Books and Culture Interview with Richard Hays

Books and Culture’s recent interview with Richard Hays has been making the rounds. The interview is interesting in itself and covers topics on Hays’s background and some of his academic work.

Hays is one of the better models for theological reading and I found one aspect of the interview illuminating on him as a scholar.

…once I got into biblical studies courses in seminary, I was both fascinated by the subject matter and puzzled by the ways I found a lot of biblical scholars approaching the text: in many cases, they seemed less interested in the wholeness and message of the text than in trying to excavate some hypothetical prehistory of the text.

My response to that has left its stamp on most of my work as a New Testament scholar. I’ve been attempting to interpret the Bible with the sensibility of someone trained as a literary reader of texts and, through that kind of reading, to recover the powerful and surprising messages of Scripture.

A Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

In a previous post I argued that biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis, pays attention to patterns of biblical language, and is narratively shaped. The question that surrounds that post and peeks through the white spaces in between the words is whether or not the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is biblical. And the context of that question is of course the question of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), alternatively called Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) and Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS). (Even though EFS was the original terminology, I will stick with ERAS and ESS in this post given some of the recent arguments for moving away from “subordination” language among proponents of this view.) While some proponents of ERAS, including Wayne Grudem, would cast serious doubt upon the traditional doctrines of eternal generation (EG) and eternal procession (EP), and thus replace it with ERAS, others affirm the traditional relations of origin while also affirming ERAS.

David Yeago and “Patterns of Biblical Language”


The Nicene Creed. Image from Wikimedia



Given these two camps of ERAS proponents, I have one goal in this post with two different applications, one per ERAS view. My aim here is to articulate a biblical argument for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, with particular focus on the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. I hope to thereby, and in the first place, answer objections that EG/EP are not “biblical” through making a biblical argument for EG/EP. This argument will rely particularly on David Yeago’s argument in “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” that the Nicene Trinitarian formulations were “biblical” in the sense that they used appropriate conceptual terms (e.g. “homoousios”) to render accurate judgments about patterns of biblical language in Scripture. So, while “homoousios” is not found in Scripture, it does accurately judge the patterns of Scripture’s language that speak about Father, Son, and Spirit as God and as one God. Given this biblical defense of EG/EP, there is therefore no need for ERAS as a replacement doctrine that explains how God can be one God who exists in three persons. EG/EP can do and always has done that work in Trinitarian formulations. The second aim is perhaps more ambitious; I want to show that, in Yeago-ian terms, the patterns of biblical language point us away from ERAS, not toward it.

In other words, I want to use Yeago’s model to argue not only for our continued confession that that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally processed from Father and Son (yes, I’m Western), but also that ERAS is not a biblically warranted addition to an affirmation of EG/EP. I should also note that neither of these aims is accomplished through exegeting individual texts in an isolated fashion. Neither EG/EP nor ERAS have proof-texts, texts that we can undoubtedly point to as proof positives for those doctrines. So, contra Owen Strachan, 1 Cor. 11:3 is not a supporting text for ERAS; there is no textual warrant in that particular text for saying that “Christ” has no temporal marker and then from there concluding that the Son’s submissive relation to the Father is eternal. Rather, we must read particular texts in light of the narrative shape of Scripture and the patterns of language used throughout that economy. One final introductory matter is in order: I will have to do just a bit of Trinitarian legwork to begin, in order to demonstrate what I mean by “patterns” and “economy” and so forth. But most of my time will be spent on EG/EP and ERAS.

A Brief Overview of Trinitarian Formulation in the Early Church

We begin where the early church theologians began: how do we make sense of the fact that, in Scripture, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all spoken of in one sense or another as “God,” “Lord,” etc.? Further, how do we make sense of it in light of Israel’s foundational claim that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4)? The early church asked these questions because they noticed patterns of language that forced them to wrestle with them. For instance, as Matthew Bates has argued in his recent The Birth of the Trinity (Oxford, 2015), the early church interpreters, as part of the ancient world and its pedagogical milieu, were accustomed to utilizing prosopological exegesis. This approach sought to identify the various voices in particular texts. When the early church theologians came to such texts as Psalm 110 or Psalm 39 (LXX) and saw different persons, both identified as God either in the text or elsewhere in Scripture via intertextual links, speaking to one another as God, they had to wrestle with the fact that multiple (namely three) persons were all identified as God and speaking to one another in an intra-divine dialogue. Another important pattern is identified by Wesley Hill in his recent Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans, 2015); he argues that early Trinitarian formulations were spurred on in large part by the relational way in which Paul talks about Father, Son, and Spirit. In Paul’s letters, and particularly in Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Cor. 8:6; and 1 Cor. 15:24–28, Hill notes that the Father is Father precisely because he has the Son, and both have this relation to one another because of the Spirit. In other words, each exists as God because of their relations to one another.

