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Is Intra-Canonical Theological Development Compatible with a High Bibliology?

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I must confess: I am neither a systematic theologian nor the son of a systematic theologian. My realm is exegesis. But it is also biblical theology. In the past quarter of a century, I have wrestled with James, struggled with Peter, and wept with Paul. The humanity of the Bible has become precious to me because it underscores all the more the transcendence and majesty of the One to whom it bears witness. At the same time, my own evangelical convictions, my own theological training, has not been forgotten. And my views of bibliology are a part of that package. This paper is a continuation of my struggle—not with Peter, but with the tension between the divine Word and the human words that together we call the Holy Bible.

Definition of Terms

I need to begin this essay by defining the basic terms. These include “intra-canonical,” “theological development,” and “high bibliology.” We will forego the definition of “compatible.” By “intra-canonical” I mean within the Bible, as opposed to trajectories into early church history. This may be between the testaments or even within either testament. By “theological development,” I mean something similar to progressive revelation. That is, the movement from a more primitive understanding of some theological truth to a more advanced understanding. And here, I am speaking about the perspective of the biblical writer, not later interpreters. By a “high bibliology,” I mean the doctrinal confession of the Evangelical Theological Society—that the scriptures are indeed the Word of God written, that they are verbally and plenarily inspired. Putting all this together, the question I am asking is this: Is it consistent with a high bibliology to claim that there is a movement from a more primitive to a more advanced theological understanding within the pages of Holy Writ?

In a very real sense, this question gets at the heart of the two sides of scripture: it is both a divine and a human product. It is the Word of God and the words of men. It embodies universal and divine truths that are written for particular occasions in human language. Verbal-plenary inspiration finds its counterpart in grammatical-historical exegesis.

Twenty-five years ago, the question of the human side of the equation in theological formulation was addressed with some urgency from within our camp. In 1977, Clark Pinnock noted that “Although Protestant orthodoxy confesses both the divine and the human element in the Bible, as it also does in Christology, it has been happier affirming its divine authority than admitting its human characteristics.”1 In his 1980 study, Gordon Lewis concurred: “One has to agree [with Pinnock], after considerable research, that not as much attention has been devoted to the human as to the divine side of Scripture by conservative scholars. This may be explained because of the need to defend its divine side and because of the complexities that consideration of the humanity involves. Nevertheless, neglect of the human aspect in comparison with the divine can hardly be denied.”2

It seems to me, however, that not much has been done to explicitly redress this situation. Recently, David Dockery wrote: “It is our belief that the divine-human tension is the most crucial issue in contemporary discussions concerning Christian Scripture.”3 On the one hand, the tensions between the divine and human, though acknowledged by evangelicals, are almost always focused on the nature of language. And even here, there is in some sense a recognition of the limitations and even imperfections of human communication. From Calvin to Kantzer, those who embrace verbal inspiration and inerrancy have no problem allowing for non-substantive errors in the text.4 But from my limited exposure to the realm of dogmatics there seems to be little more than lip service to the historical—the ad hoc nature of the sixty-six individual documents that were later collected into one large corpus. Just as there are limitations in human language, so there are limitations in historical perspective. But if, as evangelicals often loudly proclaim, our treatment of the Bible needs to be grounded in both a grammatical and a historical exegesis, then it is a glaring oversight not to integrate our bibliology with the unfolding drama of redemption.

Evangelicals are fond of saying that the written Word of God bears a certain analogy to the incarnate Word of God—e.g., both have divine origin, both are mediated through human agency, and both have the result that they are impeccable (in the case of Christ)/inerrant (in the case of the Bible). To the extent that this analogy is valid, then should we not also say, with equal force, that our method of investigation of each of them should involve a strong historical component? The incarnation demands of us historical rigor. God invaded time-space history and he expects his followers to verify the data as best they can. That is why the stone was moved before the tomb—not to let Christ out but to let the disciples in, so that they could see with their own eyes that no corpse lay there. And that is why Paul goes to great lengths to insist on the historicity of the resurrection, even to the point of claiming that over five hundred ajdelfoiv5 saw the risen Lord on one occasion, “of whom the majority are still alive” (1 Cor 15.6). The apologetic value of such a statement is grounded in its historical verifiability. Although the Gospels have their share of undefined times and places in which events occurred, they also are full of sufficient historical detail. In this respect, the Bible itself emulates the incarnation: as the apostolic witness could speak of “what we have seen with our eyes… what our hands handled” (1 John 1.1), so subsequent generations of believers can say that about the written Word.

In other words, when we take a hands-off approach to the historicity of the scriptures, then are we not treating them as more divine and less human that the Theanthropic Person to whom they bear witness? Long ago, the Church rejected a docetic Christology—while still embracing the utter worthiness and perfection of the God-man. But has the Church also rejected a docetic bibliology? I am not convinced that it has, and the tragic consequences of such a stance are that Christ becomes the handmaiden to the Bible rather than the other way around. My thesis in this paper is that it is possible to maintain both theological development within the Bible and a high bibliology. But in order to do so, we have to be prepared to embrace more of the human face of the Word of God.

The Process of Inspiration

For starters, we need to touch on the process of inspiration. It is a mystery that only a few brave souls dare to define.6 Yet this process is the very thing that addresses the human role in the production of scripture. Most are content to speak of the results of inspiration.7 And even when it comes to the process, most theologians speak only of the verbal or linguistic process. The historical process is all but ignored.

