Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Six

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s an updated Table of Contents for these reviews so far:

My Introduction
Sailhamer’s Introduction
Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology
Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning
Chapter Three: Historical Meaning of Biblical Text

Chapter Four: Finding the Big Idea

This chapter is so long and dense that I run the risk of either saying too much and exhausting you patient readers, or saying too little and failing to do justice to Sailhamer’s fascinating ideas. It’s another treat for the historical theologian, as Sailhamer explores the development of theories regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch, OT canon formation, and the theological significance of the compositional structure of texts. Here I will concentrate on issues of ideas, authorship, and the “compositional approach.”

“Finding the big idea,” for Sailhamer, means paying attention to the intelligent design of a text to find out where its author is taking us. As we gather clues – which may be as small as pronouns or as large as the whole Tanak – we begin to formulate an understanding of the “big idea” that the author intended to convey. But Sailhamer urges us to reread, ever more carefully, and always to be alert for details that check our understanding, on our way to an exegetically sound formulation of “the best (most valid) idea,” that is, “the one that explains the most and the most important parts of the Pentateuch” (152). “An idea,” he warns,

must not be allowed to drift like a distant cloud over the textual horizon. It must always be tethered to the text in ways directly associated with the intention (verbal meaning) of the author. Only then can such ideas be considered part of the author’s intention and find exegetical warrant in the text. (159)

Sailhamer’s own reading and rereading have brought him to a particular conclusion about the role of the law in the Pentateuch, especially in light of its rather late appearance (more than 50 chapters in!). He suggests that

the “big idea” of the Pentateuch is about both “obedience to the Mosaic law,” and “living by faith”…Ultimately, I believe, these two themes of law and faith will find their place alongside each other as a juxtaposition of law and gospel. The gospel, that is, justification by faith, is God’s means for our fulfilling the law (cf. Rom. 8:4). (156)

The current chapter sets the stage for a later exegetical defense of these “big ideas,” mainly by laying out Sailhamer’s conclusions about the authorship of the Pentateuch. He clearly assumes both the intelligent design of an original individual human author and the divine purpose underlying the text:

Behind our quest for the (human) author’s intent is, of course, the conviction that the divine intention of Scripture is to be found in the human author’s intent. (159)

But which human author? One set of Pentateuchal puzzles, of course, concerns questions of Mosaic authorship: Did he really have anything to do with it? If so, did he write the Pentateuch, or merely write it down? Did he use any prior written sources, or did he inscripturate (verbatim!) an oral revelation that had been passed along since Adam and Abraham’s time? What are we to make of the evidence of later editing here and there in the Pentateuch? Are these glosses random, or in any way related?

Sailhamer traces in this chapter some of the historical answers to the “Whodunnit?” question, beginning with the Reformers, who posited an unwritten but eyewitness oral revelation behind the material transcribed by Moses, especially in Genesis. Later evangelicals, he notes, were willing to concede that Moses may have used some written sources, but they gave little thought to how he put his book together. Finally Sailhamer offers a description of his own preferred “compositional approach,” summed up neatly as follows:

An evangelical compositional approach to biblical authorship identifies Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and seeks to uncover his strategy in “making a book.” (200)

Thus Sailhamer intends to account for the biblical witness to Mosaic authorship while also making up for the lack of discussion about what it meant for Moses to be that author. And here he makes his unique and intriguing contribution to that discussion: namely, the suggestion that there were really two human authors involved in the making of the Pentateuch. Not only does he attribute to Moses an intelligent, deliberate crafting of his material (whether gathered from other sources or composed himself), but he proposes that a second, chronologically later mind was behind (most of?) the editorial glosses that he identifies in the text of the Pentateuch. In fact, this later author/editor had the task of adding “redactional glue” throughout the Tanak, at the spots which Sailhamer calls the “compositional seams” of the text. We’ll hear more details about this later; the point here is that Sailhamer posits a single editor who held the big picture of the whole Tanak in mind, and so tweaked earlier texts now and again to reflect a theological message. As he puts it,

The present canonical Pentateuch is thus an updated version of the Mosaic Pentateuch produced, perhaps, by the “author” of the OT as a whole (Tanak). (200)

The idea of a “canonical Pentateuch,” which Sailhamer playfully dubs “Pentateuch 2.0,” requires some discussion of canon formation during the intertestamental time. I’ll not go into this here (though see the quote in the first comment below), but it’s worth checking out Sailhamer’s thoughts on this on pp.162-175, if you have the book. This is one area that I’m eager to see addressed in Reformed scholarly reactions to the book.