There are other patterns we could note here: Father, Son, and Spirit are each called by the same names and referred to with the same titles in Scripture (e.g. “Lord,” “Creator,” etc.; see, for instance, Basil, “On the Holy Spirit,” 8.17; Nyssan, “Ad Ablabius” and “On the Holy Trinity”); they each are described as acting in ways only God acts (see on this Richard Bauckham, “God Crucified”); and they are all three referenced in divine action in Christian worship, particularly in baptism (e.g. Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 18.41). Further, the early church saw that there was a vast chasm between Creator and creature, and so, contra the Arians etc., there could be no space for a mediatorial demigod (see e.g. Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 4).


The Cappadocians. Image from


The Son and the Spirit were either God or a creature, and, because of those other patterns of language, it was clear to the Fathers that biblically speaking, the Son and the Spirit, along with the Father, are God. One final piece is necessary here before moving on to EG/EP. The Arians, Eunomians, etc., posited that the Son was not God because he was spoken of as subordinate to the Father in texts such as John 4:24 (“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me.”) The pro-Nicenes, however, argued that these texts spoke of the Son within the economy of redemption. Scripture has a particular shape to it, a shape that centers on the incarnation of God in the person of the Son, and when it speaks of the Son as subordinate to the Father it does so only in an economic sense, i.e. only with reference to his taking on human flesh. For the pro-Nicenes, they saw the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified because they shared the same essence, an essence that included one will. For the anti-Nicenes, they saw Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified via relations of authority and unity of wills. They posited three distinct wills and subordination of the Son to the Father from eternity (see on this point Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea).

The Place of Eternal Generation and Its Biblical Warrant

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then, are one God subsisting in three persons. They share one essence (and, by implication, one will). How then do we retain both of these biblically based affirmations? The pro-Nicenes’ answer was EG/EP. The distinction between Father and Son is not in authority or being, as the anti-Nicenes posited, but in the manner in which they subsist in the divine essence. The Father, unbegotten, begets the Son eternally (without time; it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t start). They saw that Scripture speaks of the Son being generated from the Father and the Spirit processing from the Father and the Son. Since this is running long and will run longer I’ll focus on EG here; texts such as Proverbs 8 and John 5:26 were key. Proverbs 8 has come under fire in recent scholarship as a text that does not teach EG, and, because EG is in many ways dependent upon Proverbs 8, therefore many reject EG based on this understanding of Proverbs 8. I hope to have an essay out soon in an edited monograph on EG regarding precisely this text; in the meantime, I will simply say that the pro-Nicenes had much more compelling exegesis than we often given them credit. For instance, they argued that the Son is God’s Wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, and so it makes no sense for there to be another personified wisdom in Proverbs 8 that creates with the Father. Proverbs 8, and particularly vv. 22 and 25, must be speaking of the Son (on this particular point, see Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 2.5). How do we account for Proverbs 8 and its language about the Son, then? Well, for the pro-Nicenes, via EG on the one hand and the economy on the other. (This is admittedly a complicated issue; the early church disagreed on how exactly to interpret Proverbs 8. They tended to agree, however, that some of it spoke to incarnation and some to eternal generation. See, for instance, Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 20-22; Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 13; Nyssan, “Against Eunomius,” I.22).

Further, even beyond these particular texts, they saw that the scriptural pattern of speaking about the relations of the first and second persons of the Trinity are inherently related to generation. “Father” and “Son” are relational terms. If it means anything to be a son, it means to come from one’s father. This pattern of biblical language informed the pro-Nicenes not only about the Son’s divine nature but also about the manner of his divinity. Because he is the Father’s Son, his subsistence in the divine nature is communicated from the Father to the Son (Nazianzen, “Fifth Theological Oration,” 9). This is a thoroughly biblical affirmation, not only in that it exegetes particular texts but also in that it pays attention to patterns of biblical language. While this is not a thorough going defense of EG, I think it is enough to suggest that, rather than casting doubt upon EG, the biblical data actually provides us reason to affirm it, or at least pursue further understanding with a hermeneutic of trust rather than one of suspicion.

