Does the Passover Demonstrate Definite Atonement?

At various point through the years, I have investigated the idea of “definite atonement.” As I’m now reading through From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective a few reactions have come to mind. I recognize the topic is broad, and takes in many different aspects of theology, so I don’t want to diminish the complexity of it by coming to some summary conclusions in this post. The book moves to discuss the scriptural evidence for definite atonement in the second section, and the chapter by Paul R. Williamson entitled “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” considers (among other things) whether the Passover institution foreshadows it. I say foreshadows because Williamson forthrightly notes “while definite atonement is nowhere explicitly mentioned, [in the Pentateuch] there are certainly hints of the concept embedded within this body of literature.”[1]

One of the first he considers is the Passover. Williamson says:

“The amount of flock animal consumed was to be directly proportionate to the number in each household (Ex. 12:4), suggesting that each animal slain provided for only a limited number of individuals. Its apotropaic effects were thus restricted to a carefully qualified group of people within each household. Each lamb served a specific body of people and redeemed a prescribed household. Moreover, only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door frames (12:7–13, 21–23).15 There is thus no idea here of an all-embracing sacrifice, but rather one that served a specific goal for a specific group.”[2]

Williamson finds at least an impression of particularity, and limitation, but I wonder if he has imposed this on the text. The instructions to Israel were that they should be careful that there be no lamb left over, but the idea of limitation—there there is only so much lamb to go around—is not there. If a house had more people than a single lamb could feed, the instructions are, get another lamb, and create another family unit to eat that lamb. There is a natural limitation on how many people a lamb could feed, and Williamson seems to draw from this the idea that there is only so much atonement available in the Lord Jesus (?) But advocates of definite atonement have almost always agreed that any consideration of the idea is not because there is a lack, or an insufficiency in the death of Jesus. They almost always say that had God wanted to, he could have designed an atonement sufficient for all. The instructions are the opposite of Williamson’s suggestion. As many Israelites as there are, this determines how many lambs are needed. The distribution is “according to the number of persons.” Ex. 12:4.

Secondly, Williamson speaks of a “carefully qualified group of people within each household.” But where is this in the instructions to Israel? On the contrary, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb.” (12:3) and “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” (12:6) It is, rather, an indiscriminate group, an all-encompassing command—all the congregation and the whole assembly. What would fit here is an affirmation of the formula of Peter Lombard, the medieval theologian who is first credited with the explanation that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficient for some. It is easy to see in the command to the whole assembly a “sufficient for all” idea.

The other point Williamson makes is that “only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door.” Here, too, it is easy to see this as the exercise of faith, the very thing that those on the other side of the question from Williamson aver to be happening in the atonement. To partake in it requires faith. In the Passover, there is no merit in the Israelites, and there is no idea of election of some only. Later in the chapter, Williamson does expand on the idea that to be part of the nation of Israel alone was not enough to be truly elect. This comes as he discusses the covenant idea, and that there are those in the covenant, who are not truly elect. But whatever support there is for this in the history of Israel, it is not shown by the Passover. Why? Because the Passover is all-inclusive, and the distinction is not whether one is truly elect or not, but simply whether one is in the house. The Israelites who believed God’s Word were in a house with blood smeared on the door.

But we should also note that the Passover itself is not a general judgement, that is, it wasn’t all those in the house who were subject to death, but only the firstborn. Nor was it all the Egyptians who were killed, but only the firstborn. This further removes the rite from a one to one equivalency with atonement and redemption as Williamson wants to posit.

Finally, the New Testament clearly indicates the Passover as a type. “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.” One can run into difficulties in constructing doctrine from pictures, that is, from being specific about New Testament doctrines from Old Testament types. There is simply not this level of equivalency. In the establishment of the Davidic covenant, God tells David
“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Sam. 7:12-14)

Solomon is thus a type of Christ. The Psalms contain this idea as well. But if we insist that the details of the type must reflect the antitype exactly, then we have this: “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men.” (2 Sam 7:14) This was true of Solomon, but it is certainly not true of Christ. Seeking doctrine from types is thus fraught with challenges.

There are some arguments for definite atonement—but the Passover is not among them. Indeed, I think Williamson has, if anything, scored a basket in the other team’s hoop. The details in Exodus 12 would make a better case for unlimited atonement. I continue my study of the topic, and I know many writers and scholars I respect hold to definite atonement. I’m not there, and the Passover won’t get me there.

[1] Paul Williamson, “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton, Crossway, 2013), 228.

[2] Williamson, 231-232.

How Much Does God Know?

A brief inquiry into the open view of God

I commented recently on the problems with open theism, and in response, someone recommended Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible as a good summary of the view. Having read the book, I want to interact with some of what Boyd says to explain that the future is partly settled, and partly open. First, I commend Boyd on dealing with the text of Scripture, rather than philosophical or confessional presuppositions. It is too often the case that people reject something because it clashes with what they’ve been told, with a received tradition, rather than with Scripture. Boyd attempts to honestly deal with the texts and to make sense of them.

I should also state that my understanding of God’s knowledge is not fatalistic or deterministic. (But I’m less concerned to align with the labels as they exist.) Boyd notes the implications of the extent of God’s control over every detail of life and history, and that few people actually live this way, despite what they say. If one says that God controls everything—every detail of every life that ever has been, ever will be, and that these details are eternally fixed and unalterable, then much of what we read in Scripture does not make sense. Why pray if nothing is changeable? What do we make of any exhortation or encouragement in Scripture to change, to repent, to believe? Some would say everything you do has been in God’s plan for you from eternity past, from the clothes you’ll wear next Tuesday, to what words you say on Friday, to who you’ll marry. It is all eternally fixed and no deviation from this predetermined path is possible. If that sort of determinism is the position of classical theology, then I, too, reject that as inconsistent with Scripture. I’ve had conversations with some who present a deterministic view of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination in these stark terms, and if one expresses doubt about that view, “you don’t believe in sovereignty.” I’m not leveling such an accusation against Boyd, nor calling him a heretic, because I think that’s too simplistic and, frankly, lazy.

