, allusion, or echo in the OT or NT), it is God’s interpretation and God’s understanding of how texts should be understood. This often means that later texts shed interpretive light on earlier texts. Or, we could put it this way, subsequent revelation often makes explicit what is implicit in antecedent revelation. This principle led to three more related concepts.


[1] John Owen, Biblical Theology or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth in Six Books (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994), 797, referenced as BTO here on out.

[2] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 36.

How the Doctrine of the Covenant of Works was Formulated (from SCRBPC 2014 lecture)

We are now asking this question: how did the older covenant theologians go from the Garden to the covenant of works? The answer is that they utilized long-standing hermeneutical principles somewhat typical of the entire Christian theological tradition from the early centuries to the post-Reformation era.[1] In other words, they utilized a pre-critical or pre-Enlightenment method of interpreting Scripture. They did not believe the Bible was to be interpreted like any other book. They believed the Bible was the written word of God and that it was its only infallible interpreter. They not only believed the writers of Scripture to be God’s penmen, they also believed that they were infallible theologians as they wrote. They believed that the Bible often interpreted itself and that later texts often used earlier texts in a way that gave the divine, and therefore infallible, interpretation of those earlier texts.

Let’s explore some of the hermeneutical principles of the covenant theologians of the seventeenth century. These are inter-related principles with some overlap between them. I think you will see how important it is to understand their hermeneutical principles in order to see how they came to their doctrinal formulations.


[1] A good case can be made that the principles they used predate post-apostolic reflection and are imbedded in the text of Scripture (Old and New Testament) itself.

How the doctrine of the covenant of works was not formulated (from SCRBPC 2014 lecture)

We will now address the issue of how the doctrine of the covenant of works was not formulated. It was not formulated because the Westminster divines came up with a theory then tried to find it in the Bible, forcing biblical texts into a pre-conceived theological system (The same goes for the Savoy Congregationalists and the London Particular Baptists.). This is essentially what I was told during my seminary days in the late 1980s. The theology of the seventeenth-century divines, so I was told, stood over the Bible as its interpretive lord.

Some think that a theology of the Garden was constructed in the minds of men, which included the covenant of works, then a hermeneutic was invented to get there. In other words, an extra-biblical theology led to an extra-biblical hermeneutic which led to an extra-biblical confessional formulation. Again, in this view, their theology and hermeneutical principles stood over the Bible as its interpretive lord.

Let me say at this time that I do believe that the covenant theologians presupposed a hermeneutic that led to their covenant theology. Let me explain what I mean. If we take theology here to mean what the seventeenth-century federalists said the Bible teaches, and hermeneutics to mean the interpretive principles they took to the Bible to determine its meaning, then it is not the case that they presupposed a hermeneutic that led to their theology. It is the case, however, that their theology and their hermeneutical principles, though in part distinguishable, were not separate, unrelated categories, one taken from special revelation (i.e., Scripture) and the other from general revelation (i.e., hermeneutics). In other words, part of their theology (i.e., what they said the Bible taught) was hermeneutics (i.e., the principles they utilized to determine what the Bible taught). To be more specific, their interpretive principles came, in part, from what they believed the Bible said about itself and how the Bible interpreted itself. They saw texts interacting with texts and further explaining them. They saw texts within Scripture interpreting texts within Scripture, and sometimes using words to describe concepts that are not contained in the text being referenced. For example, in Acts 2:31 Peter says that David “spoke of the resurrection of the Christ” in Psalm 16. However, the Psalm has neither the word “resurrection” nor the word “Christ” in it. Peter is describing concepts from Psalm 16 in words not used by Psalm 16. Later texts can, and do, describe earlier concepts with different words.Bottom of Form In our day, we would say they saw inner-biblical exegesis occurring in the Bible, that is, they saw later texts interpreting and applying earlier texts, and they accounted for it in the way they understood other texts. In other words, they did not impose an extra-biblical theory of hermeneutics upon the Bible that produced their federal theology. We will discuss this in more detail below. This leads to my next question: how was the doctrine of the covenant of works formulated or upon what principles was it based?