Against Eternal Submission

Now to my second aim: how does Yeago’s schema help us not just with defending EG but with defeating ERAS? Here I would posit three lines of argument. First, I’d say that many defenses of ERAS rely on a number of individual texts, exegeted individually. So, the argument goes, John 6:38 says the Father sent the Son, 1 Cor. 11:3 says that God is the head of Christ, and 1 Cor. 15:28 says that the Son will submit his kingdom to the Father. But a handful of texts does not a theological method make. How are these texts speaking of the Son? Is it in his humanity or his divinity? This decision is not and cannot be made via the most rigorous exegetical method, if that method excludes canonical, narrative, and dogmatic considerations.

Particularly important here is the pro-Nicenes’ economic understanding of Scripture; when a text speaks about the Son’s submission, it is talking about his incarnation. The pattern they saw in this regard is made explicit in Phil. 2:5–11. The Son, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be clutched, and so took the form of a servant. He became a servant in the incarnation, not before it (see Nazianzen, “Fourth Theological Oration,” 6). In other words, the pattern of Scripture is to speak of the Son’s submission only with reference to his incarnation, and this pattern is made explicit in the narrative of Phil. 2:5-11. Notice that Phil. 2 is not a prooftext for this notion of the economy of Scripture; rather, the whole of Scripture centers on the incarnation, and the life of the Son is spoken of in different terms with respect prior to and during or after the incarnation. Phil. 2 provides the explicit verse for that pattern, but the pattern is noticeable in abundant other places in Scripture. Thus to conclude that the texts cited in defense of ERAS – 1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Cor. 15:28, etc. – are about anything other than the Son’s incarnation would be to go against this pattern. Grudem concludes his less-than-two-page appendix, in which he casts doubt upon EG, the lynchpin of Nicene orthodoxy, by stating that while there is no biblical evidence to deny EG, there is also not much to support it either. The shoe is actually on the other foot. There is much biblical evidence to support EG, and very little, if any, to support ERAS.

Second, when we come to texts that seem to affirm ERAS, given, at the very least, the ambiguity surrounding those texts and whether they do in fact teach ERAS, we need to ask about the implications of such a view. I’ve already written about this in a previous post so I’ll make this brief: ERAS seems to require three wills in the Godhead, for how can one person submit to another without two distinct wills? This in turn questions the unity of God and his actions. And so on and so forth. (Luke has also already addressed the will issue.) Third, one must again ask about the patterns of biblical language. Some ERAS proponents point toward Father/Son language as necessarily entailing submission. But, as the pro-Nicenes noted, authority and submission is not always true of a Father/Son relationship. The only aspect of that kind of relation that remains constant is generation. Given the ambiguity surrounding a few select texts used to support ERAS, the implications of such a view, and the fact that the patterns of language do not support ERAS, it is hard to conclude that this view has biblical support. I should add, as a final point, there are those who would argue for ERAS based not necessarily on any particular text but on the relationship between the ad extra and ad intra. This post is already much too lengthy so I will have to articulate my argument about that in another post. Suffice it to say that I think the statement “the missions follow but are not equal to the processions” answers this objection, effectively tying together ad extra and ad intra without conflating the two. I will have more to say on this, and on what the pro-Nicenes had to say about the taxis, or ordering, among the persons of the Trinity in a later post.


The Son’s Light and Biblical Understanding

I don’t think it’s any secret that I subscribe to an Augustinian understanding of how we approach and comprehend Holy Scripture’s message to God’s people. Commonly known as “faith seeking understanding” (from the Latin fides quarens intellectum), this view says that we come to the Bible and understand its message not as blank slates, without presuppositions and with complete objectivity, but in faith. Those who read Scripture with the eyes of faith in Christ Jesus most fully comprehend what it is saying. Or, to put a finer point on it, only those who read in faith can fully understand its message.

When I espouse this epistemological approach to comprehending Scripture, I am usually asked the same question: “But what about unbelieving biblical scholars/readers from whom I (or we in the discipline) gain knowledge about the Bible’s message?” While I understand the impetus behind that question, I also think it arises from a misunderstanding about the Bible’s ultimate purpose. The Bible, as an historical document, has a series of messages written by specific people at a specific time and for a specific audience – it is in one sense, therefore, for information. But the Bible is not just for information; it is for transformation as well. Again, this aspect has an historical aspect to it, one that is particular to each book contained within the biblical canon, but the Bible’s ultimate transformative purpose, as a covenant document inspired by God the Holy Spirit, is to point to the consummate revelation of the Triune God, Jesus Christ, the incarnate person of God the Son, so that we might know him and be transformed into his image, and, through this transformative knowledge, know and love God the Father. In other words, the ultimate purpose of the one Bible, in all of its diverse parts, is to help us know God and love him. Only those who have confessed Christ as Lord by the power of his Spirit to the glory of his Father can do that.

