19 July 2010

Desert-Island Exegesis

by Phil Johnson

he following post from yesteryear came to mind recently when someone approached me wanting to quibble about a fairly basic point of Christology. I had been teaching on the humanity of Christ and had stressed the importance of being precise in how we frame our understanding of Christ's two natures.

My interlocutor objected, saying he doesn't think doctrine is an exacting science. He told me, "I always ask, 'If an unbeliever stranded on a desert island with nothing but a Bible read this text, what would he get from it?' I think that's the best test of one's interpretation."

I replied that an unbeliever stranded on an island with nothing but a Bible is no standard by which to measure the accuracy of one's hermeneutics. In the first place, even if he had a full library and research team, an unbeliever is incapable of receiving the things of the Spirit of God: "They are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).

In the second place, the desert island exegete—even if he became a Christian—would simply not be able to decipher several common expressions of Scripture on his own. There are plenty of times when even the most devoted believer absolutely needs to rely on study aids and the scholarship and insight of godly men who have gone before.

There's simply no real virtue in the sort of desert island approach that says we should never look at commentaries or study helps in our quest to understand and interpret Scripture. We can't always get the full meaning of a verse from a simple face-value interpretation.

So here's a post where we dealt with that same issue a few years ago:

Sola Scriptura and the role of teachers in our spiritual growth
Do commentaries and study aids violate the principle of 1 John 2:27?

(First posted 19 January 2007.)

A less-than-admiring reader writes:

Your identity as a "Baptist"; your endless quotations from Charles Spurgeon; your faithful devotion to John MacArthur; and especially your willingness to call yourself a "Calvinist" are all huge red flags that tell me something is seriously wrong with your theology. Why do you teach a system of doctrine that is named after a mere man? Why are you following human teachers instead of going to the Bible alone? After all, 1 John 2:27 says, "The anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you."

We ought to go to Scripture alone to establish our doctrine! The truth is in God's Holy word, not in any theological system or theology textbook developed by mere men.

Isn't that principle what the Reformation was originally about? Sola Scriptura? Didn't even Calvin himself go to Scripture for the truth instead of reading other men? I believe that if Calvin himself wrote for this blog, he would point people to the truth in God's Holy word, not to a theology developed by some other man.

My reply:

ou have seriously misunderstood sola Sriptura if you really imagine that it rules out human teachers or eliminates systematic theology. The Reformers (including Calvin) often cited the works of Augustine, Tertullian, Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, and others—ranging from the early church fathers through Aquinas. They didn't follow any of them slavishly, of course, but they certainly took them seriously. Not one of the major Reformers would have tolerated the claim that because the Church Fathers were mere men they were therefore irrelevant or incapable of shedding any helpful light on tough theological questions.

Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is the final court of appeal in all matters of faith and practice. It is an affirmation that "the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture" and that "nothing at any time is to be added [to the Bible], whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." It recognizes that there is ultimately no higher spiritual authority than God's Word, so "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture . . . it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly."

But none of that means we're obliged to discard the wisdom of godly men from ages past and require each man to try to discern truth from scratch by reading nothing but Scripture by himself.

As for Calvin, he certainly did "point people to the truth in God's Holy Word"—but one thing he did not do was steer people away from the important theologians of the past. In fact, Calvin's works are filled with references to the Church Fathers—Augustine in particular. Calvin knew it was important to demonstrate that he was proposing nothing wholly novel and that his theology was in the doctrinal lineage of the greatest theologians of the church. He regarded himself as Augustinian, in precisely the same way many today think of themselves as "Calvinists."

If Calvin wrote for this blog and someone responded to one of his posts by refusing to read what Augustine wrote, Calvin would probably write that person off as arrogant and unteachable.

Incidentally, 1 John 2:20, 27 is the apostle John's response to an early outbreak of gnostic-flavored spiritual elitism. He was refuting some false teachers (he called them "antichrists") who insisted that real truth is a deep secret, different from the apostolic message, into which people must be initiated by some anointed swami. The Holy Spirit indwells and anoints each believer, and He is the One who truly enlightens and enables us to understand truth. But He also gifts certain people with a particular ability to teach others (Romans 12:6-7; Ephesians 4:11). So while John was condemning the notion of enlightened masters in the style of Freemasonry and gnosticism, he was not making a blanket condemnation of teachers. He himself was a teacher.

Bonus:

A follow-up message asks me if I am suggesting it's wrong for someone to abandon all books and human teachers and rely only on what he can glean from the Bible for himself. Answer: yes, I think that's wrong because it's arrogant and reflects a sinful kind of unteachability. This is my whole point: sola Scriptura doesn't rule out the valid role of teaching in the church.

Furthermore, it is simply not the case that any common, unskilled, unschooled individual, sitting down with his Bible and no other tools, can expect to come to a full and mature understanding of Scripture without any help from godly teachers who understand some things better than he will ever get it on his own. Here's Bernard Ramm's famous response to the arrogance reflected in such a perversion of sola Scriptura:

It is often asserted by devout people that they can know the Bible completely without helps. They preface their interpretations with a remark like this: "Dear friends, I have read no man's book. I have consulted no man-made commentaries. I have gone right to the Bible to see what it had to say for itself." This sounds very spiritual, and usually is seconded with amens from the audience.
     But is this the pathway of wisdom? Does any man have either the right or the learning to by-pass all the godly learning of the church? We think not.
     First, although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual it is a veiled egotism. It is a subtle affirmation that a man can adequately know the Bible apart from the untiring, godly, consecrated scholarship of men like [Athanasius,] Calvin, Bengel, Alford, Lange, Ellicott, or Moule. . . .
     Secondly, such a claim is the old confusion of the inspiration of the Spirit with the illumination of the Spirit. The function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture. Suppose we select a list of words from Isaiah and ask a man who claims he can by-pass the godly learning of Christian scholarship if he can out of his own soul or prayer give their meaning or significance: Tyre, Zidon, Chittim, Sihor, Moab, Mahershalalhashbas, Calno, Carchemish, Hamath, Aiath, Migron, Michmash, Geba, Anathoth, Laish, Nob, and Gallim. He will find the only light he can get on these words is from a commentary or a Bible dictionary.
[from Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 17-18 (emphasis in original).]