A Typical Objection to the Covenant of Works: Stated, Answered, Concluded (from SCRBPC 2014 lecture)

A Typical Objection to the Covenant of Works

 

Many have denied the covenant of works for various reasons. For the sake of time, I want to deal with one typical objection.

 

1.      The Objection Stated

 

Probably the most obvious objection, and a very common one, is that the word “covenant” is nowhere to be found in the first two chapters of Genesis. In fact, the Hebrew word for covenant, berith, does not occur in the book of Genesis until chapter 6. These observations lead to the conclusion, so goes the objection, that there is no covenant in the Bible until Genesis 6. A covenant of works in the Garden, then, lacks biblical evidence and is, in fact, unbiblical.[1] It is an extra-biblical, human construct imposed on the Bible to justify one’s theological system, which obviously needs re-casting. The covenant of works has human origins, not divine origins, so it is said. It is man’s theology, not God’s. Put in the form of a question, this objection can be stated as follows: how can there be a covenant in Genesis 2 if Moses does not say so? My short answer to this question would be because God says so. But to be fair to any objectors, I will answer this objection under three points of consideration.

 

 2.      The Objection Answered

 

First, this objection assumes that if a word is not in a text its concept cannot be there either. This is the word-concept fallacy. The Bible itself sees concepts in texts and then uses words that do not occur in the text being referenced to describe those concepts. For example, consider Acts 2:22-31 again. Here Peter references Psalm 16:8-11. Then notice what he does in 2:31. He uses words that are not in the Psalm to describe concepts from the Psalm. He says that David “spoke of the resurrection of the Christ.” The words “resurrection” and “Christ” do not occur in the Psalm. Peter uses these words to describe concepts implicit in the Psalm though not used explicitly by the psalmist. The point is this: concepts can be present without the words we normally use to describe them. If I said, “Base hit, home run, strike three, and walk-off single,” you would, most likely, reduce those phrases and the concepts indicated by them to a single word–baseball–yet I did not use the word baseball.

Second, there are words used outside of the Garden narrative to describe Adam and his Edenic vocation which are not contained in the narrative of Genesis 1-2. For example, in Luke 3:38, Adam is called “the son of God.” However, Moses does not call Adam the son of God in Genesis and, in fact, the word “son” first occurs in Genesis 4:17 with reference to Enoch’s son. Here’s my point: if God tells me Adam was a son of God, it does not matter where he tells me. The case is settled, even if he tells me in Luke 3. Also, Adam did not first become a son of God when Luke penned his Gospel. He was constituted as such at his creation. Therefore, the concept of Adam as a son of God is implicit in the Genesis 1-2 narrative, even though the word “son” is nowhere to be found there. How do we know this? God tells us so in subsequent, written revelation.

In Romans 5:14, Adam is called “a type of Him who was to come.” However, Moses does not call Adam a type of Christ in Genesis and, in fact, the word “type” first occurs in the Bible in Romans 5:14. If God tells me Adam was a type of Christ, it does not matter where he tells me. The case is settled, even if he tells me in Romans 5. Also, Adam did not first become a type of Christ when Paul penned Romans. Therefore, the concept of Adam as a type of Christ is implicit in the Genesis 1-2 narrative, even though the word “type” is nowhere to be found there. How do we know this? God tells us so in subsequent, written revelation.

In 1 Corinthians 15:22, Paul says, “For as in Adam all die…” However, Moses does not tell us that Adam was the representative of men in the Genesis narrative. The phrase “in Adam” is not in the book of Genesis or anywhere else in the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, the phrase “in Adam” occurs only in 1 Corinthians 15:22. If God tells me “in Adam all die,” it does not matter where he tells me. The case is settled, even if he tells me in 1 Corinthians 15. Also, all did not die in Adam when Paul penned 1 Corinthians 15. Therefore, the concept of Adam as the representative man in the Garden is implicit in the Genesis narrative, even though the words “in Adam” are nowhere to be found there. How do we know this? God tells us so in subsequent, written revelation.