Along these lines, I have just finished Matthew R. Crawford’s fine monograph, Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2015; I’d recommend that you drop what you’re doing and read it now – it’s brilliant). In it Crawford notes (see esp. pp. 184-205) that Cyril also held to this view of biblical interpretation, and dealt with the question of how both believers and unbelievers can in some sense understand the Bible. According to Crawford, Cyril used John 1 and John 9, both instances in which Jesus is referred to as light, to distinguish between two types of illumination. The first, what Crawford calls “creative illumination,” is given to all humanity and is a function of all of creation’s participation in God, and particularly in the Son’s wisdom. (“Participation” here is not salvific, but only intended to communicate that anything that exists only exists because it is created and therefore participating in the one life-giving essence, the Triune God.) The Son is Light, and all of creation as creation necessarily lives in that light. They may reject the light, but that does not vanquish, extinguish, or turn off the light. Crawford glosses Cyril’s thoughts on this type of illumination by referring to it as “generic rationality.” As image-bearing creatures, human beings are capable of basic reasoning, and therefore of understanding Scripture in its historical sense.  In other words, because human beings can reason logically and utilize the tools of historical research, the whole Bible is to one degree understandable to all people.

But there is another type of rationality according to Cyril, a pneumatic, or spiritual rationality, that is only afforded to those who have confessed Christ and been renewed by his Spirit. It is this “redemptive illumination” (Crawford’s term) that allows readers to not only comprehend the details of individual passages and books but to see read them in light of their divine intention. By the help of the inspiring and now illuminating Spirit the Scriptures show readers Christ, and thereby they transform them into his image and make known to them the Father. There is, in other words, a creative illumination that is common to all humanity by virtue of their participation in the Son’s Light, and there is a redemptive illumination that is only given to those who have confessed Christ and received his Spirit. When we read the Bible, therefore, those who read it with us, believing and unbelieving, can come alongside and assist us in our understanding of its historical sense. But only those who confess that Jesus is Lord and receive his Spirit through repentance and faith can see him, know him, be made like him, and through him know and love the Father, when reading his Spirit-inspired Word.

Resources for Theological Interpretation

I’m reading and writing on theological interpretation of Scripture at the moment, and I want to make sure I’m covering all my bases. Below is a list of books dealing with the subject; I’m going to try and compile a list of articles later. I’ve organized them by a) books specifically about TIS, b) hermeneutics books that directly deal with TIS or TIS issues, c) biblical theology books that directly deal with TIS or TIS issues, d) dogmatics texts on the doctrine of Scripture, and e) history of interpretation texts that assist in the ressourcement of premodern interpretive methods. Sometimes these divisions are rather arbitrary, as many of these books deal with at least two if not more of these categories. Nevertheless, here they are.

What am I missing here?

TIS Texts

Adam, A. K. M., Stephen Fowl, Kevin  Vanhoozer, and Francis Watson. Reading Scripture with the church: toward a hermeneutic for theological interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.

Bartholomew, Craig G., Colin J. D. Greene, and Karl Möller. Renewing biblical interpretation. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press ;, 2000.

Billings, J. Todd. The Word of God for the people of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010.

Bockmuehl, Markus N. A.. Seeing the Word: refocusing New Testament study. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.

Bockmuehl, Markus N. A., and Alan J. Torrance. Scripture’s doctrine and theology’s Bible: how the New Testament shapes Christian dogmatics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Farkasfalvy, Denis M.. Inspiration & interpretation: a theological introduction to Sacred Scripture. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2010.

Fowl, Stephen E.. The theological interpretation of Scripture: classic and contemporary readings. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.

Fowl, Stephen E.. Engaging scripture: a model for theological interpretation. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Fowl, Stephen E.. Theological interpretation of scripture. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2009.

Green, Joel B.. Practicing theological interpretation: engaging biblical texts for faith and formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011.

Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical exegesis: a theology of Biblical interpretation. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

Treier, Daniel J.. Introducing theological interpretation of Scripture: recovering a Christian practice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright. Dictionary for theological interpretation of the Bible. London: SPCK ;, 2005.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright. Theological interpretation of the New Testament: a book-by-book survey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. Theological interpretation of the Old Testament: a book-by-book survey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.

Watson, Francis. Text, church, and world: biblical interpretation in theological perspective. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994.


Hermeneutics Texts

Leithart, Peter J.. Deep exegesis: the mystery of reading Scripture. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2009.

Smith, James K. A.. The fall of interpretation: philosophical foundations for a creational hermeneutic. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. Is there a meaning in this text?: the Bible, the reader, and the morality of literary knowledge. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. The drama of doctrine: a canonical-linguistic approach to Christian theology. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.