So it is no test of the soundness of an interpretation to ask what a novice with access to nothing but Scripture itself would make of a particular verse. It would be safer to assume that the desert island guy's interpretation will probably fall short of the mark.

Phil's signature

80 comments:

Matt said...

While I agree that we should not take an isolationist approach -- we are commanded to meet together after all -- scripture should always ever be held above the wisdom of man. Quite honestly, I see a great amount of pride and arrogance in the reformed crowd which seems to be only strengthened by circling the wagons around their favorite teachers to justify their positions while ignoring that even they had doctrines to which the reformed movement strenuously disagrees today. This is evidenced in the derision held toward the Wesleyans and Charismatics -- even those who are solidly grounded in the world and believe strongly in the accuracy of scripture, the sovereignty of God, etc. If they do not hold to the five points of Calvinism, then they are deformed Christians who have not been enlightened like us. That is arrogance and idolatry in our doctrine.

I have taken a step back to re-examine the scriptures alone. It is not that I forget my learning or the wisdom I have gleaned from others, but I realize that only the scripture is 100% true. I have come to see that some of the most clung to doctrines of our day do not stand up well in the light of God's truth. For example, the doctrine of eternal security has done great harm to the church by giving a false assurance to millions. Without a healthy fear of the wrath of God for unrepentant sin our lives, we are likely to rest on a single moment of conviction as the hope of our salvation rather than the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit -- a life filled with the practice of righteousness (1 John). The scripture, while affirming that no one can take our salvation away, is also filled with warnings and exhortations to endure and to examine ourselves. While reformed teachers tout their vaunted study techniques, they only allow them to ignore such passages such as 1 Thess. 5:20-21. Vast portions of 1 Corinthians are either ignored or passed off as "cultural" without any indication or even tradition in the early church of bowing to culture.

Further, it seems that reformed has a selective memory of the history of the church and ignores not only the great teaching but the even stronger examples of living by such saints as Francis of Assisi and John Wesley. Were they not also men of God who were filled with the Holy Spirit? Did not their lives demonstrate a deep devotion to God? Quite frankly, their lives put Calvin to utter shame as he presided over the death of many people -- quite probably fellow brothers and sisters in Christ -- simply because they did not submit to his doctrine. This is no minor sin, and yet his doctrine is elevated while those who actually lived by their faith are impugned. We are commanded in the Bible to look at the fruit, but it seems that we do not really look at the fruit of some of our most cherished "leaders".

While there may be certain specific doctrines that would be harder to reach, I believe the Bible is far more approachable than you give it credit for. The basic and essential doctrines of the faith are quite clear to anyone who dedicates himself to the study of the Bible. Is it arrogance to think that only by a man's wisdom can we understand what God himself has said? Their doctrine may not be 100% perfect, but how much error has crept into our doctrine due to misinterpretations and false traditions passed down by imperfect men? We need to sharpen each other, but the scripture is always and ever the final authority. We could all use a healthy dose of humility and recognize that ultimately we all must lean in faith upon the words that God Himself breathed into existence by His faithful writers onto the written page. God alone truly understands the nature of the incarnation, the balance between sovereignty and free will, and the other deep doctrines of which we only scratch the surface.

DJP said...

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice (Proverbs 12:15)

The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who can answer sensibly (Proverbs 26:16)

Refusing to learn from the wiser and more mature is no virtue. Rather, it is a species of sluggardly arrogance.

olan strickland said...

Don't you just love it when people who disagree with the doctrines of grace (reformed theology) make the unwarranted claim that we are following a man-made system rather than God's Word when it is God's Word that establishes the doctrines of grace?

wordsmith said...

Calvin would probably write that person off as arrogant and unteachable.

"arrogant and unteachable" - therein lies the crux of the matter. An attitude that embraces "desert-island exegesis" is anything but humble.

Trevor said...

Boy, I didn't think the mention of Servetus would come up in the first commen on this post. Wow.

On a more related note, thanks Phil for that last quote. I always wondered where the whole "Tyre, Zidon, Chittim, Sihor...bible dictionary" quote came from. The more you know...

Matt, can you give an example of the "pride and arrogance" you see from the reformed crowd? I'm not doubting it's existence, I just would like to hear of your experience, seeing I am a (fledgling) Christian becoming learned in reformed theology and I would like to see where people screw up.

Matt said...

Thanks for the post. I teach a men's Bible Study and was confronted with this very same issue once before. What I have found useful about commentaries is that as I am preparing to teach on a section of scripture, it is extremely beneficial to be able to go back and read the likes of Spurgeon, Matthew Henry, Calvin, and even some of the Puritans, (not to mention the MacArthur's, Pipers, and Johnson's of our day) to make sure that I myself am not off in left field somewhere with what I believe a passage of scripture is teaching. Thanks for the encouragement.

His Grace
Matt

Barbara said...

I agree with Matt. The Bereans weren't called 'noble' because they checked up behind their Scripture with the Apostle Paul. They were counted noble because they checked up behind the Apostle Paul with the Scripture. Teachers are great, we need good teachers, and clearly that's an office that is given to us as a gift of the Holy Spirit. But ultimately, even the church fathers were fallible men, prone to the same sin that we are. I have seen too many people in too many comment threads hold fast to the teachings of church fathers as their measures of rule and practice for the accusation to not have at least some grounding in reality and we would do well to recognize that and repent of it ourselves.

Trevor said...

Wow, grammar (it's) and spelling fail on my last post. I am ashamed. My internal grammar teaching is giving me a merciless beating right now.