Regarding the verbal process, there seems to be a wide variety of opinions within evangelicalism. Some come perilously close to a mechanical dictation view, though denying such only by fiat rather than by substantive argument.8 Others move decidedly away from this position, while still trying to maintain some form of verbal inspiration.9 All of us are steering a course between Scylla and Charybdis. Certain things must be affirmed or denied within an evangelical framework—e.g., a denial of verbal dictation, an affirmation of the final product as originating from God—but there is a lot of fudge room between these two poles. And various evangelicals struggle with how verbal is verbal. Along these lines, consider the following statement:

The sacred writers were not machines. Their self-consciousness was not suspended; nor were their intellectual powers superseded. Holy men [spoke] as they were moved by the Holy [Spirit]. It was men, not machines; not unconscious instruments, but living, thinking, willing minds, whom the Spirit used as his organs. Moreover, inspiration did not involve the suspension or suppression of human faculties, so neither did it interfere with the free exercise of the distinctive mental character of the individual.

This viewpoint gives full weight to the human face of scripture, while acknowledging that God was behind the scenes. It sounds very similar to the dynamic or conceptual view of inspiration—especially regarding its accent on the free will of the authors—yet it comes from the pen of the great Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge.10

I happen to like what a theology professor of mine told me in his office years ago about the whole process. He noted some differences among the synoptic accounts, and declared that whether God inspired one verb or another, as long as both were within the field of meaning that he wished to communicate, either one was acceptable. This professor’s view of verbal inspiration thus was not that God was putting in the mind of the author the actual word that he must use, but rather that he was keeping him from using something outside an acceptable linguistic field. Inspiration, to this thoroughly evangelical professor, was in some ways more negative than positive. God kept the human author from error but did not dictate the exact form of the message. Judging by the grammatical peculiarities in our Gospels and in the NT as a whole, I find this approach to verbal inspiration the most satisfactory because it does not turn a blind eye to the data of the text.11

All of this addresses the linguistic or verbal side of inspiration. But what about the plenary or historical side? This is actually best handled as we think about the process of revelation.

The Process of Revelation and Discovery

Closely tied to the process of inspiration is the process of revelation and discovery. Although almost never developed, theologians have touched on this subject. Consider the following statements:

Millard Erickson addresses the issues of scripture’s sometimes temporary authority: “It will be necessary to determine what is the permanent essence of the message, and what is the temporary form of its expression. … It is quite possible for something to be historically authoritative without being normatively authoritative.”12 Elsewhere he says, “If we understand God to have worked in a process of accomplishing redemption for man, revealing himself and his plan gradually, we will weight later developments more heavily than earlier ones.”13

In his chapter on the clarity of scripture, Wayne Grudem notes that various recipients of biblical revelation were sometimes confused: “… they simply needed to wait for further events in the history of redemption…” He goes on to note “the progress of growth in understanding concerning the implications of Gentile inclusion in the church … or the frequent doctrinal and ethical issues that had to be corrected by the New Testament epistles.”14

David Dockery notes that “The human authors were not lifted out of their culture or removed from their contexts. They were not autonomous, but functioning members in communities of faith, aware of God’s presence and leadership in their lives.”15 He then affirms “the possibility of theological development within the Old and New Testaments and even within the individual authors themselves.”16

Each of these evangelical theologians is affirming that there is progressive revelation in scripture. Although they offer minimal evidence for such, it is easy to come by. Consider these examples. Isaiah 61.1-2 gives no indication that the coming of the Messiah would be in two stages, but Jesus’ quotation of this text in Luke 4 seems to imply that he knew that he would come again. His Olivet Discourse confirms this. Daniel 12.1-2 is the clearest text in the OT on the resurrection. It is, in fact, very difficult to find the resurrection doctrine taught earlier than this. Most likely, the reasons for this new revelation at this juncture in salvation history were related to the removal of the Jews from the promised land: once their present no longer looked very rosy they began to long for the future. And because of the length of the Babylonian Captivity, that future hope had to go beyond this life. This future hope set the stage for a more decidedly eschatological outlook in the NT. Or consider the doctrine of the Trinity. Although it is sometimes alleged to be clearly found in the OT, one has to wonder why there is no hint of a Jewish understanding of this doctrine in the intertestamental period. And any exegesis of OT texts that implies that the human authors were trinitarian is both naïve and indefensible.

Within my own tradition, there is a rich heritage of embracing progressive revelation. In Article V of the Dallas Seminary doctrinal statement, it states:

We believe that it has always been true that “without faith it is impossible to please” God (Heb. 11:6)… However, we believe that it was historically impossible that [OT saints] should have had as the conscious object of their faith the incarnate, crucified Son, the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and that it is evident that they did not comprehend as we do that the sacrifices depicted the person and work of Christ. We believe also that they did not understand the redemptive significance of the prophecies or types concerning the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 1:10-12)…

This same doctrinal statement elsewhere says that salvation is “only through faith in Christ…” Now these two statements—the object of faith of OT saints and the object of faith of NT saints—are in formal contradiction with one another. The only way to resolve them is to recognize that a proper reading of the Bible embraces progressive revelation.

Not all evangelicals of course would see such discontinuity between the testaments, but suffice it to say that non-dispensational evangelicals have had no problems with the bibliology of dispensationalists. And that bibliology incorporates a rather robust progressive revelation.

