The Wrong Starting Point

Reed DePace 

I’ve spent some time contemplating a commentator’s repeated references to the historical (covenantal) vs. eschatological (decretal) perspective. I think he dwells on an essential distinction in the FV reading of what is possessed by the elect Church member (ECM) and reprobate church member (RCM). I believe this is an essential distinction because this distinction in perspectives functions as the fundamental interpretive principle the FV applies to understanding the issue of ECM vs. RCM.

It is clear from this exchange, and others, that the FV truly believes we who are opposed are not accurately hearing what the FV is saying, and that this misunderstanding flows in large part from a failure to rightly comprehend and apply these two differing perspectives. If only we would do so, we would realize that the FV is not saying anything contradictory to the reformed standards, it is merely saying more than they do.

I thought it might be helpful to express my understanding of the basic contours of this perspective distinction and how it impacts the FV’s approach to interpreting the Bible in this matter.

If I am reading this commentator rightly, I think he would say something like this, “from the eschatological perspective, I agree with the differentiation between the ECM and the RCM. Yet from the historical perspective such differentiation does not apply (at least in the same way.)” Another way the FV might say it is, “Eschatalogically (decretally) it is correct to differentiate between the ECM and the RCM. Yet historically (covenantally) you are making distinctions that cannot be demonstrated. You are insisting on reading eschatalogically things that can only be read historically.”

To be fully fair in letting the FV speak for itself, we need to note that the FV is not arguing that the historical perspective is in contradiction to the eschatological perspective, but the validity of both of them in their proper uses. Let me offer this summary of how this interpretive principle fleshes itself out in the FV:

  1. The eschatological perspective is indeed valid.
  2. Yet it is the perspective known infallibly only to the Trinity in history, and to us only in the eschaton (the end of this world and existence).
  3. The context of the Church at present is the historical perspective. We can only see the Church undifferentiatedly, ECM and RCM necessarily are seen as the same at present.
  4. Since we cannot know (infallibly) the eschatalogical perspective, the Bible is to be read from this historical perspective.
  5. This necessitates reading the references to church members and their blessings in an undifferentiated manner. E.g., both ECM and RCM experience union with Christ, justifying faith, when viewed from the historical perspective.
  6. The FV is not saying that the ECM and RCM posses the same things from the eschatalogical perspective. Rather it is to say that from the historical perspective the ECM and the RCM posses the same things. It’s a matter of two different perspectives.
  7. Since we cannot know the eschatalogical perspective, we must minister the gospel (in all its fullness) from the historical perspective. We must treat RCM and ECM in an undifferentiated manner. Both possess Christ historically. Both must be ministered to as believers truly possessing Christ and His benefits.

Hopefully it will be concluded, without need for further detail, that in essence I get what the FV is trying to say.

My problem is that the FV wrongly limits the perspective of both biblical interpretation and gospel ministry. The eschatological perspective is not some minor, inconsequential one. Rather, it is the heart beat of the NT (the NT being best understood as the definitive commentary on the meaning of the OT). Rather than there being even parity between the historical and eschatalogical perspectives in the NT, in point of fact the eschatalogical is the dominant perspective. The historical only comes into view in the role of a servant to the eschatalogical perspective.

This is not an immaterial observation. If right, it cuts to the heart of the essential FV interpretive principle, thus vitally and negatively impacting the whole FV system.

The NT does not operate in a manner like this, “now to be sure from God’s perspective there are ECM and RCM. But since you can’t infallibly see this eschatalogical perspective difference, treat all as if there were no such distinction as ECM and RCM.”

Such chapters as Matt. 13 are dominant in making this point. It is the very fact of the reality of the ECM and RCM that drives Christ’s commands in terms of ministry in the Church in this chapter laden with express distinctions between ECM and RCM. Without the eschatalogical perspective, the distinctions Christ makes devolve into at best principles that can neither be understood or applied this side of eternity. Note that Christ’s words will not lend themselves to a historical perspective – they are expressly rooted in the eschatalogical perspective and are intended to guide us in our historical setting!

Consider the example from a passage such as John 2:23-25. John begins (vs. 23) with a perspective that is clearly historical only. The “belief” of the crowd is offered for consideration in an undifferentiated manner (we could say both RCM and ECM potentially in view). Yet Jesus’ response cannot be understood as growing out of the historical perspective. Rather, his point only makes sense from the eschatalogical perspective. He makes a distinction between two kinds of belief, one possessed only by RCM and one possessed only by ECM – a decided eschatalogical perspective understanding. Here it is clear that the historical perspective is the servant of the eschatalogical perspective.