Biblical Theology Texts

Bartholomew, Craig G., and Elaine Botha. Out of Egypt: biblical theology and biblical interpretation. Bletchley, Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press ;, 2004.

Bartholomew, Craig G., Joel B. Green, and Anthony C. Thiselton. Reading Luke: interpretation, reflection, formation. Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster Press ;, 2005.

Bartholomew, Craig G.. Canon and biblical interpretation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006.

Watson, Francis. Text and truth: redefining biblical theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997.


Dogmatics Texts

Swain, Scott R.. Trinity, revelation, and reading: a theological introduction to the Bible and its interpretation. London: T&T Clark, 2011.

Webster, J. B.. Word and church: essays in Christian dogmatics. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001.

Webster, John. Holy Scripture: a dogmatic sketch. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


History of Interpretation Texts

Hall, Christopher A.. Reading scripture with the church Fathers. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Keefe, John J., and Russell R. Reno. Sanctified vision: an introduction to early Christian interpretation of the Bible. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Lubac, Henri de. Medieval exegesis: the four senses of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. ;, 1998.

Reader-Response Criticism and Theological Interpretation

I have to admit that when I first came across Reader-Response Criticism in seminary I was skeptical about what insights could be gained from such a method. My experience has been that even when a method is agreed upon by readers agreement of a text’s meaning is still harder to come by. This has led me to be more open towards reader-response when such readings are done along the grain of the text. I think Robin Parry captures this well in his short essay in the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Baker Academic 2006):

Christians can concede that different acts of reading are undertaken with different goals in mind and that theological interpretation is not the only goal a Bible-reader, even a Christian Bible-reader, may have. For instance, I may read Scripture in order to attempt a historical reconstruction of the events narrated, or to explore the gender relations encoded in the text. Such differing goals will yield different results and must be judged by criteria relevant to their goal. For the Christian, theological interpretation is the supreme goal for Bible-reading, and it too has its own rules of assessment (canonical context, the Rule of Faith, the gospel, etc.). Faith will also guide Christians in discerning which other goals may be legitimate subservient Christian projects (e.g., discerning a text’s redaction history) and which produce inappropriate ways of handling Holy Scripture (e.g., materialist interpretations) (661).

Sex, Beauty, and Songs

Today at the Gospel Coalition Andrew Shanks posted an article on the difference between Song of Solomon and erotica literature. Shanks points out that while Songs wants to celebrate marital love and beauty as expressed in human sexuality, erotica merely wants to celebrate and exploit sexuality.

I appreciate Andrew’s points there, and I hope this post doesn’t come across as me too harshly critiquing a fellow brother. But this post, and my reference to Andrew’s, are about much more than either of us individually. Instead, this post for me is about how evangelicals continue to read the Song of Solomon as not much more than a Christianized Kama Sutra. In my estimation it still seems like we are, as Christian readers of Songs, lowering the bar on the ultimate meaning of the book. Looking back to my series on theological method, Andrew’s article, along with much of evangelicalism, leaves out the bigger and more important hermeneutical question of how Songs points us to Christ and his gospel. I would say that perhaps Andrew merely wanted to focus on another aspect of Songs, not the primary one of pointing to Christ, but he makes this statement towards the beginning: “In his Song, Solomon’s primary goal is to describe love and beauty” (emphasis mine). This is commonplace in evangelicalism (think Driscoll’s sermons on the book). For many of us, Songs is primarily about the beauty of marriage, the intimate and physical connection that consummates it, the way to handle difficulty before and during it, etc. Don’t get me wrong – each of those things is important. Andrew’s point is important. Many other evangelical teachers’ points, that the book gives us a picture of what marriage ought to be and that we ought to emulate it, are important. But in my understanding these are neither the divine nor human author’s primary goals in any book of Scripture, including Songs. Rather, the Spirit’s, and through the inspiration of the Spirit the human author’s, primary goal is to show us Christ so that through seeing him we might see the Father. And it is only by seeing the Son in the power of the Spirit that we can then move on to understanding the implications for ethical living in areas like marriage and sexuality.

The human author of Songs actually gives us clues that he is talking about much more than beauty, sex, and marriage by making explicit textual connections and allusions to Davidic, Temple, Garden, eschatological, and Lady Wisdom language elsewhere in Scripture. This is highly charged OT language – it encompasses the major facets of OT eschatological hope. It gives us a picture of the wise king and his virtuous bride in a restored garden. It follows the search for a wise king and virtuous woman in the Hebrew Bible order of Psalms, Job, Proverbs, and Ruth. The mystery of marriage is that it a picture of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:22-32). There are abundant reasons for thinking this book is about much more than beauty or sex. But in the name of the historical-grammatical method, we focus on the physical to the detriment of its spiritual message.