I’d be happy to clarify any of the above if you have questions.

Fantastic Entry Into the Field

For those who are scared by the word “scholasticism,” or who wish to run entirely the other way, there is now a new introduction to Reformed Scholasticism by one of the greats in the field. Yes, Muller is of crucial importance. However, many people find Muller a tough introduction. If you want something easier to introduce people to the field this book is it.

A Brief Response to Steve Hays

I noted with great sorrow Steve Hays’s posts concerning GB here, here, and here. It is difficult to respond. On the one hand, I have no wish to get into any kind of shouting match with a person whose reasoning I have greatly benefited from over the last several years. On the other hand, I do not believe he has been fair in his treatment of my moderators. Let me add parenthetically, however, that Steve Hays is not the only one who has been somewhat (!) disgruntled at GB’s handling of non-confessional commenters. GB has always allowed non-confessional folks to comment on the blog: Roman Catholic folk, atheists, feminists, FV folk, Enns supporters, etc. This is nothing new. We have tended to operate with an assumption that civility towards these non-confessional folks (and allowing them to comment!) does not imply agreement with them. Not everyone agrees that we should have this policy. We understand that, and wish anyone well who wants to operate their blog differently. But my moderators and I are solidly confessional. We don’t pretend to have made all the right decisions in terms of moderating this blog. In fact, we have admitted to each other and to people by email many mistakes on our part. It is a very difficult job, knowing where the toe the line, what to moderate and what not to moderate. I would like Steve to know that I respect his position, as it is shared by other folks I know whom I also highly respect. If he does not wish to comment on my blog anymore, I am disappointed, but I understand. He is always welcome back.

We have also tended to be a bit more clamp-down on confessional folks who are lacking civility than non-confessional folks who lack civility (though we have bounced such folk in the past). There is a reason for this: how is confessionalism going to look attractive to anyone if no one is an ambassador for it? Now, is civility the be-all and end-all of blog discussions? No. It is not the eleventh commandment. On the other hand, would many people say these kinds of things if they were standing right in front of the person? I wonder.

The main thing I would dispute about Steve’s claims is that our policy has somehow seen a massive shift towards a more lax view on non-confessional views. He uses Stephen Young as an example. But Stephen Young has been interacting in a respectful way with us confessionalists. None of us mods agree with his position. But neither are we inclined to shut down such a conversation. But this has been our ostensible policy for years now. Have we been consistent? Hardly! But we are making an effort. And oh, by the way, I have seen nothing to make me mistrust my current mods in any way, shape, or form.

Moderation and the Confession

Hugh McCann just posted a very helpful quotation from John Witherspoon (Ecclesiastical Characteristics, Maxim III) that I’d like to share with everyone.

“It is a necessary part of the character of a moderate man, never to speak of the Confession of Faith but with a sneer; to give sly hints, that he does not thoroughly believe it; and to make the word orthodoxy a term of contempt and reproach.

“The Confession of Faith, which we are now all laid under a disagreeable necessity to subscribe, was framed in times of hot religious zeal; and therefore it can hardly be supposed to contain any thing agreeable to our sentiments in these cool and refreshing days of moderation. So true is this, that I do not remember to have heard any moderate man speak well of it, or recommend it, in a sermon, or private discourse, in my time, And, indeed, nothing can be more ridiculous, than to make a fixed standard for opinions, which change just as the fashions of clothes and dress. No complete system can be settled for all ages, except the maxims I am now compiling and illustrating, and their great perfection lies in their being ambulatory, so that they may be applied differently, with the change of times.

