Introducing a study of Calvin’s exposition of Daniel, Willem Van Gemeren addresses the so-called ‘Westminster hermeneutic’.1 This seems an odd pairing. The point of the article, I gather, is to substantiate a concern Van Gemeren expresses in the introduction: that by making a number of hermeneutical commitments, Westminster Seminary is in danger of dissociating “herself from the larger body of Reformed seminaries,” of unnecessarily narrowing the Reformed heritage it claims to preserve, and even of betraying the “broad, ecumenical, and historic” vision of Machen (226). He means to demonstrate, in other words, that Westminster’s hermeneutic is so restrictive that Calvin himself must be counted out of bounds. A weighty reductio on any Reformed account. And Van Gemeren includes a chiding of sorts: Westminster “has been affected by internal conflicts and projects itself defensively,” but, he concludes, “we should learn to BE servants of Jesus Christ, so that we may give ourselves to know the Lord Jesus Christ with a heart like John Calvin” (224, 250, emphases original).
Here I would like just briefly to respond to some of the details of his discussion of hermeneutics at Westminster. I won’t engage the substance of Van Gemeren’s paper, Calvin’s interpretation of Daniel, with the function of that substance relative to the intro duly noted. Please note that I do not write on behalf of Westminster Seminary. And anyway, my interest here is theological, not institutional.
Machen, Theology, and Good Defense
Van Gemeren writes:
When I read the vision statement of J. Gresham Machen, my heart skipped a beat, because I caught a broad vision that is rooted in the truth of God’s Word and in the Westminster Standards . . . (224).
I feel confident that the adjective “broad” is meant to intensify the contrast between Machen and the purported hermeneutical narrowness of present-day Westminster; but I’m not convinced “broad” would have been Machen’s word of choice. I imagine the founder of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church would rather have gone with something like “faithful.” The inscription on his gravestone, in Greek, reads: “faithful unto death.”
Van Gemeren’s next sentence reads:
However, as I read the essays of my friends at WTS, I entered a theological arena that had been affected by internal conflicts and projects itself defensively (ibid.).
This struck me immediately: a broad Machen contrasted with internal conflict and defensiveness. Imagine that. Carl Trueman has described Machen as “as a thorn in the flesh of both the seminary board [Princeton Seminary] and his denomination.” “Divisions,” writes Trueman, “one might almost say littered his life both as churchman and seminary professor.”2
In 1936 Machen was defrocked by the PCUSA because he had no tolerance for the tolerance of liberalism in the denomination’s mission board, and chose to support the founding of an independent mission board. He founded the OPC the same year. Machen’s theological concern was liberalism; his ecclesiological concern was tolerant, defenseless orthodoxy. If Van Gemeren’s “broad” is meant to indicate “in concert with historic (Reformed) orthodoxy,” then that very breadth led Machen to a life of controversy, polemic, and professional self-sacrifice. He was in that sense fiercely defensive. Or ‘faithful’, one might say.
I’ll add here that any decent theological arena will have been affected by conflict and gone on the defensive in response to corrosive incursion. I don’t know if there is a single significant doctrine of historic orthodox Christianity—much less Reformed theology—that wasn’t formed in precisely this way. Doctrine is clarification in order to expose error as such. Precision discriminates. Van Gemeren’s article itself is openly defensive, I’m glad to report.
On ST and BT
Next, Van Gemeren addresses the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology, as Richard Gaffin reports it. Gaffin, writes Van Gemeren, “views BT as the ‘indispensable servant’ of ST” (225).
Van Gemeren wonders “whether this kind of biblical theology can be patient with exegetical conundrums, with tensions within Scripture, and with the inherent humanness of biblical authors (1 Pet 1:10-12)” (225).
First, 1 Pet 1:10-12 is precisely the wrong passage to cite against the Westminster hermeneutic and in particular against the systematic coherence Van Gemeren questions here. Peter basically teaches that in the OT prophetic literature, the bottom line is this: Jesus Christ is bearing a fulfillment-eager witness to Himself. Verse 12 is a magnificent statement of the surpassing clarity and fulfillment authority of NT revelation over OT scripture. The OT authors longed to know the NT, and they knew all the while that they preached and wrote for the sake of the new covenant people of God. This is tremendous, powerful biblical unity, viewed explicitly from the vantage point of NT arrival.
Second, there can only be “exegetical conundrums” if the unity of the text is treated as settled. Lose that unity, and conundrums disappear. Or does Van Gemeren mean here more simply, ‘words or passages that don’t appear to make sense’? I can’t see how this could be his thought; no one has advocated simply not reading the OT. NT programmatic statements are not alternatives to reading OT particulars. With Abraham (John 8:58), Isaiah (John 12:41), Jesus (Luke 24), Paul (Rom 1:2-4; 1 Cor 15:3-4), Peter (1 Pet 1:10-12), and other luminaries, we may affirm, we must, that the substance of the whole of the OT is the gospel of Christ. That does not mean that we ignore, dismiss, or refuse ‘conundrums’. (Where O where is this fabled inference?) We know for sure that the OT is Christ-redemptive Scripture, written by God about Christ. For some OT passages this is easier to see; for others it may prove elusive, but such conundrums, by the nature of the case, do not devalue much less undermine the crystal clear programmatic statements.
