The Art of Biblical History, by V. Philips Long. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994. 247 pp. (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. H. Hanko.]
This volume is Volume 5 in a series of seven books on biblical hermeneutics with the general title, “Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation,” some of which we have previously reviewed. The series is edited by Moisés Silva, professor of New Testament in Westminster East. The author of this volume is associate professor of Old Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary.
This is the fourth volume in this seven-volume series which I have read; and it grieves me that I have not yet read one volume which is faithful to the historic and confessional truth of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This volume too is quite clear evidence that these great truths have been abandoned by most of the seminaries in our country.
This book is a bad book.
It is true that there are passing references to inspiration; and the author makes it clear from time to time that he wants to be included with those who hold to Scripture as the Word of God. One can find such references on pages 28, 29, 57, 75, for example. But they are, so to speak, a mere tipping of the hat to the historic faith and, I am convinced, a dubious and not very successful effort to leave the impression with the readership that the author is orthodox. But it is deceptive.
The author is dealing with the history of the Bible and confronts in over 200 pages the question: Is the Bible, in its historical narratives, history?
Now one does not need 200 pages for that. The question can be answered, one would think, with a simple Yes or No. But the book does not answer the question with a simple Yes or No, but rather with a Yes and No. And that takes 200 pages!
Not only does it take 200 pages, but it takes 200 pages of some extremely obscure writing which requires advanced degrees to understand. One would think that a professor who claims to be orthodox in his view of Scripture and who would want to train men to teach God’s people to interpret and study Scripture would be able to write clearly and simply. But instead one gets a paragraph like the following as important for understanding whether the Bible is history.
At this stage the interpreter is sharpening the question of the text’s truth claim. The genre descriptor, historiography, already implies a basic claim to referentiality; the added nuance is to ask after the level of detail and precision intended. What kind of likeness of reality is the narrator attempting to create? When once a decision on this matter is reached, the interpreter is faced with a second question, How capable is the narrator of achieving his intention? ….
And so on, and on, and on….
One can easily get tangled in all kinds of spurious and deceptive argumentation if one loses sight of the main question. Once again, the question which has to be faced is: When Scripture narrates history, did events take place exactly as Scripture says they did? The believer in Scripture says Yes! Dr. Long says No! The believer says, as Spurgeon did: “If the Bible said Jonah swallowed a whale, I would believe it.” Dr. Long says, Nonsense!
How does Dr. Long go about what amounts to a flat denial of the historicity of biblical narrative?
It is a long and tedious process and takes over 200 pages — not one single page of which will be of any help to an anxious child of God who wants help in interpreting Scripture. It is a fundamental sellout to higher criticism and higher critical methods. It is a subtle attack on the truth which requires a more detailed refutation than can be given in one book review.
But the author gives himself away in the title of the book: “The Art of Biblical History.”
By speaking of “the art” of biblical history, the author means to say that the historical narratives of Scripture can be compared with a painting. A man may paint a picture of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. If one would ask: “Is the painting true to the reality?” the answer would be, “Yes and No.” It depicts the Grand Canyon all right, but you must understand that the artist could not reproduce it exactly; and the artist retains his artistic rights to include in his painting interpretation. So biblical history is historical all right, but things did not necessarily happen the way the Bible says they did. After all, writing history can never be true to history anyway (pp. 68ff.).
Having committed himself to that position, the author finds himself in some strange waters.
The historical narratives of Scripture are said by the author to be fiction, although it must be added that he seems to define fiction as artistic writing of history (pp. 62ff.). How he does this is so difficult to understand that I was quite at a loss to follow him.
One can, following Long’s thesis, say that history is never merely history (p. 68); that faithfulness to the facts allows for freedom in dealing with the facts (p. 70) [One can imagine what would happen in a court of law if a witness tried that!]; that the historicity of a passage depends on its own truth claim, something not always so easy to determine (pp. 95ff.); that archeological evidence may cast doubt to some extent on the historicity of Scripture (p. 117); and that the mere fact that a story is realistic does not guarantee its historicity (p. 179). The tests one must apply to determine the historicity of a passage are so many, so elaborate, so complicated that no one unskilled in higher criticism could possibly apply them. And let it be understood: This leaves the ordinary child of God without any way of determining whether biblical history is truly history or not. It takes very little imagination to see what this does to his faith when his whole faith rests squarely on the historicity of Scripture!
The author applies all this to a few specific historical narratives in Scripture. One example will show us what happens. Talking about the way in which Saul became king over Israel the author says: “One may affirm the total trustworthiness of the Bible and still hold only a qualified assurance that Saul became king [as the Bible says he did].”
