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Igniting a Bible Study Reformation: Part 4

An Interview with R.C. Sproul Jr., Sinclair Ferguson, and Stephen Nichols

Today, Lee Webb is joined by Drs. Sinclair Ferguson, Stephen Nichols, and R.C. Sproul Jr. to discuss the first study Bible published during the Reformation. They remind us that the theological notes and articles included in study Bibles should serve as tools to help the growing Christian read, study, and cherish the Scriptures more. These men serve as Ligonier teaching fellows and are contributors to the new thoroughly revised edition of the Reformation Study Bible.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Standard of Truth

  2. article

    Knowing Scripture

  3. article

    Reformed Theology Is Covenant Theology

The Standard of Truth

For the past two days we have begun to discuss the false teachers Peter counters in his second epistle. As we have seen, these teachers justified their heresies by denying the truth of the words of both the apostles and the old covenant prophets. In denying the truth spoken by these men, they denied their authority as messengers of God and ultimately the authority of their inscripturated revelation.

Regrettably, the denial of the authority of the Bible continues in our own day. In order that we might better understand and defend the concept of biblical authority, we will spend the next week looking at this important topic with the help of Hath God Said?, a teaching series by Dr. R.C. Sproul.

The debate over biblical authority has raged throughout the centuries. Liberal “higher critics” have routinely attacked the trustworthiness of the Bible. Roman Catholicism does not deny the authority of Scripture but posits its traditions to be an equal, if not higher, authority to that of Scripture.

Though the debate has taken different forms, the question of authority remains of primary importance for every believer. What can bind the conscience of the Christian? What is the ultimate standard by which we differentiate between right and wrong? Where is the infallible source that gives us the will of God?

The errors of church councils bear indirect witness to the Bible’s specific teaching that Scripture alone is the final, infallible, and inerrant source of authority for the church. Tradition may help us understand Scripture, but if it ever disagrees with the Bible, it is the authority of the biblical teaching to which we must submit.

Therefore, before we look at biblical authority in a broader fashion, we will conclude today with a simple definition of authority, namely, the right to impose obligation. Today’s passage is a helpful illustration of this concept. Roman soldiers were obligated to obey the commands of the supervising centurion. Like the soldier’s relationship to the centurion, when we confess biblical authority we confess that we are obligated to believe and obey the words of the Bible.

Knowing Scripture

R.C. Sproul

It has often been charged that the Bible can’t be trusted because people can make it say anything they want it to say. This charge would be true if the Bible were not the objective Word of God, if it were simply a wax nose, able to be shaped, twisted, and distorted to teach one’s own precepts. The charge would be true if it were not an offense to God the Holy Spirit to read into sacred Scripture what is not there. However, the idea that the Bible can teach anything we want it to is not true if we approach the Scriptures humbly, trying to hear what the Bible says for itself.

Sometimes systematic theology is rejected because it is seen as an unwarranted imposition of a philosophical system on the Scriptures. It is seen as a preconceived system, a Procrustean bed into which the Scriptures must be forced by hacking off limbs and appendages to make it fit. However, the appropriate approach to systematic theology recognizes that the Bible itself contains a system of truth, and it is the task of the theologian not to impose a system upon the Bible, but to build a theology by understanding the system that the Bible teaches.

At the time of the Reformation, to stop unbridled, speculative, and fanciful interpretations of Scripture, the Reformers set forth the fundamental axiom that should govern all biblical interpretation. It is called the analogy of faith, which basically means that Holy Scripture is its own interpreter. In other words, we are to interpret Scripture according to Scripture. That is, the supreme arbiter in interpreting the meaning of a particular verse in Scripture is the overall teaching of the Bible.

Behind the principle of the analogy of faith is the prior confidence that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. If it is the Word of God, it must therefore be consistent and coherent. Cynics, however, say that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. If that were true, then we would have to say that the smallest mind of all is the mind of God. But there is nothing inherently small or weak to be found in consistency. If it is the Word of God, one may justly expect the entire Bible to be coherent, intelligible, and unified. Our assumption is that God, because of His omniscience, would never be guilty of contradicting Himself. It is therefore slanderous to the Holy Spirit to choose an interpretation of a particular passage that unnecessarily brings that passage into conflict with that which He has revealed elsewhere. So the governing principle of Reformed hermeneutics or interpretation is the analogy of faith.