“…There is one very strong particular reason why moderate men cannot love the Confession of Faith; moderation evidently implies a large share of charity, and consequently a good and favorable opinion of those that differ from our church; but a rigid adherence to the Confession of Faith, and high esteem of it, nearly borders upon, or gives great suspicion of harsh opinions of those that differ from us: and does not experience rise up and ratify this observation? Who are the narrow-minded, bigotted, uncharitable persons among us? Who are the severe censurers of those that differ in judgment? Who are the damners of the adorable Heathens, Socrates, Plato, Marcus Antonius, &c.? In fine, who are the persecutors of the inimitable heretics among ourselves? Who but the admirers of this antiquated composition, who pin their faith to other men’s sleeves, and will not endure one jot less or different belief from what their fathers had before them! It is therefore plain, that the moderate man, who desires to inclose all intelligent beings in one benevolent embrace, must have an utter abhorrence at that vile hedge of distinction, the Confession of Faith…”

MOP and Meyers

See this post for an analysis by Wes of the issues that have arisen between the complaint and the response to the complaint. Here is the full MOP report. The quotation at the beginning of the post is really the most eye-opening for me: “ . . . no one school of interpretation on these disputed issues should be adopted as the only orthodox position to the exclusion of the others.” (Report of the Complaint Review Committee, 62). Did they really say that? Really?? In the context of that quotation, the MOP argues that these debates are all intramural debates that go way back to the time of the Reformers. They also interpret the original MOP report on the FV to be saying the same thing that they are saying now.

I can’t help thinking this in conclusion to that: if the MOP is correct, then isn’t the entire General Assembly report wrong? And aren’t all the other NAPARC reports wrong? After all, they take one interpretation on all these issues as the correct one: that the FV is wrong. Of course, MOP would respond (and has) by saying that the FV is not monolithic and that Meyers is not guilty by association, etc. But let’s not forget Meyers’s emphatic rejection of the GA’s report before it was approved in 2007. He sent a letter to many churches in the PCA giving a number of reasons why the report should not be adopted. Many of those reasons were doctrinal, not just procedural. Plainly he disagreed with the substance of the report. What the MOP is saying, in effect, is that it’s perfectly okay to have completely opposite interpretations of the matters related to the FV concerns, and that everyone should be in one big tent. Again, if the MOP is correct, then the GA report is wrong, because the GA report says that there is only one proper interpretation of these events. I have to admit that I was not terrifically surprised to see MOP exonerate Meyers. I was very surprised to see them come out this strongly against exclusivist interpretations against the FV. They have painted themselves into a rather tight corner with this.

PCA Overture #9

What would you say if someone told you that, to avoid offense, all references to Jesus as the Son of God were to be removed from the Bible? After all, the only way that Muslims can understand such a reference is if God the Father had sexual relations with someone and produced an offspring. Such a movement has started, and has been going on for a while now. It’s called the Insider Movement. They want to remove the offense of the cross and of Jesus in order to “reach out” to Muslims. Here’s a By Faith article on the movement and why the Potomac Presbytery has overtured GA concerning this matter, and here is an excellent article by David Garner, a professor of Systematic Theology at WTS Philly, and here is a video showing some of the problems by means of witnesses, for introductory material related to this movement. I would say that this is definitely something that we need to consider, especially for any missionaries we have in Muslim areas, both as to how they address Muslims concerning Jesus, and how they interact with other missionaries who might be tempted in this direction.

Roundup Response

I don’t know whether this will be my last response or not, but I do want to thank Dr. Clark for his challenging and helpful posts. I am having a ball doing this, and I’m hoping he is, too. I’m learning a lot, and am being forced to think through many things about worship, which is always a plus. I plan on replying to both of his posts, so that we can sort of get back to one post, rather than potentially confusing 2-part responses. Part 1 of his reply is here.

The first part of his response has to do with the distinction between public and private worship. I must admit to being a tad confused here. I re-read my own post and was reassured to find that I hadn’t actually disagreed with that distinction. If I may ask, what was it in my post that gave rise to a feeling on Dr. Clark’s part that he needed to defend that distinction? Maybe some of the comments challenged that understanding. But I agree with his distinction, as long as it is understood that there is still at least some sort of organic connection between the two (a connection which does not require the same things of one worship as it does of the other). I do not see the same elements required in the one as in the other, and yet the covenantal context for both would suggest an organic connection. Moving on, then.

Regarding the question of consciences, specifically, the consciences of people who think that hymns are biblical, he writes:


The original Reformed understanding of Scripture and the original understanding of our confession was that God will have us praise him only with his Word. If that’s right, and no one has shown from Scripture or in principle that understanding was wrong, then that must be our goal.

