BASICALLY, A QUESTION OF EXEGETICAL METHOD
In our previous editorial on this subject we pointed out the fact that from the outset the position of “The Free Offer of the Gospel” involves its proponents in flagrant contradictions concerning God’s will and concerning His attitude toward the reprobate.
Ultimately, of course, this whole question becomes a question of what Scripture itself teaches. I say “ultimately” because it is not—for a Reformed man—merely a question of Scripture, but also, and first of all, a question of the creeds. This, by the way, is something that is singularly ignored by the authors of “The Free Offer of the Gospel.” Nevertheless ultimately it becomes a question of what Scripture teaches on this score. This is plain also from the attempted appeal to Scripture in the booklet under discussion.
And this question is basically a question of exegetical method. Does Scripture contradict itself? Does Scripture present mutually exclusive truths? Does Scripture posit doctrines which stand diametrically opposed to one another? There is one method which holds this position: the method of appealing to isolated proof-texts. There is the Reformed method, however, which denies this: it is the method of presenting the current teaching of Scripture, or, the method of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Recently, in connection with this matter of the “free offer” and also in connection with the questions currently being treated in Question Box; I have been impressed anew with this matter of exegetical method.
And rather by coincidence, in connection with our Dutch Reading Class at seminary, I came across a thorough treatment of the question of exegetical method in the series of articles which the late Rev. Herman Hoeksema wrote in answer to the late Rev. Daniel Zwier’s writings on “God’s General Goodness.” Fortunately, these articles were also translated into the English language and published in a brochure entitled, “God’s Goodness Always Particular.” And because this chapter on exegetical method is very appropriate with a view to our current discussion, we are presenting it in this and the next issue of the Standard Bearer. [Incidentally, this 267-page brochure is now out of print—just in case any of our readers should think of obtaining it.]
Here follows the first installment of the chapter referred to.
In “God’s General Goodness”, XV the Rev. Zwier mites concerning our explanation of Ps. 145:9: “Yes, esteemed reader, this proof is so utterly weak, that for years it was a riddle to me, that one who possessed even a quarter of an ounce exegetical brains could permit himself to be convinced of it”.
He writes this in the erroneous imagination that we explain the text as meaning that “the Lord gives good gifts to all,” or “that the Lord is good to all His elect, and His tender mercies are over all things in the realm of redemption”.
Where, in any of our writings, he finds these interpretations of that text, he fails to mention.
But about this later.
Before I enter into these details, and before I submit the exegesis of various texts by the Rev. Zwier to criticism, I must refer to another, deeper and more fundamental difference between him and myself, a difference that determines our several exegetical results. There is here a fundamental difference with respect to the method of exegesis. It is this difference that explains why our interpretation of certain passages of Holy Writ impresses the Rev. Zwier as utterly incompetent, incompetent, so that after years of study he cannot even understand that one who has no more than a quarter of an ounce exegetical brains could accept such exegesis. Although I am not acquainted with the standard weight of a normal exegeticial brain, I take it that by this somewhat haughty and contemptuous figure of speech the Rev. Zwier intends to convey to his readers the opinion that our exegetical work is far below normal. We have attempted to explain how the Rev. Zwier could arrive at such a contemptuous judgment about our interpretation of the Word of God. And we came to the conclusion that there exists a deep and fundamental difference between his conception of the proper exegetical method and our own. What I consider exegesis according to the proper method he brands as a distortion of the text to suit. our awn notions; and, on the other hand, what he offers as exegesis of Scripture is, in our opinion, not worthy of the name.
It is imperative, therefore, that we, first of all, give ourselves account of this fundamental difference.
The difference does not, as the Rev. Zwier seems to think, consist in this that he simply lets Scripture speak for itself, while I impose my preconceived dogmatic notions upon the text of Holy Writ; but rather in this, that the Rev. Zwier proceeds on the assumption that interpretation of an individual text, apart from its connection with the current teaching of the Bible, is interpretation of Scripture; while I am convinced that the Word of God is one organic whole that presents us with the same teaching throughout, and that, for this very reason, one may very well explain a certain in text in the Bible without interpreting Scripture; that the whole of Scripture must be taken into consideration when we interpret any particular passage, so that, in other words, every text is explained according to theregula Scripturae, the current teaching of the Bible.