But Boyd often conflates God’s foreordination with God’s foreknowledge, a conclusion that I don’t think is warranted. In other words, God’s knowledge of what will happen seems, in the open view, the same as God’s decision that it will happen, and the human paradox that God can know what man will choose, and yet not force that choice seems not to be a possibility in Boyd’s treatment of the material.

Boyd’s work is non-technical, and intentionally targets a popular audience. There is no problem with this approach whatsoever, but one can still bring in relevant material and arguments in a non-technical way. One piece of this evidence is “middle knowledge,” sometimes called Molinism for its first attributed proponent, Luis de Molina. Indeed, Boyd mentions middle knowledge, but only in a footnote in the final chapter. Middle knowledge is a complex topic in itself, and devoting considerable space to examining it here would, I think, take me off track. But this much is clear: middle knowledge brings a compelling perspective to the question of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination because it posits that God knows all possible avenues, while not affirming that God has foreordained the one that came to pass.

If, however, there isn’t Scripture to support middle knowledge, then we are back to the same philosophical presuppositions that mark much of the determinist position. One verse cited is Matthew 11:23:

“And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.”

Here, Jesus speaks about something that would have happened, had circumstances and choices been different. He gives an outcome, not theoretical, but presents it as factual, yet conditional. If Sodom had seen the mighty works Capernaum saw, it would have remained until this day. To the extent that this strikes us as a logical impossibility is part of the limitation we as humans have in our understanding of an infinite God. This is one reason I find arguments against middle knowledge (or whatever term we may want to use) not compelling. “How can God…?” is often a question that has no satisfactory answer for us, and when we do put forth an answer that satisfies, we often end up with a truncated theology.

One example is where Boyd addresses the age-old question of “why would God allow Adolf Hitler to be born if he foreknew he would massacre millions of Jews.”?  Says Boyd,

“The only response I could offer then, and the only response I continue to offer now, is that this was not foreknown as a certainty at the time God created Hitler. If you claim God foreknew exactly what Hitler would do and created him anyway, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the world must somehow be better with Hitler than without him. Think about it. If God is all good and thus always does what is best, and if God knew exactly what Hitler would do when he created him, we must conclude that God believed that allowing Hitler’s massacre of the Jews (and many others) was preferable to his not allowing it. If you accept the premise that God is all good and all powerful and the he possesses exhaustively settled foreknowledge, the conclusion is difficult to avoid.” (p. 98-99)

Boyd’s analysis makes some assumptions, but are they valid? Boyd must believe that the information we as humans have about this situation is exhaustive, or at least sufficient to make a summary judgment of the matter. But how do we know this to be the case? How do we know that our (admittedly limited) human knowledge of this situation allows us to make such a judgment and to pronounce it as the one that is inevitable or difficult to avoid?

Job’s three friends were similarly convinced that they had sufficient knowledge to declare the true cause of Job’s misfortunes, even though within the book itself we as readers see they were wrong, that they did not have all the information. It is not difficult to see cases in our own human experience where we jump to a conclusion we must later revise, precisely because we did not have all the information.

When human free agents are not involved, how are we to think of events? That is, when tornados, earthquakes or floods take lives, is this because God only knew these things as possible, but wasn’t aware they would actually transpire? The Psalms repeatedly affirm God’s control over the weather.

“By the east wind you shattered the ships of Tarshish.” Ps 48:7

“Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps.
He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth,
who makes lightnings for the rain
and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. Ps 135:6-7.

Apart from any possibilities in human agents, God controls events of nature. Seeing these as only possible, uncertain, is difficult to comprehend.

I readily grant the difficulty in making sense of the atrocities of human history and understanding how God is behind them—how, if sovereign, omnipotent, and omniscient, he allows them. Yet it is reasoning from effect to cause, and brings perils. Boyd’s view is that God is not omniscient when it comes to such things. He only knows them as possibilities, but he does not know them as facts. Scripture tells us of God’s knowledge and understanding, however.

Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure. Ps. 147:5

He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. Is. 40:28

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor? Rom 11:34-35

It is difficult to see these passages presenting God’s knowledge or understanding as limited, or consisting of the possible in some situations. Moreover, we as humans simply don’t have the eternal perspective that allows us to say unequivocally that we know what is eternally good.  We can import our ideas of what must be good and right into situations in an effort to make sense of things, but we can attribute things to God’s character that are untrue or unnecessary. We are uncomfortable with paradoxes, though Scripture gives us many. In the open view of God, things we as humans see as evil are not attributable to God, because God is good. Indeed, Scripture says

You are good and do good. Ps 119:68

but also,

Is a trumpet blown in a city,
and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it? Amos 3:5

How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory truths? I suggest that the open view limits God’s knowledge to an extent that Scripture does not support, but it is also likely that a resolution that ultimately satisfies us may be unobtainable here and now. One of the definitions of faith is the assurance of things not seen. A resolution to the question of how can foreknow everything, yet not foreordain it all as well is one of these unseens.

In Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple, he prays this: “hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind).” 1 Kings 8:39.  Solomon affirms that God, and God only, knows the hearts of mankind, and that he knows them exhaustively. I see nothing in Solomon’s words that allows us to say God’s knowledge is limited, that he does not know what is, or what will be in the hearts of mankind.