Whether we define progress as the movement from something worse to something better,17 or from something incomplete to something more complete, implicit in the recognition of progressive revelation is that something more than mere perspectival differences are to be found in the various books of the Bible. This means that—for lack of a better term—the readers of fuller revelation will by that revelation correct their impression of divine truth that had been gained from earlier or more primitive revelation.

At this point, some of you may be disappointed with how I am defending the thesis that theological development is consistent with a high bibliology. I am not going to elaborate on how these two can be harmonized; I only wish to note that respected evangelical theologians—whose bibliological commitments are not in doubt—embrace this thesis. In the remainder of this paper, however, I will explore some of the ramifications of the human side of this equation.

Three Fundamental Questions

  1. Can there be progressive revelation within the New Testament?

If it is true that there is progressive revelation between the testaments, then we can have no theological argument against progressive revelation within the NT. Any arguments against this supposition must be other than theological, for otherwise we have become marcionite in our bibliology. That is, if a high bibliology allows progressive revelation between the OT and the NT, and even allows it within the OT, to deny it within the NT on theological grounds is to become bibliologically schizophrenic. Any arguments against this must be founded on other pillars.

What other reasons are there for denying intra-NT progressive revelation? The fundamental reason is historical. The NT was written over a period of no more than about half a century—and covering a period of no more than a hundred years, while the OT took over a millennium to produce. Thus, to argue for progressive revelation in the OT is both reasonable and necessary, while in the NT it is neither. The timeframe of the NT is too collapsed to allow for theological development.

The irony in this historical argument is that it is sometimes found on the lips of modern-day theologians—theologians who have witnessed more technological progress in their lifetime than the previous twenty centuries of theologians combined! Knowledge is doubling so fast nowadays that printed encyclopedias have become obsolete. I submit that what the 20th century was to technology, the first century AD was to theology. In the history of mankind, what could be more cataclysmic, more revolutionary, than the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Theanthropic Person? The Christ-event is the middle point in all of history, as Conzelmann so eloquently noted in his Die Mitte der Zeit.18 All that came before anticipates it; all that comes after builds on it. We will develop this point a little later, but suffice it to say for now that the historical argument against intra-NT theological development does not seem to do justice to the monumental revelatory significance of Jesus of Nazareth.

  1. How does one biblical author learn about the new insights of a previous author?

If God gives new revelation to one biblical writer at a given period in time, do—or how do—subsequent biblical writers learn of it? Is such material revealed to them, or do they learn of it through normal human means, especially by reading the earlier writing? Is their interpretation necessarily going to be right or complete? If one biblical writer came to certain conclusions by way of his own insights, would subsequent writers necessarily have to come to the same conclusions when interacting with the earlier writer’s documents?

These are serious questions that we do not have time to fully examine in this brief paper. I will offer some tentative reflections on the matter, in hopes of stimulating others to think more about this issue. I will only attempt an answer to the first of these questions here, and reserve the rest for the next section.

If God gives new revelation to one biblical writer at a given period in time, do—or how do—subsequent biblical writers learn of it? It seems that the customary modus operandi of the process of revelation and discovery is that once a truth is revealed in scripture later writers learn of it through the normal channels of human inquiry. Daniel had to read in Jeremiah to learn of the extent of the Babylonian Captivity (Dan 9.2); Ezra had to read the law of Moses to the people and interpret it if they—or he—were to understand God’s will (Neh 8); the apostles needed to hear from Peter about his vision and his experience at Cornelius’ house, rather than have a similar vision or experience, in order to embrace Gentile inclusion in the church (Acts 10-11).19

This is not always the case, of course. The magi and Joseph both received divine revelation about Herod (though we do not know the exact content of the message to the magi [Matt 2.12-14]).20 And Paul got his gospel by direct revelation from the ascended Lord, after the rest of the apostolic band had apparently received it from Jesus while he was with them. Yet Paul seemed apprehensive about the validity of his gospel when he visited Jerusalem, and consequently chose to have a private meeting with some of the apostles— “in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain” (Gal 2.2).21

Although my research is preliminary, my working hypothesis is that unless unusual circumstances warranted it, later biblical writers would learn of revelations or insights given to an earlier author through normal human means. But this leads to the third question.

  1. Is progressive revelation always linear? That is, are the later revelations always the most advanced?

Ultimately, the question we are asking is both methodological and chronological: Is the progress of revelation along linear lines, or is it more multifaceted than that? Essentially, if there is room for formal (as opposed to substantive) contradiction within the Bible in one direction, why not the other? That is, since in the former case we must argue from a chronological and historical perspective to erase the  contradiction, is that not also valid in the case of one biblical writer misunderstanding the full import of an earlier one?

Is there evidence within the text of scripture that addresses some of the above questions? I think there is. To take but two examples: (1) the use of the OT in the NT, and (2) 2 Peter 3.15-16. In the former case, many evangelicals would argue that the resultant message was right but the method for extracting it was hermeneutically or exegetically invalid. That is, that the revelation given to the OT author is not entirely understood by the NT writer who uses and interprets his text. The passages used to support this contention are too numerous to list here. But if this supposition is valid, then it implies that later biblical writers did not always correctly grasp the meaning of earlier revelation.

