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Marc Roby: Well, Dr. Spencer, I’m excited about today’s session because we are ready to begin studying systematic theology proper.

Dr. Spencer: I’m excited as well. We’ve gone nearly a year now and have covered a lot of material as background and motivation. We first talked about why people should be interested in what the Word of God says and gave a summary of the Bible’s teaching. We then noted that the Bible claims to be the infallible Word of God and spent quite a bit of time on extra-biblical evidence that corroborates the Bible’s claim. We also discussed the nature of true saving faith to make it clear that our faith does not depend on the extra-biblical evidence. We then moved on to discuss the doctrine of the Word of God. We did that because even though it is true that God reveals himself in nature, that revelation is not sufficient for a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Marc Roby: And so God graciously gave us special revelation in his Word.

Dr. Spencer: And we showed that the Word of God is sufficient, necessary, authoritative and clear in its teaching. It is sufficient and necessary for salvation. It is our ultimate and absolute authority in life, and the basic message is clear to anyone who takes the time to explore what it says. We also went on to discuss delegated authority in the home, state and church. And, most recently, we covered the infallibility of the Bible and the science of hermeneutics, which allows us to interpret it correctly.

Marc Roby: We also gave a couple of examples of really bad theology, which is common in the world today, as evidence for why it is so important for us to read the Word with great care.

Dr. Spencer: The time we’re living in makes me think of what the prophet Amos said. In Amos 8:11 God told his people that “The days are coming, … when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD.” [1]

In our day we are swimming in a sea of heretical views of Christianity – so it isn’t like dying of thirst because of having no water at all, but of having no fresh water! It’s more like dying of thirst while surrounded by salt water! We need to know what the Word of God really says so that we can have the pure, fresh water of the Word of God to assuage our thirst for truth.

Marc Roby: That’s a good metaphor. So, now that we are ready to dive into systematic theology, where do you want to begin?

Dr. Spencer: We are going to follow, somewhat loosely at times, a well-established outline in reformed theology. It covers what are called the six loci of theology. A locus is a central point or focus of something, so the six loci are the six main headings under which we can organize all of systematic theology. Those six loci are: 1) Theology proper, which means the study of God; 2) Anthropology, which means the study of man; 3) Christology, which means the study of Jesus Christ the Redeemer; 4) Soteriology, which means the study of salvation; in other words, how sinful men can be saved; 5) Ecclesiology, which means the study of the church; and 6) Eschatology, which means the study of last things; in other words, of the final eternal state of everything.

Marc Roby: I might add that some theologians would add the doctrine of Scripture, which we have already covered, as another locus, rather than as background.

Dr. Spencer: I’m not surprised that you would mention that since one of your favorites, John Frame, is an example of a theologian who would do so.[2] If we include the doctrine of the Word of God as a locus, then it would be first and we would have seven loci. In that case, we could say that we are done with the first of the seven loci and are moving on to the second.

Marc Roby: This outline also roughly conforms to that followed by John Calvin in his monumental work The Institutes of the Christian Religion. His work is divided into four books, with Book 1 being on the knowledge of God the Creator, Book 2 being on the knowledge of God the Redeemer, Book 3 being on the mode of obtaining the grace of Christ, and Book 4 being on the Holy Catholic Church. Now, the word “Catholic” here simply means universal and does not imply any connection to the Roman Catholic Church.

Dr. Spencer: And in his Institutes, Calvin includes a discussion of the Scriptures in Book 1. We can also look at the Westminster Confession of Faith and note that it begins with the Word of God. We’ve said before, but it bears repeating in this day of self-professed Christians ignoring the Bible, that the Bible is the only place we have an objective revelation of Jesus Christ. It makes no sense therefore, to call myself a Christian and not take the Bible very seriously.

But, getting back to our outline of systematic theology, it also conforms, again loosely, to that followed in a number of systematic theology books. For those listeners who are interested in references to use as we go through this material, I recommend James Boice’s book Foundations of the Christian Faith as a good readable introduction.[3] For a more in-depth treatment I recommend Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology[4] and also Charles Hodge’s 3-volume Systematic Theology, which is even available online as a pdf for free.[5] A good but extremely concise treatment can also be found in J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology.[6]

Marc Roby: Those are all good references. And perhaps we should also mention that for those of our listeners who are well read and want to dive into something more challenging, there are good translations of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion available as well.[7]

Dr. Spencer: In fact, you can also find a pdf copy of the Institutes online for free.[8] The detailed references for all these things are given in the transcript of this session as always. All of our podcasts and their associated transcripts can be found on our website at whatdoesthewordsay.org. And I would also like to mention, since many people don’t listen to the end of our podcasts, that we have a free gift available to any of our listeners. If you go to our webpage, whatdoesthewordsay.org, you can request a free copy of Good News for All People, a short presentation of the gospel written by our founding pastor, Rev. P.G. Matthew. It is, in my opinion, the finest short presentation of the gospel available.

Marc Roby: I agree with that view. And I would point out that if someone is a mature Christian and doesn’t think he or she needs the book, they could get a free copy and give it to a friend. So, at long last, are we ready to start with Theology proper?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we finally are. This topic often starts by discussing the knowability of God through general and special revelation. But we’ve already covered those topics, so we are going to jump right in and start to examine the attributes of God.

Marc Roby: And by attributes you mean different aspects of God’s being.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. Theologians have come up with different ways of categorizing God’s attributes, but I like the common approach of breaking them into two categories; his incommunicable attributes, meaning those that he does not share with his creatures, and his communicable attributes, which are those that we, in some measure, share.

Marc Roby: Of course, as Grudem points out in his book,[9] these categories are not absolute.

Dr. Spencer: No they’re not absolute, but they are useful because we have to always be aware of the infinite gulf between God as the Creator and ourselves as creatures.

Marc Roby: We also have to guard against God being thought of as just a collection of different attributes.

Dr. Spencer: We absolutely have to guard against that. In dealing with that subject, theologians talk about the simplicity of God.

Marc Roby: I don’t think most people think of God as simple, but that isn’t what is meant here, is it?

Dr. Spencer: No, it is not what’s meant here. When theologians talk about the simplicity of God they are using the word to mean that God is not composed of parts. Some theologians would prefer to use the term unity, rather than simplicity, to avoid the confusion;[10] but the word unity doesn’t have quite the same idea.

Marc Roby: What is the essential idea?

Dr. Spencer: The central idea of saying that God is simple is that he isn’t made up of parts and he can’t in any way be separated. Of course God is not a physical being as we are, so we aren’t talking about God being made up of arms and legs and so on. But even though we have a hard time imagining what a pure spirit is, we must guard against thinking of God as disconnected parts.

For example, consider one of modern pseudo-Christianity’s favorite verses, which gives us one attribute of God; 1 John 4:16 says, in part, “God is love.” And that is without any doubt true. But God is also just and holy and therefore his simplicity tells us that his love is a just love, and a holy love. And his justice is a loving and holy justice, and so on. It helps us to think of God’s attributes separately, but we must always remember that God is all of them, all the time and that they all interact all the time. There is no conflict or separation in God. That is what is meant by the simplicity of God.

Marc Roby: John Frame puts it this way, “Each [of God’s attributes] is essential to him, and therefore his essence includes all of them. God cannot be God without his goodness, his wisdom, and his eternity. In other words, he is necessarily good, wise, and eternal. None of his attributes can be removed from him, and no new attribute can be added to him. Therefore, none of his attributes exists without the others.”[11]

Dr. Spencer: I like that explanation a lot.