One of the criticisms Boyd has for the “classical view” of God’s foreknowledge and foreordination is that it sees those passages that speak about God changing his mind or repenting as anthropomorphisms, only seeming to say what they do, while other Scriptures that declare truths about God are taken literally, at face value. This is a valid criticism. But, could it be that seeing God’s knowledge only as possible knowledge, not actual knowledge, is also a kind of anthropomorphism, an accommodation to our inability to reconcile that God can both know everything that ever will be or could be, while at the same time not having fatalistically determined these outcomes?

I’m sure some will read this assessment and say that I haven’t brought closure or clarity to the issue. That’s not an unfair conclusion. Given the information Scripture gives us, and the manifest limits of human understanding, I don’t think the degree of closure some affirm is possible. But given all of that, I’m also not prepared to say I know with certainty that God’s knowledge is limited. I believe Scripture testifies otherwise.

Yes, We Are Saved by Right Theology

What is popular in the broadest sense is often not detailed or specific. By popular, I mean “of the people.” A popular audience is less academic, less trained in technical terms or the jargon of specialty. They tend to be generalists. This does not mean that advanced concepts cannot be packaged in a way to appeal to a popular audience. (The “For Dummies” books acknowledge this, i.e. Physics for Dummies.)

Evangelicalism is a popular movement; it is of the people, and so comes with the tendency to dismiss or downgrade specificity in theology. As one interlocutor on social media has said “We’re not saved by right theology.” This pastor has elsewhere explained what he means as “we are saved by ‘allegiance to Jesus.'” In so saying, he makes a distinction between theology and Jesus, but this is an elusive thing.
If one says “We are saved by allegiance to Jesus” someone may ask, “Who is Jesus?” And the answer—no matter what form it takes, is theology.

If I explain who Jesus is, I am theologizing. I am explaining (one hopes) from Scripture the details about the person and work of Jesus. If I feel unconstrained by Scripture, then of course anything is admissible. We cannot speak of who Jesus is without entering the realm of doctrine and theology. In this sense, we are indeed saved by theology. If my definition of who he is misses the mark of who Scripture portrays him to be, then it is foolish to think such “belief” means I am in a relationship with Jesus. It is akin to saying that someone who lost their money in a bank failure really shouldn’t have because they really, sincerely believed in that bank!

But which things about Jesus are the critical ones? We all know that there are details of theology that some like to insist on, details they ride like a hobby horse, but which for others are not primary. This is always a conundrum. Some say that Jesus did not descend into hell upon his death, others say he did. Scripture isn’t specific on this. If one makes that a doctrinal boundary, it’s not legitimate precisely because of the lack of specificity of Scripture on this. However, if one says that Jesus is not divine, he is not God, he is less than God, a created being, this gets to the very heart of his identity and is a fundamental difference in his person. I am now redefining his very essence. It is another Jesus this describes. Scripture, in numerous places, is specific about this aspect of Jesus’ identity.
Discerning this difference can sometimes be thorny, but in fact many of the lines I see people drawing do fall into these obvious categories. That is, some say it is not important whether Jesus physically rose from the dead (despite the NT insistence that without this, there is no salvation.) Or, they prevaricate and say “It’s important that it happened, but it’s less important to believe it. It’s still true even if we get it wrong.” Or, “it’s not critical to believe that Jesus is the uncreated and eternal Son of God. Arianism is still acceptable Christology.”

There are two things to observe about this. First, this mindset says that the revelation in Scripture is given for no particular reason, that the apostles and writers of Scripture have no certain expectation that Christians believe anything they’ve written. These things are offered for belief, but if you don’t believe them, it’s not significant, it’s not a boundary marker. You’re still a Christian.

Reading Scripture to say this is dubious at best, and textual malfeasance at worst. To take the resurrection once again, Paul insists it is part of the gospel message, and indeed if Christ is not raised, we have no forgiveness. To suggest that the fact of the resurrection is important to Paul, but he’s indifferent to whether the Corinthians (and others) believe this is to make Paul say the implausible. In Romans 10, he indeed links belief and confession of the resurrection to our salvation. It’s historicity presupposes our belief of it. Paul insists so vehemently on the resurrection because we must believe Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, we are saved by right theology about the person and work of Christ.

We can say the same for his deity. What John presents in his gospel prologue is a truth of Jesus as the eternal Word, with God in the beginning, and indeed, the agent of creation, not the object of creation. Looking back at this gospel, John says near the end “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31.) There is a whole lot packed into saying Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, which John expounds in his first epistle, and in the Apocalypse. What one cannot say is that defining Jesus as a created being, or as one of many gods, fits into John’s definition, nor can one say that John is indifferent to whether people believe these things.

The second thing we can say is that the whole fabric of Scripture has to be employed if we’re to come to a biblical picture of who Jesus is, and what we must believe. It is sometimes the case that people camp out in the gospels, looking at the life of Christ as the whole of revelation about him. The importance of the gospel records is beyond question, but it’s also true that Jesus himself told the disciples there would be more. He was sending the Holy Spirit to guide them into the truth. Many of those truths are expounded in the epistles, and rather than presenting a Jesus vs. Paul dichotomy, the NT letters explicate the entailments of Jesus’ identity.

Note, I’m not saying that unless one signs off on all the bullet points in a doctrinal statement, one is not saved. Think instead of the regula fidei, or rule of faith, that operated in the early centuries. It functioned less as a doctrinal statement for believers and more as a winnowing agent to outline the boundaries of orthodoxy. The rule of faith didn’t have anything about church order, only the most rudimentary eschatology, but it did cover the deity of Christ and his death and resurrection, and Trinitarianism. The regula fidei is a precis of Scriptural teaching on these essentials. In short, yes, there are essentials.