In the latter case, Peter complains about the difficulty of interpreting Paul’s letters: “And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures” (2 Pet 3.15-16, NET). On the one hand, Peter recognizes that Paul has been given a measure of wisdom from the Lord, and that what he has written is indeed scripture. On the other hand, Peter complains about the difficulty of interpreting Paul’s letters, though noting that there is a certain line that he has not crossed—that of distorting the meaning of Paul’s letters resulting in his own destruction. Peter’s complaint about Paul seems to suggest that later biblical writers did not always fully grasp the meaning of earlier revelation or insights. Yet Peter has understood enough of Paul to declare himself to be within the realm of truth. But this text does seem to imply that one biblical author can write on the same topic as an earlier biblical author and yet have a more primitive understanding.

Not all understand 2 Peter 3.15-16 in this way of course. However, what needs to be considered is how 2 Peter is similar to or distinct from Paul’s letters in its theological outlook. We get a feel for this by examining Peter’s first letter to begin with. F. W. Beare noted, in his commentary on 1 Peter, that

…the book is strongly marked by the impress of Pauline theological ideas, and in language the dependence upon St. Paul is undeniably great. All through the Epistle, we have the impression that we are reading the work of a man who is steeped in the Pauline letters, who is so imbued with them that he uses St. Paul’s words and phrases without conscious search, as his own thoroughly-assimilated vocabulary of religion. Entire passages are little more than an expansion or restatement of Pauline texts, and whole verses are a kind of mosaic of Pauline words and forms of expression. As a theologian, the writer has a mind of his own and is no mere echo of Paul, it is abundantly evident that he has formed himself on Paul’s writings.22

Beare uses this argument to show that Peter was not the author of 1 Peter. We have dealt with that issue elsewhere and will not be occupied with it here,23 except to note that, in our understanding, the first letter was consciously modeled on Paul’s letters so that the readers would feel comfortable and ‘at home’ reading this letter from Peter. In order to make headway with Paul’s churches, Peter felt that the best approach would be to employ one of Paul’s associates as his own amanuensis.24 The question that we are concerned with is this: If 1 Peter and 2 Peter are both by the apostle Peter, and if 1 Peter was written before 2 Peter (as 2 Peter 3.1 seems to affirm), does the apostle display the same knowledge of Paul’s letters in his second letter? I do not know of anyone who has even come close to demonstrating that this is the case.25 The second letter displays no acquaintance with Paul’s letters, except in the explicit comment about them in 3.16. There is no dependence, no verbal similarity, no thematic parallel between Paul and 2 Peter. It is for this twin reason—the deep dependence of 1 Peter on Paul’s letters and the total absence of such in 2 Peter—that I have come to the twofold conclusion that (1) 1 Peter almost surely was composed by an associate of Paul’s as Peter’s amanuensis, and (2) 2 Peter was composed by Peter himself, without the benefit of employing one of Paul’s friends. If this is the case, then it raises the issue of how much Peter actually knew of Paul’s letters, and how much of them he actually understood.

I wish to touch on but two points in 2 Peter that seem to stand in tension with Paul, both of which focus on 2 Peter 2.1. There we read of the coming false teachers who will “deny the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction on themselves.” As the author develops his argument, it is difficult to avoid the impression that he thinks that these false teachers were, in some sense, ‘redeemed,’ and that they were now headed for hell. The question is, Where in Paul is such a soteriology taught—one in which redemption is universal and loss of salvation is possible? The Arminian will quickly affirm such a soteriology in Paul, while the Calvinist will deny it both in Paul and in 2 Peter. The problems here are very real, and I neither wish to make light of them nor do I wish to tritely assume that Peter and Paul stand in contradiction with one another. One way out of this dilemma, however, is see theological development as not always going in a linear direction. That is, that Peter’s soteriology is not as developed as Paul’s is.

The possibility thus exists that later biblical writers reflecting on earlier writings do not always get it. Therefore, it is possible that an earlier biblical writer may have greater theological development in one area than another writer who uses his material. How we articulate what the later writer got right looms large for constructing a high bibliology. I am, frankly, troubled by these questions. But I hasten to add—they are questions, not affirmations, in my mind.

Two Potential Examples

As I reflect on theological development in the NT, I take a theologically minimalist approach. That is, I try to put myself in the sandals of a first-century Jew living in Israel, rather than the shoes of a 21st century Christian. I become a Missourian—you have to “show me” that God is doing something altogether new and different. To be sure, there is plenty of evidence for this! But I try to resist the temptation of reading the NT through Chalcedonian lenses. Indeed, I think that if this is all we do, we are in essence placing our bibliology higher than our Christology because we are giving priority to a theological reading of the text above the historical and incarnational. Not only this, but we are ignoring the early patristic period and the struggles that they had both of articulation and insight.

I agree with McGrath on this score: “The doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained and critical reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in Scripture, and continued in Christian experience. This is not to say that Scripture contains a doctrine of the Trinity; rather, Scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner.”26 If this is so, then we must engage in careful thinking about what the apostles consciously embraced about God, as well as what they were groping to understand and express.

Now the most intriguing question in my mind relates to when the apostles began to embrace the deity of Christ. Surely it was not when he emerged from the Jordan River! Only a canonical and theological reading of the text which ignores the historical would be so perverse. The principal question that occupies the minds of Jesus’ disciples is echoed in Mark 4.41 when he stilled the storm: “Who is this man?” We must remember that these disciples were Jews, steeped in their rich tradition of monotheism—a monotheism that reached a new pinnacle after the stench of the Babylonian deities filled their nostrils for seven decades. They simply had no ready category for thinking of this Galilean carpenter as God in the flesh. We must not confuse their loyalty to Jesus as an embracing of his deity. Even when Peter addresses him, according to Matthew, as “Son of the Living God” (Matt 16.16), it is doubtful that this meant deity, for Peter immediately rebuked Jesus after the Lord spoke of his sufferings (16.22). One does not customarily rebuke God.