This kind of double-talk indeed has to take 200 pages to be made sensible. But let it be clearly understood: The Bible is destroyed in that kind of argumentation, and God’s people have nothing left as the ground of their faith.
Let it be affirmed one more time. The question is: Did events happen just exactly as Scripture says they did? To this the believer says: Yes! A thousand times, Yes! My salvation depends upon it! And he says this in spite of all the “learned” efforts to destroy that faith.
Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, by R. C. Sproul. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995 pp. 221. $15.99. (hardcover). [Reviewed by Prof. Robert D. Decker.]
Recently a group of leading evangelicals (Charles Colson, James I. Packer, et. al.) collaborated with a group of Roman Catholic theologians to produce a document called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT). The purpose of this venture is to articulate a common basis upon which Roman Catholics and Evangelicals can cooperate together in combatting certain evils manifest in American culture. Among these evils are abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, etc.
This book provides a critique of the ECT document and the movement it represents. In Faith Alone Sproul argues convincingly that Rome has not changed one whit since the 16th century Reformation. Putting aside such serious departures as Rome’s mariolatry, the Mass and transubstantiation, papal infallibility, and more, Rome with its false doctrines of the church and infused righteousness denies both the formal principle of the Reformation (Sola Scriptura, Scripture is the only authority for the faith and life of the Christian) and the material principle of the Reformation (Sola Fide, Justification is by grace alone through faith alone). Sproul points out that these errors do not lie on the periphery, but are radical departures from the truth of the Word of God. By maintaining these errors Rome denied the Gospel itself and was regarded, therefore, by the Reformers as a false church. Rome ought to be regarded by evangelicals today as a false church. Sproul contends, and rightly so, that, “The question in the sixteenth century remains in dispute. Is justification by faith alone a necessary and essential element of the gospel? Must a church confess sola fide in order to be a true church? Or can a church reject or condemn justification by faith alone and still be a true church? The Reformers certainly did not think so. Apparently the framers and signers of ECT think otherwise…. It seems clear that ECT assumes that Rome is a true church and that whatever doctrinal differences divide her from Evangelicalism, though they may be serious, they are not essential to true Christianity or to personal salvation” (p. 30).
The conclusion must be there is no doctrinal basis for cooperation between Rome and evangelicals.
The book is well documented and contains an extensive bibliography. The book’s value and usefulness are enhanced by three indices: a General Index, an Index of Persons, and an Index of Scripture. It also includes a nice, brief summary of the history of the sixteenth century Reformation and its key figures.
All who wish to say with Martin Luther over against Rome’s fundamental errors concerning Scripture and justification, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me,” will want to read this book.
To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the Westminster Assembly. Ed. John L. Carson and David W. Hall. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994. pp. xiv-338. $32.95 (paper). [Reviewed by Prof. Herman Hanko.]
The Westminster Confessions of 1643 have given theological, church political, and liturgical form to Presbyterianism throughout the world. In 1993, in commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the beginning of the Westminster Assembly, a number of noted Presbyterian thinkers gathered in Westminster Abbey in London. The speeches which were delivered at that meeting have been incorporated in book form under a title which is taken from the first question and answer of the Shorter Catechism.
Although many books have been written about the Assembly and its work, this present book makes a noteworthy contribution to the literature. All who are interested in Presbyterianism ought to read it.
Several speeches were made which dealt with the history preceding the Assembly, the reasons for which it was called, and the work of the Assembly itself. Some very interesting and important aspects of this history are brought to light.
We are told that the absence of the delegates for long periods of time (the Assembly met for five years and some delegates were present for the entire period) left the churches vulnerable to sectarian influences. The assembly was under the complete control of Parliament and thus was implicitly Erastian in its constitution; all the more reason why it was significant that a firm presbyterian form of church government emerged. Various parties were represented at the Assembly, and often times difficult and divisive matters were postponed as together the men worked at a consensus on these questions.
The book is thorough. Analyses of the Westminster Confession, the Shorter and Longer Catechism, the Directory of Public Worship, and the Form of Church Government are all discussed and analyzed.
A particularly excellent chapter on the debate in the Assembly over presbyterian church government is included, and one can learn much concerning the unique character of Westminster church polity by reading it.
A helpful chapter on the Directory of Public Worship gives much insight into the regulative principle of worship as interpreted by the Westminster divines.
A delightful quote from Bishop Ussher (himself not present at the Assembly) is worth quoting. “Why [ought Catechetical instruction be given] at home? Because houses are the Nurseries of the Church.”
That these speeches have been made available in book form is reason for gratitude. One cannot read the book without a sense of appreciation for the work of these notable men.