The entire Scriptural foundation on which the Rev. Zwier attempts to build tie superstructure of his doctrine of “God’s General Goodness” consists of a few, a very few individual passages of Scripture that superficially appear to support his view, but his interpretation of which stands directly opposed, not only to several other very clear texts of the Bible, but to the continuous teaching of Holy Writ. He is very well aware of this conflict. He admits it. But he openly refuses to make the attempt to explain Scripture in its own light.
In this chapter I shall show first of all, by means of a quotation from his articles, that the Rev. Zwier is, indeed, laboring according to this method; secondly, I hope to prove that this method of exegesis is certainly not Reformed; and, thirdly, I will call attention to the great danger of following this method.
First of all, then, a quotation from the Rev. Zwier’s articles. He writes (God’s General Goodness, XVI):
“Let us now attend to the second argument the deviating brethren usually adduce in explaining this passage of Scripture.
“Does not Scripture teach us clearly, so they ask, for instance in Psalm 73 and Psalm 92, that all the good gifts which the non-elect receive, are but so many means whereby the Lord realizes His eternal counsel of reprobation? In Psalm 73 Asaph first stares himself blind on the fact that the ungodly prosper and the righteous suffer in this world. He cannot understand why the ungodly have peace and increase their substance in the world, while he is being chastened all the day and plagued every morning. But when he enters into God’s sanctuary, he beholds the same things in a different light, in the light of God’s counsel and purpose with all these things. Now he notes that this peace and prosperity of the wicked are nothing but slippery places, on the which they are set by God in order presently to fall into eternal destruction.
“In Psalm 92 the same thought is expressed more strongly when it is said that all the wicked grow as the grass and all the workers of iniquity do flourish, thatthey may be destroyed forever. And note the little wordthat, which here denotes the purpose of the Lord.
“Hence, thus is their conclusion, all the good gifts which the Lord bestows upon the non-elect, He gives them in His wrath and great anger. Expressions as are found in Ps. 145:9 and Acts 14:16, 17 must be interpreted in harmony with this. How, then, can one so interpret these texts that they speak of a favorable disposition in God toward the ungodly?
“Our answer to this question is very simple: Because Scripture teaches us this.
“We do not attempt in a rationalistic manner to interpret these two series of Scriptural passages in harmony with each other.”
Let this one illustration from the Rev. Zwier’s writings suffice.
According to him, we are dealing here with two “series” of Scriptural passages that stand in direct-opposition of each other, so that the one text teaches us the exact opposite from what is taught in the other, and they are mutually exclusive. In the one “series” we are taught, according to him, that God in bestowing the things of the present life upon the ungodly is merciful to them; in the other that, even in the bestowal of these things, he hates them, is filled with wrath, and purposes to cast them down into destruction. Now we might expect that in reverence to Holy Writ the Rev. Zwier would reason as follows: Both cannot be true; both the Scriptures cannot teach, for in that it would flatly contradict itself; one of these series of passages I, therefore, misunderstand; let me examine my interpretation of both these series once more in order that I may come to a correct understanding of the true teaching of the Bible on this point. But this he emphatically refuses to do. He does not even want to make an attempt, to put forth the least effort to explain the Bible in its own light. It is even his avowed opinion that such an attempt would be rationalistic! And the result is that he arrives at the conclusion that both are true. God’s yea is also nay!
He might have found sufficient reason to review his exegesis of the one “series” of texts in the light of the other, in Psalm 73. For, that Psalm teaches us plainly that Asaph labored under the illusion that God is good and gracious to the ungodly in the things of this present lifeonly as long as he did not view things in their proper light! He discovered his mistake as soon as he viewed the same things in the light of the reu1ity of God’s counsel! How natural it would have been for the Rev. Zwier to draw the conclusion that he also labored under the same illusion as did the psalmist of old, and that he misinterpreted the one “series” of texts only because he did not view them in the proper light, and that he would have to change his exegesis the moment he studied these texts in the light Asaph received from the sanctuary of God! But in spite of all this the Rev. Zwier refuses to interpret Scripture in its own light.
