Matthew Emerson on the Biblical Canon, Hermeneutics, and Auburn Football

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Matthew Emerson of Oklahoma Baptist University. We discuss developing interests in scholarship (2:40), the importance of the biblical canon’s order and shape (9:55), theological method and allegory (18:00), how Jesus influences and clarifies OT exegesis (31:35), Trinitarian theology and method (33:35), renewing Baptist theology (44:33), the legitimacy of Auburn’s football championships (49:40), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Are Evangelicals Too Soft on Modern-Day Heterodoxy?

Andy Stanley’s Marcion-like (or maybe hyper-dispensational?) view of the OT has resurfaced and the outcry has already been well worn. This is nothing new for Stanley—it has been a trend of his for years (and years). However, I don’t want to address him specifically here. The defense of his teachings from some corners of evangelicalism is more intriguing to me.

Some of the initial reactions on social media and blogs focused on the supposed lack of engagement from Stanley’s critics. Statements like, “If you’d just listen to the whole sermon, you may not disagree as much as you think” and, “Everyone who speaks publicly as much as Stanley is liable to slip up or be imprecise at times” ran amuck. Neither of these defenses holds much water. Indeed, many of us have been paying attention to Stanley for years, and we know that (1) this is certainly consistent with his theology of Scripture and the OT; and (2) he is one of the most precise and gifted communicators on the planet, so while he’s entitled to some imprecision or slip-ups, he has been very clear and articulate on this over the years (as we just noted).

Again, innumerable responses have already been written about why his view is Marcion-like and foreign to the writers of the NT. Collectively, these all say it better than I could. But the underlying theological assumptions that lead people to defend Stanley on this subject are problematic.

These assumptions lead to the minimization of the theology itself. Many folks rushed to his defense, arguing that Stanley is merely trying to reach a new generation of non-believers who are put off by the “angry God of the OT.” Others, similarly, argue that his view of the OT is simply a matter of preference—his view is one perspective of many, and thus some theological fundamentalists just need to take a chill pill. Here’s why both are problematic.

1. Reaching lost people is viewed as the primary goal of Christianity.

There is no doubt that evangelism is an important call for Christians. Indeed, the last thing Jesus said to his disciples before he ascended to the Father’s right hand is “go and make disciples of all nations.” Stanley’s remarks are defended on the basis that he’s just trying to get people to darken the doors of the church so they can hear the gospel message and be surrounded by believers. Great Commission!

First, this shortchanges the Great Commission, because Jesus also told them to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” and to baptize them in the name of the triune God. His commission was one of not only making disciples but also maturing them in the content of his teachings. The core teaching of the OT was the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4—teach your children God’s commandments from generation to generation. This was very much a doctrinal statement. Jesus consistently pointed back to the OT’s commands while explicating and fulfilling (not destroying or minimizing) their meanings doctrinally. Paul carried this on in several places, including his charge to Timothy to “guard the good deposit” (1 Tim. 1:13-14), which was certainly a statement about preserving right theology.

Second, this view teaches people that Scripture is not sufficient for salvation and sanctification. Stanley can claim the inspiration of Scripture all day, but if he thinks the Bible needs defending or even editing (his statement about “unhitching” the NT from the OT gives this impression), then he denies its sufficiency. Reaching lost people with a half-Bible and teaching them to ignore significant portions doesn’t build confidence in God’s Word, and it represents a posture on Stanley’s part that the whole of Scripture really isn’t fully sufficient to give someone “wisdom for salvation” and “training in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:15). Of course, “Scripture” to the NT writers was primarily the OT.

So while helping people move from spiritual darkness to spiritual light is a core component of biblical Christianity, the old saying “what you win them with is what you win them to” is especially relevant here. The 20th-century megachurch mentality of filling seats has already proven to produce loads of false converts, and this mentality is part of the reason why. When they’re given milk but never move onto solid food, they remain (almost literally) spiritual babies who never grow up to determine for themselves good and bad theology (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 5:12-6:1).

2. Heterodoxy is overlooked as mere preference.

Matt Emerson has rightly pointed out that we can’t judge all theological error based on its consistency with Nicaea. Yet church culture has been infiltrated by the larger culture around it, buying into a version of universal truth where everyone has a right to their theological opinion and no one has the right to judge another’s hermeneutic.

While I’m thrilled that many Christians see early creeds and confessions as important doctrinal parameters (we need more of that actually!), it becomes as solid as theological Jell-O when we assume that a few lines from the creeds encompass the entirety of orthodoxy and theological correctness. We then allow heterodoxy to run rampant in the church, excusing any theological statement or biblical position as a matter of “agree to disagree” simply because it doesn’t violate the literal wording of a particular creed.