Marc Roby: Alright, which of God’s attributes would you like to examine first?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin with his aseity.

Marc Roby: Let me define that word for those listeners who are not familiar with it. Aseity means to exist in and of yourself; in other words, to exist independently, without a cause.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And it is the attribute that is highlighted by the name of God. In Exodus 3 we read the story of Moses being confronted by God. Remember that Moses was born in Egypt at a time when the Jewish people had been commanded to throw all male babies into the Nile because the Egyptians were concerned that the Israelites were becoming too numerous as we read in Exodus Chapter 1. Moses’ mother however, put him in a basket and left him floating in the Nile, where he was discovered and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. He was raised in Pharaoh’s household but knew about his Jewish identity. At one point he murdered an Egyptian for beating a Jewish slave and he had to flee to a foreign country. And it is in that foreign country where God appeared to him in a burning bush.

Marc Roby: And God famously told Moses that he was sending him to Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites from their bondage to the Egyptians.

Dr. Spencer: To which Moses replied, as we read in Exodus 3:13, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

Marc Roby: I’m always amazed at the audacity of Moses to ask God for his name.

Dr. Spencer: It is even more amazing that God actually revealed his name! In Verse 14 we read that “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I AM has sent me to you.”’” We need to understand that names had much greater significance to the ancient Jewish people than they do to us today. And the name God gives to Moses is very significant. As Boice points out in his book, “It is a descriptive name, pointing to all that God is in himself. In particular, it shows him to be the One who is entirely self-existent, self-sufficient and eternal. … these attributes more than any others set God apart from his creation and reveal him as being what he is in himself.”[12]

Marc Roby: I remember you noting that the Creator/creature distinction is central to the message of the Bible way back in Session 2, when we first outlined what the Bible teaches. You were commenting on Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

Dr. Spencer: The Creator/creature distinction is absolutely critical. We cannot understand the Bible in any meaningful way without knowing that we are merely dependent creatures. I very much like the way Matthew Henry put it, and Boice quotes him on the same page as the comments I quoted above. Henry wrote that “the greatest and best man in the world must say, By the grace of God I am what I am; but God says absolutely – and it is more than any creature, man or angel, can say – I am that I am.”[13]

It is impossible for us to grasp the full import of this name. God exists necessarily, independently, eternally. His existence is necessary because, as I noted in Session 1, something, or someone, must be eternal. If there ever was a time when absolutely nothing existed, then nothing would exist now. Nothing comes out of nothing. He also exists independently. God doesn’t need us, or anyone or anything else. He is entirely self-sufficient. The fact that God exists necessarily also implies that he has existed eternally; his existence had no beginning and it will have no end.

Marc Roby: I agree with you that we cannot fully grasp this point. But it does put the lie to a common view in modern churches that God created men in order to have fellowship.

Dr. Spencer: That view is profoundly unbiblical, at least in the way it is understood by many. We do have fellowship with God, that is true. In fact, the greatest thing about heaven is that we will see him as he is and have perfect fellowship with him. But we must never let ourselves think that God was moping around in his loneliness prior to creating us. There was perfect fellowship within the three persons of the godhead. God does not need his creation in any way. He created simply because he chose to out of his own good pleasure, not because he had some need. We read in Ephesians 1:11 that God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will”.

He doesn’t need our worship, he doesn’t need our help in saving others, he doesn’t need us to govern the rest of creation. He doesn’t need us in any way. We are to live for his glory, but we cannot add to his glory. The best we can possibly do is to reflect his glory to the rest of creation.

Marc Roby: Boice gives a quote from A.W. Tozer, which makes the same point, and which I really like. Tozer said that “Were all human beings suddenly to become blind, still the sun would shine by day and the stars by night, for these owe nothing to the millions who benefit from their light. So, were every man on earth to become atheist, it could not affect God in any way. He is what he is in himself without regard to any other. To believe in him adds nothing to his perfections; to doubt him takes nothing away.”[14]

Dr. Spencer: That is a fabulous quote to end on, so I think we are done for today. I’d like to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, P&R Publishing Company, 2002, pg. 3

[3] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986

[4] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, available online as a pdf from http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Systematic%20Theology%20-%20C%20Hodge%20Vol%201.pdf

[6] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology, Tyndale House Pub., 1993

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge, Hendrickson Publishers, 2008

[8] See the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.pdf?url=

[9] Grudem, op. cit., pp 156-157

[10] E.g., Ibid, pg. 177

[11] Frame, op. cit., pg. 226

[12] Boice, op. cit., pg. 102

[13] Ibid, quoting from Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Hendrickson Publishers, 1991, Vol. 1, pg. 225

[14] Ibid, pg. 104

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Marc Roby: We have a question from one of our listeners to open our session again. Dr. Spencer, one of our listeners asked about multiple meanings of biblical passages. He wrote, “I believe you said that a passage of scripture has one meaning but several applications. Can Scriptures sometimes have two meanings? For example, sometimes I’m not sure if the Psalms are talking about the author’s situation, or if it is actually a prophecy about something in the New Testament. Is it possible for it to mean both?”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very good question and I think it points out that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. When we say there is only one correct meaning for a particular passage, we don’t mean to exclude, for example, typology or even allegory in some rare cases like the passage from Galatians 4 we examined in Session 46. The primary thing we wish to exclude is the old idea from the quadriga that every passage has, in addition to its literal meaning, some other hidden meaning, whether it be moral, allegorical, spiritual or whatever.

Marc Roby: But, as our questioner noted, some of the material in psalms and, I might add, a lot of material in the prophets as well, does have meaning beyond that which could have been understood by the people at the time.

Dr. Spencer: That is absolutely true. We discussed prophecy in Session 41 and noted that the first thing we want to do when reading a passage of prophecy is to ask ourselves what it meant to the people at that time. But we also noted that we don’t want to stop there. We live in a time of much greater revelation and the Bible itself points out many ways in which the life of Jesus Christ fulfilled prophecies. So, we should also seek to understand the deeper significance of these prophecies.

The same thing is true in some of the psalms, especially for the so-called Messianic psalms. We noted in Session 20 that some Old Testament passages were recognized by the Jews, way before the time of Christ, as referring to the promised Messiah. For example, in Psalm 22 there are a number of allusions to the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. When David wrote this psalm, he could not have known all the details we now know unless they were revealed to him directly by God. We aren’t told what David knew in this specific case, but we are told that the Old Testament writers sometimes knew that they were writing about the future.

Marc Roby: Your observation reminds me of Acts 2, where Peter addressed the crowd on the day of Pentecost. He quoted a portion of Psalm 16, which was also written by King David, and he applied it to Jesus Christ. Peter told the crowd, as we read in Acts 2:30-31, that David “was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: That is a great passage. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the apostle Peter tells us clearly that David wrote about future events in Psalm 16. So, at least for that passage we know for certain that it had reference to the promised Messiah. We are also told in 1 Peter 1:10-12 that “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”

Marc Roby: That is a very relevant passage. Clearly there were times when the Old Testament prophets did not fully understand what they were writing, but they wanted to know and had some understanding that they were speaking of the coming Messiah and God’s ultimate salvation of his people.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In fact, we see this kind of confidence based on partial revelation very early on. I think most everyone knows the story of Job, a righteous man whom God allowed Satan to test with extreme trials. In Job 19:25-27 we read that in the midst of his suffering, Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”  He clearly understood that God had promised his people a Savior, and that he would one day see this Savior himself.