I think we ought to continue to think through the way Songs confronts the sexual ethic (or non-ethic) of our day, as Andrew has. And once again, I am appreciative of that type of work. I think work on the moral sense of Scripture is vitally important. But our understanding and interpretation of Scripture must remember that the primary goal of both the Spirit and the human author is always to point to Christ so that by seeing him we might see the Father and be changed into his image.


Textual Method

Well after blogging for four days straight a week and a half ago, an unprecedented blogging feat for me, the law of averages kicked in and I haven’t written my final two posts on method.

I’ll try to get back into the swing of it with this post on textual method.

By textual method I mean that,

Christian interpretation ought to place primacy in hermeneutics on the text itself and not on reconstruction of a provisional, incomplete, finite, and uninspired historical framework.

There are a few things to note here, and I don’t pretend that any of these posts or this outline of method as a whole are complete, but here I want to focus on the locus of interpretation. Modernity has pushed our focus to empirical evidence for everything, including exegesis. Can it be verified? Is your interpretation objective? Are you approaching the exegetical task without bias? As I noted in my previous post on pneumatological method, this arrogance in regard to our ability to objectively approach the text and grind out the correct interpretation is rooted in modernity’s god-like claims of omniscience and comprehensive comprehension of data. This is seen most prominently in how interpretation has shifted from being focused on the actual text to focused on the historical framework constructed around it. Biblical scholars in modernity began constructing vast amounts of historical struts and trellises on which to place the text before they interpreted it. There are, as with any historical event or development, myriads of reasons for this, but primary in my opinion is an Enlightenment distrust of religious texts and especially the inspired nature of the Bible and, therefore, the need to find some other “objective” measure for interpretation besides the (in their mind flawed) text.

Of course for conservative biblical scholars (like myself), the text is still inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy. But evangelical biblical scholarship has capitulated to much of modernity’s methods by adopting many of the tools of the historical-critical approach while rejecting its conclusions about the nature of the Bible. Again, nowhere is this more prevalent than the continued propensity to build historical frameworks on which the text is hung for interpretation.

There are a number of problems with this approach, but the most important are that a) it is a capitulation to modernity’s idolatrous and vainglorious pursuit of “the objective” and b) it shifts interpretation’s focus from the inspired and revelatory biblical text to the uninspired, limited, interpreted, and perspectival historical reconstruction. Christian interpretation ought to be humble in its approach to the text and realize that Christians are given only one enduring form of special revelation by God – Scripture. Historical frameworks are not inspired, and yet they are so often the arbiter of how we approach the text. Should this not be reversed? Shouldn’t we approach our finite historical reconstructions through the lens of God-given and authoritative revelation and not vice versa?

A couple of caveats as I finish here.

  1. This is not to deny the importance of history, and especially the historicity of the text. It seems nonsensical to me to affirm the inspiration of the human authors by the Holy Spirit and then treat the historical verity of their material as unimportant or secondary. No, the biblical authors are claiming something about reality that is rooted in history, and to claim otherwise seems to ignore the biblical authors’ intent in writing their material. The historicity of the text is of utmost importance when we talk about the authority of the Bible (and if you can’t tell by now, I’m an inerrantist; if you didn’t see that coming, you haven’t read much of my blog…).
  2. This is also not to deny the provisional benefit of historical background and worldview reconstruction in interpretation. We ought to, however, greatly mitigate our reliance on that reconstruction in our interpretation of the Bible. The Bible already gives us a worldview – starting in Genesis 1:1 – and many (most?) times it gives us the historical background necessary to understand the author’s message.

For an article on this type of approach, I’d recommend Bruce Ashford and David Nelson, “Meaning, Reference, and Textuality: An Evangelical Appropriation of Hans Frei,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 28/2 (2010): 195-216.

Canonical Method

The third fundamental component of a Christian theological method is that it ought to be canonical. This means that

it recognizes the Spirit’s inspiration of all of Christian Scripture and therefore the intertextual interrelatedness of it. This aspect also calls us to recognize the structure of the canon and its influence on interpretation of particular books and passages.

This foundation, like the others, follows on the previous ones. So, as noted in the definition above, recognizing the canonical nature of the scriptures and allowing that to dictate our interpretive practice is a direct implication of the fact that Scripture ultimately has one author, the Holy Spirit. Additionally, as we will see below, the intertextual connections and canonical shape of the Bible helps us to more clearly see how both the human and divine author testify to Christ, which points us again back to the first foundational aspect of method, its Christocentric nature.