Although I will not develop it here, I believe that R. T. France was on the right path when he declared,

It is in this light [the strict Jewish monotheism out of which nascent Christianity grew] that we must understand the fact… that the explicit use of God-language about Jesus is infrequent in the NT, and is concentrated in the later writings… It was such shocking language that, even when the beliefs underlying it were firmly established, it was easier, and perhaps more politic, to express these beliefs in less direct terms. The wonder is not that the NT so seldom describes Jesus as God, but that in such a milieu it does so at all.27

Although many would see the apostles embracing the deity of Christ immediately after his resurrection, I suspect it took somewhat longer for this to become a settled conviction. There are no more than half a dozen NT texts that speak of Jesus as qeov", and all but one of them occur in the 60s or later. To be sure, there are plenty of other NT texts that seem to imply his deity, especially those that quote OT passages which originally referred to YHWH. But when these texts were used by the apostles, and especially when their implications were clearly understood by the apostles, is not something that yields facile answers.

Second, I simply wish to raise the issue of how we interpret eschatological texts. This is of significantly less importance, but may be easier to follow. I offer a view of the coming kingdom that is both in keeping with progressive revelation and also allows me to keep my job!

The idea of a time-fixed earthly kingdom is not taught until Rev 20. Reading the Bible chronologically reveals that the millennial kingdom is not clearly distinguished from the eternal state until the last book of the Bible. Amillennialists have argued this for some time; and their point is that therefore Rev 20 needs to be interpreted in light of earlier prophecies. But surely they would not do this with the first and second comings of Christ: that is, even though the two comings are not clearly distinguished in the OT, amillennialists recognize that the Bible affirms a second coming. My point is that progressive revelation shows that just as the two mountain ranges of Christ’s two comings are virtually indistinguishable in the OT, so also the two future stages of the kingdom do not get distinguished until AD 96. 

Specifically, the OT texts do not make a distinction between the earthly kingdom and the eternal state (cf. the intermingling of the two in Isa 65.17-25).  Only with exegetical gymnastics can one find this distinction between the earthly kingdom and eternity in the Olivet Discourse.28 1 Cor 15.21-28 is often used as a prooftext for the millennial kingdom, but without Rev 20, no one would see it.29 Hindsight is 20/20. Further, 2 Pet 3.10 seems to view the Lord’s return as ushering in eternity (“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the heavenly bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare.”30)  Likewise, 2 Thess 1.9-10 seems to ‘telescope’ the eschaton (in that there is no gap between the Lord’s return and the eternal destruction of the wicked). 

On the one hand, I believe the amillennialists have had a superior exegesis. Premillennialists sometimes have such a flat view of revelation that they see things that are impossible historically. For example, is it really plausible to say, as Leon Wood does in his commentary on Daniel, that we should read Dan 2.44 as “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will not be destroyed for an age”?31 The Aramaic term lamáh (equivalent to the Hebrew ‘olam) can, of course, in some contexts mean ‘age’ rather than ‘eternity.’ But to argue that here is pure dogma. Wood says, “According to Revelation 20:3, the millennial kingdom lasts 1000 years, the duration of time intended here.”32 There is not a shred of evidence in all of Daniel to suggest that he intended 1000 years. Wood simply argues this from the vantage point of Rev 20. 

On the other hand, if we can embrace theological development in the NT, we should have little problem seeing Rev 20 as the pinnacle of revelation about the kingdom. And even though the kingdom is never explicitly mentioned as a thousand-year period prior to this chapter, if this book is the last book of the Bible then, as Millard Erickson argued, “If we understand God to have worked in a process of accomplishing redemption for man, revealing himself and his plan gradually, we will weight later developments more heavily than earlier ones.”33 This means that the amillennial way of reading Rev 20 in light of earlier statements may well be methodologically wrongheaded. Instead, we probably need to understand those earlier statements in their historical setting and regard the final revelation on this topic to be the fuller revelation. In the least, neither the embarrassment that premillennial exegesis has had, nor the subsequent fanciful interpretations it has produced, over certain eschatological texts is necessary.34