Marc Roby: This is a clear illustration of the point we have made before, that there was a progressive revelation of truth throughout the Old Testament. Job knew enough, but not as much as people in later times.

Dr. Spencer: Very true. People in the Old Testament times knew of God’s promised Messiah to some degree, but the prophets and psalmists wrote things that they themselves didn’t completely understand. The passage in Psalm 16 that you noted is one such passage, and Psalm 22 has several. But, as with many of these passages, it is mixture of things that did have an immediate meaning and other things that may not have had immediate meaning. For example, in Psalm 22:11-13 we read David crying out to God, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.” These “bulls of Bashan” and “roaring lions” could certainly be figurative expressions for some of the serious troubles and opposition that David himself experienced, so they had an immediate application. But then, in Verse 16, we read, “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.” It is hard to imagine that the reference to having his hands and feet pierced applied to David in any way, but it has long been recognized, along with other parts of that psalm, as referring to the crucifixion of Christ.

Marc Roby: And it might be useful to point out that crucifixion was introduced by the Romans, and therefore it was not a form of punishment known to David.

Dr. Spencer: That is useful to know. It might also be useful to point out that we have good biblical warrant for applying this psalm to Jesus’ crucifixion since he himself quoted from it while on the cross! His famous cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a direct quote from Verse 1.

So, to summarize our answer to this question, let me say the following. There is only one correct meaning to a biblical passage, but it may have application both to the time it was written, say by an Old Testament prophet or psalmist, and an application to a later time. It may be a bit of a matter of semantics to some extent, but I would not call that having multiple meanings.

Marc Roby: Alright, so we are ready to move on with our topic of hermeneutics. We ended last time with an example of some truly awful exegesis, which attempted to show that homosexuality is not condemned by the Bible. Are there any other types of bad exegesis that it would be useful to examine?

Dr. Spencer: We could come up with quite a few very easily, but let’s just do one more really bad example, in fact, this one is blasphemous. But I think it is useful to look at this because those of us who are truly Christians need to know about this kind of terrible, deadly and demonic teaching and oppose it at every turn. This teaching has to do with what is called the “little god” doctrine of the so-called word of faith movement.

Marc Roby: That is about as unbiblical and illogical as any false doctrine I can think of.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. I want to look at how one of these word of faith ministers attempts, with no success I might add, to exegete Genesis 1 Verses 26 and 27, which say “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Marc Roby: This should be interesting.

Dr. Spencer: It is interesting in a very twisted and sad way. In a Youtube video of the teaching of Creflo Dollar, who is the head of the World Changers Church, he was attempting to exegete that passage and said, “If everything produces after its own kind, we now see God producing man. And if God now produces man, and everything produces after its own kind [and he takes a long pause for effect here] … if horses get together, they produce what? [and the crowd answers – horses] And if dogs get together they produce what? [and the crowd answers – dogs] If cats get together, they produce what? [and the crowd answers – cats] But if the godhead gets together and say [sic] let us make man, then what are they producing? [and the crowd answers – gods, and he says] They’re producing gods.”[2]

Marc Roby: That is unbelievably bad and downright evil.

Dr. Spencer: It is so bad that it’s hard to know where to start in demolishing this supposed logic. God’s act of creation cannot be compared with the procreation of animals and human beings, they are not at all the same kind of process. These are totally different things, so the supposed connection made, I might add with a lot of knowing pauses and winking as though his answer should be obvious to all, this supposed connection is completely false. We are given a little more information about the creation of man in Genesis 2:7 where we read that “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Now, when animals and human beings procreate, we do not take some dust, mold it into our offspring and breathe life into it. So that verse alone ought to completely destroy this nonsensical conclusion. But, in addition, what on earth would cause any human being to think that he or she is a little god?

Marc Roby: You have to have a very strange idea of who God is.

Dr. Spencer: You most certainly do. Now, to be fair, they claim that they are gods with a little ‘g’, but what on earth does that mean? The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God. That is, admittedly, a difficult thing to fully explain. But we are not little gods. In fact, this little god doctrine sounds eerily similar to Satan’s original lie to tempt Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:5 we read that Satan told them that if they ate the forbidden fruit they would not die but that “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Marc Roby: It didn’t work out so well for Adam and Eve when they listened to that lie.

Dr. Spencer: And it won’t work out well for people who listen to it today either. If any of our listeners have fallen prey to this false teaching, I want to exhort them to read the Bible themselves, carefully, from beginning to end. The creator-creature distinction is central to the entire Bible. In Isaiah 43:10 we read, “‘You are my witnesses,’ declares the LORD, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.’”

But these word of faith preachers take being gods – even with a little g – seriously. They talk about being able to control the weather and change their physical circumstances with their words. That is simply nonsense. If it were so, why do any of them need to ask for financial donations? Why do any of them ever get sick and die? The reality is that they are liars and they deceive people, and they abuse the Word of God by trying to claim that they are believing what it says. But they pull verses out of context and interpret them without any concern for what the rest of the Word of God says.

Marc Roby: I might add that in Deuteronomy 4:39 we are told, “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.”

Dr. Spencer: And if you search in the 1984 NIV for the phrase “there is no other”, you will find twelve verses that say essentially the same thing. This teaching could not possibly be more in conflict with God’s word. And, I might add, it could also not be more in conflict with common sense and observable facts either. Can these people truly control the weather? I think we’ve spent more time on this than it deserves already. There are many places on the web where you can find detailed refutations of this heretical and blasphemous teaching, so I really don’t need to say any more.

Marc Roby: Very well. We’ve been through a couple examples of bad exegesis, but is there anything more that you want to say about hermeneutics so that we can avoid exegetical mistakes?

Dr. Spencer: Before we summarize the most important points, I would like to make one more observation.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: There are passages in the Bible that are deliberately enigmatic, meaning that they are difficult to understand. I’m not referring to topics that are in and of themselves difficult to understand, but I’m speaking about sayings that are deliberately enigmatic, independent of the complexity of the material.

Marc Roby: Why would God want to make anything difficult for us to understand?

Dr. Spencer: There are different reasons, but certainly one is that if we have to struggle a bit to understand something, we will remember it better and understand it more completely. It is a bit of an old joke among professors that if you explain something too clearly the students are deceived into believing that they understand it. But if you botch the explanation a bit they are forced to think it through and have a better understanding.

Marc Roby: Now that sounds like something a professor would say to justify a poor job of teaching!

Dr. Spencer: That is how it is always used in a joke of course, but there actually is an element of truth to it. I can remember some of the best teachers I had explaining something in class so well that I really thought I understood it. But then, when I went to apply it myself, all of a sudden, the understanding just seemed to vanish. In any event, when we come across something that forces us to slow down and think to figure it out, it is a really good way of emphasizing the material.  In fact, if I understand a sentence immediately, I may read it so fast that it doesn’t sink in at all and I won’t remember it. But, if I have to stop and re-read it a few times to figure out what it means, I’m more likely to remember what it says.

Marc Roby: I can certainly agree with that, although we want to be careful to not use it as an excuse for sloppy writing or poor explanations. You said that there are different reasons though, what is another?