A second principle that governs an objective interpretation of Scripture is called the sensus literalis. Many times people have said to me, incredulously, “You don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you?” I never answer the question by saying, “Yes,” nor do I ever answer the question by saying, “No.” I always answer the question by saying, “Of course, what other way is there to interpret the Bible?” What is meant by sensus literalis is not that every text in the Scriptures is given a “woodenly literal” interpretation, but rather that we must interpret the Bible in the sense in which it is written. Parables are interpreted as parables, symbols as symbols, poetry as poetry, didactic literature as didactic literature, historical narrative as historical narrative, occasional letters as occasional letters. That principle of literal interpretation is the same principle we use to interpret any written source responsibly.

The principle of literal interpretation gives us another rule, namely that the Bible in one sense is to be read like any other book. Though the Bible is not like any other book in that it carries with it the authority of divine inspiration, nevertheless, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit over a written text does not turn verbs into nouns or nouns into verbs. No special, secret, arcane, esoteric meaning is poured into a text simply because it’s divinely inspired. Nor is there any such mystical ability we call “Holy Ghost Greek.” No, the Bible is to be interpreted according to the ordinary rules of language.

Closely related to this point is the principle that the implicit must be interpreted by the explicit, rather than the explicit interpreted by the implicit. This particular rule of interpretation is violated constantly. For example, we read in John 3:16 that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” and many of us conclude that since the Bible teaches that anyone who believes shall be saved, it therefore implies that anyone can, without the prior regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, exercise belief. That is, since the call to believe is given to everyone, it implies that everyone has the natural ability to fulfill the call. Yet the same gospel writer has Jesus explaining to us three chapters later that no one can come to Jesus unless it is given to him of the Father (6:65). That is, our moral ability to come to Christ is explicitly and specifically taught to be lacking apart from the sovereign grace of God. Therefore, all of the implications that suggest otherwise must be subsumed under the explicit teaching, rather than forcing the explicit teaching into conformity to implications that we draw from the text.

Finally, it is always important to interpret obscure passages by those that are clear. Though we affirm the basic clarity of sacred Scripture, we do not at the same time say that all passages are equally clear. Numerous heresies have developed when people have forced conformity to the obscure passages rather than to the clear passages, distorting the whole message of Scripture. If something is unclear in one part of Scripture, it probably is made clear elsewhere in Scripture. When we have two passages in Scripture that we can interpret in various ways, we want always to interpret the Bible in such a way as to not violate the basic principle of Scripture’s unity and integrity.

These are simply a few of the basic, practical principles of biblical interpretation that I set forth years ago in my book Knowing Scripture. I mention that book here because so many people have expressed to me how helpful it has been to guide them into a responsible practice of biblical interpretation. Learning the principles of interpretation is exceedingly helpful to guide us in our own study.

Reformed Theology Is Covenant Theology

Richard Pratt Jr.

Reformed theology is often associated with “covenant theology.” If you listen carefully, you’ll often hear pastors and teachers describe themselves as “Reformed and covenantal.” The terms Reformed and covenant are used together so widely that it behooves us to understand why they are connected.

Covenant theology refers to one of the basic beliefs that Calvinists have held about the Bible. All Protestants who have remained faithful to their heritage affirm sola Scriptura, the belief that the Bible is our supreme and unquestionable authority. Covenant theology, however, distinguishes the Reformed view of Scripture from other Protestant outlooks by emphasizing that divine covenants unify the teachings of the entire Bible.

Earlier developments in the Reformed, covenantal understanding of Scripture reached a high point in seventeenth-century England with the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the Savoy Declaration (1658), the London Baptist Confession of 1689, and each representing different groups of English-speaking Calvinists. With only slight variations among them, these documents each devote an entire chapter to the way God’s covenants with humanity reveal the unity of all that the Bible teaches.

For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of God condescending to reveal Himself to humanity by means of covenant. It then divides the entire history of the Bible into just two covenants: the “covenant of works” in Adam and the “covenant of grace” in Christ. The covenant of works was God’s arrangement with Adam and Eve before their fall into sin. The covenant of grace governed the rest of the Bible. In this view, all stages of the covenant of grace were the same in substance. They differed only as God administered His one covenant of grace in Christ in various ways throughout biblical history.

Along these same lines, a number of more recent Reformed theologians have affirmed the covenantal unity of Scripture by relating particular biblical covenants to what the New Testament calls “the kingdom of God.” Jesus indicated the importance of God’s kingdom in the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9–10). Jesus’ words first indicate that the foremost goal of history is the glory and honor of God Himself. Yet, His words also indicate that God will receive this glory through the coming of His kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. God’s goal has always been to receive the eternal praise of every creature by establishing His glorious kingdom on earth. To borrow from the well-known praise of Revelation 11:15, at the end of history “the kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

Recent archaeological discoveries have shown how God’s covenants related to His earthly kingdom. In the days of the Bible, many kings of nations surrounding Israel administered the expansion of their kingdoms through international treaties. Biblical scholars have noticed remarkable parallels between these ancient treaties and the biblical covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ. These similarities indicate that the Scriptures present covenants as God’s way of administrating the expansion of His kingdom on earth.

