Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Beyond Scripture

Are we, when constructing a biblical theology, obliged to restrict ourselves to biblical language or can we go beyond scripture and apply reason and logic in order to construct a systematic theology? Now, I know that systematic is a bad word today and we all have to be organic but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

The Westminster Confession states:

'VI. 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.'

So, the Westminster Confession affirms that we are free to go beyond what is ‘expressly set down in Scripture’ and base aspects of our theology on ‘what by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture’. Is it right? As Rocky would say - absolutely.

The Confession is not speaking here of typology or allegorical interpretations but of the application of reason to revelation with the caveat that scripture itself sets parameters for our deductions – it is reason in the service of Revelation. But why is this necessary?

Jaroslav Pelican in his book ‘Credo’ points out that this question has been asked from the beginning of Christian theolgising and the formation of the early creeds. The problem was that it was the meaning of the biblical language itself that was in dispute. What did it mean to say that Christ was divine? The very first task of Christian theology was to go beyond the words of scripture – examine their implications and so clarify their meaning for the believer. By the time of the fourth ecumenical council we had arrived at this definition of the person of Christ: 'recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.'

Chalcedon went beyond the words of Scripture in order to illumine their meaning and remains recognised as the orthodox definition. It is worth remembering that when working out the doctrine of the person of Christ the Church Fathers were always aware of its relationship to the work of Christ. What must Christ be like to be our saviour?

I would like to conclude by suggesting two possible applications and encourage engagement with them.

In the debate over imputed righteousness - is it legitimate to argue that rationally only the imputed righteousness of Christ can provide the kind of salvation [psychologically and forensically] Scripture says I need – whether this is expressly stated or not. In other words, is imputed righteousness [at the very least] a necessary consequence that may be deduced from Scripture.

Does this principle extend to the idea of ‘accomodation’ as expressed by Calvin, subsequent Reformed theologians, and applied to the contemporary debate over Faith and Science?


JohnGreenview said...

I wonder how far presbyterians are willing to 'go beyond' what is written in the Westminster Confession?

I am unhappy with going beyond what Scripture teaches. I am not of course talking about creating words to desribe what the Bible teaches (words like trinity) nor about seeking to express as clearly as possible what the Bible actually teaches. However, I am very chary about giving credence to dogma that is not found in Scripture and is at best a view based on what some see as a logical deduction. I am particularly concerned when such dogma is given a status equal with Scripture and indeed a criterion of orthodoxy.

Imputed righteousness of Christ in justification is one such dogma. It is neither expressly taught in Scripture, nor is it a ‘good and necessary consequence' of Scripture, yet some (some I admire) advocate it is not only correct but foundational to the gospel; they make it a mark of gospel orthodoxy.

Charles Simeon, a moderate Calvinist, and divine of 250 years ago wrote, ‘God has not revealed his truth in a system. Lay aside system and fly to the Bible. Be Bible Christians not system Christians’. He knew, as Vaughan Roberts points out, that it is possible to be more logical than biblical.

In saying this he echoes Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians,

1Co 4:6 ...that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written....

The trouble with logical deductions of course (such as say infant baptism) is that what to one person is a 'necessary deduction' to another is a precarious deduction and to yet another is a mistaken deduction.

Donald Ferguson said...

Got to disagree! It is the theology of the trinity that is a deduction from scripture not just the word! I am not sure you have understood what I am saying. I am endorsing going beyond the words because it is often the meaning of the words themselves that is in dispute. We have a theology of the Trinity that goes beyond the words of scripture but expresses the meaning and relationships of these words even when scripture does not spell out that relationship or unpack the meaning.