Dr. Spencer: A second reason is to make the heart of the listener manifest. In Matthew Chapter 13 we are told that Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked him why he spoke in parables. He replied, in Verses 11-14, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’”

We see from this that Jesus was, in a sense, making it difficult for those who had no interest in understanding what he said so that they would not bother to figure things out and would remain willfully ignorant of the true gospel, but those who wanted to understand would take the time to figure the parables out, or would ask that they be explained, and would thereby be enlightened.

Marc Roby: In other words, by using parables, Jesus revealed the heart attitude of his hearers.

Dr. Spencer: That is a good way to put it. In his book Interpreting the Bible, Mickelsen[3] has an entire chapter on what he calls opaque figures of speech. He includes in that chapter riddles, fables and enigmatic sayings.

Marc Roby: What else do you want to say about hermeneutics?

Dr. Spencer: We go could go on and on, but I think this is good enough for an introduction to the topic and hopefully to whet our listener’s appetites to study more and to be very careful and systematic in their own Bible study.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to very briefly summarize the most important points we’ve covered.

Dr. Spencer: I think that’s a great idea. The first, and by far the most important, rule of hermeneutics is that we should allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Remember that we said you can also express this rule by saying that Scripture is a unity and cannot contradict itself. This idea is also well stated in Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is entitled, Of the Holy Scripture. In Paragraph 9 of that chapter we read that “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 (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

Marc Roby: As always, the Westminster confession does a great job of stating that idea. What else is important to remember?

Dr. Spencer: First let me add something to the first rule. I want to point out that it is dependent on our having a very high view of Scripture. In fact, the first rule is a necessary result of and depends on our belief that the Bible, in its entirety, is the infallible Word of God. Then, in addition to the first rule, I would have to say that I think your attitude in studying the Bible is most important. You must have an attitude of humility and you must truly be seeking to know God’s will so that you can go out and do it. Thirdly, we need to pray for the Holy Spirit to help us. Remember what it says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Fourthly, I would say to make use of the existing creeds and confessions, and to study systematic theology. Fifthly, I would remind our listeners that we must all be in a good church under the authority of godly leaders. If these things are all in place, you will do well and avoid the many theological ditches out there.

Marc Roby: This has been an enjoyable introduction to the topic of hermeneutics and I am really looking forward to next time, when we start into systematic theology.

Dr. Spencer: I’m looking forward to it as well.

Marc Roby: I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Quoted from a video clip of the teaching of Creflo Dollar, shown in the video The Devilish Puppet Master of the Word-Faith Movement by Justin Peters (start around 26 minutes and 13 seconds in) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOTrMSOrYew&list=PL-ofi4letEUkH6jD268Q7F5Lp-1WxPqPh, also available by itself at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YwBroSyWuQ

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974

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Marc Roby: Before we resume our study of hermeneutics today, we have a question we’d like to address. One of our listeners asked about the origins of John’s baptism. This question was engendered by our discussion in Session 43 of the meaning of Jesus’ statement in John Chapter 3, where he said that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” [1] Our listener wrote, “I have always wondered how John the Baptist’s baptism came to be.  I don’t recall anything from the Old Testament mentioning baptism, yet it is different from the believer’s baptism.” Dr. Spencer, you and I looked into this a bit, what would you like to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: It is an interesting question and I’ve also heard different things over the years myself about the topic. For example, in touring Israel we saw several of the ritual baths, called Mikvehs, used by Jews for ceremonial washings. And we were told that these were also used for ritual cleansings of Gentiles converting to Judaism and that this was the origin of John’s baptism of repentance. That sounds reasonable and is mentioned in an article in the Zondervan Pictorial encyclopedia as well.[2] But, I’ve also read other reasonable sources saying that the practice didn’t start until after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.[3] If that is true, it certainly could not have been a precursor to John’s Baptism. I don’t know or have any reasonable way of finding out who is right on this point, but I don’t think it is a critically important part of the answer.

Marc Roby: We do, of course, see references to ritual cleansing with water in the Old Testament. For example, as we noted in Session 43, in Numbers 19:9 we read about the “water of cleansing” which “is for purification from sin”.

Dr. Spencer: We also noted Ezekiel 36:25 where God says that “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” So, the idea of cleansing someone from the impurity of sin using water is certainly present in the Old Testament. But I don’t know of any Old Testament passages that specifically tie water with repentance. After reading a number of different things I could find on the topic I have to conclude that we don’t know for certain about some of the background, but we can say a few things for sure.

Marc Roby: OK, what are those things we can be sure of?

Dr. Spencer: First, we are sure that the Old Testament does relate cleansing with water to the removal of impurity resulting from sin as we just noted. So, that idea was known to the people at the time of John the Baptist, although we do not see this specifically tied to the idea of repentance prior to John. John’s baptism, however, was clearly tied to confession of sin since we read in Matthew 3:6 that “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Second, we also know from John 1:33 that John the Baptist himself said that God sent him to baptize with water. And, in Matthew 21 we read about the chief priests and the elders asking Jesus “By what authority” he was doing the things he was doing. Instead of answering them, he showed their duplicity by asking them a question he knew they would not be willing to answer honestly. He said, in Matthew 21:25, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” Now, this is far from proof since this was a rhetorical question of sorts, but Jesus’ question implies that John’s baptism came from heaven, which would agree with what John himself said.

Marc Roby: We can, of course, question exactly what is meant by saying his baptism came from heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good question in fact, it isn’t completely clear. Nevertheless, it is clear that cleansing with water was known to be related to purification from sins in Old Testament practice and it is known that in some way God himself commissioned and sent John the Baptist with the specific mission of baptizing people who repented of their sins. John is often correctly called the last of the Old Testament prophets. Not because he lived in Old Testament times, but because he was the last prophet to function as an Old Testament prophet, meaning that he pointed forward to Jesus Christ. Then, when Christ completed his work on the cross, we were given the more complete idea to which John’s baptism had pointed, and that is Christian baptism.

Marc Roby: OK. We are now ready to resume our study of systematic theology by continuing to examine hermeneutics, that is the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the use of allegory in the Bible and ended with a discussion of the place creeds, confessions and systematic theology have in helping us interpret the Bible. What do you want to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: The discussion of creeds, confessions and systematic theology leads immediately to thinking about the place of human pastors and teachers. There is no such thing as a Lone Ranger Christian. We will talk about this more in a later session, but for now it will suffice to say that all Christians should be in a local church under the authority of a pious and learned man, or men, of God. The Bible itself is the only thing that has inherent and absolute authority to govern our faith and conduct, but we all have need of trained pastors and teachers to help us, especially those God has placed over us in our local churches. We all need accountability and we need each other.

The authority of pastors and elders is never absolute, and it is not inherent, it is delegated. But it is, nonetheless, real authority and, like all authority, is meant to bless us. If I am unsure about how to interpret a passage in the Bible, I should study it carefully myself first. Then I should look to various commentaries by good scholars, and then I should also check with the leaders in my church. It is their God-given responsibility to interpret and apply the scriptures to the people under their care.

Marc Roby: People get real nervous about this idea of being under anyone, especially in our anti-authority day and age.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true, but the danger comes from unbiblical teaching, which leads to unbiblical practice. And it isn’t usually very difficult to spot unbiblical teaching. We’ll give some examples later, but for now let me just say that good pastors and teachers are a great help in understanding and applying the scripture and we should make use of that resource and we need to come under their authority. We are told in Ephesians 4:11-14 that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.”