Now, I can agree with this principle whole-heartedly, actually. The question is whether it is required that the Word be sung ipsissima verba only, or whether songs that summarize the teaching of the Word also sing the Word. I do not see in Scripture the principle that only the minister may summarize the Scripture and that the congregation is forbidden to do so. We both agree, of course, that worship must be biblical. However, I would ask what biblical warrant there is for saying that the congregation may not summarize in song, while the minister may summarize in prayers, preaching, etc. I am not convinced that this is simply an issue of distinguishing between the two offices. The question, it seems to me, revolves around what the content actually does.

Concerning biblicism, I would be the last person to accuse Dr. Clark of being, in general, biblicistic. I hesitated a long time before even using that word, given his rather vociferous objections to biblicism in other contexts. To focus the question a bit more, I would ask this: why are hymns that summarize biblical content not biblical? I suspect that he views this as his answer:


The response of God’s people to his Word in the setting of public worship is not primarily didactic (although it always has that function) but doxological and God’s Word is entirely sufficient for doxology.

To me, it is not clear why saying that the singing is doxological answers the question. For instance, there are many Psalms that are not doxological. There are many Scriptures that we might sing that are not (at least explicitly) doxological. For instance, Psalm 1 is most definitely a wisdom Psalm, is it not? Psalm 88 is hardly doxological, but is rather a lament. So, should all the congregational singing be classified as doxological? In order to do that, one has to broaden the category of doxology to include many things that are not typically regarded as doxology. How useful does the category become after that? Dr. Clark admits that the congregation’s involvement always has a didactic function, even though that is not primary. Admitting the various genres of biblical song, then, gets us to this point: if there is a didactic function (even though not primary), then why would summary be rejected? Didactic function always has an element of summary, does it not? If the singing of the congregation has any didactic function at all, then summary should be seen as part of that function.

As to my unintentional mis-characterization of his argument, I did not mean to imply in any way that our “wish” was determinative of worship. I was referring to the fact that God’s people desire to worship God in God’s way. God’s will is our command when it comes to worship. “What does God require in worship?” is certainly the essence of the question.

Moving on to his second post, he argues that my question regarding the metrical versions of Psalms and paraphrase overlooks the distinction between circumstances and elements. He argues that translation is a circumstance, and so, therefore, would meter be a circumstance. My response would be this: then why couldn’t the difference between ipsissima verba and summary be a circumstance? What biblical basis is there for relegating meter to circumstance and not summary or paraphrase? Again, I am assuming here that any hymn in question here is an accurate summary of Scripture. There are, of course, many hymns that are not accurate summaries of Scripture. These should never be considered for worship.

As to the next point concerning who chooses the music, I am not sure that we have gotten to the point here. My point in bringing up the fact that the pastor chooses the music is not to say that such an action confuses the two offices of minister and believer. My point is rather that if the minister chooses the music, then the office of the believer cannot be seen as the sole determining factor for the choice of music. The office of minister is also involved in the choosing of music. And if that is so, then it seems to me that summary is allowable, and Dr. Clark’s objections regarding the separation of office would not hold, since both offices are involved.

I found Dr. Clark’s discussion of creeds most interesting and revealing. He admits that he has been on both sides of this issue in the past (I’m not sure which side he is on now, though it seems like he agrees with Calvin on this). He regards creeds this way: “Calvin’s practice can be justified, however, insofar as the use of creeds by the congregation, in public worship, falls under the heading of “Word” (one of the two basic elements of worship).” Presumably, the singing of the congregation also falls under the same category of Word, does it not? So the question becomes this: if ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of the Word in the Creeds are the Word, why not ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of the Word in song?

As to liturgies, I agree that we should be ransacking the old Reformed liturgies of Geneva, Scotland, England, Holland, the Palatinate, and other places for their immense riches. I have been doing this recently, to my great profit and (I hope!) for the great profit of my congregations. They are wonderfully simple, aren’t they? And yet, they are the simplicity of majesty, not the simplicity of naïvete.

Response to Dr. Clark, Part 2

Just to be clear, this post is part 2 of my response to this post. Dr. Clark has already responded to my post of yesterday. So, to make sure that we don’t get hopelessly mixed up, I won’t respond to his most recent post until later.