Third, the Bible itself, looking back upon Adam in the Garden, uses the explicit language of covenant. Since this is the crux of the argument, we will explore this in our next major heading in more detail. But for now, let me draw a conclusion to this typical objection.

 

3.      Conclusion

 

I think the objection is cleared, though I could give more counter-arguments. The account of Genesis 1-2 contains more than meets the eye. It is a narrative, not an exhaustive theological essay drawing out all the implications embedded or assumed in its terms. It is one of those texts that ends up being referenced many times in subsequent, written revelation. Other texts assume it and draw out of it what is implied in it. What is implicit in it becomes explicit by the subsequent, written word of God. The biblical writers were theologians after all. They articulated the meaning of ancient texts in their own words. As stated above, subsequent revelation often makes explicit what is implicit in antecedent revelation. In other words, the Bible often comments upon and explains itself. And, in the case of Adam in the Garden, this is exactly what happens.


[1] Cf. Richard L. Mayhue, “New Covenant Theology and Futuristic Premillennialism” in The Master’s Seminary Journal, 18.2 (Fall 2007): 221 and 225 for this kind of argumentation.

opening paragraph of this year’s SCRBPC lecture on the covenant of works

Hermeneutics and Doctrinal Formulation:

From the Garden to the Covenant of Works

 Or

Getting the Garden Right:

From Hermeneutics to the Covenant of Works

Richard C. Barcellos

 

 

In this study, I want to focus on the hermeneutical principles that guided the Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century in their formulation of the doctrine of the covenant of works. As you are probably well aware, many in our day deny this doctrine. Some deny it because they think it derives from a theology that produces a hermeneutic that is then imposed upon the text of Scripture. Others deny it because they view all of God’s covenantal relationships with man as gracious and not works- or merit-based. I will not deal with all the various types of denials related to the covenant of works. My focus will be upon hermeneutics. More specifically, I want to show you some of the hermeneutical principles that led to the formulation of this doctrine and then apply those principles to the text of Scripture in an attempt to justify the doctrine. In doing so, I will argue that the covenant of works is a conclusion based on the exegesis of texts and the theological synthesis of the fruit of that exegetical work. In other words, the formulation of the covenant of works is based on exegesis and is the result of reducing the exegetical fruit to a doctrinal formulation reflective of that fruit.

Lecture order, titles, and lecturers for SCRBPC 2014, Nov. 3-4, 2014

 

1. “The Importance of Scripture,” Dr. Carl R. Trueman
2. “The Inspiration of Scripture,” Dr. Carl R. Trueman
3. “The Clarity of Scripture,” Dr. Carl R. Trueman
4. “Sufficient, Certain, and Infallible: The Inscripturated Word,” Dr. James M. Renihan
5. “Getting the Garden Right: From Hermeneutics to the Covenant of Works,” Dr. Richard C. Barcellos
6. “The Reading of Scripture,” Dr. Carl R. Trueman

There also will be one Q&A session conducted each evening.

Dr. Trueman’s lecture topic and titles for SCRBPC 2014, Nov. 3-4, 2014

The Catholic Doctrine of Scripture of the Westminster Confession

1. The Importance of Scripture

2. The Inspiration of Scripture

3. The Clarity of Scripture

4. The Reading of Scripture

See the schedule here and register here.

pastors’ wives are invited to come to SCRBPC free of charge

SCRBPC extends an invitation to pastors to bring their wives. They can sit it on all the sessions for free. They can even participate in the two conference meals, though we will be asking for a $10 fee for such. Housing is on a first-come, first-serve basis for pastors alone. Hope to see you there!