This is the heart beat of the whole NT. It is the light of the eschatalogical perspective that explains the mystery hidden in the historical perspective of the OT. The OT veiled is historical perspective dominant. The NT revealed in eschatalogical perspective dominant. Jesus speaks to his people not in the uncertain, unclear, hidden and veiled manner of the historical perspective of the old covenant. He speaks to them in the clear revelation from the eschatalogical perspective of the new covenant.

Again, this is not an insignificant criticism of the FV. Not to engage in hyperbole, but to demonstrate the significance of using the wrong interpretive presuppositions, consider that a Mormon, a Jehovah Witness, and a Roman Catholic can all (and do) affirm in sincerity, “I trust in Christ.” Yet they all mean something different about both “Christ” and “trust.” These differences flow from their differing interpretation of Scripture. As is obvious, faulty interpretive presuppositions inevitably lead to faulty understanding of the gospel, and often with eternally significant consequences.

To the degree that the FV rests on the faulty interpretive principle of giving preeminence to the historical perspective (over the eschatalogical perspective), it leads to faulty interpretations. I am not inferring anything about the degree of danger of such faulty interpretations. Don’t read between the lines and here me offering veiled accusations against the FV.

Rather I hope the points here bring home the seriousness of this issue. It should be obvious to all that we should so run so far away from faulty interpretive principles, and the faulty interpretations derived from them, as we never discover how truly dangerous they may be.

The FV is not simply saying something more than the reformed standards, and completely consistent with the Bible. It applies a faulty interpretive principle to the Bible and proposes interpretations the Bible does not support. This is dangerous.

Reed DePace

Book Review of An Old Testament Theology, by Bruce Waltke

I intend for this to be a relatively complete book review of what is perhaps Bruce Waltke’s magnum opus. I will start with what I like about the book, and then progress to a few criticisms I have of the book. By and large, I enjoyed the book, and received much profit from it, and would recommend it, though not without caveat.

The subtitle of the book is a good description of the book’s aims: it intends to be an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach to Old Testament Theology. I might have added rhetorical to that subtitle, since rhetorical criticism is one of the main tools that Waltke uses in this work to flesh out the meaning of the Old Testament.

Things I liked: 1. The exegesis was mostly first-rate. He is extremely sensitive to literary concerns, and that positively affects his exegesis. A few examples will suffice. On page 597, Waltke is delineating the differences among the various judges. He writes, “Beginning with Jephthah, the years of oppression outlast the years of peace. Indeed, it is not said that during the lifetimes of Jephthah and Samson that the land had rest; it only says ‘they led’ Israel.” This is an example of a “gap,” which Waltke defines as “an intentional omission” (pg. 122), as opposed to a “blank,” which is “an inconsequential omissions” (ibid.). Of course, one could go rather wild on the implications of what was left out, leaving one open to the charge that one is “exegeting” the cracks, rather than what is in the text. However, Waltke keeps this little trick well under control. Most of the time, he uses it when a pattern in the text gives rise to a certain expectation that is then changed by the omission.

Waltke is very canonically oriented. One of the best examples of this is on pages 866-867, where he gives us the similarities and the differences between the story of Ruth (specifically Elimelech), Lot, and Judah. This is the stuff of which biblical theology is made.

Waltke is an expert on the structure of biblical texts, and this helps him when it comes to prioritizing what’s important in the text, although (more on this later), he is not always consistent in his proportions. In general, his outlines are convincing, even if he tends to see chiasm where there isn’t necessarily a convincing chiasm. Incidentally, the most amazing (and convincing) chiasm I have ever seen is in the beginning of Milgrom’s commentary on Numbers (pg. 18). The commentary is worth its price for that alone).

Waltke’s approach leads him through all the books of the Old Testament. This has the distinct advantage of leaving one with the impression that there are not huge swaths of data being left out.

Those are some of the things I really enjoyed about the book. There are some criticisms I would have, however, and some of them are serious.