So, to pick up where I left off yesterday, we will consider the two questions of paraphrase and office that Dr. Clark has raised. First off, paraphrase. On this question, I’m not getting the feeling that Dr. Clark actually answered my query. My query is this: are not metrical renditions of the Psalms themselves paraphrases? I have yet to see a Psalter that did not include a fair amount of paraphrase in order to make the rhyme and meter fit the strophic melody. The best poets/linguists in the world cannot directly translate the Psalms from Hebrew strophe (or Greek prose, for that matter, since Dr. Clark believes in singing the texts of Scripture, not just the Psalms) into rhyme and meter without some measure of paraphrase. Maybe we are operating under different ideas of what constitutes paraphrase. I would say that a paraphrase is any attempt to convey the meaning of the text in any kind of different words than the original, or than a word-for-word translation would do. By this definition, all Psalters are nothing but paraphrases, given the necessary constraints on rhyme and meter (not to mention the considerable editing that is often done!). If Psalters are paraphrases, and so is everything else that is Scripture set to strophic music, then what biblical basis is there for forbidding one further step, and allowing the whole counsel of God to be paraphrased, as many hymns attempt to do? Have we not already taken the necessary steps?

This leads us to the second question, that of office. To quote Dr. Clark directly, we have this:

The congregation is called to respond to God’s Word with God’s Word. Again, I address this in chapter 7 of RRC. The congregation exercises their priesthood in taking upon their lips God’s Word in praise, adoration, and worship not in taking over the function and nature of the ministerial office. So, it is one thing for the minister to paraphrase God’s Word in the discharge of his God-ordained office and quite another for the congregation to do the same.

Now, there are two issues with this argument. The first is that what the congregation sings is not usually chosen by the congregation from week to week. Usually the pastor chooses it. That kind of messes up the normal division of office as Dr. Clark formulates it (I agree with the distinction of office as he phrases it here, just not with the application of it). Furthermore, as has been noted in some of the comments, although the pastor prays, the congregation is supposed to pray along with him in such a way that his words become their words. The parallel with praying becomes a bit more obvious once we note that in both praying and singing, both the pastor and the congregation are fully involved. The only difference is that, in praying, the pastor is the only one actually vocalizing. So prayer is another place where the ipsissima verba of Scripture are not a limitation. As my brother-in-law Nels noted, many hymns are prayers set to music. These distinctions between categories then become a bit difficult to sustain, it seems to me.

Secondly, what about creeds? If the congregation may never say anything in worship that is not the ipsissima verba of Scripture, then they can never recite creeds. If it is argued that creeds are in a different category (or element of worship) than singing in terms of the content of what is said/sung, I would ask what biblical basis does that distinction have? Or, maybe Dr. Clark does not believe that creeds should be spoken by the congregation in the worship service. Of course, that could have problems, too, like cutting ourselves off from the church of history.

Response to Dr. Clark

I am so excited about an EP debate that doesn’t have advocates of each position at each other’s throats (see the many excellent comments on the previous post), that I want to continue this discussion. Dr. Clark has favored me with an excellent response on his blog, with many weighty arguments that will require careful consideration. And, if he wishes to leave me with that word as a sufficient reply, I will not complain.

Dr. Clark’s first argument is to this effect: there is no such thing as a “good hymn” (contrary to my assertion otherwise) for worship, any more than there is a “good” rendition of Jesus Christ in art. Dr. Clark doesn’t say this, but I presume that it is implied that he regards both as equal violations of the second commandment. Furthermore, he argues that public worship and private worship are different things. He would agree with the use of “A Mighty Fortress,” for instance, in the context of private worship, but not in public worship. These are, of course, two distinct parts of his response. We can boil it down to these two assertions: 1. There is no such thing as a good hymn for public worship, and 2. Public worship and private worship are distinct categories. Now, I agree with Dr. Clark’s position on pictures of Jesus. Why is it, then, that I would not agree with his position on hymns? Does his analogy hold? I would argue that it does not hold, for the following reasons. The debate is not about the difference between modes of portrayal of Jesus (we follow the Word’s portrayal of Jesus, not a pictorial portrayal), but rather about the content of the one element of worship, namely, singing. So the question could be framed in this way: if a hymn’s content is a summary of some aspect of the Bible’s teaching, or of some particular Scripture passage, why would that be in a different category from a verbatim singing of that same Scripture? Although Dr. Clark could never be accused of being biblicistic, does his approach come close to what we might call “singing biblicism?”