Of course, the early church themselves wouldn’t have done this. The creeds were in some ways bare minimum requirements for orthodoxy, but they were also in response to certain major currents of heresy in the church. The sexual revolution and hermeneutical sloppiness of the past 100 years (both of which Stanley has overlooked or directly advanced) would’ve almost certainly produced councils had they been significant movements in that era. But we know, of course, that these views are modern novelties.

While I could make the case that Stanley’s view on the OT is an affront to proper interpretation of creedal language, it is heterodoxy at best and therefore still falls well below the standards of both traditional orthodoxy and scriptural warrant.

I’m not sure how a fractured Protestantism handles these issues in any official manner, but it’s high time we believe and advance a thicker orthodoxy that’s creedally informed, but more importantly scripturally coherent.

On Mimicry

Should Christian interpreters attempt to mimic the exegetical method of the NT authors and their use of the OT? To put it another way, is the NT authors’ use of the OT a valid method of interpretation?

G. K. Beale responds:

If the contemporary church cannot interpret and do theology as the apostles did, how can it feel corporately at one with them in the theological enterprise? If a radical hiatus exists between the interpretive method of the NT and our method today, then the study of the relationship of the OT and the NT from the apostolic perspective is something to which the church has little access. Furthermore, if Jesus and the apostles were impoverished in their exegetical and theological method, and if only divine inspiration salvaged their conclusions, then the intellectual and apologetic foundation of our faith is seriously eroded. What kind of intellectual or apologetic foundation of our faith is this? Moisés Silva is likely correct in stating, ‘If we refuse to pattern our exegesis after that of the apostles, we are in practice denying the authoritative character of their scriptural interpretation – and to do so is to strike at the very heart of the Christian faith’ (Handbook on the NT Use of the OT, 26).

In the nerd kingdom that’s what we like to call laying the smack down. BOOM.

The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament on a Scale of 1 to 10

My friend Matthew Barrett edits a fantastic webzine, Credo Magazine. In the latest issue, four scholars – Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Robert Plummer, and Andrew Hill – were polled with the following question: How much should the OT influence our interpretation of the NT? I was a bit surprised at the responses, or at least the first two. Robert Plummer and Andrew Hill both gave it a 10, with Plummer giving a canonical explanation and Hill relying more on inspiration and the Grand Narrative. I agree with both their responses.

Blomberg’s and Bock’s, though, were to me quite confusing. First, Blomberg only gives it a 6, and says that

Because all the NT writers were likely familiar with all of the OT, the OT becomes an important subset of the more general category of historical background that should always be taken into account in interpreting texts.  Sometimes there may be an explicit quotation, or an allusion, or a mere echo.  Other times, the OT is simply part of the pervasive worldview of the NT writer.  Thus I choose a number above the half-way mark between 1 and 10.  But I don’t go very far above a 5, because the New Testament writers regularly use the OT creatively and flexibly, under the inspiration of the Spirit.  The immediate context of any NT passage and its meaning interpreted on its own can always trump historical background if the evidence pushes us in that direction.

This response, to me, is convoluted at best in thinking through how the NT writers use the OT. For one thing, the NT authors not only “sometimes” quote or allude to the OT, but they consistently and pervasively use the OT narratives as the grid by which they interpret the life of Jesus, the nature and mission of the church, and the second coming. For another, the idea that the NT authors use the OT creatively and flexibly has come increasingly under pressure in evangelical biblical scholarship (and indeed, in broader non-evangelical biblical scholarship) in the last decade and, in my mind, is only tenuously tied to a close reading of both the OT and NT contexts of the quotation.

Bock’s response is more palatable and closer to the mark for me. He says:

We have to pay attention to the Old Testament and the background it gives us, but we also must recall that Jesus and the apostles have the right to build on that material. I believe they do so in ways that complement what God has already committed himself to do.

Bock is right to acknowledge the NT authors’ reliance on the OT, but I am curious about the latter half of his statement. I do not understand why the fact that the NT authors “build on [OT] material,” or as I might say, “interpret the life of Jesus in light of the OT,” means that they have somehow relied on it less (i.e. on an “8” instead of a “10” rating). The character of Christian Scripture (to borrow from Seitz’ new book title) is that it continually interprets fresh works of God in light of previous Scripture. This is no different with the life of Jesus, although it is the fresh event of God in history.

Check out the post to see what Plummer and Hill say, and definitely check out Credo Magazine.