Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Children Scribble Scrabbling: Interpretation of History and Reformed Theology

A few weeks ago, some men commented here, offended at my characterization of the reformed, seeing it as having been disrespectful of a multitude of historic Christian figures, giants of theology and ministry.  I borrowed a biblical metaphor by classifying them as children only in the sense that I was writing in that post.  The parallel in my mind was Hebrews 5, when the author was warning Hebrews to leave the first principles to go on to perfection.  He said they had stayed babes in their understanding, when they should have been teachers. Another could be 1 John where John wrote about levels of growth with children, young men, and fathers.  In my description, I said that the reformed were like children showing their scribble-scrabbles to their mother, and her being impressed.  Maybe another metaphor would be that they were still riding with their training wheels, when they could have been up on two wheels.

When the author of Hebrews wrote the audience of Hebrews, he was writing to people who could have been just as offended at being called babes, who could only drink milk when they should have been eating meat.  Many would have considered themselves to have been meat eaters.  Perhaps for their sensitivities, he should have used less offensive descriptions, and they would have been more likely to consider what he was saying to them.  If someone says he’s offended with a biblical characterization, a sacred one, would we do better with a secular one?  How could someone go wrong using a biblical metaphor?

For sake of argument, I want to say that it wasn’t the metaphor itself that was offensive but the people for which I was using it.  I think the idea would be that the people I was characterizing are giants that are well beyond myself.  In other words, compared to them, I’m the one on training wheels and they are well past the bicycle into some celestial form of transportation compared to me.  In other words, it is the height of arrogance to elevate myself above these heroes, such as John Owen and Charles Haddon Spurgeon.  I get the offense, I do, but let’s keep going with this, because anyone reading here knows that I didn’t back down on my metaphor.

In one sense, the author of Hebrews, was pointing to the understanding that Moses had of Jesus in Hebrews 5:11-14.  In other words, the author could have been said to have elevated himself above Moses and the prophets.  I recognize that the Jews of New Testament times, second temple Judaism, had not moved on, even though they had revelation that Moses and Daniel and Isaiah never possessed.  However, easily the audience of offense, like they would have thought of Jesus and the Apostles, could have considered this “babes” portrayal to be directed toward its giants, its spiritual heroes.  The metaphor though was still true.  If Moses and Daniel had lived in their day, a believer would have expected them to have been different than the unbelieving Hebrews.

Unless we can see the problem, we’re not going to have a solution, and as long as a modern audience finds its trajectory back to the reformation, it will continue with theological scribble-scrabbles.  Men can huff and puff over this, but it is a problem.  The one offended is God, but that doesn’t seem to matter so much, because the modern men are busy being offended for dead men, who now know they were doing scribble-scrabbles, even as they are known by God.

Who am I to say that scripture is clear in its ecclesiology and eschatology and hermeneutic or system of theology?  I say ecclesiology and eschatology, but neither do I see the reformers as so clear in their soteriology either.  Today’s reformed treat Luther like a hero of “the faith,” and you see his children, the Lutherans, with a gospel that does not save.  The reformed kept remnants of Roman Catholicism, dogmatics originating long after the completion of the New Testament.  Much of the apostasy today can be traced to not continuing to reform, but even better to have separated completely with a blank slate and then a totally biblical theology.

Does writing what I’m writing dismiss the contributions of Owen and Spurgeon?  Does writing what the author of Hebrews wrote dismiss the contributions of Moses and Daniel?  No.  I see the offense as a form of theological correctness akin to political correctness.  If people would be released from a Roman Catholic influenced system, they must open their minds to the reality of its corruption of their beliefs.

I enjoy reading Spurgeon.  He was a master in so many ways, worthy of emulation.  I’m not saying I could preach like him.  At the same time, I wouldn’t want to preach like him.  I believe preachers should preach passages as their habit, exposing scripture.  Spurgeon was too allegorical in his hermeneutic, seeing things in the text that were not there, putting them in to get them out.  Does respecting Spurgeon require just swallowing all of him whole and not moving on.  Do we keep the training wheels on?  He was post-millennial.  Because of that, he gets at least 20 percent of scripture wrong.  How does that sound?  “I have decided to get at least 20 percent or more of the Bible wrong so as not to disrespect Spurgeon.”  That is not a literal, grammatical-historical approach to scripture.