Finally, Paul repeatedly urges “sound doctrine” in the pastoral epistles, and one wonders, why insist on this, if doctrine is of small importance? By looking at both testaments, the gospels, the epistles, all genres of Scripture—only then can we speak cogently about what Scripture says about Jesus. I know of no one who regularly does this who says this is a trivial exercise. But the alternative some are putting forth, a Jesus detached from the truth of God’s revelation, that the teaching of who Jesus is is somehow unrelated to a relationship with him, such an alternative is unfaithful both to Scripture and those to whom we present the gospel.

The Fallacy of Red Letterism as an Interpretive Grid

Most people have heard of “Red Letter Christians.” Who are they and what do they believe? According to redletterchristians.com, 

“Red Letter Christians is a movement that holds the teachings of Jesus—which are highlighted in red letters in many Bibles—as central to our understanding of the Bible. Christ is the lens through which we interpret the Word — and the world. Not only do we have words on paper, but the Word becomes flesh — in Jesus.”

This is not much different than what one person expressed on social media: 

Jesus’ actual life and teaching preceded the epistles, the contents of which were in circulation orally prior to being recorded in the gospels. We all have a functional canon within a canon, and a red letter one makes most sense since we are Christians, followers of Jesus.

This sounds fine, until you begin to work through the assumptions and implications of it. At a basic level, we need to recognize that the decision of which letters to make red is an editorial one—made by the people publishing your Bible. John 3 is a good example of how it is difficult to tell exactly where Jesus’ words may end, and where John’s words begin. It’s possible that the most famous verse in Scripture, John 3:16, are not words Jesus spoke, but what the apostle John recorded as commentary on the interview Jesus had with Nicodemus. However, it makes no difference whatsoever in terms of the authority of these words. To be fair, the demarcation in most places where Jesus speaks is clearer than the John 3 example. But one also has to contend with the synoptic differences. That is, in the same incidents, Jesus’ words differ slightly from one gospel to another. In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus states them as, “Blessed are those who…” while in Luke’s version they are in the second person: “Blessed are you when…” 

The point is that the gospels represent the words the Holy Spirit wanted recorded about the life and ministry of Jesus. He used the four evangelists to do so, but quite clearly, the Holy Spirit is an editor, since there are slight differences in each gospel. If one’s view of inspiration is “these are the exact words that Jesus spoke” then it leads to difficulties in explaining the variations. If, on the other hand, one sees that these are the words that God inspired the evangelists to record, it is a truer representation of what we have in the gospels. The Holy Spirit was not active only in these four accounts of the life of Jesus. Luke wrote a gospel, but also the book of Acts. Is Acts less the Word of God than his gospel because it contains far fewer words of Jesus?

The usual way in which this sort of hermeneutical principle is presented is that the words of Jesus have priority and thus a controlling influence on how we read the rest of Scripture. Some have in particular called attention to the epistles of Paul, to set these in contrast to Jesus’ words. In an interaction with someone espousing this, I asked for concrete examples, that is, which texts in Paul’s letters are being misunderstood, or misapplied because we are paying insufficient attention to the words of Jesus? No examples could be cited. Another person offered the case of German Christians appealing to Romans 13—submission to authorities—as such an example. By privileging this over what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount against violence, this violates the principle of reading Scripture through the lens of Jesus. But this is not a compelling example. One can go back just a few verses into Romans 12 and find plenty that would represent a renunciation of violence. 

“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” Rom. 12:17-19. 

This is just as much a case of not reading all of Paul coherently, rather than ignoring the words of Jesus.

None of this is to say that the words of Jesus are unimportant. But it is sometimes the case that what we mean by the words of Jesus are not what is recorded in the gospels, but our inferences of his words. It represents a kind of Midrash on these words. We may extrapolate from our sense of the ethics of Jesus, and where no commentary is made on a matter directly, we construct what seems to us to be in harmony with this ethic.  “If Jesus were on the earth today, I think he’d _______.” This may mean we affirm something the epistles denounce, with the justification that Jesus cared more that people are compassionate toward one another than that they are doctrinally correct. To cite one example, Jesus told the Jews that “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24) There is some doctrinal content that is necessary. It defines who Jesus is, and if one redefines Jesus outside the biblical parameters, one cannot say they believe Jesus’ self-revelation.

But it can also define compassion differently than a full reading of Scripture would support. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, the Proverbs says.  Paul asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” In other words, love and truth belong together, and are never set against one another in any kind of hierarchy in Scripture. We are not more compassionate toward others if we withhold the truth from them. As many have noted, Jesus spoke more of hell than just about anyone else in Scripture. Believing it insensitive or lacking in compassion to speak these truths is not, in fact, loving.

We also need to recognize the genre differences between the gospels and other writings of the New Testament. The gospels are mainly narrative, and while they do contain direct teaching, they contain much that isn’t, or that is parabolic teaching. The epistles, on the other hand, are exhortation, encouragement, correction—all of which was suited to the local congregations that received the letters, and by extension, any and every congregation. It can be challenging to take narrative sections of Scripture, attempt to draw out a principle, and set it against parenesis that is clear. Indeed, sometimes it ends up creating a conflict where one should not exist, and the result is that those clear passages in the epistles are reinterpreted by the narrative sections in the gospels; sections which may (or may not) contain the principle someone insists is there. 

We need gospels and epistles, history and apocalypse. We need all of the New Testament to understand God’s will and plan for believers. Paul insisted his words were the words of the Lord, not secondary, but God’s true word. As I haven’t really seen good examples of where this is happening, I have to conclude that Red Letterism is a solution in search of a problem.

 

 

Biblical Theology Comes from Reading More of the Bible

Most Christians at least acknowledge the fact that reading through all of Scripture is something they should do. One hears complaints about the great difficulties of making it through Leviticus, the implication being that it is so far removed from our contemporary experience that it is rough sledding indeed to push on. I recall being part of a study a few years ago on the last four books of the Pentateuch, and one participant remarked at how good the study had been for him, because “I’ve always been a New Testament kind of guy, and didn’t really read the Old Testament.”