The first is that of the relationship of biblical theology to systematic theology. I first read page 31 and practically danced in glee. Finally we might have an Old Testament Theology that deals with systematic concerns! He wrote there, “In my view the church is best served when biblical theologians work in conversation with orthodox systematic theology regarding the Bible (bibliology) as the foundation and boundary in matters of deciding the basis, goal, and methodology for biblical theology…Through this interpenetration of the two disciplines, we will be better able to present the theological power and the religious appeal of biblical concepts.” Amen! I wish I had a dollar for every time I read in a commentary, “That’s a dogmatic concept, and we cannot talk about that, nor should it have an impact on our exegesis.” So, I was expecting some of this interaction between biblical theology and systematics. Alas, little to none was forthcoming. Instead, we find this horrible description (pg. 64) of what systematicians do, as opposed to what exegetes do:

Systematic (dogmatic) theologians present the Christian message to the contemporary world. They draw the impetus for organizing this message from outside the Old Testament. John Calvin, in his justly famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, organized his material according to the four divisions of the Apostles’ Creed. Philip Melanchthon organized his theology according to one book of the Bible, Romans. Since the seventeenth century, theologians typically employed philosophical categories derived from Greek thought, such as Bibliology (the study of the Bible), hamartiology (the study of sin), pneumatology (the study of the Spirit), and so on.
Biblical theologians differ from dogmaticians in three ways. First, biblical theologians primarily think as exegetes, not as logicians. Second, they derive their organizational principle from the biblical blocks of writings themselves rather than from factors external to the text. Third, their thinking is diachronic- that is, they track the development of theological themes in various blocks of writings. Systematic theologians think more synchronically- that is, they invest their energies on the church’s doctrines, not on the development of religious ideas within the Bible.

It is difficult to imagine a more warped view of what systematicians do. First of all, the impetus for organizing the message of ST comes from the Bible itself. That it is a logical order (usually prolegomena, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, end times, or something similar) does not in the least imply that it is an unbiblical order, or not based on the biblical texts. Indeed, a great deal of this is based on Genesis, and the order of events therein (we see God first, then creation, then unfallen man, then fallen man, then the promise of salvation, etc.).

Secondly, the categories employed are not derived from Greek philosophical thought, but from the Bible. The examples Waltke gives only prove this point: was Greek thought the first place that we saw the phrase “thus says the Lord?” Was Greek thought the first place where we see “And God said?” How about Deuteronomy 29:29? Is this verse not utterly foundational to the study of the Bible? Similarly, we can see that the Bible talks about sin extensively long before Greeks got around to thinking about it. What is so completely different about grouping together the texts that talk about sin, versus the thematic approach that Waltke himself uses? This leads to yet another problem with Waltke’s summary: ST is very much concerned with how ideas develop within the biblical canon diachronically. Exegesis is the life-blood of systematics.

Thirdly, it is uttely false that exegetes don’t think primarily logically. How does Waltke get his insights into the rhetorical structure of the texts? Through illogicality? Rhetoric is not illogical, unless Waltke has completely forgotten his trivium. This page is not Waltke’s best moment. I could agree with nothing on that page. Waltke advocated a great discussion between exegetes and systematicians. It is not going to happen with this wedge being driven between the two disciplines.

The second major criticism I have is that proportions are not always balanced. For instance, Psalms and Ruth both get complete chapters to themselves, the former of which gets 27 pages, and the latter of which gets 20 pages! Surely, this is not in proportion to their relative importance in the canon. Psalms is one of the three or four most important books in the entire canon. Is Ruth almost that important? Furthermore, the prophets get extremely short shrift in this volume. The prophets constitute one of the four major blocks of writing in the entire OT, and yet only receive a scant 45 pages in two chapters (out of 969 pages of text, not including indices, split up into 35 chapters). Isaiah at least should have received an entire chapter to itself, and yet receives the equivalent of 5 pages (split into three places due to his acceptance of the division of Isaiah into first, second, and third Isaiah). Song of Songs also is snubbed, receiving all of 2 pages. Many of the minor prophets also get very scant attention. One gets the distinct impression that these sections of Waltke’s book were a bit rushed in production.

The third, and relatively minor criticism is that of typos. There are a fair number, including an extremely bizarre typo in chapter 33 on Proverbs. The footnotes start to drag behind the text until finally the text is quoting footnotes that don’t even exist! The text starts getting ahead on page 907, and increases its pace until, in the middle of it, the text is quoting footnotes that don’t appear for another three or four pages. Finally, footnotes 107-112 are simply not there at all. Very wierd.

These three criticisms are not enough to make me not recommend the book. Doing a quick comparison between this OT theology and the other major ones on offer (I am primarily thinking of Von Rad, Eichrodt, Brueggemann, and Goldingay), and one will quickly discover that this one leaves those in the dust. So, this volume is a significant step forward in the realm of OT theology, a sub-discipline that evangelicals have been slow to enter.