These are some of the questions I have been wrestling with. One question that naturally comes up after such points as this paper is considering is this: Aren’t these fine points too subtle for the man in the pew? How can he ever read his Bible with any understanding if the historical conditions are not intricately perceived? In response, let me say four things. First, the average lay person already has some sense of the historical development of the Bible. If he worships on Sunday, if he asks God for forgiveness of his sins without feeling the need to sacrifice some animal, if he senses no pangs of guilt for eating a ham sandwich, the average layman understands (or at least embraces) that man’s relation to God in the Old Testament is different from his relation to God in the New. I have found that Christian leaders all too often do not give the benefit of the doubt to the capacity of their flock for grasping the meaning of scripture. To put it bluntly: Many lay people are a lot smarter than most seminary students! Let’s give them some credit for being able to grasp theological development within the canon. Second, the best hermeneutic has never been determined by the lowest common denominator. Thus, for those lay folks who may be a little slow or who take a strongly canonical approach to their understanding of scripture, we must always keep in mind that the audience does not determine meaning. Meaning is more a matter of the author’s intention, whether he successfully conveyed his meaning to all of his readers or not. Third, the priesthood of the believer does not exclude the fact that lay people truly need to learn from those who study the scripture in the original languages and in its original setting. Nowadays, the priesthood of the believer is taken to mean that we should all pool our ignorance, and allow the silliest of interpretations to have the same validity as one that is built on solid ground. This is the American way, but it is hardly what the Reformers had in mind when they underscored the importance of this precious doctrine. Otherwise, why would they repeatedly insist that pastors learn Greek and Hebrew? One major difference between the Catholic view of the role of the priest and the Protestant view of the role of the pastor is that in the Protestant view the lay person is directly responsible to God to know the truth, and as much as the lay person needs to learn from pastors and expositors, he does not bow to their authority without question. In Catholicism, the magisterium does not give the lay person the luxury of thinking through interpretive options and behavioral options. Unfortunately, the modern-day evangelical tacit assumption about the priesthood of believers has nothing to do with the Reformers’ model, but follows American democracy for its cues. Fourth, with training and time, the average lay person can be educated to grasp the meaning of the Bible historically as well as theologically. Whether one accepts this as good doctrine or not, the fact that many (if not most!) American evangelicals are broadly dispensational suggests that pastors and church leaders have had a great deal of success in training their flocks to understand the progressive development of biblical revelation. After all, dispensationalism is a complex system of doctrine that is not likely to be learned by a lay person simply reading his Bible! Again, whether dispensationalism is a proper interpretive grid for reading scripture, the fact that it is widely embraced by lay folks at least illustrates that what I am proposing in this paper can find no substantive objection from the pew.


This paper raises some larger concerns for evangelicals, especially how we go about doing theology. As I have interacted with evangelical exegetes for several years now, all too often when the conversations turn to confessional statements and doctrinal positions, words are spoken in hushed tones accompanied by nervous glances. Much of the time, the issue revolves around the incompatibility of theological formulations with the data of the text. The problem, to put things bluntly, is this: Theologies are almost always written by theologians who are simply unaware of the exegetical issues. And this means that they often create modern-day constructs in a vacuum—constructs that do not adequately take into account the human elements of the Bible. At the same time, exegetes nowadays are often getting so specialized that they can have the luxury of ignoring the theological implications of the meaning of the text.35

In light of this growing segregation between theologians and exegetes, is it not time for both sides to interact with one another a bit more? Can we really do theology in isolation from the historical exegesis of the text? If we do, we will continue both to promote a docetic bibliology and to contribute to the dumbing down of the church. Can we really do exegesis in isolation from the confessing community? If we do, we will only unmask our arrogance and our total dependence on rationalism.

1 Clark Pinnock, “Three Views of the Bible in Contemporary Theology,” in Biblical Authority, ed. Jack Rogers (Waco: Word, 1977) 60-61.

2 Gordon R. Lewis, “The Human Authorship of Inspired Scripture,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980) 230.

3 David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture: An Evangelical perspective on Inspiration, Authority and Interpretation (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995) 37. William J. Webb has recently addressed this issue implicitly, by arguing for a redemptive hermeneutic that takes into account the historical occasion and cultural backdrop of the writing of scripture. At this very hour, there is in fact a paper being presented by C. C. Daniel on Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001).

4 John Calvin sometimes noted the infelicities in the language of the biblical writers, such as in Rom 5.15: “Although he [Paul] frequently mentions the difference between Adam and Christ, all his repeated statements… are elliptical. Those, it is true, are faults in his language, but in no way do they detract from the majesty of the heavenly wisdom which is delivered to us by the apostle” (The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and Thessalonians, trans. David and Thomas Torrance [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960] 114). J. I. Packer appropriately comments on Calvin’s view of these grammatical and stylistic impoverishments: “Calvin would fault an apostle for poor style and bad grammar but not for substantive inaccuracy” (“John Calvin and the Inerrancy of Holy Scripture,” in Inerrancy and the Church, ed. John D. Hannah [Chicago: Moody, 1984] 178-79). In Kenneth Kantzer’s essay on “Inerrancy and the Humanity and Divinity of the Bible,” he notes that “Inerrancy teaches us that God kept the Biblical writers from bearing false witness as they wrote the Bible. However inglorious human language may be, and therefore, however imperfect the human language of the Bible may be, it still always tells the truth” (in The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy 1987 [Nashville: Broadman, 1987] 156 [italics added]).

5 Although traditionally translated ‘brothers,’ this term often refers to both men and women in Koine Greek (so BDAG on ajdelfov"). As a sidenote, this is a good place to illustrate the sometimes misleading nature of older, gender-exclusive translations for today’s native English speakers. Who today would naturally think that ‘brothers’ includes both men and women?

6 Note especially Lewis, “Human Authorship,” 258 [italics added]:

How did the Holy Spirit do this? How does one person influence another? Why do some have a more effective impact on people than others? Undoubtedly many factors are involved, and the Scriptures provide little in the way of answers to questions of how. How God guides providentially, how He answers prayer, or how the Spirit regenerates we are not told in detail. We should not be surprised, then, that we are not told more about how the Holy Spirit inspired His providentially prepared spokesmen to write what He wanted written.