Secondly, in answer to my question of whether singing hymns is a mark of liberalism, he responds by saying that singing hymns is a mark of indifference to God’s law, and is oppressive to the consciences of those who do not wish to be bound by the consistory/session to sing anything other than the ipsissima verba of Scripture. So my response would be this: if someone, in their conscience, believed that singing hymns was not only biblical but mandated by Scripture, would the consistory/session be binding their conscience by forbidding the singing of hymns in worship? Could this binding thing, in other words, go in reverse? My congregations, for instance, love hymns. We sing Psalms, too, but they can’t get enough of hymns. If I ever tried to restrict the singing to Scripture-only, there would be quite the resistance. They would claim that their consciences were being bound. In RRC, Dr. Clark claims that “Where those who would ask worshipers to sing uninspired songs might think that they are exercising Christian liberty, in fact, they are impinging on the liberty of Christians” (p. 243). Now, this would be true of people who believe in Scripture-only songs in public worship. But how exactly is that true if the whole congregation believes that singing hymns is biblical? He would probably answer that it is a question of “time, pastoral care, and patient instruction to help elders and laity to understand the RPW once again” (p. 265). Perhaps. I’m not sure that’s very workable in most cases. I have not yet seen why it is that the ipsissima verba is required in all circumstances for the congregation as their dialogical response to God speaking to them. A hymn that summarizes what the Bible says is, it seems to me, in the same category as the ipsissima verba. I will address the rest of his post tomorrow, Lord-willing.

Patrick Madrid, Part 2

It’s been a while since I have done a post on the Roman Catholic book Not By Scripture Alone, so read here for my last entry in the series. We left off there talking about the appeal to the majority that Madrid uses that ultimately leaves the Scripture useless. In this post, I would like to address the question of the early church fathers (hereafter ECF), and who is quoting them correctly and who is not, and what they can prove and what they cannot.

It is my opinion that there are several opinions that can be found in the ECF on the question of authority. The bare fact of the matter is that there was only one church at the time. The issues that now divide Romanists and Protestants were not as front and center then as they would be later in history. The early church was more concerned about Christology and the Trinity in their debates (although Pelagianism was certainly a very important debate). This is not to say that they did not think long and hard about some of these issues concerning authority. It is to say that more than one opinion can be found there. This is in contrast to what Madrid says (slanders!) about the Protestant position. He seems to be claiming that Protestants think of ALL the ECF as proto-Protestants “who promoted an unvarnished doctrine of sola scriptura that would have made John Calvin proud” (p. 6). I would claim that the Protestant position on the Bible can certainly be found in the ECF. Can Rome claim that there is support from some of the ECF for the papacy? Yes, they can (which in no way makes their claim correct. After all, the ECF were not infallible). Some of the ECF thought of the Roman bishop as a first among equals (although whether they would have claimed all that the modern Pope claims is another question entirely). Nevertheless, there were also plenty of ECF who did say things that the Protestants would say later. If this is true, then the Romanists were wrong to kick out the Protestants from the church on the basis of the ECF. When Calvin quoted the ECF, his Romanist opponents were speechless.

A related problem to this is how we determine whose interpretation of the ECF is correct. The Romanists claim that the Protestants selectively quote the ECF (see Madrid, p. 6). The Protestants will claim that Romanists selectively quote the ECF. How is one going to determine who is quoting the ECF correctly? The Romanist has a ready-made answer for that: the church tells us how to understand the ECF just as it tells us how to interpret the Scriptures. How convenient! But then the ECF cease to be the real authority, don’t they? What it really comes down to, in the end, is the current church’s position: that is what is authoritative. Tradition is no longer authoritative, the current church is what is authoritative. But if that is the case, then the church is completely unteachable. At least, the church can never be shown to be wrong on any occasion. But wouldn’t this contradict the letters to the seven churches in Asia? Didn’t the Holy Spirit tell them that they were wrong on certain points of doctrine and practice? The next post will deal with Madrid’s example of Basil.

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