Marc Roby: That’s a vivid picture – if we don’t participate in a good church we can remain infants in Christ. Can you give an example of when the authority of the elders would come into play in interpreting the Scriptures?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. I have an acquaintance who had to move to North Carolina for work a number of years ago. He is a serious Bible-believing Christian and he put a lot of effort and time into looking for a good church. He had young children and, after looking for quite some time, the very best church in his area was one that practiced infant baptism, which he didn’t agree with. He asked me what I thought about the situation.

Now I happen to agree with him that believer’s baptism is the biblical norm, but I do not think it is an essential issue. I suggested that he talk to the elders about this and if they were adamant that his children be baptized if he and his wife became members, he should go ahead and do so out of deference to the church leadership and to avoid causing divisions. I must also say that he already knew for certain they did not believe in baptismal regeneration, they understood baptism to be the sign of the covenant, equivalent to circumcision in the Old Testament. Had they believed in baptismal regeneration the question would never have come up because that is a serious doctrinal error.

Marc Roby: That’s an interesting case. Are we done with discussing the authority of elders in interpreting and applying the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: I think we are for now. But I would like mention that we discussed delegated authority in the state, home and church at greater length before, in Sessions 28 through 33. And, since I can easily imagine some of our listeners might be wondering where it is proper to draw the line on delegated authority in the church, I would refer them to Session 33 on the limits and abuses of authority in the church. I would also add the comment that the most common abuse of authority by far is the abrogation of the biblical responsibility to exercise authority for the good of the church.

Marc Roby: Very well. What do you want to look at next with regard to hermeneutics?

Dr. Spencer: I want to make a general statement about our attitude in studying the Bible. We must be very careful that we come to our study of the Bible with the right attitude.

Marc Roby: And what attitude is that?

Dr. Spencer: We must sincerely desire to hear from God. As Paul says in Romans 12:2, we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We need to see that we are sinners and cannot trust our own ideas. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” One of the worst things we can do in studying the Bible is to have an attitude of arrogant certainty that we know what it says.

Marc Roby: But, of course, a mature Christian can be very solid in his beliefs on many different points of doctrine.

Dr. Spencer: Oh, he definitely can be. I don’t mean that we are constantly doubting our understanding of the Bible. Nor do I think that it is common for a mature Christian to have his views altered in any dramatic way as he studies a given passage for maybe the twentieth time. But I mean that we must always have an attitude of humility that is open to being taught by God’s word and Spirit. For a mature Christian who has studied the Bible carefully, the most common thing is that what you are reading ties in with what you believe to be true and you see new connections, different nuances and new applications that you hadn’t seen before.

But, for a new Christian, or one who has never studied the Bible carefully before, it may very well happen that you find something you believe is simply not true. It is unbiblical. There is a lot of very bad theology out there – what the passage we just read in Ephesians 4 called “every wind of teaching” – and if you haven’t studied the Bible carefully yourself you can easily absorb that teaching. But, serious study with a humble attitude of wanting to know what God says, not what men say, will help you to escape such bad teaching.

Marc Roby: Can you give us an example?

Dr. Spencer: Certainly. Some professing Christians today are convinced that homosexuality is not a sin. Let me quote from an argument made by Jimmy Creech, a former United Methodist pastor. His argument is fairly representative of the kind of terrible stuff you see when people try to make biblical arguments to support a position that is entirely unbiblical. He wrote that “There are references in the Bible to same-gender sexual behavior, and all of them are undeniably negative. But what is condemned in these passages is the violence, idolatry and exploitation related to the behavior, not the same-gender nature of the behavior.”[4]

Marc Roby: That statement is simply untrue. Leviticus 18:22, for example, says “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” There is no reference whatsoever to violence, idolatry or exploitation, it is a very simple and straightforward statement.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. We can also look in Romans 1, where the apostle Paul tells us that people inherently know God exists, but suppress that knowledge. In Verses 25-27 he writes that “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

Marc Roby: That seems very clear, and there is again no indication anywhere in the passage or its context that Paul is referring to violent, idolatrous or exploitive behavior. Does Mr. Creech have other arguments?

Dr. Spencer: Oh yes, it gets far worse. He also writes that “There was no word in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek for ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality.’ These words were invented near the end of the 19th century when psychoanalysts began to discover and understand sexuality as an essential part of the human personality in all of its diversity. Consequently, it cannot be claimed that the Bible says anything at all about it. The writers of the Bible had neither the understanding of it nor the language for it.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is amazing. It’s hard to believe that anyone would take such nonsense seriously. Does he really believe that it was only in the 19th century that people “began to discover” that sexuality is an essential part of human personality?

Dr. Spencer: It is very hard to understand that. You have to have your mind made up and simply be looking for some way to try and justify what you want to be true, rather than having any sincere desire at all to find out what the truth is. I would have a lot more respect for someone who simply said “I think being homosexual is fine and so I dismiss the Bible as having any authority.” At least that is honest. But to try and make an argument that homosexuality is not prohibited by the Bible requires this kind of stupidity and flat out dishonesty.

Let’s take a minute to look at his argument though. As far as I can determine, he is correct about the etymology of the English word homosexual, it comes from the 19th century. But to say that “The writers of the Bible had neither the understanding … nor the language” to describe homosexual behavior is unbelievably ignorant and just plain wrong. Anyone who has ever studied ancient Greece knows that homosexual behavior was absolutely understood and described. All you have to do is look in Wikipedia and you can find all sorts of references if you want to read about such things.[6]

Marc Roby: And, of course, the New Testament, written in Greek, condemns homosexual behavior too, the passage in Romans 1 that we mentioned a couple of minutes ago is one place, but not the only one.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul wrote, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Marc Roby: Again, I don’t see any direct connection between the homosexual offenders that Paul mentions and violent, idolatrous or exploitive behavior.

Dr. Spencer: You don’t see it because it isn’t there. And the Greek word that is translated as “homosexual offender” in this verse also appears in 1 Timothy 1:10, where in the 1984 NIV it is translated as pervert, but in the ESV it is translated as “men who practice homosexuality”.

I could go on, but to be honest, we’ve already spent more time than this transparently disingenuous and fallacious argument deserves.

Marc Roby: And yet, surprisingly, there are a significant number of people out there who call themselves Christians and who believe this kind of nonsense.

Dr. Spencer: Yes there are, but it isn’t really surprising when you consider that most professing Christians today are biblically illiterate, which is why this podcast is so important. I must also emphasize how dangerous such teaching is. If someone believes this false teaching, he is being led down the broad road that leads to eternal destruction. In other words, he is being led to hell. That is what Jimmy Creech and others like him are doing, they are leading people straight to hell.

Marc Roby: That’s a serious statement to end on, but our time is gone for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Zondervan, 1976, Vol. 1, pg. 464

[3] E.g., F. Godet, The Gospel of St. Luke, translated by Shalders and Cusin, I.K. Funk & Co., 1881, pg. 110 also Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh) reference 7 refers to the Encyclopaedia Judaica (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/mikveh)

[4] Quote taken from https://www.hrc.org/resources/what-does-the-bible-say-about-homosexuality on May 11, 2018

[5] Ibid

[6] The article on Homosexuality in Ancient Greece has many references and the basic information (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_ancient_Greece)

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the major covenants of the Bible. Dr. Spencer, are we finished with the topic of covenants?

Dr. Spencer: Yes and no.

Marc Roby: Now wait a minute, that’s a lawyer’s answer, and you’re not even a lawyer.