However, we do know several things about the process: (1) We know that the Holy Spirit so specially controlled the human authors’ judgment that what they wrote is God’s judgment. (2) We know that, apart from supernatural control, finite and fallen men could not have expressed such authoritative pronouncements. … (3) We know that the Scriptures did not originate by the will of man but by God’s breathing them out… (4) We know that the divine spokesmen were “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). (5) We know that the Spirit’s supervision applied to the written Word that would be available after the human writer was gone and that all of the previously written Old Testament and New Testament was viewed as the word of the prophets and other authors telling of the power and the coming of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 1:16, 19-21)[.] (6) We know that the Spirit’s inspiration had the writing of Scripture, not subsequent readers of Scripture, as its object. Inspiration cannot be reduced to illumination. (7) We know that not all Scripture was given by dictation.

7 The following are representative statements: “Neither Luther nor Calvin devote much space to the ‘mechanics’ of inspiration: they are far more interested in the results” (B. A. Gerrish, “Biblical Authority and the Continental Reformation,” SJT 10 [1957] 355, n 2). “These men of God had known God, learned from Him, and walked with Him in their spiritual pilgrimage for many years. God had prepared them through their familial, social, educational, and spiritual backgrounds for the task of inscripturating His word. The experiences of Moses, David, Jeremiah, Paul, Luke, John, and Peter differ, yet throughout their lives God was working to prepare and shape them, even their own vocabulary, to pen the Scriptures. Beyond this, we dare not say much regarding the how of inspiration, except to affirm God’s providential oversight in the entire process of inspiration” (Dockery, Christian Scripture, 43 [italics added]). “When we say that all the words of the Bible are God’s words, we are talking about the result of the process of bringing Scripture into existence. To raise the question of dictation is to ask about the process that led to that result or the manner by which God acted in order to ensure the result that he intended” (Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994] 80).

8 E.g., Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983): “The verbal theory insists that the influence of the Holy Spirit extends beyond the direction of thoughts to the selection of words used to convey the message. The work of the Holy Spirit is so intense that each word is the exact word which God wants used at that point to express the message. Ordinarily, great care is taken to insist that this is not dictation, however” (1.207). And “… there will be, in the vocabulary of the writer, one word that will most aptly communicate the thought God is conveying (although that word in itself may be inadequate). By creating the thought and stimulating the understanding of the Scripture writer, the Spirit will lead him in effect to use one particular word rather than any other” (ibid., 215). After discussing this view at length, he asks, “But is such thought control possible short of dictation?” (ibid., 1.218). In this paragraph he gives the analogy of a church secretary who knew his thought processes and style so intimately that she could mimic such at will. But this analogy breaks down at precisely the point Erickson is trying to establish: Do the biblical writers mimic God’s style? Does God have a writing style? Further, do they even know they are writing scripture? In the case of the church secretary, her job is not to write for herself, but to, in effect, be a ghost writer for the pastor. But is that how the biblical writers thought of themselves? The problem is that all high views of inspiration have to address the interrelation of inspiration and canonicity, or the process of inspiration and the biblical author’s self-conscious recognition that what he is writing is indeed scripture. But the history of the canon (both internally and externally) speaks decidedly against assuming that the biblical authors were always, or even usually, self-conscious that what they were writing was scripture.

9 “In cases where the ordinary human personality and writing style of the author were prominently involved, as seems the case with the major part of Scripture, all that we are able to say is that God’s providential oversight and direction of the life of each author was such that their personalities, their backgrounds and training, their abilities to evaluate events in the world around them, their access to historical data, their judgment with regard to the accuracy of information, and their individual circumstances when they wrote, were all exactly what God wanted them to be, so that when they actually came to the point of putting pen to paper, the words were fully their own words but also fully the words that God wanted them to write, words that God would also claim as his own” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 81 [italics added]). Beyond this is the dynamic view of inspiration, as found in the writings of A. H. Strong, E. Y. Mullins, Donald Bloesch, G. C. Berkouwer, Paul J. Achtemeier, and William J. Abraham. Dockery summarizes this position: “It sees the work of the Spirit in directing the writer to the concepts he should have and then allowing great freedom for the human author to express this idea in his own style, through his own personality, in a way consistent with and characteristic of his own situation and context” (Christian Scripture, 54). To be sure, not all of these scholars would hold to verbal inspiration, but some would.

10 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology  (reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973) 1.157 (italics added).

11 As Calvin noted, so I would agree: the style and syntax of the biblical authors sometimes leaves something to be desired. For example, each evangelist spells the same verb in more than one way (e.g., ei\pon/ei\pan, or h\lqan/h\lqon), Paul uses run-on sentences in some places, such as Eph 1.3-14, that are so cumbersome that they can be labeled ein Monstrosität. And the Seer of Patmos fills his Apocalypse with grammatical solecisms that would give a grammar teacher a nervous breakdown. Yet evangelicals see all of this as verbally inspired because such things do not impact the substance of the message. Nevertheless, the fact that they do impact the form of the message seems to indicate that God permitted some measure of freedom for the human author.

12 Erickson, Christian Theology 1.259. He unpacks this a bit in another place, where he discusses “a number of criteria by which the permanent factors or the essence of the doctrine may be identified: (1) constancy across cultures, (2) universal setting, (3) a recognized permanent factor as a base, (4) indissoluble link with an experience regarded as essential, and (5) final position within progressive revelation” (121).

13 Ibid., 123.

14 Systematic Theology, 108 (italics added).

15 Dockery, Christian Scripture, 44.

16 Ibid., 45 (italics added). At this point, Dockery cites the excellent and provocative essay by Richard N. Longenecker, “On the Concept of Development in Pauline Thought,” in Perspectives on Evangelical Theology, edd. K. S. Kantzer and S. N. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979) 195-207.