Because of his ecclesiology, Spurgeon didn’t understand biblical separation.  People break down his down-grade controversy, but his church missed out on the protection that scripture teaches, because he didn’t understand how to practice separation according to the Bible.  He did the best he could with a less full perspective, an incorrect one, due to the influence of the reformed, the leftovers of Roman Catholicism.

An easy shot right now is to say something like, “So you’re so proud that you know more than Spurgeon?”  Or, “You think you’re smarter than Spurgeon.”  The audience of Hebrews could say to its human author, “You think you’re smarter than the Old Testament prophets?”  This is not a matter of intellect.  I don’t want to say that it is sincerity.  Spurgeon was under wrong influences that affected him in a detrimental way, and John Owen even more so.  I’m just using these two as examples, to go straight to the top of the heap in my analysis here.  It’s not intellectually honest, with all that I am writing, to say that I’m doing any of that.  It’s also a way to keep people from moving on to what they should understand.

After having written all that I have written above, much more could be said about what should be done, and why that would be right in comparison to the wrong of Owen and Spurgeon.  One major, helpful theme would be a view of or an interpretation of history.  People should not take their trajectory through the reformation.  They should appreciate and enjoy the reformation for what it is.  However, the trajectory should not go through the reformers, and, therefore, through Rome.  It should move straight to Jerusalem, back to Jesus and the Apostles.

When people look for a reformed heritage, they will be messed up to a certain degree, and what I’ve witnessed is a large degree.  God is One and His truth is One.  When people get a big chunk of it wrong, it will only have an effect on all the other truths as well.  The error must be corrected or it will naturally seep into everything else and corrupt that too.

In one way, I’m happy if I stop into a church on vacation, and I see the five solas displayed proudly over the front of the auditorium.  At least that church is anchored into something that will keep them from sliding as fast as I have seen many pragmatists, who have a finger in the sky to check which way the wind is blowing.  I see the value of confessions.  I mention them fairly often here.  However, any church that traces itself back to the solas, I know, is involved in scribble-scrabbling.  Refer to the confessions and look at the historic theology, but open the Bible and start with a clean slate.  Skip Rome.  Go back to Jerusalem.


Gary Webb said...

I want to give my full agreement to this post. I find, that in reading commentaries on passages, the same thing is true. After preaching expositionally through NT books for over 30 years, the commentaries may give some Greek grammar help or maybe a good illustration or some historical information, but very often there is little help from them in real application to a local church. The writers do not seem to have ever practiced church discipline in an actual church or to have had any experience on overseeing a church. A commentator who is Reformed may notice the teaching on the doctrine of salvation in a passage, but aren't we supposed to have already understood that (Hebrews 6;1)? What about the application to every day life or to how a local church is supposed to operate?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Bro Webb,

Thanks. Your comments, I agree with them too. There's a lot more that could be said, but I started with this idea, along with the other post, to help people think through this. If they don't get this right, they are going to be wrong in a lot of ways that will tend toward wrong doctrine and practice begetting further wrong doctrine and practice. To them, it's as if, not that it is, but as if Spurgeon or those like him are the oracles of God's Word, almost like intermediaries that need blanket acceptance.

Jim Camp said...

Not trying to get to far off topic... I have noticed the same problem as Bro. Webb concerning commentaries. Very rarely have I walked away thinking "now I understand that passage". Usually it seems like the author simply forces his system upon the passage. Or skips the passage by explaining that it is not in the originals. Or worse yet, deals with a wrong word (WH text), & does not make mention of the change to the text. This last is very frustrating when you don't read Gr.

Terry Basham, II said...

it's really a form of idolotry isn't it? it's like hylesism. the are in love with the legend...the substance doesn't matter.

Lance Ketchum said...

In Calvin’s preface to his Institutes of the Christian Religion (second edition of 1539), we have a defining statement that really tells us why the exegesis of all Calvinists is perverted, transforming it into eisegesis. This happens because all Calvinists look at the Scriptures through the theological presuppositions of Calvin. This is clearly stated as Calvin’s purpose in writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

