Presented August 1, 2018 to the Bible Faculty Summit, Bob Jones University, Greenville, South Carolina.
Paul affirmed to Timothy the authority, capacity, and sufficiency of the Scriptures for the adequacy of the believer.1 In similar fashion Jesus applied the sufficiency of Scripture in responding to His testing by Satan. Yet in close proximity to both instances we observe the employment of extra-Biblical resources in complementing the situation. In Paul’s case, even as he exhorts Timothy to faithfulness in the word, he acknowledges value in Timothy’s attentiveness to not only what Paul taught and wrote, but to his experiences as well.2 In Jesus’ case, He acknowledges there is a place for bread, though it ought not be viewed as the sole source of life.3 Likewise, after His testing He was the beneficiary of angelic ministry.4
In both instances, the word of God is affirmed as authoritative and sufficient, and in both situations, other resources help to set or complete the context. Considering these and other Biblical scenarios, this paper evaluates the nature of Biblical authority and sufficiency and the role of extra-Biblical resources in transformative teaching and learning. To underscore the practical value of the authority and sufficiency issues, this study also compares principles observed in the Biblical narratives with principles employed in psychology and counseling, providing a case study for the application of extra-Biblical resources in transformative teaching and learning contexts.
Three Views of Authority and Tradition
Within Christianity there are three primary perspectives on the relationship of Biblical authority and Biblical tradition. The first (B+T) views the Bible as authoritative, but also views Tradition (with a capital T) as provided by God and as equally authoritative. The Roman Catholic Church (RCC), for example, embraces this approach. The second (B+t) views the Bible as authoritative, but views tradition (little t) as a necessary hermeneutic lens through which to view the Bible. Reformed and Covenant theology take this view. The third (B+Ø) holds to the idea that the Bible is exclusively authoritative, and that while tradition is important for understanding contexts and interacting with people, it is neither a source of doctrinal authority nor a hermeneutic aid. This third approach is distinctive in its a commitment to applying sola scriptura in every area of faith and practice.
Bible Plus Capital-T Tradition (B+T) 5
While both Catholic and Protestant teachings affirm the authority of the Bible, there are two significant distinctions between the Catholic and Protestant understandings of how exclusive the Bible’s authority actually is. First is found in the extent to which the analogy of faith applies. In Protestant methodology, the analogy of faith is understood as Scripture interpreting Scripture, whereas in Catholic methodology, there is a higher opinion of extra-biblical material – the explanations and declarations of the teaching authority of the church. On this, the Catechism explains that, “The whole body of the faithful…cannot err in matters of belief,6 and because the Church is our mother, she is also our teacher in the faith.7 “The Church…does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”8
The second major difference is in the related ideas of ex cathedra and apostolic succession. In Catholic understanding, the Church is built on Peter, the unshakeable rock of the church.9 Thus from Peter the church gains her authority, and the Popes derive their ex cathedra authority. In Protestant understanding, Jesus is the rock upon which the church is built, being the rock of offense, and a fulfillment of Isaiah 8:14, as acknowledged by Peter in 1 Peter 2:8. This variance in interpretation sets distinct trajectories for both groups – Catholics finding revelation to extend beyond the biblical text, and Protestants, asserting that revelation goes no further than the completed texts that Jesus affirmed and commissioned. Consequently, the divergent epistemological moorings contribute to the disparate (and at times violently so) theological conclusions.