Frank Turk said...

I find it interesting that the folks who are most often the loudest advocates for what Phil has here scuttled are folks who read their Bible in a translation -- or at the very least, in an edited original-language manuscript.

See: those learned men are fine.

Johnny Dialectic said...

Trevor, Abraham Piper recently wrote about:

"[A]bundant evidence that, to many, Calvinists come across as self-righteous, condescending, arrogant, unfriendly, argumentative, and even stingy. The fact that we're not all that way is irrelevant ... the frustration in the letter is true because, whether or not the Calvinists in the letter-writer's church are good folks, they come off as proud and divisive jerks...It won't be easy to change the pejorative stereotype that clings to Calvinism, but we can start by admitting that it is accurate far too often. Then we can make sure we are manifestly not self-righteous, condescending, arrogant, unfriendly, or argumentative."

But I am quick to say this is a good check for all who blog and comment on matters theolgogical, including myself.

Frank Turk said...

Matt --

So you're saying it's arrogant today to say that, for example, someone who rejects the total depravity of man or the unconditional choice to save by God has a sub-par theology, but to say, "someone who finds Welsey or Francis unconvincing has a sub-par theology" is not arrogant.

Yes? No? help a brother out here ...

Frank Turk said...

I also want to point out that the topic "are Calvinists Arrogant?" is off-topic of Phil's post.

Mind your manners, please. To assuage you-all who want to pile on that topic, I'll make a post of it for Wednesday. Deal?

Trevor said...

Johnny Dialectic,

Thanks for that. I am surprised I missed that post by Abraham. I have certainly have been labeled "self-righteous" and the like by my parents, although they couldn't probably tell an Arminian from a Calvinist. In that situation, I certainly am bad at communicating glorious truths and often neglect to tell of Christ' redemption and often focus on our depravity. That is my failing (one of em'.)

And yes, us bloggers definitely need checks on arrogance often.

Trevor said...

Eek! Apologies Frank. I will not straaaaaaaay from the topic anymore.

Gov98 said...

This feels like a little bit of erecting a straw man to blow it over (as much as I love it here).

My thoughts behind "desert-island" exegesis, is not that it is the only way to go, but instead... if you took off all the baggage of what you learned before or as you came to Christ what is the theology you would have developed.

For example, infant baptism is largely something that desert-island exegesis would have no place for (same covenant theology in general), you would not say apart from the time and place baggage of the 1600s that God's promise to Abraham was a metaphorical promise.

Desert-Island Exegesis is not meant to "be" the way to a theology. It is meant to be a check and balance.

Is systematic Calvinism something that would have come from Scripture alone? Or is it something where someone had to tell you about it before you could figure it out...because if it's the later, it should create some degree of circumspection around it, not that it's wrong, the Ethopian needed help too, but it's just a check on a runaway systematic theology of any stripe.

None of this does get into the point Solomon makes that excessive devotion to books is wearisome.

Frank Turk said...

I was a Calvinist before I ever met James White or read his brilliant disambiguation of the complaints of the anti-calvinists in the Potter's Freedom. Certainly before I read the WCF or any systematic theology.

What do you do with that?

Matt said...

Turk, talking about arrogance is not off topic as it was raised in the article: "it's arrogant and reflects a sinful kind of unteachability". This charge is all too often true of Calvinists just as much as any other group. That was my point. Sometimes we cling more strongly to the doctrines of Calvinism than we do to scripture itself, and it blinds us to truths from the Bible that do not match up with reformed doctrine.

My point in bringing up Francis and Wesley was to demonstrate a potential error in our discernment. These are two men that practiced what they preached and were blessed by God as a result. Jesus told us to look at the fruit of people's lives, and their lives were filled with the Fruit of the Spirit. And yet, because their doctrine does not add up to our preferred doctrine, we generally dismiss them. Are we not to look at a person's conduct to see if they are indeed a Christian? We were not commanded to examine their doctrinal statement -- at least not beyond the essentials of the Gospel. We need to be careful even in our discernment to practice that discernment in a Biblical way. I raise my concerns about Calvin because there are serious questions concerning his fruit and that make me question is faith and therefore his doctrine. If he was, in fact, not a Christian, should we listen to what he said about the Bible if it was not inspired by the Holy Spirit? If in doubt, go back to scripture.

On the total depravity of man and unconditional choice, this is a whole different topic that would really get off-topic. I think there is a holy tension here that we are missing. God is sovereign, but in His complete sovereignty, He allowed us some measure of free will. How that works exactly, I do not know, but the Bible teaches that God elects and it also teaches that we are all held responsible to believe in God. Perhaps we get into error in trying to define this in definite terms when it is beyond our understanding to fully grasp.

Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny Dialectic said...

Matt, that's exactly the position Tozer reached after years of study. He wryly notes that this tension is "where the theologians lock horns like two deer out in the woods and wallow around until they die." (The Attributes of God, vol. 2)

He himself believed that true sovereignty does not mean omnicausality, but exactly what true sovereignty entails: the right to do what he pleases. And giving man freedom and responsibility is what he chose to do.

And he reached his conclusions by knowing the systems while not being tied to them. He studied them, studied the great theologians, but always returned to Scripture above all.

Gov98 said...

I was a Calvinist before I ever met James White or read his brilliant disambiguation of the complaints of the anti-calvinists in the Potter's Freedom. Certainly before I read the WCF or any systematic theology.

What do you do with that?

I would say that's going to create a significant amount of confidence as to the correctness of Calvinism.

There are going to be many people however who probably come from another perspective as well, (e.g. non-acceptance of Calvinism). Those people as well are likely to have a high-degree of confidence in the correctness of the existence of errors in Calvinism.

As long as there is honest engagement and dialogue, and both are genuinely saved and interested in what Scripture says, we should talk with each other about how we got there.