“I have endeavored to give such a summary of religion in all its parts (in the Systematic Theology laid out in his Institutes of the Christian Religion), and have digested it into such an order as may make it not difficult for anyone who is rightly acquainted with it (the Systematic Theology laid out in his Institutes of the Christian Religion) to ascertain both what he ought principally to look for in Scripture, and also to what head he ought to refer whatever is contained in it. Having thus, as it were, paved the way, I shall not feel it necessary in any Commentaries on Scripture which I may afterwards publish to enter into long discussions of doctrine or dilate on commonplaces, and will therefore always compress them. In this way the pious reader will be saved much trouble and weariness, provided he comes furnished with a knowledge of the present work (the Systematic Theology laid out in his Institutes of the Christian Religion) as an essential prerequisite. ” (underlining and parenthesized areas added)

What does this statement of Calvin tell us? It is a definitive reality behind most of what defines the Hermeneutics of Calvinism and Reformed Theology. Calvin made his Institutes of the Christian Religion “an essential prerequisite” to being able to properly exegete the Scriptures accurately. In doing so, he also negatively transformed the Biblical interpretation (Hermeneutics) of every Calvinist (anyone believing the theology of his Institutes of the Christian Religion) into eisegesis.

Tyler Robbins said...

This kind of statement . . .

"In Calvin’s preface to his Institutes of the Christian Religion (second edition of 1539), we have a defining statement that really tells us why the exegesis of all Calvinists is perverted, transforming it into eisegesis."

. . . proves that the man who wrote it shouldn't be taken seriously. Every single Calvinist has a perverted eisegesis? On everything? On every passage of Scripture? On every doctrine of Scripture? Interesting. I sense a hobby horse here.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Tyler,

Did Calvin think what Lance quoted? Isn't this what a lot of people are obeying? I'm quite sure most of them don't follow the quote as their rule for faith and practice, but they do in a sense in being reformed. They take a view of history and, therefore, hermeneutics that requires conforming.

Everyone has a presupposition. No one is neutral, but the view of history, a wrong one, effects the theology. This is all worth discussing. There is value to studying Calvin. I have. I've read his Institutes. They're interesting to me and quite informative. I believe there is value to studying the intertestamental books, the patristics, etc. There is a little more to the attachment to Calvin than "value."

I'd also be interested in Lance answering Tyler's questions.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Terry,

The Hyles parallel is an interesting one. It might be a parallel.

Kent Brandenburg said...


The wrong ecclesiology seems to render the whole NT impractical in most ways.

Tyler Robbins said...

I've always taken Calvin to simply be saying that his Institutes is a systematic text, and if somebody wants exhaustive exposition and elaboration, they need to see the commentary. If you look at any systematic text, you see this in action. "Systematizing," by definition, means to summarize and present your conclusions on a topic. That is how Rolland McCune, for example, can cover the various eschatological judgments in less than 15 pages in his own work.

There is no need to read anything sinister into this. I won't fully appreciate McCune's comments unless I realize he comes from an independent Baptist, fundamentalist, dispensational, pre-millennial background. That doesn't mean McCune encourages eisegesis. I get that. Likewise, the reader won't appreciate Calvin's comments unless he realizes where he comes from. To find out more about where he comes from, read his commentaries. He wrote them, and he referred readers to them. If he hadnt, the Institutes would have been EVEN LONGER. Yikes.

Tyler Robbins said...

The real issue is that people are often so unwilling to question the ecclesiastical traditions they've inherited. Is there a really a covenant of grace? Of redemption? If you're raised in that tradition, you may never even seriously question tthat presupposition. I mean, after all, Calvin said it! So did Hodge! So did Warfield! So does Sproul! "Everybody" agrees. It's a done deal. This is why education is valuable.

On the other side, independent Baptists have the same problem. How many Pastors seriously consider whether the dispensations are the best framework for understanding the "big picture" of Scripture? How many have taken time to read arguments from the other side on why Israel has no national future in God's program? What about their arguments about the continuity of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant as the basis for infant baptisms, as a parallel to circumcision? We assume these positions are bogus, because our ecclesiastical tradition says they are. How many independent Baptist Pastors have read a Presbyterian's arguments against our position and allowed themselves to be challenged?

As I said, much of this comes from a kind of deliberate laziness; an unwillingness to question the ecclesiastical traditions we inherit. Reformed folks do it. So do independent Baptists.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I don't see any reason to think differently than your explanation of the Calvin quote. I'd be happy to see more of a conspiracy if there were one, but I would need more evidence. People have obviously taken Calvin too far, partly because of his place and that of Switzerland in history.

Regarding you second comment, I agree again. I'm probably going to write some on that too.