Dr. Spencer: OK, you’re right. We are done with what I want to say about covenants themselves, but I want to use an example dealing with biblical covenants to get us into our next topic.

Marc Roby: Alright, what example is that?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at a passage in Galatians 4. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to churches in the Roman province of Galatia, which was roughly equivalent to the central and northeastern areas of modern-day Turkey. It is one of the more well-known of Paul’s letters because it played a prominent role in the reformation. Paul argues in the letter that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and not by our works, which is why the letter has sometimes been closely associated with Martin Luther. Although, I must hasten to add, that the letter still talks about the need for Christians to live differently. God’s grace will produce changed lives so, for example, Paul says in Galatians 5:24 that “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” [1]

Marc Roby: That’s pretty strong language, to say that we have crucified our sinful nature.

Dr. Spencer: It is strong language. Paul makes it clear that the fact we are saved by grace alone is not an excuse to go on living sinful lives. Nevertheless, the passage I want to look at today is in Chapter 4 of this letter. Paul is rebuking the Jewish Galatians who were telling people that they still needed to keep the Old Testament ceremonial law to be saved and, in Verses 21-26 we read, “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”

Marc Roby: That passage requires some knowledge of Old Testament history to make sense. So, let me remind our listeners that God had promised Abraham, in Genesis 15:5, that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. But then, when Abraham and his wife Sarah were getting old and had not yet had any children of their own, Sarah convinced Abraham, according to the custom of that time, to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar, whom Paul calls a slave.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And that arrangement did not please God. Abraham and Sarah were not operating on the basis of faith, instead they were trying to help God out in keeping his promise, as if he was somehow not able to keep it. He rebuked them and again told Abraham that he would have a son with Sarah, even though Abraham was 100 years old and Sarah was 90.

Marc Roby: And, of course, that made them both laugh, and the child Sarah bore was named Isaac, which means “he laughs”.

Dr. Spencer: I’m confident that most of us would also laugh at the idea of people that age having a child, but as God says to Abraham about this in Genesis 18:14, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” In any event, Abraham and Sarah did have the child, as you noted, and they then sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away. The Israelites are all descendants of Isaac, the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah, and so are called children of the promise in Galatians 4:28 and elsewhere.

Marc Roby: And then, later, the Sinaitic covenant is made with the Israelites, the children of the promise, after God brings them out of slavery to the Egyptians.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. And you must know all of that Old Testament history to be able to understand this passage in Galatians 4. Paul writes to those who want to keep the ceremonial law and, after reminding them briefly of this episode with Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, he says, “These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves”. So, he is telling these Jews that when they are under the law, in the sense of looking to the law for their salvation, they are slaves. And, in fact, the analogy that he uses would have been extremely unflattering to a Jew because he compares them to the children of Hagar, who are the Arabs!

Paul then writes, “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” This is speaking about the fact that those who have trusted in Jesus Christ are no longer under the law, but under grace. They are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Marc Roby: That is all very interesting, and again shows the importance of knowing the Old Testament to be able to understand the New Testament. But, you mentioned that you wanted to use this discussion of covenants to introduce something else, what is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is the idea of allegory. I have on several occasions noted that we want to avoid allegorizing Scripture because doing so can lead you wildly astray. It is often used to read into the text something that is completely foreign to the text. But, we can’t avoid allegory altogether because Paul uses the word in this passage. Verse 24 of this Chapter, which we read a couple of minutes ago, says in our translation that “These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants.” The Greek word translated as “figuratively” in our version is ἀλληγορέω, which means to speak allegorically[2] and is the source of our English word allegory.

Marc Roby: Of course Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when he said that.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he was. And that is a very important point. We can’t go around willy-nilly allegorizing any portion of Scripture we want. That is an exceedingly dangerous and, in fact, downright dishonest thing to do when we come to conclusions that are contrary to the Word of God. The only way we can say that something in Scripture is meant to be taken as an allegory, is if Scripture itself gives us warrant to do so. In the book Interpreting the Bible by Mickelsen, which we have referred to before, he says the following: “Allegory, a very legitimate way of teaching truth, should not be confused with allegorizing, which takes a narrative that was not meant to teach truth by identification. [sic] By a point by point comparison, allegorizing makes the narrative convey ideas different from those intended by the original author.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s a good way of describing the problem. But, in this case, it also begs the question of which author we are talking about. I mean, Paul is quoting from an Old Testament historical passage written by Moses, who most certainly did not think he was writing an allegory.

Dr. Spencer: You’re absolutely right about that. But, we must never forget that the Bible’s real author is God the Holy Spirit. Moses was telling us about real history, the events are not at in any way fictitious as is usually the case with allegories. But, since God is the absolutely sovereign ruler over history, the events can simultaneously be an allegory. That is different from works written by purely human authors. You have no right to take something I wrote and interpret it allegorically unless I indicated that was my intent in writing it. And you would most definitely have no basis for claiming a factual description of a historical event was an allegory for something else unless God himself indicated that to be true.

Marc Roby: Very well. But before we move on I think this passage raises another question. Paul refers to the covenant from Mt. Sinai, which is where Moses was given the Ten Commandments, often called the moral law. But you said that Paul was arguing against having to keep the ceremonial law to be saved. Why did you say that?

Dr. Spencer: I said that because that is clear from the letter itself. If you read the entire letter to the Galatians, Paul argues against the practice of requiring Gentiles who wanted to become Christians to be circumcised and to obey Jewish dietary restrictions and holy days. These are all part of the ceremonial law and were abrogated, along with the sacrificial system, by Jesus Christ as we are told in the book of Hebrews.

The moral law on the other hand, as summarized by the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, has never been abrogated. In fact, Jesus Christ explained its true meaning and showed us that the Ten commandments are much more comprehensive than most people think. For example, he explained, in Matthew 5:27-28, that the command to not commit adultery not only prohibits the actual physical act of adultery but even the lustful thoughts that can lead to the act.

Marc Roby: Alright, that’s clear. But what we said earlier bears repeating at this point though, our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, not by works. Not even by the works of obeying the moral law.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. As Christians, we obey the moral law out of love and thanksgiving and a true desire to please our Lord, not because we earn our salvation by doing so.

Marc Roby: Do you want to say anything more about allegories?

Dr. Spencer: No. But the example we just gave illustrates another point as well.

Marc Roby: What’s that?

Dr. Spencer: It’s that we should use the didactic portions of the Bible to interpret the narrative portions. To say something is didactic means that it is specifically designed to teach something. There are many parts of the Bible that present us with true history, beautiful poetry and wonderful imagery to help us worship God and to help us grasp his awesome power and sovereign rule over the universe, but it is dangerous to derive biblical doctrine from such passages because doing so requires significant interpretation of the meaning of the narrative.

Marc Roby: Can you give an example?

Dr. Spencer: The clearest example is probably the old debacle involving Galileo. He got in trouble for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. But where did people get the idea that the Bible teaches a geocentric view of the universe? They got that idea from narrative and poetic passages speaking about the sun rising and setting and traversing across the sky. But such passages are giving us accurate descriptions of different events in phenomenological language, which we have discussed before. There is no section of the Bible which is didactic in nature and which tells us that the sun revolves around the earth.