When he meets with a “series” of texts that plainly teach that God’s grace is always particular, while His wrath abideth on the ungodly even in this present life; and, on the other hand, finds passages that superficially appear to teach that God’s grace is common and general, he simply leaves them stand side by side, in glaring contradiction with each other, and says: both are true!
It is this method of interpreting the Bible which I do not accept. I am deeply convinced that this method must needs lead to a distortion of the meaning of Holy Writ. It does not lead us to the true Word of God. Word-interpretation is no Scripture-interpretation, even though it may superficially appear to be such. Interpretation of individual texts is no interpretation of the Word of God, although both for the writer and for the reader it may represent by far the easier method to follow. It is with this as it is with many a sermon; that are praised as very clear and convincing. They explain every word of a certain text. But they fail to explain the text in the light of the whole of Scripture. And because of this such sermons are unworthy of the name: “ministry of the Word of God”.
I wholeheartedly condemn this method.
How thoroughly unreformed the doctrine of “common grace” is may be gathered from the fact that it can be maintained only on the basis of an exegesis of the Bible that proceeds according to this erroneous method of interpretation. When I write only on this basis I assume that the Rev. Zwier this time offered us his very best to prove the theory of “common grace.”
This method of interpreting the Bible was never accepted as correct by those that believed and defended the truth of God’s absolute predestination, but was always condemned by them as in conflict with the unity of the Word of God.
On the other hand, it was always applied by the Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians and Arminians.
Already that arch-opponent, of the doctrine of sovereign grace, Julian, urged against the doctrine of Augustine the objection that the Scriptures in such passages as e.g. I Tim. 2:4 (this last text is also adduced by the Rev, Zwier, following the example of the Synod of 1924, to sustain the doctrine of “common grace”) plainly teach that God wills that all men shall be saved and is merciful to all men. But what does the great church-father answer the heretic? He speaks of three (possible explanations of I Tim. 2:4, viz.: 1. That the wordall in the text means all of [whom God wild that they shall bi saved, for it is certain that no one can be saved contrary to His will. (Enchir. 103). 2. All classes of people are meant, not all individual men. 3. All that will1 be saved by virtue of the new will infused by God (C.J. XXII, 2). And how did Augustine arrive at these possible interpretations? Simply by explaining them in the light of the expression in Scripture to which he refers very frequently, and which is also quoted by Calvin in a similar connection, that God is in the heavens and doeth all His good pleasure, and that, therefore, if God hath performed all He willed, He certainly cannot have willed what He did not and does not perform. And for this same reason he explains the goodness of God that leadeth us to repentance, mentioned in Rom. 2:4, as referring only to the elect:quem praedestinavit adducit. (Cf. Dr. Polman: De Predestinatieleer etc. p. 98).
If the Rev. Zwier had lived in the days of Augustine he would, no doubt, have taken sides with the heretic Julian, and would have remarked that one who possessed but a quarter of an ounce exegetical brains would not permit himself to be led astray by such exegesis!
But we prefer by far the method followed by Augustine.
