What does it mean to read the Bible as inspired literature? The method is not new nor is it uncommon in Dutch Reformed circles. Exegesis must be Christocentric, plenary (all the text serves a theological purpose), respect the context in God’s redemptive plan, and plumb the full literary depth of the writing.
I have written numerous books of Biblical exposition. Because of some noise that has been generated by a few persons who have personal grudges against me and/or my publisher, I am occasionally asked to “justify my approach” to the Bible. I have been formally or informally accused of being “speculative,” of “sleight-of-hand exegesis,” of “symbolism,” of “neo-Kabbalism,” and of some other things that decency causes me to omit from this list. (At least one of my critics has his mind in the gutter.) I’m really not interested in defending myself from these charges. Considering what I know about their sources, it is hard for me to take them seriously. They have, however, wound their way around in some circles, and from time to time people who bear me no personal ill will have asked me about them, so I’ll begin this discussion with a few remarks in my own defense.
I don’t believe that there is anything in principle really new or unusual in what I wrote in The Law of the Covenant: An Exposition of Exodus 21-23 (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), in Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985), or in Sabbath Breaking and the Death Penalty: A Theological Investigation (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1986). In my opinion, those who think my methods or conclusions are “weird” are people who simply have not been trained in how to read and expound the Bible.
Some of my friends, who have responded by praising my work as “innovative,” are also wrong, I believe. There may be some innovations in my work, but I don’t think there are very many, and I don’t think they are in the area of method. They don’t appear to be innovative to me. I believe that it is simply that I have written in a somewhat practical and popular style, with the result that what is “old hat” in scholarly circles and in some Dutch Reformed circles is now, as a result of my labors, getting noticed in quarters heretofore unexposed thereto. Later on in this essay I shall call attention to other exegetes who, I believe, have done neither more nor less than I have.
So, I don’t think my work is either weird or innovative.
I offer as evidence of this that John Frame was willing to write an Introduction to The Law of the Covenant. Professor Frame read over the manuscript and gave me ten single-spaced pages of helpful interaction and advice. He stated in his remarks that he thought my work was sound and challenging, even though he was not persuaded on all points. In other words, he did not think the book or its methods were strange, weird, arcane, inimitable, sleight-of-hand, or anything else like that.
I offer as evidence the fact that I taught the first half of Judges in Sunday School in a Philadelphia church, and four members of the Westminster Theological Seminary faculty were in attendance. At no time did any of these men take me aside and say, “Watch out, now! You’re getting pretty weird.” Actually, from their comments, they enjoyed the class. They may not have agreed with every jot and tittle, but they did not attack my method. I have in my file a kind letter from Dr. Cornelius Van Til, a regular member of the class, in which he writes warmly of my teaching of Judges.
I offer as evidence the fact that I received a friendly note from a professor of interpretation at a leading seminary, after he had read Sabbath Breaking. He stated that he was not fully convinced of my thesis, but that I had certainly tackled a tough issue, and made a valid contribution to the ongoing discussion of the Church.
So you can see why I tend not to take my critics very seriously. Men whom I respect deeply, men well trained in the fields of theology and exegesis, have shown respect and appreciation for my efforts. They don’t seem to regard my work as weird or strange, nor do they seem to regard it as methodologically new, innovative, or challenging. From what I can tell, I’m really not out of the mainstream. This is no imprimatur, of course, and these men would doubtless not hesitate to take issue with me on certain points, but they have never indicated any problem with the method I have employed. That’s because there is really nothing new or strange about that method.
I do not see myself as a theologian or as an innovator. My ideal has been to be a Bible teacher. As a Bible teacher, I have oriented my writing and teaching toward the Church – broadly speaking – rather than the academy.2 I am guilty, however, of doing three new things. Nobody else has done these things in recent years, at least in Bible-believing, Reformed, evangelical circles. First of all, I am guilty of writing a commentary on Exodus 21-23. I don’t believe in the history of the Church anybody before me ever put out a whole book on these three chapters.3 So, though I had a lot to build upon, I also had a lot of spadework to do.