This is less surprising than it should have been to me. In 2018, Crossway publishers surveyed readers about their Bible reading habits and found some startling responses.

Among 6,000 readers (and one assumes since they are signed up to receive Crossway emails that they are Christians) about a third of them have read Numbers, 1st and 2nd Chronicles, or Ezra in the last three years. Among some of the minor prophets, nearly half of readers have read these books only in the last three years. Judging from the graphic, it appears about 15% of readers have never read some of the minor prophets.

The result of this is an impoverished understanding of God’s truth. If we are reading infrequently (or not at all) we will have a poor grasp of the plot-line of Scripture, and of what God is doing, what he has planned. That theological and biblical illiteracy are at high levels within the professing church is without question. Those levels are attributable to a failure to read all of Scripture. Proof-texting one’s way to a view of some particular teaching is common, but a whole Bible understanding of how a doctrine fits in with all of revelation, much less so. Biblical theology, (as distinct from systematic theology) is the understanding of this plot-line of Scripture, the unfolding of all that God has done, is doing, and will do.

In his book, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, John S. Feinberg writes about his father, Charles Feinberg. The elder Feinberg is not so well known as he should be, but he served as the first president of Fuller Theological Seminary. On his father’s Bible reading habits, Feinberg noted this:

“For my father didn’t read just a few verses or even a chapter or two each day. Rather, it was his habit each day to read ten pages in the OT and five pages in the NT. Dad had seen a Bible reading plan that showed that if one reads the aforementioned number of pages each day, one would read through the whole Bible four times every year! As a result of following this strategy, during his lifetime my father read through the whole Bible well over one hundred times.”[1]

Some Christians commit to read through the Bible each year, but Feinberg’s plan takes it beyond this. Rather than measuring by chapters (you can get through the whole Bible in a year by reading about 3.5 chapters per day), reading 15 pages a day means that you get a greater portion, and indeed, a grander sweep.

What you notice by reading larger portions are the overarching themes, the detail that appeared 7 chapters back, but had you read it two days prior, you might have forgotten. Reading in a larger portion promotes biblical theology. It promotes a drone’s-eye view of the unfolding drama of redemption. I’ve been following Feinberg’s plan, and I have seen these benefits. I can’t see going back to reading less of God’s Word each day. This, too, is one of the effects of the living Word of God—it increases your appetite for God and his plans. If you’re putting in here and there, reading piecemeal, it’s more difficult to get these benefits. If you struggle with Bible reading consistently, the solution may in fact be to read more. I recommend this method for your consideration.

 

[1] John S Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture, (Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2018), 763.

Does the Presence of Evil Disprove God?

I had a recent interaction on social media, in answer to the claim that “because this evil happened, God does not exist.” A friend’s very young daughter was stricken with terminal cancer and the conclusion this person drew was, if there is a God, he would not allow such evil to occur. Therefore, God does not exist.” These are not new assertions, nor is the question “Does God exist?”

I suggest, however, that it is a facile answer to say that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of God. It has several assumptions at work behind it, and these assumptions are non-empirical, indeed they are theoretical, for they cannot be proven.

Among these are:

1. What I see and understand is all there is, or what I see and understand is enough to draw valid and true conclusions.

Scripture affirms, in contrast, that our understanding is anything but complete. How often has “settled science” been revised throughout history when newer information comes along? How often have scientists had to revise their theories and explanations because new data came along to overturn the previous understanding?

Scientists die and what they held to in their lives becomes superseded, due to new information. In other words, they go their entire lives without a complete understanding, or at least without understanding as later generations do. It is not strange, then, to affirm that in the spiritual realm, we too may live out our lives without a full understanding of all that God may do. He says through Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Is. 55:8-9.

If anyone had cause to shake his fist at God and cry out “Why!?” it was Job. And indeed, he did so. But he also admitted the limits of his understanding.

By his power he stilled the sea;
by his understanding he shattered Rahab.
By his wind the heavens were made fair;
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways,
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?
Job 26:12-14.

Does this sound trite and hackneyed? It is nevertheless true that these are what God has given us in his word. In the face of this, many insist on a second axiom, which they likewise claim must be true:

2. If God exists, he is obligated to explain his ways to our satisfaction. If he does not, it must follow there is no God.

Of course, we want to know and understand, especially in the face of what is painful, confusing, and (seemingly) unjust. But this is not promised to us in Scripture. God’s self-description is that he is infinite and eternal, one of whose attributes is aseity. That is, he is entirely self-existent, self-sustaining, and requires nothing outside of himself. We, however, are finite, limited and absolutely dependent on what is external to ourselves. If the sun were to die out, would life on earth remain? If there were no oxygen, would we continue to breathe? We are anything but self-sustaining. Our desire to know and understand shows our dependence and our limits and that finiteness has us grasping for answers because we do not know, we do not understand. Concluding that an infinite God cannot exist because finite beings do not now understand sufficiently is to suggest that the infinite cannot exist. That is not a conclusion of science, it is an article of faith, one that is ironically held by atheists.

A third affirmation in this series:

3. What we consider to be human flourishing must be God’s plans and purposes for the earth, as well as for us personally.

Here, too, this belief is predicated on a breadth of understanding that puts humanity in an untenable position. We know what is best for ourselves and for our fellow beings. Children often think they know best, but as any parent knows, that’s not the case. Along with this is the belief that human flourishing is limited to this life, the here and now, what we can see and experience. Scripture presents something else; something beyond this world, this age, and that God has ordained things for eternity.