John Calvin follows the same method as Augustine. Also he was confronted more than once by his opponents by the text from I Tim. 2:4. And how does he reply to this objection? He writes (inst. Book III, cap. XXIV, par. 16):
“I reply that, in the first place, it becomes evident from the sequel of the words in what sense He wills this. For, Paul connects these matters, viz. that He wills that they be saved, and that they come to the knowledge of the truth. If they contend that it is firmly determined in God’s eternal counsel that all receive the doctrine of salvation, what does it mean, then, what Moses says: ‘For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them?’ How did it come that God deprived so many people of the light of the gospel, which others enjoy? What is the cause, that the pure knowledge of the doctrine of salvation never came to some nations, and that others hardly tasted some dark beginnings of the same? From this one may readily discern what Paul means. He had commanded Timothy to make public prayers for kings and magistrates, and while it appeared somewhat absurd that prayers to God should be made for those whose condition seemed well-nigh hopeless—seeing that they were not only strangers to the body of Christ, but also exerted themselves and all their powers to oppress His kingdom—therefore, he adds immediately that such prayers are well pleasing to God, Who will that all men shall Abe saved. By which he means to say nothing else, indeed, than that He did not close the way of salvation to any kind of people, but much rather effused His mercy in such wise, that He does not will that there be any class of people that should not partake of this salvation. The other expressions declare, not what God determined in His secret counsel concerning all, but proclaim that remission of sin is prepared for all that apply themselves to seek it. For if they urge the objection that He is said to be willing to show mercy unto all, I will bring against this what is written in another place: that our God is in the heavens and doeth whatsoever He will (Ps. 115:3).Hence, this passage will have to be interpreted in such wise that it agrees with the other, viz. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy (Ex. 33:19). (I underscore, H.H.)
The above is a very clear illustration of the method of interpretation applied to the Word of God by Calvin. First he refers to Deut. 4:7 to show that God sovereignly determines who shall come to the knowledge of the truth and who shall not receive that knowledge, in order then, in the light of that truth to interpret I Tim. 2:4. And if the opponents still object that Scripture clearly teaches that God will show mercy to all, he replies that such expressions must be explained in the light of others, such as Ps. 115:3 (often appealed to also by Augustine), and Ex. 33:19.
The Rev. Zwier must have nothing of this method of explaining Scripture. He considers it rationalistic. He differs principally from Calvin. (I say principally, for he that applies a wrong method of interpretation to Scripture must needs distort the foundation of the truth and exposes himself to every wind of error). He refuses to compare Scripture with itself; especially to interpret those texts that superficially considered appear to teach “common grace” in the light of the many others that plainly teach the very opposite. He insists that he will maintain both. And presently, if he does not relinquish this fatal method, he will be forced by the power of that “wretched human logic” to discard one of the two contradictory propositions, and have nothing left but “common grace.” And if himself can remain sufficiently inconsistent to avoid this danger, his readers surely will draw the conclusion that God’s grace is always common.
Allow me to refer to one more illustration from the same paragraph of Calvin’s Institute:
“They appear to bring us into greater difficulty by opposing to our view the passage in Peter (II Pet. 3:9) that God does not will that any should perish, but will receive all unto repentance. But how to untie this knot we learn immediately from the second member of this declaration; for by this will to receive unto repentancemay be understood no other than is taught everywhere in Scripture. (I underscore, H.H.) Indeed, repentance is in the hand of God; it is proper, therefore, that we ask Him whether He will bring all to repentance: seeing He promised that to some few He will give a heart of flesh, while He leaves to others their heart of stone (Ez. 36:26). It is true, that if He were not ready to receive all that invoke His mercy, this other declaration would be made void: Turn ye unto me, and I will turn unto you (Zach. 1:3); but I say that no mortal will turn to God than he whom God has first drawn. And if, indeed, man’s conversion hinged on his own good pleasure, Paul would not say (II Tim. 2:25): if God per-adventure will give them repentance.”
From this you may notice that Calvin consistently follows the same method of interpretation. He explains the Scriptures in their own light, and does not hesitate to explain apparently “general” texts in the light of those that clearly teach God’s particular grace.
Do not object to this that Calvin in the above quotations is dealing with saving grace, while the Rev. Zwier writes about tie non-saving goodness of God. For this has nothing to do with the point in question. I am not criticizing as yet the contents of Zwier’s teaching, but only his method of interpreting the Bible.
And, this method is itself un-Reformed.
Let the Rev. Zwier but apply the same method to those passages of Scripture that have reference to “saving grace” and his interpretation will certainly be Arminian.
(to be continued)