Catholic exegetes defined both the direction and the method to be followed in the task of understanding the Scriptures,10 which entailed investigation and explanation through the study of original languages and reliance on original texts.11 However Pius XII acknowledged that especially during the middle ages, theologians lacked the requisite knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, and found themselves reliant on the Latin Vulgate.12 Instead of availing themselves of “the aids which all branches of philology supply,”13 scholars during that time had limited resources and limited knowledge. But, asserts Pius XII, like Jerome, we ought to “explain the original text which, having been written by the inspired author himself, has more authority and greater weight than any even the very best translation, whether ancient or modern; this can be done all the more easily and fruitfully, if to the knowledge of languages be joined a real skill in literary criticism of the same text.”14 Thus attention to the biblical languages and to textual criticism become central to understanding Scripture. Pius XII was emphatic regarding the necessity of and demand for such scientific study of the text:
this prolonged labor is not only necessary for the right understanding of the divinely-given writings, but also is urgently demanded by that piety by which it behooves us to be grateful to the God of all providence, Who from the throne of His majesty has sent these books as so many paternal letters to His own children.15
Pius XII is careful to mention that the Vulgate still has great value (as emphasized in the Council of Trent),16 and was perhaps even preferable in some sense, since it had been “approved by its long continued use for so many centuries in the Church.”17 Because the Vulgate was “free from any error whatsoever in matters of faith and morals…it may be quoted safely and without fear of error…so its authenticity is not specified primarily as critical, but rather as juridical.”18 Still, for the making clear of doctrine, the authority of the Vulgate “almost demands either the corroboration and confirmation of this same doctrine by the original texts or the having recourse on any and every occasion to the aid of these same texts.”19
Because Jerome included apocryphal books in his Vulgate translation, (possibly based on their inclusion in the Greek Codex Sinaiticus) those books remain an esteemed component of the Catholic Bible. These texts are typically rejected by Protestants on grounds that they are historically separated from the Hebrew OT, and based on some of the doctrinal conclusions the apocryphal books derive.20 These disputed texts represent a point of division between Catholic and Protestant, as the Council of Trent in 1546 codified the Apocrypha to be inspired, cementing that aspect of disagreement.
While English translations of the OT contain around 600,000 words, and the NT contains around 175,000 words, the Apocrypha includes about 160,000. Because the Apocrypha is nearly the size of the NT, the textual basis for Catholic and Protestant disagreement is not insignificant, nor are the doctrinal distinctions unimportant. The most severe of these differences is evident in the context of how a person is justified before God.
Virtually every single one of Luther’s 95 Theses pertain to issues relating to how one is justified, and the implications for remission of sins, purgatory, papal authority, the use of indulgences, etc. Luther was largely protesting what he perceived to be a taught doctrine of salvation by works, and added to his translation of Romans 3:28 the word “alone,” in order to ensure the understanding that justification comes by faith alone. On the other hand, Catholic soteriology agrees that “Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation,”21 and ”without faith no one has ever attained justification.”22 Still, that “We can lose this priceless gift”23 illustrates that justification, in the Catholic soteriological system, is not by faith alone.
The Catholic hermeneutic also has at its core a commitment to the literal meaning of Scripture. Pius XII’s exhortation to that end provides no lack of clarity:
Being thoroughly prepared by the knowledge of the ancient languages and by the aids afforded by the art of criticism, let the Catholic exegete undertake the task, of all those imposed on him the greatest, that namely of discovering and expounding the genuine meaning of the Sacred Books. In the performance of this task let the interpreters bear in mind that their foremost and greatest endeavor should be to discern and define clearly that sense of the biblical words which is called literal. Aided by the context and by comparison with similar passages, let them therefore by means of their knowledge of languages search out with all diligence the literal meaning of the words; all these helps indeed are wont to be pressed into service in the explanation also of profane writers, so that the mind of the author may be made abundantly clear [emphasis mine].24
Still, just as there is attention given to the literal aspect of the text, there are other hermeneutic commitments that distinguish the Catholic hermeneutic. The Second Vatican Council prescribes three criteria for interpreting Scripture: “1. Be especially attentive to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture…2. Read the Scripture within the living Tradition of the whole Church…3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith.”25 In these three criteria is evident the value attributed to tradition as a vital lens through which to view Scripture. Further, the Protestant hermeneutic is well represented by Luther’s assertion, quoted by Farrar, that “The literal sense of Scripture alone is the whole essence of faith and of Christian theology,”26 whereas the Catholic methodology upholds a plurality of senses in Scriptural meaning: “According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of the Scripture in the church.27
In these contexts – understandings of what constitutes Scripture, the exclusivity of biblical authority, and hermeneutic methodology, the essential source of authority is ultimately not the same for Protestantism and Catholicism. If in a biblical worldview the source of authority is God as revealed in the Bible, then the Bible is the final and unaugmented record of God’s outline for worldview, including descriptive aspects of epistemological and metaphysical concepts, and prescriptive aspects of the ethics and socio political thought.
In a Catholic worldview, the source of authority is still recognized as the biblical God, but He reveals Himself in more diverse ways than simply the pages of the Bible. Consequently, there are differences between Catholicism and Protestantism in both the descriptive elements of worldview (epistemology and metaphysics) and the prescriptive elements (ethics and socio-political).