Marc Roby: The New Testament epistles would obviously be a major source of didactic material.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. The epistles were specifically written to explain proper faith and conduct, so they contain a great deal of didactic material. R.C. Sproul’s book Knowing Scripture has a complete section on that topic.[4]

Marc Roby: Speaking of doctrine leads me to an interesting question. The main doctrines of the Christian faith are explained in a number of different creeds and confessions, and most churches, including ours, subscribe to one or more of them. What role do these creeds and confessions play in helping us understand the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: They play a huge role. Just as it would be foolish to start studying physics on your own without bothering to find out what people before you have learned, so it would be foolish to study the Bible without the help of the many godly people who have gone before us, especially those who were trained in the biblical languages and eminent for their piety and wisdom.

I think many professing Christians today have never read through any of the classic creeds or confessions, and that is to their own shame and poverty. But, there is also a ditch on the other side of the road. There are a few churches who put so much emphasis on particular creeds or confessions that they become a substitute authority. And, of course, the Roman Catholic church places the traditions of the church in a position that is officially equal to Scripture, but in practice ends up overruling Scripture. We must retain the balance of the reformation on this point. The Bible alone is the ultimate authority for a Christian. It alone has the inherent authority to bind my conscience.

Marc Roby: And so we should always be checking what a creed or confession says against what the Bible teaches.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And it isn’t just creeds and confessions either. This opens up the idea of the role of systematic theology in the exegesis of any particular passage.

Marc Roby: How would you describe that role?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that systematic theology has a very important role to play in understanding any particular passage of Scripture. We have noted a number of times the first rule of hermeneutics.

Marc Roby: That Scripture should interpret Scripture.

Dr. Spencer: Right. And in applying that rule, we must have an understanding of what the whole of Scripture teaches us on a given topic. That is exactly the role of systematic theology. There is a very close symbiotic relationship here. Our exegesis of different passages in the Bible leads to our coming up with what we think is an accurate description of the Bible’s teaching on a given topic, in other words our exegesis directly drives our systematic theology.

But, at the same time, our systematic theology helps us with exegesis. We just need to be very careful to not let our systematic theology become the authority. If we find ourselves trying desperately to force a passage to say something that it doesn’t in order to avoid contradicting our systematic theology, we need to stop and re-consider our systematic theology in the light of that passage. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are the prime example of that today. Their systematic theology denies the deity of Christ and that causes them to grossly distort a number of passages to try and fit that view.

Marc Roby: I think this discussion has made it clear that every Christian has an obligation to study systematic theology, at least at some level.

Dr. Spencer: I would completely agree with that statement. The Bible is so important in the life of a Christian. It is, as we have argued a number of time, our ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live. And that means that we have an obligation to study it carefully. And, as I hope our brief treatment of hermeneutics has made clear so far, carefully studying the Bible requires more than simply reading it.

Marc Roby: I might interject that it also cannot require anything less than reading the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: No, of course not. We must read the Bible regularly, systematically and in its entirety. And we must do so over and over, continuously throughout our lives. But we also then need to study systematic theology to have an overall framework to help us understand what we read. And we need to read commentaries and other things as well.

I also think it is very important to note that this should not be drudgery! Far from it. If I have been born again, I should have a real desire to understand the Word of God. It is the instruction manual for the Christian life. It is what God deemed necessary for me to have and it is the only objective revelation I have to guide me in knowing God better and pleasing him more. If I have no interest in really studying the Word of God, then I really need to ask myself if I’ve been born again.

Marc Roby: Well, we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We would love to hear from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Walter Bauer, 2nd Ed., Revised and augmented by F.W. Gingrich and F. Danker, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979, pg. 39

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 231

[4] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 2nd Ed, InterVarsity Press, 2009, see Rule #3, pg. 76

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles that we use to properly interpret the Bible. Last time we discussed the Christocentric focus of the Bible. We ended by starting to discuss covenants and we mentioned two at that time, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Dr. Spencer, we don’t use the word covenant much in our society today, but if we do we use it to refer to a serious, formal agreement between people. How is the term being used here?

Dr. Spencer: In his book Foundations of the Christian Faith James Boice defines a covenant as “a solemn promise confirmed by an oath or sign.”[1] That is a fairly good brief definition, and it includes the important idea of an oath or a sign, but in his Systematic Theology Wayne Grudem gives a better one, he says that “A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship.”[2].

Marc Roby: Why do say Grudem’s definition is better?

Dr. Spencer: Because it makes three very important points explicit. First, it states that these covenants are unchangeable. We are told in Numbers 23:19 that “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”[3]  Secondly, Grudem says that these covenants are “divinely imposed” by God. We tend to think of agreements between equals. For example, you and I may enter into a contract, but only if we both agree. I have no right to impose terms on you and you have no right to impose terms on me. Even our Declaration of Independence states that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, so this idea is firmly rooted in our culture. But, as creator, God has every right to impose a legally binding agreement on us as his creatures. Thirdly, Grudem notes that these covenants stipulate the conditions of our relationship to God.

Marc Roby: That doesn’t go along with the modern idea that my relationship with God is personal and I get to relate to him in whatever way I see fit.

Dr. Spencer: It doesn’t go along with that idea at all because that idea is profoundly unbiblical. In fact, let me burst our egotistical self-focused bubbles a little further and point out that God’s relationship to each of us, while certainly personal, is not primarily with us as individuals.

Marc Roby: What do you mean by that?

Dr. Spencer: I mean that God relates to us as members of a group. And the Bible speaks, ultimately, about only two groups of people; those who are “in Adam” and those who are “in Christ”. In 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul wrote that “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” This speaks of those two groups and, implicitly speaks about the two main covenants, which we are discussing.

Marc Roby: How so?

Dr. Spencer: Well, the covenant of works was established by God with Adam in the Garden of Eden prior to his fall. And while we aren’t told everything about this covenant, we do know the most important stipulation in the covenant, Adam was forbidden to eat of a particular tree, which God called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the punishment for violating this prohibition was death. We also know that Adam was acting as the representative of the entire human race at that point. Paul wrote, in Romans 5:12 that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned”. Theologians sometimes refer to Adam as the federal head of the covenant of works.[4]

Marc Roby: Why is Adam called the federal head?

Dr. Spencer: The word federal in this context just means having to do with an agreement whereby a collection of people is viewed as a whole in some way. It is similar to the use of the term in our country. We have the federal government which is over the group of 50 states.

This whole idea of viewing the Bible in terms of God’s covenants with man is often called covenant theology, but has also been called federal theology, especially in the past.

Marc Roby: And Adam is called our federal head because he represented all of mankind in this covenant.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. All of mankind was represented by our first father, Adam. We were viewed by God not just, or even primarily, as individuals, but as members of this class. And Adam was our head.

Marc Roby: I can imagine many of our listeners balking at this point and saying that it isn’t fair for them to be judged because of Adam’s sin.

Dr. Spencer: I had that exact objection the first time I heard this, which was before I was saved. But, if you object to Adam being your representative, then you have a serious problem because the only way to be saved is to have Jesus Christ as your representative. He is the federal head of the covenant of grace.

Going back to Romans 5, which we quoted from a minute ago, Paul wrote in Verses 15-16 that “the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.”

Marc Roby: Alright, I like that representation.

Dr. Spencer: So do I. But, you really can’t consistently like the one and reject the other. And, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter at all what I like or don’t like. Nor does it matter what you like or don’t like. God is the creator and this is how he has chosen to govern his creation. I have no real say in the matter.