Phil Johnson said...

Matt: "Quite frankly, their lives put Calvin to utter shame as he presided over the death of many people -- quite probably fellow brothers and sisters in Christ -- simply because they did not submit to his doctrine."

One thing worse than "a selective memory of the history of the church" is a phony account of church history, invented to advance a bad theological agenda.

No more than three people were put to death for heresy or sedition in Geneva during Calvin's life. Calvin didn't "preside" over any of their executions, though he consented to one--Servetus. Servetus was certainly not executed "simply because [he] did not submit to [Calvin's] doctrine." If you know what Servetus believed and can still maintain the fantasy that he was "quite probably" a brother in Christ, you have some nerve accusing anyone else of having "a selective memory" of church history.

Solameanie said...

Matt: "Quite honestly, I see a great amount of pride and arrogance in the reformed crowd which seems to be only strengthened by circling the wagons around their favorite teachers to justify their positions . . "

Per Frank's request, I'll hold off on the "arrogant" thing until later. However, more in line with what Phil was trying to illustrate about desert island theology, I think you're making some rather broad assumptions unless I am misunderstanding you.

Do you think that those of us who are of a Reformed persuasion have never read Arminian books or arguments? How about those of us who were formerly Arminian but have come round to a Reformed view of things? Are we also "circling the wagons" with no other source of information other than each other's comments and writings?

I think not. In the best of both worlds, I would like to think that we have come to our conclusions based on the study of God's Word, the teaching we have received in our churches, and by independent study of other Bible scholars who have much to contribute. Granted, we will come to differing conclusions on some things, but let's be careful about seeing others as products of parrot factories. Whether we are or not will be evident in the course of discussion. Being of like mind doesn't necessarily mean you're a parrot.

Trevor said...

I am sensing an imminent explosion of reply's to Matt's latest post...

Frank Turk said...

Aha -- so the word "arrogant" or it's cognates show up in the post, and now "Calvinist arrogance" is fair game?

Wait 'til Wednesday, matt -- then you can go to town. Today? Stick to topic.

David said...

I had no idea that the cast of LOST were Calvinists with man's theology stranded on a desert island.

Eric said...

Matt,

When you continually say things like "we cling" and "we dismiss", are you really meaning "I cling" and "I dismiss"? Otherwise you are making pretty strong accusations about the hearts of many other Christians. It sounds to me as if you are projecting your own struggles onto others.

Frank Turk said...

Gov98:

Agreed entirely.

I'm waiting for the day the non-Calvinists will be ready to do so. In fact, I have a standing offer, beginning right now, to engage any and every non-Calvinist on their pet peeve about Calvinist systematics at my nearly-dormant DebateBlog.

All comers: read the rules, submit a thesis, and let's go.

Frank Turk said...

Replies to Matt's latest need wait until Wednesday. Matt's posts are off topic. Last warning.

MarieP said...

"A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text"- D. A. Carson's father

Sir Aaron said...

@Frank Turk

I find it interesting that the folks who are most often the loudest advocates for what Phil has here scuttled are folks who read their Bible in a translation -- or at the very least, in an edited original-language manuscript.

Nope, just use the authorized King James. ;)

Matt said...

I'm sorry. I did not mean to get off topic. I was simply answering the questions that were directed at me.

My point is that the Bible is our ultimate authority, and we should constantly test any wisdom gained from men against the Word of God, even if they are long held traditions of the church.

And by the way, I am a Calvinist, or at least have Calvinist leanings. I was raised in churches founded in reformed theology, and my beliefs still mostly align with those doctrines. But the church is filled with a lot of lies right now from all sides (no offense or attack intended toward anyone here) that I find that I must look more directly to scripture, leaning on the Holy Spirit for guidance, to clear the air.

olan strickland said...

Keeping Scripture in immediate context and over-all context is a great way to avoid "desert-island exegesis" and it is how we also obey 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21.

For instance, I don't believe in unconditional election because Calvin taught it or the Synod of Dort affirmed it but because Scripture teaches it - both in the immediate context of Romans 9 and the over-all context of Scripture through the prophets and the Lord Jesus who also battled the same falsehood.

Sir Aaron said...

@Phil and I guess @DJP:

I agree with your post 100%. I use commentaries, dictionaries, etc. and wouldn't dream of not using them. I preface with that so that you know this isn't an argument but a genuine inquiry.

Obviously Sola Scriptura came out of the Reformation in contradiction to the RCC. But the RCC also held that the average man could never understand Scripture. Learned theologians were needed. Do you believe that the "desert island" idea is a reaction to the aforementioned RCC position? And how would you articulate the difference between our position and what the RCC held? I believe the answer lies in "full and mature" but I'd really like hear from you.

stratagem said...

I can relate to the attractiveness of the desert island exegesis.

I don't know that such a Bible-alone approach is always driven by arrogance. I can attest that in my younger days I took this approach due to an inability to make sense of all the schisms and -isms within the faith that I encountered as a young Christian.

My reaction to what I now call schisms and -isms (for want of a better phrase) was to rely mostly upon the plain text of the Bible to guide me in my understanding. Thankfully, the basics of the New Testament are pretty clear to an intelligent and sincere reader.

I didn't hold to the desert-island approach dogmatically, or for very long. That would have been a profound error, had I done so. However, I would say that for the season that I did, it probably did me some good and allowed me to clear my mind and focus on the heart of the Gospel, rather than on any one teacher's bunny trail that they happened to be majoring in.

This was at a time long before the internet and before I had access to anyone who wasn't off on a doctrinal bunny trail, and also before I had enough knowledge to discern a good commentary from a bad one.

Johnny Dialectic said...

Do you think that those of us who are of a Reformed persuasion have never read Arminian books or arguments?

Many times, I'm afraid, this is exactly the case. I find it constantly in comment sections like this one, asides tossed off against Arminianism that clearly are gleaned not from theology but other bloggers or teachers (who should know better).