First, a canonical method recognizes the intertextual connections between the various parts of the Bible. On the divine author’s side, the Spirit’s omniscience and sovereignty in inspiration allows and produces textual connections throughout Scripture. But we should also affirm that the human authors use an intertextual strategy throughout the Bible, beginning with Moses in the Pentateuch and continuing as each book is written. The authors of the Bible continually and explicitly quote, allude to, and echo previous parts of Scripture. So Moses quotes himself throughout the Pentateuch, Joshua 1 is textually connected to Deuteronomy 34, the Book of the Twelve (Hosea-Malachi) exhibits interlocking textual seams between the different books within it, and so on. The Old Testament grows organically through continually tying itself off to previously written parts of Scripture, and the New Testament continues this strategy by explicitly connecting itself with the entire Old Testament. So then, both from the perspective of the divine and human authors, we ought to search for and expect textual connections between the different parts of Scripture.

One final note here – this actually helps us see more clearly how the Old Testament speaks of Christ. Many times we read a story or a psalm and don’t see exactly how it is explicitly or textually about Christ. Many times, however, explicit textual connections to other parts of the Old Testament clarify how this so. My favorite (and the most controversial) example is the Song of Songs. The idea that this book is not really about Christ and the Church is so commonplace among Christians today that to say otherwise is deemed insane allegory, but I want to suggest that not only is Songs about Jesus, but it is explicitly textually so. I can’t go into all the detail needed to prove this here, but suffice it to say that the author of Songs very clearly quotes, alludes to, and echoes passages about the Davidic covenant, the Temple (specifically 1 Kings 7), eschaotological restoration (specifically Numbers 24), Garden imagery from Genesis 2, and Lady Wisdom language from Proverbs 1-9. Look at that list again – David, Temple, Garden, Restoration, Lady Wisdom. And while I can’t list them here, there are obvious and explicit textual connections to each of these – the author ties off his work textually to these highly charged, and indeed Messianic, OT themes.

Now for those who haven’t stopped reading after I broke the basic rule of evangelical hermeneutics – don’t allegorize Songs! – the second aspect of a canonical method is that it will recognize the importance of the ordering of the material both within individual books and within the canon as a whole. Not only has the Spirit authoritatively and infallibly inspired the biblical material, but it has also guided the Church in her reading of the Bible. Part of the people of God’s reception of Scripture includes ordering the books within the biblical canon. Although not an inspired task, we can nevertheless still say that it is a Spirit-illumined task, in that the Church always ought to be looking for guidance in her interpretation of the text. And make no mistake, ordering the books is an interpretation of the material. Of course, we ought to say here that the ordering of the material within a specific book (so the fact that Matthew 5-7 comes after Matthew 3-4) is inspired. But we can’t say the same about the order of the books within the canon – only that the order reflects a literary reading strategy illumined by the Spirit in the Church’s reception of the biblical material. This post is already very long, so if you are interested in why the order of the books of the Bible matters, see for instance John Sailhamer, Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, Stephen Chapman, Stephen Dempster, etc.

Pneumatological Method

The second foundational aspect of a Christian approach to Scripture is that method ought to be pneumatological in character. That is, it should be driven and empowered by the Holy Spirit. From the first post:

This means it will recognize the role of the Spirit in both inspiration and interpretation, and will note the Spirit-generated ecclesial context (both historically and contemporaneously) in which interpretation occurs. It also recognizes both the contextual and presuppositional nature of all interpretation and the Spirit’s ability to confront our context and presuppositions.

Although an emphasis on the Christocentric nature of Scripture is sometimes controversial in the field of hermeneutics, I think this aspect of a Christian theological method hits against many of our interpretive presupposition. We as 21st century interpreters have, in my opinion, been pre-conditioned to focus on an “objective” reading of the biblical material that privileges the human author over the divine, even to the point where the divine author is ignored or consciously set aside. What I am calling a pneumatological method pushes against this entire stance towards biblical interpretation.

First, a pneumatological method recognizes both the divine and human authorship of Scripture. In my articulation of this foundation, I would further say that the divine author holds the privileged position in terms of whose intent we are seeking to understand. This does not mean the human author’s intent is no longer important; on the contrary, genre, literary devices, and historical background – all facets related most directly to the human author – each still play an important role in interpreting the text. The divine author, the Holy Spirit, though, has the privileged position. Connections between different passages, the intent of the passage, and especially the Christocentric nature of individual sections are all ultimately tied to divine intent. Again, the human author can and does make intertextual connections and point to Christ, but recognizing the Spirit’s superintending authorship of Scripture allows us to more boldly recognize these intertextual and Christological connections.