Bible Plus Little-t Tradition (B+t)
Cornelius Van Til is astute on three significant pillars of Biblical epistemology: (1), the Biblical God exists, (2) He has revealed himself authoritatively, and (3) Natural man’s incapacity to receive, but his epistemology falls short in that he does not account for hermeneutics (Pillar 4) within his epistemology. In fact, in his Th.M thesis, “Reformed Epistemology,” Van Til does not discuss Biblical interpretation. Much of his critique of other thinkers, like Kant, includes considerable discussion of their deficiencies in the interpretation of experience, but not a word about method in interpreting Scripture. It is surprising to this writer that Van Til would build such an outstanding foundational framework on special revelation and then totally ignore the centrality of hermeneutic method for understanding that revelation, because Biblical hermeneutics as an absolutely necessary component of epistemology. In his The New Hermeneutic, Van Til concludes, with these words, “…we would appeal to the Cahier’s men, to Wiersinga and to others, to build their hermeneutical procedures on the theology of Calvin, Kuyper, Bavinck, etc., (emphasis mine) and then in terms of it to challenge all men to repentance and faith in the self-identifying Christ of Scripture instead of making compromise with unbelief.”28 Notice his prescribed hermeneutical procedures are grounded in historical theology, rather than literal grammatical-historical. In short, Van Til is marvelously consistent in his epistemological method until he prescribes historical theology as the orthodox hermeneutic, rather than literal grammatical-historical (an unfortunate contradiction of his own expertly stated first principles).
Van Til’s hermeneutic maneuver is not quite as overt as the RCC hermeneutic prescription that is emblematic of B+T, but it certainly requires that Scripture be viewed through the lens of tradition, and consequently illustrates a B+t methodology – the methodology employed particularly in Reformed/Covenant theology. Kevin DeYoung likewise illustrates the Covenant/Reformed starting place as (at least) little-t, tradition: “As a Christian I hope that my theology is open to correction, but as a minister I have to start somewhere. We all do. For me that means starting with Reformed theology and my confessional tradition and sticking with that unless I have really good reason not to.”29 DeYoung’s methodological reliance on systematic theology becomes an integral part of his hermeneutic. “Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel or the sacramental language in John 6 or the psalmist’s insistence that he is righteous and blameless?”30 The implications of DeYoung’s hermeneutic are evident in his remarkably nonliteral handling of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 as the “entire community of the redeemed.”31 DeYoung understands the quantity simply as “a way of saying all God’s people under the old and new covenant,”32 and he understands the entire context as “stylized to depict the totality of God’s pure and perfectly redeemed servants from all time over all the earth.”33
While Van Til and DeYoung do not attribute inspired authority to tradition (as does the RCC), their handling of Scripture does not reflect much practical difference. In practice, B+T and B+t are closely related.
Bible Plus Nothing (B+Ø)
The related ideas of a completed canon and the superior reliability of revelation over personal experience are important bases for sola scriptura in understanding and in application. Peter illustrates the principle of revelation trumping personal experience when he explains that even though he had witnessed Christ in His glory at the transfiguration,34 the prophetic word regarding Christ – or God’s revelation – confirmed the issue.35 What Peter says on this subject is important, because even if God did presently use experiential or sensory means, it would be secondary to His word. Peter also describes in those verses how God spoke to people – the Holy Spirit moved men to speak the word of God.36 Certainly, God did speak to people in dreams and other ways.37 And Paul agrees that all Scripture is God-breathed.38 Still, in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul describes how the confirming gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge – gifts whereby God spoke to people – would fulfill their purpose and come to a conclusion.
In a context describing the superiority of love,39 Paul explains that the gift of tongues would cease on its own.40 Tongues was a gift which enabled people to speak God’s word in actual languages that the speaker didn’t understand. This is illustrated in Acts 2:9-11, a passage which includes a list of at least sixteen different languages or dialects by which God used the disciples (and those who were with them) to proclaim God’s gospel.
This gift served as a sign to unbelievers,41 to show that God had sent His Holy Spirit.42 Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for not utilizing the gift properly at times, and challenged them regarding the importance of love. After that commentary in 1 Corinthians, written in about 51 AD, the Bible never mentions the gift of tongues again – not even in the letter Paul wrote to that same church just a few months later. Very early in church history, the gift of tongues had fulfilled its purpose and ceased on its own, just as Paul indicated it would.