Admittedly, there are those who criticize Calvinism without having fully engaged it, either.

It takes some courage to give your system a fair critique from time to time. It requires an openness that may be unsettling, especially if one has been long inside without questioning.

Would that we all would become conversant with the "other side" at times like this. Roger Olson's "Arminian Theology" is a good start for Calvinist folks. I recommend Grudem as a start for my Arminian brethren. But by no means stop there. You can always go deeper...so long as you return prayerfully to the Bible over all things.

Sir Aaron said...

Gov98:

Part of the problem with arriving to a position based on one's own reading is that each person has his own experiences through which he will interpret Scripture. For example, having never seen a "locust" a person might envision a common green grasshopper when reading about plagues in Exodus. While they are close enough to get a common understanding, it's short of a "full and mature" understanding. Free will thinking is so pervasive in our culture today that it would be difficult for me to believe that a person comes to Scripture without that baggage.

gymbrall said...

@Johnny Dialectic
Can you point out what books you would consider to be the best defense of Arminian theology? I've read a few, but I'm not sure how they would be ranked.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

Knowledge has always been built or discovered (or in some cases rediscovered) on the foundations of our predecessors; even Thomas Edison knew this. He was accused of patent infringement many times, but he was just building incrementally on the already established theories of the forerunners of his day. He then added his particular genius and experimental savvy to the mix... and voila...LIGHT. That is an interesting observation in and of itself, it took the genius of several men (his predecessors) plus his added acumen to discover LIGHT: the finished product.

How fortunate some men have been over the past centuries, men such as Luther, who lived a monastic life, and was given the supreme privilege of having several hours a day, of devoted Scripture study, to clarifying truths that he himself built upon his predecessor, Augustine. No man is an Island; did we forget that expression.

It has always been understood that God uses teachers as a means to His ends. It is also to be noted that some men have much higher IQ’s than the rest of us, therefore better able to grasp things some of us would likely never discover on our own. For example, many of us live very busy lives, and it would take many of us several years of in-depth study to be able to plumb the depths of, and articulate the two wills of God, as well as Piper did. That is why God gives gifts to men like John Mac, Phil Johnson, Piper, and Sproul, and all we have to do is ASK the Holy Sprit to lead us into all truths. He will put the right teacher in our path each and every time. He has never failed to provide for me in that way.

Also, I thank God for A.W. Pink and his brilliant book, The Attributes of God, also, his devotion to systematic theology. He categorized verse by verse the brilliance of God and His beautiful, holy character: what a treasure! It would have taken me months to do this with my busy schedule. This is WHY WE NEED MEN who have time to patiently devote their lives to the study of Scripture.

Brad Williams said...

Desert Island exegesis is great until you get to that part about God ordaining teachers in the church. That alone ought to embarrass us off the island of me, me, me.

Johnny Dialectic said...

gymbrall, the three best would be Olson's aforementioned book, Cottrell's The Faith Once for All (it's set up like Grudem, and partially an answer to him) and Adam Clarke's commentary.

If one likes the classics, then John Miley's Systematic Theology, from the 19th century, would be the Arminian answer to Hodge.

Gov98 said...

Part of the problem with arriving to a position based on one's own reading is that each person has his own experiences through which he will interpret Scripture. For example, having never seen a "locust" a person might envision a common green grasshopper when reading about plagues in Exodus. While they are close enough to get a common understanding, it's short of a "full and mature" understanding. Free will thinking is so pervasive in our culture today that it would be difficult for me to believe that a person comes to Scripture without that baggage.

True, but that is an possibility for error common to all, and is unavoidable.

I'm going to stick up for the Desert Island Exegete a little bit more than I had in this sense...

Scripture tells us that Desert Island Exegesis is enough, after all, the Rich Man complained that God had not done enough to warn him of hell. Abraham said that "Moses and the Prophets" were enough. The Bible tells us that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. The Bible tells us that Scripture is sufficient to make one wise to salvation.

Phil wrote:

There's simply no real virtue in the sort of desert island approach that says we should never look at commentaries or study helps in our quest to understand and interpret Scripture. We can't always get the full meaning of a verse from a simple face-value interpretation.

But when I said that was a straw-man I want to show how that was a straw man...the desert-island exegete said that was "the best test." He did not say there was no place for teaching and other books or other learned men.

The desert island exegete could be interpreted as saying that the Bible alone is the best test of what the Bible says.

I think there is REAL virtue in asking oneself, are my beliefs the result of the baggage I have brought with me or read, or my beliefs the result of a faithful reading of Scripture. 2 Corinthians 4:2 tells us that the truth commends itself to all men consciences.


In the second place, the desert island exegete—even if he became a Christian—would simply not be able to decipher several common expressions of Scripture on his own. There are plenty of times when even the most devoted believer absolutely needs to rely on study aids and the scholarship and insight of godly men who have gone before.

If this is saying that there are idiomatic expressions to the time and place Scripture was written sure, but if it's saying that there are significant portions of the Bible that require assistance to understand I disagree strongly. In legal terms this is what is called assuming facts not in evidence, there is an argued for proposition that I just don't see supported by Scripture.

How much "interpretation" does it really take from Scripture to get the idea that disobeying God = Bad
Obeying God = Good. It's all over!

Chris H said...

I want to try out an analogy, if I could. I'm open to being wrong.

Anyone can take ground beef, make a patty, and cook it to receive a meal. That could sustain a person.

But in the hands of someone who appreciates the subtleties of spices, beef, condiments, and has education in all these things, a mere hamburger becomes a thing of beauty. Not just merely sustaining, but almost invigorating.

That's (sort of) how I see the Bible. Anyone can read it and be saved - it is straightforward enough to convict and lead to salvation. When you add the input of educated, Godly men (through sermons, commentaries, etc) who understand things like subtleties of language, style, and theology, it becomes so much more wonderful to my spiritual taste buds.