Christians do not reckon that what we see is best, that we understand all that God is doing. Rather, we reckon that God is good and that he loves his children. I don’t know why God allows some of what he does, why evil things happen. Yes, I can explain the origins of evil, of Satan, and point to Scripture that delineates these, but that tells me more about how rather than why. I, too, grieve when evil happens. What I do know is what Scripture tells me about God’s character and wisdom. The Lord is good and does good. That doesn’t mean I see every good here and now. I trust Him, not what appears to me. This is faith—evidence of things not seen.

While atheists often answer that evil in the world is evidence that there is no God, this goes too far. They rule out as inadmissible evidence what God has said in his Word. But at best, an honest answer by their own standard is, “Undefined.”

Is the Metaphor of God as Father Incorrect?

What are the limits of language when we speak of God’s person and essence? What can we say definitively about God that does not lapse into sentimental anthropomorphizing? These questions aren’t new, but they are recent news due to the remarks of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Welby stated that it is wrong to think of God as male or female.

“God is not a father in exactly the same way as a human being is a father. God is not male or female. God is not definable. It is extraordinarily important as Christians that we remember that the definitive revelation of who God is was not in words, but in the word of God who we call Jesus Christ. We can’t pin God down.”

Welby is is correct that our human comprehension is limited, and thus our understanding of the infinite God is limited. And yes, God is not a father in the same sense as any human being is a father. But we should be careful that we don’t reject those places where God has given us a clear revelation about his person and work, telling us who he is and what he has done. Welby is on shakier ground in stating that God is not definable.

God has revealed himself in the Scriptures and given us warrant to use those metaphors that Scripture itself uses to refer to God. God is Spirit, we read in John 4:24. He does not have a body as we have, yet Scripture refers to him as a father, as he. That these are metaphors is beside the point. They are the metaphors he has chosen and recorded in Scripture. For many, this is the crux of the argument. As historian Diarmaid McCullough has argued,

“The reason God has been seen as male is simply the patriarchal assumptions of those societies . . . They reached for male terms as the people with power in that Greco-Roman world were male, so we use words like lord and king. The world is now different and we have to show that our view of God is wider than that and not get stuck with archaic terms.”

In other words, times have changed, and to refer to God as he or as a father just promotes the patriarchy. That’s entirely consistent with a view of Christianity that doesn’t see Scripture as authoritative. But for those who do, the sentiment can’t be squared with the revelation we have in both testaments.

Welby also goes down this road when he says that the definitive revelation of God was not in words, but in the person of Jesus. But how does the archbishop know anything about the person of Christ apart from the words of Scripture? He does not, nor can any of us. We have God’s record of his Son, his life, death, and resurrection recorded there for us. Scripture uses these metaphors of God as our father, our king, and that Jesus, the second person in the Trinity, came to earth as a man. Jesus referred to God as his Father, as “he.” The Holy Spirit chose to record the New Testament in Greek, where the pronoun αὐτος means he and αὐτὴ means she. The New Testament refers to God using the former. This is not an accident of history or a reinforcement of the patriarchy. This is the sovereign working of God to record his Word.

It is likewise a mistake to think that unless we use both “he” and “she” to describe God, our language is inadequate. Welby does not say this, but those who seize upon his words do, and that is part of the danger here. This is the language of accommodation, of demotion. It is imposing upon the infinite what fits into our interpretation, not of who he is, but of who we want him to be.

In short, it achieves just the opposite of what advocates of such language claim they want. If you are comfortable referring to God as “she” you’re not displaying a broad-minded and liberated understanding of the infinite God. You’re domesticating him to your own whims and ignoring the language Scripture itself has given us to comprehend him. If you struggle to understand the love of God unless you are able to refer to him as both father and mother, the problem is not with Scripture, but with your failure to grasp the richness of what the Bible has provided about him. Scripture teaches us how to refer to God. As with everything about him, our challenge and responsibility is to accomodate ourselves to his Word, not the Word to us.

The Great Tradition and Interpretive Diversity

Among the many fault lines within evangelicalism is the question of certainty. In David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral,” Biblicism is a shorthand for the Scriptures as the final authority. But it’s too facile to point to a passage of Scripture and say “There, you see?” When two equally sincere and honest believers have a disagreement about what those Scriptures mean, then the problem just moves elsewhere.

In a prior post, I discussed the rule of faith, which for some is a key to solving this problem. (It isn’t.) Here, I want to discuss a wider body of tradition, which, some look to as the way to understand the Scriptures rightly. Would adhering to the “Great Tradition” provide the interpretive guidance Christian’s seek?

In the last several decades, a group of theologians and historians who identify as evangelicals have urged a more intentional engagement with history and the patristic heritage. D. H. Williams has written of his dismay over evangelicals’ disregard and, in some cases disdain, for history, and how God has led the church. For Williams and others such as Thomas Oden, the solution is for evangelicals to recover the “Great Tradition,” which they believe will provide the guidance that evangelicalism has cast off in reaction against the hierarchical church: “It is time for evangelicals to reach back and affirm a truly ‘catholic’ Tradition by returning to the ancient sources, to correct the former correction.”[1]

The former correction was, of course, the Reformation, and in Williams’ estimation, evangelicalism has gone too far in its disregard for history and tradition. Williams likewise highlights many of the problems others too have noted. I, too, share those concerns. Much of contemporary evangelicalism is theologically muddled and cares little for doctrine. “Theology is disappearing in the churches because the drive for truth, and the significance of ideas, has been replaced by an emphasis on technique.”[2] Later, he laments the sectarianism he finds to be a persistent problem within evangelicalism. “Evangelicals and Free Church believers need to hear again the great Protestant historian Philip Schaff, who warned us 150 years ago of the ‘poisonous plant of sectarianism which has grown so ponderously upon the ground of Protestantism.’”[3] But Williams’ theories as to the causes of this doctrinal dereliction rest on assumptions that are incorrect. The first is that the divisions and sects of evangelicalism have arisen due to a lack of regard for tradition. For this to be valid, one would expect to see unanimity and cohesion within the Great Tradition’s adherents, but this is not the case.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found that 22.5% said that a person could be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4] Similarly, a survey of US Catholics a few years later by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University asked them about all aspects of their faith.[5] About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.