Partial prophecy and knowledge,43 on the other hand, would continue until the complete would arrive,44 at which time the partial – or incomplete – would be ended. Considering the Greek terminology and syntax of 13:9-10, the issue is not that prophecy and knowledge would be fulfilled by the coming of the complete,45 but rather that partial46 prophecy and knowledge would be ended by it. The simplest understanding of these comments by Paul, is that there would come a time when God’s revealing through prophecy and words of knowledge would come to a conclusion – that He would have said all He had to say. It is evident that milestone is achieved at the conclusion of the book of Revelation, when Jesus leaves the reader expecting no further communication from God, and with only the remaining exception of the two prophets of Revelation 11, until the return of Christ.47
Hebrews 1:1-2 tells us that while God used many methods in former times to communicate, in these last days, He “has spoken to us in His Son.” Jesus prepared His disciples for His ascension, telling them the Holy Spirit would come to guide them into all the truth.48 Upon His departure, He reminded them to “make disciples…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.”49 The Holy Spirit fulfilled that ministry of guiding the disciples into all the truth, as Peter says, “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”50 From a textually verifiable standpoint, Jesus’ communication, through the Holy Spirit to His disciples, was finished at the end of the book of Revelation. If the closed canon provides clarity regarding the source of authority (God as revealed in the Bible) in a Biblical worldview, then the opening narrative provided in that canon models a hermeneutic pattern for how we should understand Scripture.
The Hermeneutic Precedent of Genesis and Job
In order to arrive at a reliable and predictable approach for interpreting Scriptures, the interpretive method ought to be exegetically derived from within the Scriptural text. Otherwise, there can be no claim to hermeneutic certainty, because any externally derived interpretive method can be preferred and applied simply by exerting presuppositions upon the text. In the case of an externally derived hermeneutic, presuppositions leading to that hermeneutic conclusion create a pre-understanding that predetermines meaning independent of the author’s intentions. The outcome, in such a case, can be wildly different than what the author had in mind.
If the Bible is merely a collection of ancient stories, legends, and myth, interspersed with mildly historical accounts, then the stakes are not particularly high. The greatest damage we can inflict by a faulty hermeneutic method is of the same weight as misunderstanding the motivations and activities of Mark Twain’s adventurous character, Tom Sawyer, for example. In such an instance we would simply fail to recognize the aesthetic virtues of a creative work. However, if the Bible constitutes an actual revelation from God, then it bears the very authority of the Author, Himself – an authority that extends to every aspect of life and conduct. These are high stakes, indeed. If we fail to engage the text with the interpretive approach intended by its Author, then we fail not just to appreciate aesthetic qualities, but we fail to grasp who God is, and what He intends for us to do.
It is incumbent, then, upon readers of the text to carefully derive hermeneutic method from the Scriptures themselves. Yet, this responsibility is complicated by an obvious absence of prescriptive material within the Biblical text that if present could direct readers toward a particular interpretive stance. In the absence of such prescriptive material, we examine here some descriptive elements from the book of Genesis, in order to discover whether or not there is actually a prevailing hermeneutic embedded in the text itself.
From the opening of Genesis to its conclusion, the book records roughly two thousand years of history. Further, Genesis alleges that these two thousand years are the first years of human history.51 Within that framework of chronology, the events in the book of Genesis account for the first 33% of our recorded six thousand year history and the first 50% of the four thousand years of Biblical history. If Genesis were univocal regarding hermeneutic method, that single voice would go a long way in helping us understand how the Author intended for us to interpret the Scriptures. Genesis would be a guiding light, providing the time-tested descriptive model foundational to our Scriptural hermeneutics.
In order to assess the hermeneutic method applied within Genesis, during the times which the book describes, we simply examine in Genesis the occurrences of God speaking and the responses of those who heard. The questions addressed here include whether or not God’s initial audiences took Him only literally or whether they instead or additionally perceived that He intended a deeper meaning than what would be normally signified by the words that were verbally expressed. The responses are categorized as follows: Category 1 (C1) responses are those providing evidence that the initial speech act was intended for literal understanding only; category 2 (C2) responses are those providing evidence that the initial speech act was intended for any understanding beyond the literal meaning of the words verbally expressed. In eighty-four passages in Genesis, we observe at least seventy-one C1’s and not a single C2.52
Other than the eighty-four verses in Genesis evidencing a model for interpreting Scripture, there are ten similar passages in Job that provide a secondary support to the monolithic hermeneutic method evident thus far in Genesis. In each instance of Divine speech acts in Job, the speaker is identified as “the Lord.”53 In these ten verses, we find ten C1’s and zero C2’s. Notably, one of the C1 responses is from God, Himself.54 Job’s record of God’s speech acts and the responses indicates there is no deviation from the pattern modeled in Genesis. Further, Job’s response to God’s use of metaphorical language in chapters 40-41 indicates that the Divine use of figurative language did not change the expectation that what was verbally expressed should be interpreted in a basic, face-value, common-sense way. In short, the addition of figurative language did not result in any adjustment to the hermeneutic method.
