The Use of Scripture in Theology, Part 5

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Remaining Considerations

In The Nick of Time
Everyone knows that theologians disagree. Even theologians who claim the Bible as their absolute authority will nevertheless disagree about some of what the Bible teaches. One reason for this disagreement is that the propositions of Scripture, taken at face value, sometimes seem to support different (and occasionally incompatible) theological conclusions.

This situation is not unique to theology. In every sphere of human inquiry, students encounter evidence that points in contrary directions. In order to master any discipline, students must learn how to evaluate and weigh the evidence. They must make decisions about which evidence will be used to support their conclusions and which evidence will have to be explained, or even explained away.

Christian theologians believe that the teachings of Scripture never ultimately contradict one another. They are committed to the task of finding theological solutions that do justice to all of the biblical evidence. In order to do this, they must make decisions about which evidence will be used to support their conclusions and which evidence will be explained in view of other evidence.

These choices do involve an element of judgment and skill, but they are not purely subjective. Good theologians wish to be guided by methods that will minimize the guesswork and subjective elements while maximizing their ability to hear the biblical text speaking for itself. They have developed several methodological tests that help them to determine which biblical evidence should be given priority.

The first test was discussed in detail in the previous essay. It is the test of intention. A passage of Scripture that intends to answer a question or discuss a topic is of greater relevance than a text that merely touches on it incidentally. Because of their relevance, deliberate passages should be given greater weight than the incidental passages.

The second test is the test of prescription. Some passages of Scripture intend to address a topic prescriptively while others address it only descriptively. Prescriptive passages are of greater relevance to doctrine and practice than descriptive passages.

A descriptive passage is one that simply states what happened at a particular time and a particular place. The fact that a particular thing happened, or that God required a particular person to behave in a certain way, does not necessarily express a timeless requirement that applies to all of God’s people. For example, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, but no one takes this as a biblical pattern for parenting. Old Testament Israelites were forbidden to eat shellfish, but this prohibition was never applied to the New Testament church. The members of the Jerusalem congregation held their possessions in common, but this practice is nowhere advocated as a general pattern for all churches.

A prescriptive passage is one that intends to state whether and how a thing should be done. It places an obligation upon the Lord’s people and requires obedience to its teachings. While descriptive passages focus upon what was, prescriptive passages focus upon what ought to be.

Not all passages are easy to distinguish into the prescriptive and descriptive categories. Historical writing is normally descriptive, but prescriptive teaching may be embedded in the narrative. Likewise, didactic writing may contain narrative descriptions of specific events.

Suppose a theologian is trying to answer the question, “Must a New Testament church have more than one elder?” Many passages indicate that the apostolic churches often (usually? always?) had more than one elder. These are clearly descriptive references. In Titus 1:5, Paul made a specific reference to an incident in which he told Titus to ordain (plural) elders in each (singular) city, which most likely implies a plurality of elders in each church. What is not clear is whether Paul intended this to be a prescription for all churches at all times in all places, or whether it was meant simply as a statement about what he had Titus do on one particular occasion. In 1 Timothy 3, however, Paul told Timothy that he intended to give prescriptions regarding church order (1 Tim. 3:15). When deciding whether plural elders are required, the theologian must give priority to the instruction of 1 Timothy 3. The question should be, “Does anything in 1 Timothy 3 require a plurality of elders?” This is a proper application of the test of prescription.

A third test that theologians can employ is the test of clarity. When they weigh biblical evidence, clear passages should take priority over obscure passages. This is one of the oldest and most basic criteria of good theological method.

The problem arises in deciding which passages are clear and which passages are obscure. Theologians have become notorious for disputes about clarity. One theologian is convinced that John 10 clearly teaches eternal security and interprets other passages in the light of that confidence. Another theologian is convinced that Hebrews 10 denies eternal security and reads John 10 in the light of that conclusion. In the face of such differences, the test of clarity might appear to be quite subjective.

Perhaps the principle could be stated in other terms. Consider two passages that treat the same topic. One passage could bear multiple interpretations (it might mean this or it might mean that) while the other passage is capable of only one interpretation (it could only mean that). The test of clarity states that the theologian must understand the first (equivocal) passage in the light of the second (univocal) one.

Arians are fond of pointing to passages that speak of Jesus as “begotten.” When they read these passages they assume that begetting must imply beginning. Therefore, they reason that since Jesus was begotten, He must have had a beginning.

As Acts 13:33 makes clear, however, begetting does not entail beginning. This verse indicates that Psalm 2:7 (“Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee”) was fulfilled when Jesus rose from the dead. Since no one argues that Jesus came into existence at the resurrection, begetting must refer to something other than beginning.

At best, then, “begetting” language is ambiguous. On the other hand, the declaration of John 1:1 is quite clear. Here, John employed the qualitative anarthrous predicate nominative to indicate that Jesus (the Word) possessed all the qualities of deity. The teaching of John 1:1 quite definitely supports the eternal deity of Christ while the teaching of the “begetting” passages is only ambiguously against His deity. Since the more clear passage must be given interpretive weight over the less clear passage, Christians understand the Bible to teach the deity of Christ, and they interpret the begetting passages consistently with His deity.

The analogy of faith depends upon at least these three tests: intention, prescription, and clarity. Other tests may be possible, but these three are indispensable. While they do not eliminate all judgment and subjectivity from the process of grounding theology in Scripture, they do provide a mechanism by which theologians can discipline their prejudices. If these tests were more widely understood and more consistently applied, the distance between some theologies could be reduced significantly. Even where differences remained, they could be more readily subjected to a standard of comparison. No theological application of Scripture should be accepted unless it can pass these tests.

Splendidis Longum Valedico Nugis

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

Leave me, O Love, which reaches but to dust;
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never taketh rust;
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings.
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth the light,
That doth both shine and give us sight to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heaven, and comes of heavenly breath.
Then farewell, world; thy uttermost I see;
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.

Kevin BauderThis essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
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