Biblical covenants emphasized what was needed at specific stages of God’s kingdom by furthering the principles of previous covenants. God started with Adam to reveal His own kingship, the role of humanity, and the destiny He had planned for the earth (Gen. 1–3). These principles were then carried forward as God promised stability in nature for humanity’s service in Noah’s covenant (Gen. 6, 9). God enhanced His previous covenants by promising that Abraham’s descendants would become a great empire and spread God's blessings to all other nations (Gen. 15, 17). God built on these covenants by blessing Israel with His law in the days of Moses (Ex. 19–24). Every previous covenant was taken to new heights as God established David’s dynasty and promised that one of his sons would rule in righteousness over Israel and over the entire world (Pss. 72; 89; 132). All Old Testament covenants were then furthered and fulfilled in Christ (Jer. 31:31; 2Cor. 1:19–20). As the great son of David, His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return eternally secure the transformation of the entire earth into God’s glorious kingdom.

Many evangelical Christians today find it difficult to believe that everything in Scripture after Genesis 3:15 concerns God’s kingdom administered through the unfolding of one covenant of grace. The majority of American evangelicals view Scripture as divided into periods of time governed by substantially different theological principles. When Christians follow this popular approach to Scripture, it is not long before they become convinced that the new covenant of our day is actually at odds with many aspects of the Old Testament.

At least three issues often move to the foreground: works and grace, corporate and individual faith, and earthly and spiritual concerns. First, many evangelicals believe that the Old Testament’s emphasis on good works is incompatible with salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Second, Israel’s corporate relationship with God as a community appears to have been replaced by a focus on the individuals’ personal relationships with God. Third, many evangelicals believe that the Old Testament call to establish an earthly kingdom for God stands in contrast with the New Testament emphasis on a spiritual kingdom in Christ.

Covenant theology has enabled Reformed theologians to see that the New Testament is actually quite similar to the Old Testament in these three areas. First, in this view salvation by grace through faith in Christ was the only way of salvation in both Testaments. The entire Bible calls for good works because saving faith always yields the fruit of obedience to God. Second, covenant theology helps us see that both Testaments speak about individual and corporate relationships with God. All of God’s covenants deal with people on both levels. Third, covenant theolog y has shown that God’s kingdom has always been earthly and spiritual. The Old and New Testaments focus on our service in both realms. In these and other ways, covenant theology has much to offer the broader evangelical community.

At the same time, there is also a growing need for covenant theology to be strongly reaffirmed in contemporary Reformed circles. In recent decades, many newer advocates of Reformed theology have neglected covenant theology.

More and more, we find that Reformed theology has been reduced to what we often call the doctrines of grace — familiar beliefs such as total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Of course, we should value these truths of Scripture, but when we fail to stress the larger framework that covenant theology provides, our understanding of the Bible soon begins to suffer in the same three areas.

First, the doctrines of grace without covenant theology have led some to believe that Reformed theology is primarily concerned to teach that God’s grace sustains the Christian life from beginning to end. Of course, this is certainly true. Yet, the covenants of both testaments consistently teach that God has always required determined effort from His people in response to His grace and that He will reward obedience and punish disobedience.

Second, apart from covenant theology, many people in our circles seem to think that our theology is all about finding uniquely Reformed ways for individuals to improve their relationships with God. In our day, a number of paths toward personal holiness and devotion have been treated as the central features of Reformed theology. As important as individuals are in the Bible, covenant theology highlights our corporate relationship with God as well. No biblical covenant was made with just one person. They also involved God establishing relationships with groups of people. For this reason, both testaments teach us that the families of believers are covenant communities within which God’s mercy is passed from one generation to another. Moreover, the visible church in both testaments is the covenant community within which we receive the gospel and the ordinary means of grace.

Third, the doctrines of grace easily give us the impression that Reformed theology is only concerned with spiritual matters. Many people in our circles are deeply concerned with inward transformation by a true understanding of Scripture. Yet, we often neglect the physical and social effects of sin and salvation. Covenant theology gives us a far larger and more compelling vision of our hopes as Christians. In both testaments, believers extend God’s kingdom both to spiritual and earthly realms. We are to teach the gospel of Christ to all nations so that people may be transformed spiritually, but this spiritual renewal is for the sake of extending the lordship of Christ to every facet of culture around the world.

All of this is to say that covenant theology has much to offer every Christian. So when we ask ourselves, “What is Reformed theology?” it will serve us well to respond, “Reformed theology is covenant theology.”

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