If any institution can claim long tradition, it is the Roman Catholic Church, yet though they may be part of the Great Tradition, it isn’t effective in holding Catholics to aspects of teaching that, at least according to church leaders, are very important to the faith. Whatever one may say about the Eucharist, the resurrection of Jesus is certainly part of the Great Tradition, and can scarcely be more important to Christianity.

Thomas Bergler’s research in The Juvenilization of American Christianity covers many denominations, but with regard to the Roman Catholic Church, he summarizes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[6]

All of this demonstrates that in those churches and traditions where the Great Tradition prevails, it has done little to produce a cohesive faith or to stave off theological free agency. Reciting the creed every week doesn’t keep believers from going their own way, and it doesn’t help answer the question of “what does this passage of Scripture mean?” Depending on where the parameters of the Great Tradition are, it may also contain elements that are themselves riddled with uncertainty. (Teachings about Mary, the implicit authority of the church, to name a couple of examples.)  The Great Tradition represents an elevation of the doctrine of ecclesiology above all others, even soteriology. It’s important to remember that the church is not the conduit of salvation, but the result of it. The church upholds the truth, it doesn’t originate it. The Great Tradition has too often gotten this backwards.

If those who take their place as part of the Great Tradition themselves manifest division and diversity of views, then the explanation that evangelical schism is due to a lack of regard for tradition is a non sequitur. Asked differently, would a return to tradition, as Williams suggests, provide a solution to the theological variety that he identifies within evangelicalism? Will this both heal the sectarian breaches and provide the theological cohesion that he claims is now lacking? Again, the fact that those who are close adherents to tradition have these same issues argues against this providing unity or theological integrity. The hard work of interacting directly with Scripture (utilizing the resources of historical research, to be sure) is still the best way forward.

 

[1] D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 15.

[2] Williams, p. 24.

[3] Williams, p. 202.

[4] Gallup Poll of Catholics, http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GALLUP05_CB.asp.

[5] Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[6] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

Where Poor Theology Can Lead Us

Paul wrote to the Ephesians about the importance of the local church in bringing believers to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13) That urging is every bit as important today as it was in the first century. The danger of remaining immature, or poorly instructed in the teaching of the gospel, can have profound consequences. I recently read William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America–and Found Unexpected Peace. I can’t summarize all his arguments for departing from the faith here, but one thing is clear, he did not begin with clear instruction about the message of Scripture.
 
Lobdell was raised in a bland Episcopalianism that, not surprisingly, involved no personal faith. He says he had screwed up his life in early adulthood by some poor decisions, but then in his late 20s, at the urging of a friend, he started attending a Southern California megachurch. Lobdell’s description of the teaching there is important.
 
The secrets had been there all along—in “Life’s Instruction Manual,” as some Christians call the Bible. Most of the lessons of Scripture were just common sense, but they carried the weight of God. Among them: Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Forgive and even love your enemies. Honor your wife. Be open and honest. Take care of the poor. Don’t gossip. Don’t run up financial debt. It all sounded good. And the Bible’s promise—God’s promise—was that it would lead to a fulfilled life. (p. 12)
 
Viewing the Scriptures in this fashion, as a kind of guidebook for life, is not unusual, but it’s a very truncated view of God’s revelation. While I disagree with his underlying diagnosis, Christian Smith wrote about this in The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. He questions this very thing, of presenting Scripture as life’s instruction manual, which ends up supporting a rather self-centered theology.
 
As one who had no knowledge of Scripture, it would not have occurred to Lobdell to question this, but imbibing this sort of theology leaves one unprepared and unable to deal with the substance of theology, which is most properly, the study of GodIt further leaves one unable to deal with trial and suffering, which are an inevitable part of life. As Lobdell’s subsequent story shows, he wasn’t able to deal with his experiences through a biblical lens, and eventually gave up any claim to being a Christian.
 
The message of Scripture is the revelation of God’s glory in Christ. The Son of God gave himself on the cross to redeem sinners who deserved death and hell. The collection of those redeemed sinners, the church, exists to show forth the glory of him who called us out of darkness and into light. What is missing in Lobdell’s description, as it is from so much contemporary preaching and teaching, is that a fulfilled life is not God’s design for us—unless we define fulfilled as conforming us to the image of his Son. That quite often involves the sort of trial, opposition, and suffering that much of the New Testament describes as part of a disciple’s life. But that is also what is missing from a theology that makes the Bible into a traveler’s guide for making one’s way through life.
 
Local churches are the place where the sort of teaching, correction, admonition, and building up need to occur. An anthropocentric theology that puts us at the center of God’s plans will leave people impoverished and immature. Believers have a responsibility to hold forth the gospel, not a guidebook. Indeed, if we keep the Lord’s glory at the center of our theology, an abundant life (as defined by God) will follow. Brothers and sisters, make it your aim to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. The message of the cross remains foolishness to the world, but it also remains the power of God.
 
 
 
 

Coming Up Short: The Rule of Faith as Hermeneutical Guide

Is the Rule of Faith an aid to understanding the difficult parts of Scripture?