In examination of the ninety-four passages in Genesis and Job that record Divine speech acts, the evidence is overwhelming (eighty-one C1’s to absolutely zero C2’s) that God intended for His words to be taken at face value, using a plain-sense interpretive approach. The hermeneutic method that reflects this straightforward methodology has become known as the literal grammatical historical hermeneutic. This method recognizes that verbal expression has meaning rooted in and inseparable from the grammatical and historical context of the language used, and that these components require that readers be consistent in applying the interpretive method in their study of the Scriptures.
Because of the two-thousand-year precedent evident in Genesis and Job, any departure from the simplicity of this method bears a strong exegetical burden of proof, requiring that there be explicit exegetical support for any change one might perceive as necessary in handling later Scriptures. Absent any such exegetical data, we can conclude that (1) hermeneutic methodology for understanding Scripture is not arbitrary but is instead plainly modeled, and that (2) later Scriptures should be understood in light of the hermeneutic precedent provided by Genesis and Job.
1 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
2 2 Timothy 3:10-11.
3 Matthew 4:4, from Deuteronomy 8:3.
4 Matthew 4:11.
5 Portions of this section adapted from Christopher Cone, “Authority of Scripture and Hermeneutic Method as Historical and Continual Bases for Christian Unity and the Collaborative Avenues They Imply,” a paper presented to the Florovsky Week Symposium, Newman University, Wichita, Kansas, July 11, 2018.
6 Catechism, 92.
7 Ibid., 169.
8 Ibid., 82.
9 Ibid., 552.
10 Pope Pius XII, “Divino Afflante Spirito,” Paragraph 9.
11 Ibid., 14.
13 Ibid., 16.
15 Ibid., 19.
16 Ibid, 20.
17 Ibid., 21.
19 Ibid., 22.
20 E.g., 2 Maccabees considers prayer and sacrificial offerings for the dead, the merits of the martyrs, and intercession of saints; Tobit 12:9 and 14:11 seems to suggest that almsgiving purges sin; 1 Maccabees 2:52 suggests that Abraham’s passing the test was reckoned to him as righteousness, not his believe in the Lord (as in Gen 15:6); 2 Maccabees 12:41-45 presents the doctrine of purgatory; and 2 Maccabees also considers sacrificial offerings for the dead, the merits of the martyrs, and intercession of saints, etc.
21 Catechism, 161.
23 Ibid., 162.
24 Pope Pius XII, “Divino Afflante Spirito,” 23.
25 Catechism, 112-114.
26 Frederic Farrar, History of Interpretation (London: McMillan and Co., 1886), 327.
27 Catechism, 115-117.
28 Cornelius Van Til, The New Hermeneutic (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), 180.
29Kevin DeYoung, “Your Theological System Should Tell You How to Exegete,” The Gospel Coalition, February, 23, 2012, viewed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/your-theological-system-should-tell-you-how-to-exegete/.
31 Kevin DeYoung, “Theological Primer: The 144,000,” The Gospel Coalition, April 28, 2017, viewed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/theological-primer-the-144000/.
34 Mt 16:28-17:2; 2 Pet 1:16-18.
35 2 Pet 1:19-21.
36 2 Pet 1:21.
37 E.g., Heb 1:1.
38 2 Tim 3:16-17.
39 1 Cor 13:1-13.
41 1 Cor 14:22.
42 Acts 2:36-38, 10:45-46, 19:5-6.
43 1 Cor 13:9.
45 Greek, to telion.
46 Greek, ek merous.
47 Rev 22:18-20.
48 Jn 16:13-14.
49 Mt 28:20.
50 2 Pet 1:21.
51 C.f., Gen 1:27 and 5:1.
52 Christopher Cone, Priority in Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Method (Raymore, MO: Exegetica Publishing, 2017), 17-36.
53 Heb. Yahweh.
54 Job 40:6.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.