Second, a pneumatological method recognizes that the context of interpretation is the church. Often in modern exegesis the exercise is isolated and individualistic. The Spirit, though, has birthed the interpretive community in its work of regeneration, and it is in this Spirit-born and Spirit-led community that a properly Spirit-illuminated interpretation can and should take place. We should further say that this community transcends time and space, and so a properly pneumatological method will recognize that the Spirit has guided interpreters in different parts of the world and in different times than our own. The tradition and global nature of the church can help us in the third facet of a pneumatological method – confronting our own preconceptions.

Finally, a pneumatological method recognizes that it is the Spirit-inspired text that should master the interpreter and not the other way around. We cannot simply put the text through our hermeneutics machine and expect to grind out objective interpretations like some kind of Bible sausage. God confronts us through his Word, and a Spirit-led interpretation will recognize the confrontational and transformational nature of Scripture. The goal of God’s revelation is to point to Jesus, not only to help us understand propositions about God but so that through understanding God we might be changed into the image of his Son (2 Cor. 3:17-18). A theological method that does not recognize that the text is meant to transform us is not reading Scripture as it is intended to be read. To say it in contemporary terms, the text ought to apply to us. The Spirit does this through the text on its own, by the way – we don’t have to “find the application.” Additionally, understanding that the text confronts us helps us to own up to our own cultural presuppositions. Everyone comes to the text with baggage, and we should expect for that baggage – presuppositions – to be confronted in the text by the Spirit.


Yesterday I posted a quote from Gordon Spykman on biblical exegesis. I’ve been asked to expand on that, especially in terms of what it means for a Christian theological method. In the first chapter of my book (excited that it came out today!), I outline tenets of a proper Christian theological method, and Spykman’s quote bolsters my claims there. I hope to expand on each of these tenets in future posts, but for now they are as follows:

  1. A Christian theological method ought to be Christocentric, but within a properly Trinitarian framework. That is, it recognizes that God the Father reveals himself to his people in God the Son and by God the Spirit.
  2. A Christian theological method ought to be pneumatological. This means it will recognize the role of the Spirit in both inspiration and interpretation, and notes the Spirit-generated ecclesial context (both historically and contemporaneously) in which interpretation occurs. It also recognizes both the contextual and presuppositional nature of all interpretation and the Spirit’s ability to confront our context and presuppositions.
  3. A Christian theological method ought to be canonical, in that it recognizes the Spirit’s inspiration of all of Christian Scripture and therefore the intertextual interrelatedness of it. This aspect also calls us to recognize the structure of the canon and its influence on interpretation of particular books and passages.
  4. A Christian theological method ought to be narrative, in that it frames interpretation of particular passages within the broader framework of the biblical storyline – Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. This aspect also recognizes that Christ stands as the goal of that story and that our lives need to be re-oriented within it.
  5. Finally, a Christian theological method, ought to be textual. This means that Christian interpretation ought to place primacy in hermeneutics on the text itself and not on reconstruction of a provisional, incomplete, finite, and uninspired historical framework.
  6. Although not on my official list in my chapter, I should also note here that each of these tenets is historically rooted in the history of interpretation.The previous five points have been the dominant stance of interpreters throughout church history until the Enlightenment. To privilege Enlightenment approaches to biblical interpretation, which are embedded in a serious mistrust of tradition, an elevation of human autonomy, a belief in the Bible’s lack of overall coherence, a desire for presupposition-less “scientific” objectivity, and a desire to break free from religious constraints, is, in my opinion, completely wrong headed. As a side note, in evangelical circles we have continued to affirm the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures while at the same time capitulating to Enlightenment-fueled methods of interpretation. We want to “be right”, focus on one passage without recognizing its place among the others, and jettison any sense of an appreciation of tradition when we interpret. As a result we have cut ourselves off from church history and the interplay of the Spirit-inspired canon and made interpretation into an exercise in which we crank the text through our method machine in order to “be right.”

Spykman’s quote primarily relates to #s 3 and 4 on this list. Christian interpretation must pay attention to the context of a passage. Ultimately this means giving priority to the context of the canon, and this context includes both the intertextual connections generated by the authorship of the Spirit (and the human authors’ use of previous Scripture) and the narrative context of the biblical storyline. Spykman also alludes to the Christocentric nature of the narrative, and this is key as well. Paying attention to the canonical context ultimately means giving credence to a Christocentric approach, since the canon as a whole and the narrative embedded in it are testimonies to Christ.

NOTE: my articulation of a theological method in my book is heavily reliant on Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God. If you haven’t read it, go buy it.