In an age of interpretive diversity, many wonder if there is not some tool or method that can serve believers as a kind of theological umpire. In short, how do we interpret the difficult parts of Scripture? Some have argued that the rule of faith, or regula fidei, functioned as an authority in the early life of the church, serving as an extra-biblical canon for Christians. If this is the case, the argument states, we have precedent for an extra-scriptural, yet authoritative measure of teaching. We need to bear two things in mind when considering the regula fidei: Its content, and how and with whom it was used.

The Rule of Faith as a precis of doctrine

Rather than being an exhaustive doctrinal statement, the rule of faith was instead a synopsis of the fundamental features of orthodox belief. One can go to websites of various Christian ministries and churches, and find a far more extensive doctrinal statement than anything the rule of faith provides.  Tertullian’s version is as follows:

Now, with regard to this rule of faith – that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend – it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day;(then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.[1]

Tertullian presents the basic elements of the gospel, the facts about the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But his rule includes nothing related to church order, sacraments, church government or anything but the most cursory references to eschatology. The rule of faith would serve to mark off the boundaries of orthodox Christology and contain elements of soteriology, but nothing beyond this. The Gnostics, Docetics, Valentinians, and Marcionites would all take objection to this rule because of what it said about the person of Christ. Irenaeus’ rule differs somewhat from Tertullian’s, but still serves as a basic outline of faith, rather than a detailed exposition of life and practices in the church:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:

[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.[2]

Again in Irenaeus’ rule, we find nothing concerning church order, sacraments, or other matters of ecclesiastical life. There is perhaps a bit more here about eschatology than we find in Tertullian, but still nothing in the way of a complete doctrinal exposition such as we would find in the homilies or commentaries on Scripture that came from the Fathers. And as Allert notes, “the Rule of Faith was not a fixed universal formula or creed.”[3] The rule was used to silence heretics, not to argue doctrinal or disciplinary points with other Christians. Those who insisted that Jesus was a mere creature, or that he had only seemed to suffer and die, or that there was no connection whatever between the God revealed in the Old Testament and the revelation of himself in the New – this was the audience for the regula fidei.

With whom was the Rule used?

If the rule presents not a detailed guide, but an overview, we might rightfully ask about its value within the Church.
And indeed, the evidence suggests that inside the church, the rule was not applied, for it would have been superfluous to do so. All agreed as to the deity of Christ, his substitutionary death and resurrection. These were the parameters of orthodoxy, and so when disputes arose within the church, the appeal was to Scripture. T.D. Barnes points out that when speaking to Christians, Tertullian’s authority was always the Scriptures. In the Scorpiace, or Scorpian’s Sting, Barnes notes, “His audience was the orthodox Christian community at Carthage, his purpose to strengthen their resolve. As the best form of argument therefore, he selected biblical exegesis.”[4] Tertullian argues for “the resurrection of the flesh according to the Old and New Testaments. Again, however, a preliminary task intrudes: Tertullian must repel attempts to interpret the Bible allegorically. Finally, the exposition of the scriptures proceeds: it is Tertullian’s favorite mode of argument.”[5]

In this preference for Scripture over tradition, it is evident that Tertullian is joined by Irenaeus. Kelly says that “a careful analysis of his Adversus Haereses reveals that while the Gnostics’ appeal to their supposed secret tradition forced him to stress the superiority of the Church’s public tradition, his real defence of orthodoxy was founded on Scripture. [The] ‘canon’, so far from being something distinct from Scripture, was simply a condensation of the message contained in it.”[6] So dependent was Irenaeus’ rule on Scripture that “this rule is not a supplement to the biblical truth derived from the apostles and prophets, nor a tradition of independent material, but a key to interpret the Scriptures which is compatible with the Scriptures as whole.”[7]

Bearing in mind this purpose, then, the rule of faith cannot be cast as an extra-biblical tradition, for the Fathers believed it to be nothing other than a summary of what the Scriptures taught. Hanson agrees that “the idea of the rule of faith as supplementing or complementing, or indeed adding anything whatever to the Bible, is wholly absent from their thoughts; indeed, such an idea would be in complete contradiction to their conception of the relation of rule to Bible.”[8] Nor can it be seen as a tool to bring recalcitrant believers back in line. To deny the deity of Christ or his resurrection was to put oneself outside the faith, outside the body of Christ. These things are what the rule addressed.

Finally, if we are seeking a hermeneutical principle, this also is not part of it. The rule is too brief to expound in any meaningful way how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. In any dialogue about the proper way to interpret the Bible, the rule of faith does not provide any significant guidance. Bryan Litfin writes that “there is hardly any soteriology or bibliology in the Rule, its eschatology is very basic, and its ecclesiology is meager (though we should note that its very existence presupposes a robust view of the church).“[9] It would be inaccurate therefore to suggest that the rule provides exegetical guidance since it barely touches on these important doctrines. R.P.C. Hanson agrees that the rule “is not even a principle nor a universally received regulation for interpreting Scripture.”[10]

What then, is the Rule of Faith? It is an interesting token of earlier centuries, a summary of orthodox doctrine, but if we’re looking for a reliable guide to biblical interpretation, the Rule of Faith is not it. That task requires far more effort, study, and indeed, community.  Coming to a coherent hermeneutic cannot be reduced to a formula. Every believer needs to do the work of study. But that work yields many rewards.

[1] Tertullian Prescription Against Heretics, 13, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf03.pdf.

[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.10.

[3] Craig Allert, A High View of Scripture? (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008), p. 122.

[4] Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 172.

[5] Barnes, p. 127.

[6] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), p. 38-39.

[7] Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991) p. 62.

[8] R.P.C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1962), p. 126.

[9] Bryan Litfin, “Learning from Patristic Use of the Rule of Faith,” in The Contemporary Church and the Early Church: Case Studies in Ressourcement, Paul A. Hartog, ed. (Eugene, OR, Pickwick Publications, 2010), p. 79.

[10] Hanson, p. 124.