For centuries what was meant by 'divine' or 'sonship' when applied to Jesus was a matter of dispute. The meaning we take for granted today was established 'by good and necessary consequence' from scripture. This is theology that illumines and explains scripture. As for imputed righteousness - can it be deduced from the nature of our need? Yes. The only righteousness that can satisfy God is a life lived fully for his glory and that is offered in Christ. This is consistent with scripture but more than that is part of what is meant when scripture speaks of the obedience of Christ in the context of Romans 5; the righteousness that excludes boasting and that we have 'in Christ Jesus' in I Cor 1 and is illustrated in Zech 3. I could go on, but my point is that although the words 'imputed righteosness' are not in scripture I believe the theology is. I know that it is possible to interpret these scriptures differently but 'imputed righteosness' does make sense as an unpacking of the meaning of these and many other scriptures and this interpretation is supported by the fact that imputed righteousness exactly meets our need as expressed in the Bible.

You say that the 'Imputed righteousness of Christ in justification... is neither expressly taught in Scripture, nor is it a ‘good and necessary consequence' of Scripture'. But surely you know that this is precisely the point in question. I do believe, that like the Trinity, it is taught in scripture and is a ‘good and necessary consequence'. It is surprising that you believe that so many sound and biblical people adhere to this doctrine without believing that scripture teaches it!

Finally, my candidate for a theology that is a prime example of rationality distorting scripture [that would be the rationality of the Victorian obsession with taxonomy] would be Dispensationalism.

JohnGreenview said...


Seems to me we have two discussions here.

1.How far we may safely go in building a theology beyond what the Scripture expressly reveals.

2.Whether the imputed righteousness of Christ’s life on earth is a) a doctrine Scripture expressly reveals b) or a dogma (a construct of the church) that is a safe implication of what the Bible teaches about justification.

Re (1): I repeat, ‘I am very chary about giving credence to dogma that is not found in Scripture and is at best a view based on what some see as a logical deduction’. I am not saying we must never make logical deductions, we all do. I am simply saying we must view these deductions with caution. The bigger the logical leap from a meaning established by Scripture to an implication (or an unpacking) thereof, the more caution required.


PS Not enough room to answer point two will place it in further comment box.

JohnGreenview said...


Re (2)Is the dogma of imputed righteousness taught in Scripture? Most, though not all, agree it is not taught as such in Scripture. Is it demanded by Scripture or a necessary/safe corollary of what the Bible teaches? I am unsure. I think perhaps not. I am not sure that the logic you wish to apply here is in fact consonant with Scripture. It may be, but for me the jury is still out. Not least for me is the concern that where on many occasions the NT writers could have simply said we receive the righteousness of Christ’s life as our righteousness, they do not. Instead, they address the question of righteousness in other terms. They base it consistently on Christ’s death and resurrection rather than his life.

I am unsure how far the creeds go beyond the meaning of Scripture to reach conclusions they cannot easily substantiate from Scripture. That these creeds have had such universal acceptance (at least in the Western Church) suggests they have not strayed far. For myself, where I cannot see a creedal statement taught in Scripture be it re the trinity or anything else (Christ’s descent into hell) I am willing to demur and cannot see how it can be imposed as a core truth. However, the dogma of Christ’s imputed righteousness cannot claim anything like the same ancestry or acceptance as creedal dogmas. Good men in the past and present believe(d) it, equally good men in the past and present believe(d) it is mistaken. My main concern is to resist present temptations to make it a necessary part of present gospel orthodoxy.

Discussion of these issues is good though.


Donald Ferguson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donald Ferguson said...

Still don't agree, but I will just make four short points [though as always I could say much more!] and encourage some light from others.

1. Not two separate discussions [they are related] and our discussion is not confined to these points.

2. I think we might be engendering some confusion by not defining what we or the Westminster Confession means by 'expressly taught'. Does this refer to the very words of the bible alone or their meaning? When their meaning is in dispute we have to go beyond the words in order to
elucidate their meaning.

3. Most reformed theologians do believe that 'imputed righteousness' is taught in scripture. Those that do would not hold to the doctrine if they did not believe the bible taught it. Here you may disagree with them - but it is another thing to suggest that they believed this doctrine while admitting that it is nowhere to be found in the bible. Princeton cemetery must be awash with spinning graves!

4. I don't remember suggesting that it should be imposed as a 'must be believed' doctrine.

There is a lot of what you say that I agree with but I won't spoil things by saying what they are!

JAMES said...