Commentaries on Romans are a dime a dozen. There is not very much stuff on Exodus 21-23, at least not by orthodox believers. So, I did my best with some very problematic passages. I never claimed to be saying the last word, only a helpful word. In fact, I’ve changed my mind on several matters since.
Secondly, I am guilty of writing a Biblical-theological commentary on Judges in plain English so that the royal priesthood as well as the servant priesthood can read it. Shall I apologize for this? I tried to show the Christocentric relevance of each of the stories, and since Christ is revealed in the Old Testament stories in typology, my commentary was unashamedly typological in character. I find I cannot apologize for this.
Now of course, there are other commentaries on Judges. Some are by liberals and spend all their time discussing supposed sources and supposed pagan influences on the text. Some are by conservatives, but are addressed to scholars and pastors and deal mainly with exegetical details. Some are popular and written for “laymen,” but are moralistic in character.”* In English, however, I do not know of an existing theological commentary on Judges (though Fausset, as I pointed out in my book, comes close). The background for my approach is to be found in the theological and hermeneutical writings of Klaas Schilder and in Promise and Deliverance by S. G. de Graaf. I shall call attention to this in more detail later in this essay.
And third, I am guilty of writing a monograph on the problem of the death penalty for sabbath breaking under the Old Covenant. I don’t believe anybody else has ever written extensively on this. A variety of explanations have been proposed for this law, and I have tried my hand at it. I may be wrong in my conclusions. I may have made a faux pas at some point or other in my argument. But there is nothing methodologically peculiar about what I wrote.
I should say this as well. Nobody has ever criticized me concretely regarding any aspect of my method. The few people who have criticized my published books have simply made sweeping generalizations, using words like “dangerous,” “speculative,” and “esoteric.” What can I say? I don’t agree that I am dangerous, speculative, or esoteric. Most other readers don’t think so either. Until or unless one of these critics comes up with something specific in the way of criticism, I really cannot reply, or interact. (Friendly reviewers have raised specific points, and I am happy for their criticisms and interactions, but the friendly reviewers have not attacked my methods.)
A Theological Exegetical Method
So, what is my “method”? Well, to start with, it is not “mine.” I don’t believe there is anything new in the approaches I’ve taken. I learned them from others. But as regards method, I set it out in the Introduction to Judges, and for reasons that I shall explain in a moment, I find it hard to go much beyond what I wrote there. But, here goes.
First, I believe all the Bible is given to reveal Christ. The Bible is first of all a Tree of Life, to point us to Christ, and secondly a Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, to show us how to reign.5 We have to keep this order in mind. We must feed on Christ before we can take up trowel or sword. To the extent that we fail to keep this order in mind, we fall into a form of legalism or moralism. Some of the noise about The Law of the Covenant arose from legalistic circles who objected to my “symbolic” approach to many of the laws. What I was trying to do, not very successfully in some cases, was show how each law revealed Christ, and this forced me to typological and symbolic exegesis. For instance, Exodus 21:28-30 deals with the case of an ox rising up to gore a man. Does this relate to Christ? It certainly seems so (Psalm 22:12). It may also shed light on the history of Israel between A.D. 30 and 70.
So, I plead guilty to Christocentric exegesis. At least, I plead guilty to striving for it. The Law of the Covenant is at best a crude specimen, as I am all too well aware. To expound the law adequately, we have to ask what this law meant to the people at that time, in terms of the horizon of the Mosaic covenant as a package affair. Then we have to ask how this law was fulfilled by Christ. Then we have to ask how the Church, in union with Christ, manifests the fulfillment of this law. And fourth and finally, we ask what possible relevance this law may have for believers in the new covenant situation. (I believe this same four-fold method is very important in dealing with symbolism and typology, as in the Tabernacle and sacrificial system.) If I live to revise The Law of the Covenant. I shall make this method much more transparent.