Did that add anything?

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...
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Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

Yes, Chris, it makes me hungry. LOL!

You are so right, it is a seasoned Christian who has all the right ingredients to help us savor the beauty and the complexities of the God’s Word and the holy Trinity.

witness said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gov98 said...

Chris H.-

But what about a steak medium rare with nothing more than maybe a little salt (even that might be dangerous) enjoyed in the manner that it's creator intended.

Lol there is of course an aspect of taste.

Chris H said...

Hmmm... I probably shouldn't have posted a comment around lunchtime, I guess. :P

Interestingly, my word verification is "Crave"

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

Phil Johnson may need a good laugh today to help him heal, Chris.

Btw, Phil, best wishes on your recovery from back surgery.

And well wishes are NEVER off topic. Please! So get well soon, Phil!

donsands said...

"But the church is filled with a lot of lies right now from all sides.."

Yep.

And the Church has many gifted pastor-teachers as well.

And Phil spoke of the saints that came before us, and their wisdom, that they wrote down in books for us.

JC Ryle has a lot of great teachings that I glean from, and grow strong by reading his commentaries, and his classic book, 'Holiness'. Just to mention one of many gifts from our Lord to us, the Body of Christ. Pastor-teachers are gifts from our Lord Jesus.

And the Scriptures rule, of course. It really goes without saying, shouldn't it.

Frank Turk said...

OK -- with the discussion well back on the rails, Gov98 has asked a good question: isn't minimalist theology enough?

Let me say this plainly: it is certainly enough to save you. It is hardly enough to then get up and live as if Jesus was a real person.

For example: let's say that I go to work now that I am a Christian -- should I have gone to work? Shouldn't I be living as if the end is near and that it's coming like a thief in the night? Should I do anything except prepare myslef for the end right now?

Let's say that I read my Bible and realize that I should go to work: when I get there, do I only eat with my Christian friends to seek to abstain from the world, or do I make friends with unbelievers and sometimes eat lunch with them and yoke myself to them for the sake of earning a living?

The faith of a mustard seed will save you. That much theology, though, barely gets you out of bed in the morning.

Aaron Snell said...

I think the reaction to go desert-island-exegete is based on a misunderstanding of authority. It seems many Protestants have no formal category for a fallible but legitimate authority. It's either all or nothing - either infallible, or I shouldn't listen to you at all. (I say "formal category" because they often operate with a functional category for such an authority - namely, every time they sit in the pew or comfy padded chair at church and listen to their pastor.)

Unfortunately I hear this sentiment from the lips of many in my own camp who hold strongly to the the inerrancy and unique authority of Scripture: "Man's word means nothing. It is worthless. Only God's Word is trustworthy. Man's opinion is just that - man's opinion." I think this is well-meaning, but ends up being a gutting of the doctrine of sola scriptura. Now, I think there are some who would use these kind of statements that would be more careful to qualify when pressed, but I think unfortunately a careful qualification and explication of sola scriptura has been lacking, and the untaught will take this commitment to Scripture and run too far with it. Don't misunderstand me here - i don't think you can be overcommitted to Scripture (and hence will avoid JP Moreland's unfortunate mistake), but you can have an unhealthy lack of appreciation for other Godly authorities.

Halcyon said...

I agree with Matt (the one who started the whole mess) that one must approach all human teachers (no matter how holy) with equal parts humble teach-ability and cautious skepticism, a skepticism informed by the truths of Scripture (which would include truths fleshed out by previous teachers).

I agree with Phil that exegesis in a vacuum is dangerous (as is anything else done in a vacuum). Community (including the community of those who have gone before) is necessary for the full and proper development of anything that we undertake.

Perhaps that is a "balanced" view of things? 8^D

Aaron Snell said...

Gov98,

"I think there is REAL virtue in asking oneself, are my beliefs the result of the baggage I have brought with me or read, or my beliefs the result of a faithful reading of Scripture. 2 Corinthians 4:2 tells us that the truth commends itself to all men consciences."

But that's not the actual desert-island exegete position. You have redefined the position outside of the context of Phil's correspondent, and hence outside of the scope of his response. The correspondent was not just lifting up the desert-island exegete as the best way, but was also denigrating any use of lesser, fallible, non-biblical authorities.

Rob Bailey said...

1. My desert island time every morning is the greatest.

2. We need the intellectual interaction and spiritual teaching from others. It is both and, not either or.

3. I would be a spiritual idiot not to be like Ruth.

4. What do people think discipleship is? Sitting around and watching someone read the Bible?

5. Disciple

6. Be a disciple

7. Make disciples(that does not mean just evangelism.)

Rob Bailey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gov98 said...

But that's not the actual desert-island exegete position. You have redefined the position outside of the context of Phil's correspondent, and hence outside of the scope of his response. The correspondent was not just lifting up the desert-island exegete as the best way, but was also denigrating any use of lesser, fallible, non-biblical authorities.

Maybe we are both reading the same post but seeing different highlights or takeaways from it. I'll just highlight why I think what I was saying was a fair interpretation of what Phil said.

My interlocutor objected, saying he doesn't think doctrine is an exacting science. He told me, "I always ask, 'If an unbeliever stranded on a desert island with nothing but a Bible read this text, what would he get from it?' I think that's the best test of one's interpretation."

He didn't say only, he didn't say all others were wrong, but that one is better than others. This test...that I believe the interlocutor is referring to, might be referred to as the plain language doctrine. It's pretty extensive in constitutional theory, what does the plain language of the constitution mean. Similarly what does the plain language of Scripture mean. This doesn't object to the idea that there are going to be place where it doesn't fit because the plain language isn't easy, but the point is that where it works plain language is best.

I think that is true. If an unbeliever or believer could look at us and say with a straight face "I do not think those words mean what you think they mean," as a general rule, we have gone astray with our theology.