But, we must also note that I cannot accuse God of dealing with me unjustly because Adam represented me when he sinned. Perhaps I would have some argument if I myself had never sinned, but there is no one who can make that claim. Now, of course, I also inherited my sinful nature from Adam, but the blame belongs to him for that, not God.

Marc Roby: You’re not helping my self esteem by saying that what I like doesn’t matter.

Dr. Spencer: I could say I’m sorry about that, but it wouldn’t be true. The reality is that what we like has nothing to do with what actually exists. We’ve talked about this before, but the fact that I don’t like getting sick, or getting old has nothing to do with the reality.

Getting back to hermeneutics though, there are several important things to know about these two main covenants, and which are extremely helpful in developing a comprehensive understanding of the Bible as a whole and of God’s way of dealing with human beings. We’ve already seen that God deals with us as members of a group, we are either in Adam, which means we are subject to the curse of death in its full eternal sense, or we are in Christ, which means that we have been redeemed and are no longer subject to that curse.

Marc Roby: I think that once you understand this structure, it really helps to organize the Bible’s teaching in our minds. It also shows the extreme importance of the literal truth of Adam and Eve and the fall.

Dr. Spencer: It does make the importance of that point clear. God’s whole plan of creation, fall and redemption comes into clearer focus. And it all redounds to his glory, which is the purpose of creation.

But, there is a lot more that can be said. The covenant of works is called the covenant of works because Adam was judged based on his own works. If he obeyed, most theologians conclude that he would have at some point been confirmed in his obedience and granted the reward of eternal life. In Genesis 3:22 we are told of another tree, the tree of life, which grants eternal life and from which man is to be kept as a consequence of his sin. John Murray speaks about this in his wonderful chapter on the Adamic administration in Volume 2 of his collected works.[5]

Marc Roby: It’s interesting that Murray doesn’t use the term covenant of works.

Dr. Spencer: He objects to the term for two reasons: first, it doesn’t have all of the marks of a true covenant; and secondly, the name can be misleading. The contrast between works and grace can be seen to imply that this first covenant was not gracious, when it most certainly was, and the contrast can also be seen to imply that works are not part of the second covenant, when they definitely are.

The first covenant was, in fact, entirely gracious. God gave Adam life, he had fellowship with him and he gave him the ability to obey. God didn’t owe Adam eternal life or anything else, so the entire covenant was gracious. And while works are not the basis of our salvation in the covenant of grace, they are nonetheless essential as proof that we have been saved. In Beeke and Jones’ book on Puritan Theology we read that “Works function antecedently to [that means before] the reward in the first covenant, whereas works follow the reward ([which is] justification) in the second covenant.”[6] As James says in James 2:26, “faith without deeds is dead.” You can claim to be a Christian, but if you don’t live like one, your claim has no validity.

Marc Roby: As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. And a new creation cannot look exactly the same as the old one. Paul also wrote, in Ephesians 2:10, that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Marc Roby: But, of course, these so-called good works are the result of grace.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. In the covenant of grace we are united to Jesus Christ, our federal head, by faith. And that faith is one necessary result of the gracious gift of new birth, or regeneration, but it isn’t the only necessary result. The fact that our nature has been changed means that our behavior will also necessarily change.

Prior to being born again, we were in Adam and spiritually dead, subject to eternal death in hell. We were also unable to do anything pleasing to God. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 2 Verses 1-2 and 4-5, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. … But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”

Marc Roby: Praise God! The gospel is so indescribably gracious. To think that God loved sinners enough to send Jesus Christ to be the once-for-all atoning sacrifice for our sins just blows my mind.

Dr. Spencer: It does mine as well. And understanding the covenants gives us a much deeper appreciation for what God has done. Before he created the universe, God looked at this mass of fallen humanity in his mind’s eye so to speak, all of these sinful men and women who were in Adam, and he freely chose to save some of them by uniting them to Christ through faith. As we are told in Ephesians 1:4-6, God “chose us in him [meaning Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Marc Roby: That is amazing. Do you have anything else that you want to say about the covenants?

Dr. Spencer: Yes. We’ve only talked about the two major covenants, but there are many covenants mentioned in the Bible. There is a covenant made with Abraham, there is a covenant made with Noah and there is a covenant made with Moses, just to name a few. The covenant made with Moses is also called the Sinaitic covenant because God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Marc Roby: And the Sinaitic covenant plays a prominent role in the New Testament.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly does. It is called the old covenant in 2 Corinthians 3:14 and it is called the first covenant in the book of Hebrews. We spoke last time about the fact that Hebrews presents Christ as the permanent high priest. In Hebrews 8 we read about the earthly priests who serve in the temple here on earth and then, in Verses 6 and 7, we are told that “the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, and it is founded on better promises. For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.”

Marc Roby: That always sounds strange when you first read it, to say that there is something wrong with the first covenant even though it was established by God, who is perfect.

Dr. Spencer: It can be troublesome when you first read that, for sure. But if you go on and read the next verse, Verse 8, we are told, “But God found fault with the people”. So, we immediately see that the fault was not really with the covenant itself, it was with one of the parties to the covenant, the people; in other words, us. The writer of Hebrews goes on to quote from Jeremiah 31:31-34. We read in the rest of Hebrews 8:8, “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”

Marc Roby: And this is the new covenant that Jesus spoke about at the Last Supper. In 1 Corinthians 11:25 we read that Jesus said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And this new covenant is better than the old one because it takes care of our sin problem. We were the problem with the old covenant because in our sinful nature we couldn’t keep the law. There is nothing wrong with the law as Paul tells us in Romans 7:12, the problem is with us. The writer of Hebrews then continues with his quote from Jeremiah, in Hebrews 8:9 we read that this new covenant “will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.”

Marc Roby: Which again shows us some of the typology of the Old Testament history as we’ve noted before. The people of God were in slavery to sin in Egypt and God led them out of that slavery under the old covenant, but now, in the new covenant, he leads his people out of their slavery to sin.

Dr. Spencer: We can really see how this knowledge of the covenants helps us to get a more complete picture of God’s work throughout history. It is a wonderful tool to help us understand the Bible better, which ought always to be our goal. We should study the Bible so that we have a better understanding of who God is and what he requires of us. It should be our desire to worship him properly and to obey him carefully.

Marc Roby: That verse you just read from Hebrews, Chapter 8 Verse 9, also gives us an implicit warning. God said that because the people did not remain faithful to his covenant, he turned away from them.

Dr. Spencer: He certainly did. And we have all of the Old Testament history, including the Babylonian captivity, to show us the consequences. But, that same history shows us over and over again how patient and faithful God is. What people don’t like to hear is that God is not just faithful to keep his promises, he is also faithful to keep his threats. The vast majority of God’s promises to us are conditional. He will bless us if we are faithful to keep his commands. It’s true that his election is unconditional, but his blessings are generally conditional. There is a very pernicious and completely unbiblical teaching that is common in evangelical circles today that God’s love for me is a one-way love; by which it is meant that he loves me independently of whether or not I love or obey him. That is complete nonsense biblically. We don’t have time to go into that in detail right now, but as we just noted, if we have been born again, our nature has been changed. There is a desire to please God by keeping his commands. Our works are not meritorious, but, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:10, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Marc Roby: We’ve gotten off topic a bit, although in a very good way. But, we are out of time, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And I look forward to continuing our discussion of hermeneutics next time.

[1] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 603

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 515

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] E.g., see Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 28

[5] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 54

[6] Beeke, op. cit., pg. 29

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