But there is absolutely nothing new about Christocentric exegesis, or about typology.
Second, I believe that every detail in the text is there for a specific theological reason. The Bible is not first and foremost entertainment (though it does, obviously, have a very intense artistic dimension). It does not give us details of time, place, geography, number, etc., simply to “create a sense of reality.” That is what novelists do, but that is not what the Bible does. I believe this very firmly, and I believe those who dismiss the details of the text as “unimportant” or as “mere literary color” are guilty of neglecting the work of the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe the Spirit wastes His breath. The books of the Bible do indeed have literary beauty, and we should appreciate this. But such literary beauty is not “art for art’s sake.” The details are there to add to the revelation Christ and His Church.
I tried to apply this consistently in Judges, taking note of the fact that Samson’s mother’s name is not given, though she is a major figure, while his father’s name is given, though he is a minor figure. There is a reason for this, and it is a theological reason. I may not have uncovered it, but at least I did not ignore it.
Academic commentaries tend to avoid theological exegesis in the interest of neutrality. Popular commentaries tend to sidestep theological exegesis and focus on moral lessons. So, by highlighting theological exegesis I may have appeared to some people to be doing something new, but there is nothing new about it.
Third, I believe that the text must be taken in its redemptive historical context. Books like Judges or Kings should not be read as novels. Nor should they be read in isolation from the rest of the canon. What they reveal to us can be clearly seen only if we take into account what has gonebefore. What did the people at this stage of history understand? What was their current covenantal context (Mosaic? Davidic? etc.). I believe that it is the Biblical, redemptive historical, covenantal context that is important, not the social context of the ancient Near East. The text is not expounded by drawing parallels to Ugaritic culture.7 Rather, the text has to be expounded by looking at the rest of Scripture. We look at the immediate context, at the overall literary structures and themes of the book as a whole, and at the position of this revelation in terms of covenantal history.
The books of Samuel, for instance, begin with the rending of the Mosaic covenant, both in its polity and in its symbolism (the Tabernacle). The books of Samuel describe the process by which God pounded the nation into a new form, and brought in a new covenant. Thus, they end with a new polity in place, and the site of the Temple selected. This is where the book fits in covenant history.
But there is nothing new about expounding the text this way. It is exactly what I was taught in class at both Reformed and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
Well, I’ve said exegesis should look for Christ, take the details seriously, and take the wider context seriously. I don’t really know what else to say.
James B. Jordan is Director of Biblical Horizons and Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis. This essay was first published in Biblical Horizons in 2010.
- I’ve written other books and monographs since these, but these three earlier writings are what called forth critical comment, so 1 shall reflect on them primarily here.
- By academy I do not mean seminaries, where the scholarship is (or should be) pastorally and ecclesiastically oriented. Rather, I have reference to the world of “university scholarship,” as reflected in technical Bible commentaries and technical journals. There is a place for such scholarship, but I do not believe it is my own gift and calling.
- By this I mean a book oriented toward Christians. There have been books on the subject by Jews and liberal academicians. They are referred to in my own book. For the most part, they have nothing to offer the Church.
- I have set out my objection to moralism below. Our interpretation must be Christocentric first of all. Moral lessons must come out of the theology of the text.
- On the difference, see my essay “Rebellion, Tyranny, and Dominion in the Book of Genesis,” in Gary North, ed..
Tactics of Christian Resistance (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1984); and see also the discussion in Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15- Word Biblical Commentary 1 (Waco, TX-. Word, 1987), pp. 62ff., and the literature cited there.
- I am not saying that any book written on the Mosaic Torah must mechanically set out these four steps for each law. My point is rather that whatever the expositor writes, or the preacher preaches, ought to reflect a sensitivity to these four considerations.
- I’m not saying ancient near east culture and parallels are worthless. Study of the culture can alert us to things in the Bible that we have over looked. It can stimulate thought, in other words. The backing for our interpretations, however, must come from inside the Bible.