In Phil's post, There was then a second person mentioned from a post long ago. Who stated that a willingness to go back to teachers and books, and confessions to an "endless" degree (this assertion may rightly be questioned but for the purpose of criticizing the logic of the individual we should assume his premise) indicates huge red flags as to his theology.

I think this...(if you assume the assertions I do not think they accurate, but if you assume them) is correct. A person who consistently appeals to people or systems instead of Scripture is raising red flags. That's not to say that that person is wrong, but appealing to Scripture one can never go wrong.

Gov98 said...

OK -- with the discussion well back on the rails, Gov98 has asked a good question: isn't minimalist theology enough?

Let me say this plainly: it is certainly enough to save you. It is hardly enough to then get up and live as if Jesus was a real person.

For example: let's say that I go to work now that I am a Christian -- should I have gone to work? Shouldn't I be living as if the end is near and that it's coming like a thief in the night? Should I do anything except prepare myslef for the end right now?

Let's say that I read my Bible and realize that I should go to work: when I get there, do I only eat with my Christian friends to seek to abstain from the world, or do I make friends with unbelievers and sometimes eat lunch with them and yoke myself to them for the sake of earning a living?

The faith of a mustard seed will save you. That much theology, though, barely gets you out of bed in the morning.


I guess I think that Scripture says that we are supposed to be living for the future all the time. Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. We miss however, that living for the future is lived in the present.

Paul of course tells us, that one that does not provide for his family is no better than a heathen. But that is not just about the here and now, that is true about eternity. Christians have a real duty to live and work in the now, but to make sure that the now is engaged in future investment.

Should you be in business partnership with unbelievers...dangerous questions I reckon that there will be some room for Christian Liberty, is it dangerous to be partnered in business with an unbeliever...absolutely, so what does Scripture teach in other areas, to Count the Cost, be wise, be discerning. If you go into business with an unbeliever, you must be prepared to yield all your rights to the one who demands your cloak, can you do that? If so, then perhaps some business partnership is acceptable, if not, oh count the cost.

Is employment forbidden in Scripture? No! In fact the opposite is taught, work as if for the Lord, not for men.

I know you know this, the answers are all in Scripture, I use wise pastors and teachers and books as guides to save me time, but the principles are there if I'm willing to work at understanding them, but the Bible is clear, using sharp tools is wise which brings success(Ecclesiastes 10:10), that doesn't mean that the having the sharp tool excuses me from doing the work, it just takes less effort.

I'm going to slow down here and allow for input.

Frank Turk said...

I think I unintentionally killed this thread. Sorry Phil!

Gov98 said...

Can I be guilty with you frank? :-)

Rob Bailey said...

Frank, no didn't. Oh, wait, yep.

Phil Johnson said...

Frank Turk: "I think I unintentionally killed this thread.

That's OK. It was doomed from the first comment and needed to be euthanized. Look back at the comments the first time I posted this in January 2007. The resulting mess in the meta was even worse then.

I'd quote some of the errant comments to document and analyze the main reasons this topic always gets driven off track, but that would only stir up more Arminian resentment.

Instead, let me just point out that my initial post set forth precisely zero arguments in favor of Calvinism and said nothing whatsoever that could legitimately be interpreted as disparaging about Arminianism.

In point of fact, I agree with whoever said John Wesley could teach most of us a few things, and some of Wesley's carping critics would do well to attack him less and read him more. (That is actually a corollary of the point my post was making.)

The direction of the comment-thread vividly (albeit unintentionally) makes a completely different point, but since it's not exactly flattering to some of our Arminian regulars, I'm going to let it drop.

Matt said...

I was attempting to post as a Calvinist who is starting to question long held views. In retrospect, I was further off topic than I realized, but my point was to show that leaning too much on the teachings of men can lead us into doctrinal error that takes us away from the true message of the Bible. We Calvinists are almost as bad as the Catholics sometimes in revering our teachers and their books over God and His Word. It is this tendency that brings forth the desire of some of us to return to the plain scripture and set aside, at least for a while, the writings of men so that we can get back to the core of the Gospel. Sometimes you just can't see the forest for the trees, and you forget certain principles that are important that are not a part of the popular dogma.

I'm sorry that I messed up your thread. If I post again, I will try to stay closer to the topic at hand.

evangelicalcalvinist.com said...

Frank said:

I'm waiting for the day the non-Calvinists will be ready to do so. In fact, I have a standing offer, beginning right now, to engage any and every non-Calvinist on their pet peeve about Calvinist systematics at my nearly-dormant DebateBlog.

I'll debate you, although I'm "Evangelical" Calvinist; which may disqualify me from being a debater at the debate blog.

My Thesis: That Classic Calvinist theology is dependent upon neo-Thomistic thought; thus making it distinct from Scriptural thought, per se.

I might want to polish that thesis statement a little; but it captures the gist of what I would want to debate you upon.

Bobby G.

PS. I agree with Phil on Sola Scriptura.

Caleb Kolstad said...

Did you mean to write Do commentaries and study aids violate the principle of VERSE 27?

Hope you're back is healing quickly!

mikeb said...

Matt, it would do you some good to read what Spurgeon said about Calvinism.
http://www.spurgeon.org/calvinis.htm

As for Servetus, this explains it all:

http://sacredsandwich.com/archives/7412

Matt said...

It is about far more than just Servetus. Calvinists would like to think that it started and ended with him because they can then dismiss it as an aberration regarding a heretic (as if even that justified the killing of another man). The fact is the John Calvin was a tyrant who brutally oppressed anyone who disagreed with him. But some will say he wrote doctrinal works, he created schools, he sent out missionaries! What of it? Have not the Mormons and the Catholics done the same? And they have thus condemned millions to Hell by their false doctrine.

