Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Confession and Interpretation

By Rev. Richard Holst

In the English-speaking world, a “Reformed” hermeneutic may be defined as the hermeneutic of the Westminster Standards. Everything about it is predicated on Scripture being the Word of God. Thus, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” The basic principle is this: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself....” This stands over against “value-added” approaches involving the adoption of extra-biblical and disproportionate intra-biblical perspectives.

The first “value-added” approach, that of approaching Scripture from the outside, makes applying the analogy of faith difficult, if not impossible, and modifies the fundamental belief that Scripture is the final authority. Disciplines like Social Anthropology, Literary Theory, Discourse Analysis and perspectives like Second Temple Judaism are essentially extra-biblical and change the hermeneutical grid. As Robert Letham remarks “If some principle other than Scripture were the key to its interpretation, then Scripture would not be the ultimate authority.”[3]

The second, involving the adoption of a specific biblical teaching or emphasis and turning it into a hermeneutical lens, distorts the analogy of faith by making a single doctrine or a particular emphasis normative. Christians may feel exercised by concerns about missions, contextualizing the gospel, social justice and cultural transformation, some or all of which might have a basis in scripture; but they are details and as such too small a lens through which to view the breadth of biblical doctrine. They effectively take our eyes off the wider context, and sometimes even the immediate context, by becoming hermeneutical a prioris or axioms. When someone tells us that Christians are deficient in serving the community, we embark on a guilt-trip that results in the concern becoming our perspective on Scripture, rather like the newly convinced Calvinist who finds predestination on every page. Without realizing it we have created a programmatic statement or hermeneutical a priori, which serves as an interpretive grid, all because we felt the need to be relevant to our cultural context.

The Analogy of Scripture and Faith

The Westminster hermeneutic does not require or guarantee exegetical uniformity. How could it?  The Assembly was not a hermeneutical monolith; it was too diverse and recognized that the meaning of Scripture is not uniformly accessible. Yet it succeeded in putting forth an approach for determining questions about the true and full sense of Scripture, which is essentially simple and straightforward. Given that “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all”[4] the first principle to be applied is the analogia scripturae by which the meaning “...may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (WCF 1.9).  Though wonderfully simple, it is by no means simplistic, since the comparison of texts presupposes the ability to rightly judge their doctrinal content.

In order that the analogy of scripture might work effectively, we must also use the analogia fidei or analogy of faith. Our ability to “rightly divide the word of truth” is predicated on a firm grasp of the scriptural faith in general, what the apostle Paul calls “the whole counsel of God” and “the sacred deposit” and then those elements of the doctrine contained in particular texts. Thus we compare text with text and doctrine with doctrine: the Westminster hermeneutic is coherent and consistent!

Necessary Consequence – Right Inference

A step beyond this are those doctrines not explicitly stated, but implicitly present — which brings us to the use of inference. Our tendency is to want a text for everything, a kind of one-for-one match. As a result, some find the use of inference uncongenial (except where it suits their purpose) and indeed, might consider it a weakness.[5] However, when texts do not speak directly to a point, that is, when a doctrine is implicit rather than explicit, we make use of justifiable inference: “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture...” (WCF 1.6).

The Reformed hermeneutic unashamedly relies on this because it is so obviously applicable in a variety of cases. Formal church membership might lack direct textual support but may be inferred from the biblical metaphors of the vine, the body, the building, and also from passages dealing with church order, discipline and worship. Then there are the doctrines of the Trinity, the admission of women to the Lord’s Supper and the transition from a Seventh-Day-Sabbath to a First-Day-Sabbath. Infant Baptism likewise is a necessary inference of covenant theology and biblical texts about the family. All are inferential and cumulative and cannot be established on the basis of individual texts. “Good and necessary consequence” is sometimes the only way of exposing “those doctrines which are principally intended”[6] by Scripture.

Systematic Theology – Interpretation and the Confession

Exegetical theology precedes systematic theology, but the former should always be done in the safe environment of the latter, which points up the importance of the Confession as a whole. While it is possible to be “Reformed” and have exegetical differences, such differences are best explored and expressed within the bounds of the agreed system of doctrine. This might prove uncomfortable for a more creative mind, but there is nothing like safe parameters for maintaining the unity of the body in the bond of peace. A confessional hermeneutic provides a safe environment for exploration and discussion and is a necessary safeguard against exegetical and doctrinal aberration. But it does not unduly constrain exegesis. The doctrinal standard of the English-speaking Reformed churches provides the necessary safeguard against peculiarities by subordinating itself and its decisions to the authority of Scripture.[7]

According to The Directory For The Public Worship Of God, the matter is entirely straightforward: “in raising doctrines from the text, his [the preacher’s] care ought to be, first, that the matter be the truth of God.  Secondly, that it be a truth contained in or grounded on that text, that the hearers may discern how God teaches it from thence.  Thirdly, that he chiefly insists upon those doctrines which are principally intended, and make most for the edification of the hearers.”[8]

Rev. Holst is the convener for the Committee for Inter-church Relations, Evangelical Presbyterian Church in England and Wales. E-mail: crh.holst1@googlemail.com. See his blog, Elder at the Gate, here.

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6
[2] WCF, 1.9
[3] Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly, P&R 2009,146, P&R 2009
[4] WCF, 1.7
[5] Fred Malone, THE BAPTISM OF INFANTS ALONE, xvii –xix,  Founders press, 2003
[7] WCF, 31. IV; All synods or councils, since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both. This raises the question of the Confession’s relationship to the Creeds. According to Letham, Westminster Assembly, 156-157, the Assembly was self-contradictory in excluding the ecumenical creeds while spending “several years painstakingly composing a Confession of Faith and two Catechisms in order to provide a solid foundation for the Church of England...” But Van Dixhoorn answers that “avoiding the Apostles” Creed has given both of the Westminster Catechisms two strengths. First, the catechisms are based explicitly on Scripture, which is consistent with the position found in the first chapter of the Confession: All our doctrine comes from Scripture alone. Second, every catechism that uses the Apostles” Creed reflects one of the weaknesses of the Creed — there is no mention of the importance of Christ”s life.” http://www.the-highway.com/larger-catechism_Dixhoorn.html
[8]  DIRECTORY: Section on Preaching