17 C. H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible, rev. ed. (London: Nisbet, 1938), in his chapter called “Progressive Revelation,” begins by noting that “The idea of a ‘progressive revelation’ is not altogether without difficulty. Progress means an advance from something worse to something better” (269). His treatment of this issue may not be entirely satisfactory to evangelicals, but it is certainly worth reading (269-85), especially because of its ultimately christocentric focus.

18 Hans Conzelmann, Die Mitte der Zeit: Studien zur Theologie des Lukas (Tübingen: Mohr, 1960). The English translation of this work follows the subtitle, The Theology of St Luke.

19 One also thinks of the dietary restrictions placed on Adam in the Garden, who then presumably passed this information on to Eve (Gen 2). Her garbled version of it to the serpent, in which she adds a tactile restriction to the dietary one (Gen 3.3), illustrates how a later individual in scripture may have a less clear understanding of a revelatory statement than an earlier individual. However, since neither Adam nor Eve were biblical authors, the relevance to our discussion is probably minimal.

20 Of course, neither the magi nor Joseph were writers of scripture, so the parallel is not exact.

21 It is an intriguing thought that Paul’s doubts might be tied to his knowledge of how new revelation was normally administered by God—viz., given once to an individual who then dispensed it to others.

22 F. W. Beare, The First Epistle of Peter: The Greek Text with Introduction and Notes, 3rd ed., revised and enlarged (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970) 44.

23 See D. B. Wallace, “First Peter: Introduction, Argument, and Outline,” available online at http://bible.org/docs/soapbox/1peotl.htm.

24 I am not arguing here that Silvanus was necessarily that associate, as the idiomatic expression “I have written through Silvanus” (1 Peter 5.12) only indicates that he was the letter-bearer, not the amanuensis, in spite of how it sounds to modern ears.

25 Ironically, those who deny Petrine authorship to the second letter are more prone to argue that this letter was in line with Paul’s thought, and that the author understood Paul to a large degree, largely because the letter would have been composed at a significantly later date when Paul’s letters would have been collected and studied. But these commentators simply do not offer anything like a sustained demonstration that 2 Peter is in line with Paul theologically.

26 Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) 294.

27 R. T. France, “The Worship of Jesus—A Neglected Factor in Christological Debate?”, Vox Evangelica 12 (1981) 25.

28Note that Matt 25.34 (“inherit the kingdom”) and 25.46 (“the righteous [will enter] into eternal life”) are, most naturally, speaking about the same event. Yet, if we try to distinguish the millennium from the eternal state in this discourse we have something of a contradiction. Further, it is equally difficult to distinguish the tribulation before the Lord’s return  from the Jewish War. I strongly suspect that Jesus himself was unaware of such distinctions (cf. Matt 24:36; Mark 13.32).

29Cf., e.g., Fee’s NICNT commentary, loc. cit. The most we can get out of 1 Cor 15.21-28 is that there may be some time for Christ to do his ‘clean-up operation’—that is, to bring everything, including death, under submission to his sovereignty. But to read into this text a one thousand year period is unwarranted. Indeed, it seems equally plausible to extract from this text the notion that Christ is now reigning and is bringing everything under his submission (v 25). “Then comes the end” (v 24), in this scenario, would support a postmillennial/amillennial position. Suffice it to say that the millennium is anything but clear in this text.

30 NET Bible translation.

31L. Wood, A Commentary on Daniel, 71. 

32Ibid., 73.

33 Erickson, Christian Theology, 123.

34 It may be objected that there is really no parallel between the OT portrayal of the coming Messiah in comparison with the NT, and the progressive unfolding of the millennial kingdom, because there is only one passage that suggests a thousand-year earthly kingdom, yet there are several passages that speak of the second coming of Christ. Three responses are in order here: (1) There are no texts that speak of the Messiah’s coming in two stages until he was already here in his first coming. But there is one text that speaks of the earthly kingdom as distinct from the eternal state—even before either began. Thus, in this respect, premillennialism is even clearer than the two comings of Christ for the respective reader groups. (2) At the same time, one has to wonder about evangelicals’ (especially dispensationalists’) preoccupation with eschatology, and the dogma that is attached to our conclusions. Analogously, if we had lived during the intertestamental period, much—if not most—of our theological convictions would have to be thrown out with the inbreaking of the new age in the coming of Jesus. I suspect that we have overstated our positions, and have overprioritized them as well, when the clear teachings of scripture have been moved more and more to the periphery of our thinking. Certainly, a need both for greater humility and for a more carefully nuanced doctrinal taxonomy is called for. (3) One also has to wonder whether we have misread many of these eschatological texts. If the multiple fulfillment of the OT texts respecting the Messiah’s advent(s), the Day of the Lord, the tribulation, etc. is meant to be something of a pattern, there is a great probability that many of the eschatological narratives should be read as also having multiple fulfillment—in spite of the fact that we have almost always read them as bearing only one fulfillment. Ultimately, on all such texts, the only sure interpretation is the one that is given ex eventu.

35 This issue was forcefully brought out by one who was at home in both worlds (S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Romans 5:12—An Exercise in Exegesis and Theology,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, edd. M. C. Tenney and R. N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 298-316. Unfortunately, the disconnect that Johnson noticed nearly three decades ago has grown into a great divorce today.

Related Topics: Canon, Theology