How many people have received a false assurance of salvation through the doctrine of election and eternal security? Do not get me wrong -- there is an element of both doctrines in the Bible, but that is not the full picture. In 1 John, the apostle tells us not to look at a point of decision or election but to look at the fruit in our lives: a life that practices righteousness and does not practice sin (I John 3:7-8). Paul tells us to test ourselves to see if we are of the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). Peter tells us to be diligent to "make our election sure" (2 Peter 1:10).

We dare not ignore these passages or the warning they contain. There are numerous passages that exhort us to endure, to hold fast to the faith -- not to the surety of our salvation but the faith that God's testimony is sure, that God is holy, righteous, and true.

olan strickland said...

Matt: How many people have received a false assurance of salvation through the doctrine of election and eternal security?

That people will turn the grace of God into licentiousness isn't anything new. It's called libertinism. Hence all the warnings to be Biblically sure that one is saved.

How many people have received a false gospel through conditional election and the possibility of loss of salvation? Plain and simple - that's salvation by works and not grace and it's not the gospel. It's called legalism.

Johnny Dialectic said...

How many people have received a false gospel through conditional election and the possibility of loss of salvation? Plain and simple - that's salvation by works and not grace and it's not the gospel. It's called legalism.

Not my idea to go off track, as warned, but here is a comment that can't be ignored and makes my previous point: this is a fundamental misunderstanding of Arminian theology. It's that kind of careless calumny that "stirs up" a reaction, just as a Calvinist would be rightly stirred by a false statement about his home turf.

Out of deference to Phil, I won't go on.

donsands said...

"The fact is the John Calvin was a tyrant who brutally oppressed anyone who disagreed with him." -Matt

Where is this fact documented, if you don't mind me asking?

Calvin was a great theologian. I have read he was a wonderful husband, who loved and cherished his wife, who died early in life.

Also, many hated Calvin, I believe, and of course mocked him and lied about him.

Also, I believe Phil already addressed an earlier remark against Calvin like this.

Finally, Calvin was a man, like us. Like King David even, a man after God's own heart. But look at David, and you see a most dispicable sinner, and rotten man, who trusted and loved the Lord.

donsands said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mikeb said...

Matt said Do not get me wrong -- there is an element of both doctrines in the Bible

How do you have just an element of election or assurance? Are people just 51% elect? Are we to be just partly assured?

Is this "element" speak an attempt to take some middle ground on a doctrine like election, which is mentioned over 26 times in the NT alone? If you don't agree with Calvin, why not just say you agree with Arminius, or Pelagius on the issue?

Sir Aaron said...

Phil Johnson:

I'm disappointed that you're leaving the thread to its own fate. I feel I asked a legitimate question that was directly related to the topic. (8:11 7/19)

Mark Economou said...

I suppose he can read and understand Greek, reads the original manuscripts, and does not share his insights with anyone else. He needed man to translate for him. He needed man's ability to publish to bring the Word to him. He cannot share his insights with others since that's hypocritical to his thinking he should not learn from others' insights.

Horace Jones said...

The word "arrogant" seems to stand out to me. I find your rebuttal and the use of this adjective ironic in this sense:

You: "A less-than-admiring reader writes:"

Why not simply say, "A reader writes:?

And then this is followed up by a cartoon of an ape reprimanding a woman choosing some books to read.

Can one denote arrogant sarcasm here?

It's okay to believe in a position, defend it, and argue the point, but which of the two natures does a less than humble response represent?

Phil Johnson said...

Sir Aaron: "Obviously Sola Scriptura came out of the Reformation in contradiction to the RCC. But the RCC also held that the average man could never understand Scripture. Learned theologians were needed. Do you believe that the "desert island" idea is a reaction to the aforementioned RCC position? And how would you articulate the difference between our position and what the RCC held?"

Sola Scriptura is about the sufficiency and authority of Scripture as the supreme test of every truth-claim. It's not a claim that Scripture is the only source of truth, and therefore it doesn't require us to limit our study to Scripture alone.

But it does set Scripture above every other source, teacher, or ecclesiastical office. It recognizes that Scripture is more sure than any human teacher or spiritual authority. And THAT's what makes it different from the Catholic system.

In Romanism, the church's magisterium (not Scripture) is the final court of appeal for every truth-claim.

Habitans in Sicco said...

Horace Jones said: "The word "arrogant" seems to stand out to me. I find your rebuttal and the use of this adjective ironic . . ."

On the other hand, who could ever credibly deny the charge of arrogance? A spirited defense of one's own humility is instantly and comically self-refuting.

So let me play your game: I find it ironic that you went to all the trouble of creating a brand-new persona at Google's blogger just so that you could make this one comment accusing Phil--because he posted a gorilla picture.

Sir Aaron said...

@Phil Johnson

Thank you!

Horace Jones said...

Habitans in Sicco,

Thanks, I'm just getting started. It's hard to keep up with all of the theological elite but one has to start somewhere.

I also find it ironic that a Calvinistic apologist feels the need for sarcastic "name play" in his identity.

Horace Jones said...

In all honesty to you Habitans in Sicco, Phil and the rest at Pyromaniacs, I think we could all eat a little bit of crow from time to time. Maybe it was unfair of my first post here to seem so judgmental but after checking this site out for some time now it does come off as having an air of arrogance to it. A bit of ummm, self-confidence if you will.

(Not to mention all of the really cool graphic affects).

So, why all the added adjectives? Why not simply state your meaning?

donsands said...

"after checking this site out for some time now it does come off as having an air of arrogance to it."

Funny, I have come to Teampyro for a few years now, and don't see arrogance at all. I see the truth spoken in love.

At times the iron on iron sharpening shall cause some heat, but it is always good heat.

And yes these three amigos are still in their flesh, just like you.
And so we eat crow, don't we, like you say, at times.
But it is rare that I see that here.

That's what I have seen over the few years I've been blessed to learn from Phil and his team mates.