“Tensions within Scripture” I take to mean similar instances of apparent disjoint but on a broader biblical scale. The case then is the same. Tensions within the canonical scriptures are the very business of theology to admire and reflect upon. Being Reformed means sustaining those tensions in obedience to Scripture, instead of attempting to resolve them. Since Van Til addressed this issue extensively, Prof. Van Gemeren will remember his notion of “limiting concepts.” “The biblical theologian lives with a tension,” Van Gemeren writes. But not the systematician? Systematic theologians are not rationalizers (again: O inference, where art thou?), but servants of Scripture.
OT/NT and Human Authorship
All this seems rather too obvious. I think Van Gemeren’s chief concern is in the third clause: “the inherent humanness of biblical authors.” With that in the background, he proceeds in the same paragraph to ask a series of questions, as follows, with my brief responses appended:
Will this hermeneutic allow for potential interpretations of texts?
It is not clear what this question means.
Does it favor the divine by setting the meaning of the biblical texts on the ground our Lord and his apostles interpret or appropriate an OT text a certain way?
Yes, we should agree with Jesus on how to read the Old Testament, and with his handpicked, Spirit-inspired witnesses. And my response here would sound more BT than ST: later revelation brings greater clarity to earlier. If it is revelation from the same God and of the same gospel, the later is authoritative over the earlier. This is a basic premise of BT.
Is it possible that the divine-human authorship and intentionality favor the divine so as to virtually void the reality of the human authorship and intentionality?
Again it is not clear what this means. The answer might just be: B. B. Warfield or E. J. Young on inspiration. Trueman writes that “Machen’s commitment to a high doctrine of inspiration was one of the key points that led to the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.” But I suspect Van Gemeren rather intends a cautionary word, ‘let not thy ST flatten thy BT’. A bit on that already; more below.
Is it a confessional mistake to read an OT text within its canonical boundaries and to revisit it in the light of the whole of Scripture?
I apologize to the reader, but this is a grotesque over-simplification. The implication that any of the literature documented in Van Gemeren’s article exposes itself to such an elementary error cannot be taken seriously. In fact, Van Gemeren cites Poythress approvingly on this issue, so precisely where in the literature this is a problem is not clear. Edmond Clowney, in his Preaching and Biblical Theology, reviews a Vosian BT, and then explicitly lays out the steps for interpreting a given biblical text in concentric canonical contexts. (I wrote briefly on this here.)
Is it possible to create a canon (NT) within the canon?
Here again the thrust of the question, to accuse, is dulled somewhat by the inquisitive form; but it is an accusation. Either way, “a canon (NT) within the canon” is, it seems to me, the previous question in reverse—first in defense of the OT, now on the offensive against an unyielding priority of the New. And this raises a sort of conundrum: in defense of BT, Van Gemeren is reluctant to defer to the interpretive authority of the NT. Huh? If ST flattens BT, we need to hear about that, and adjust accordingly—all agreed. But can the NT undermine the integrity of the OT? What does that even mean? And how can the BT/ST question be treated interchangeably with the OT/NT one?
Curious and Speculative
Van Gemeren then reproduces some fiery text from a blog post by William Evans, which gives me an opportunity to say: these men have either not read, not understood, or completely forgotten Geerhardus Vos, who, while lauding the scholarly progress led by liberal critics of Scripture, called the field of historical study the battleground of his day (here).3 Accordingly, Vos devoted tremendous resources to understanding the relationship between history, revelation, and redemption, and in this task he saw himself as merely bringing historic Reformed covenant theology to its own. History must be interpreted supernaturally—our doctrine of God in particular, of covenant, etc., all presupposed—or BT is neither B nor soundly T. And so his student would argue that all facts are interpreted first by God, that Christian theism is open neither to proof nor disproof but proves itself, that the ‘facts in themselves’ is nefarious ruse—‘the OT on its own terms’ is ambiguous: what are its terms? I just cannot see how this sort of talk helps people read their Bibles faithfully.
The work of Pete Enns (who is scarcely a theist anymore) speaks for itself. No viable option there, to say the least. Van Gemeren’s contribution in my school’s humble journal, however, offers only affective adjustment ineffectively defended, packaged in theological miscommunication. Sort of bummer, since the stuff on Calvin is such a pleasant read.
1 Willem A. Van Gemeren, “Christocentricity and Appropriation in Calvin’s Exposition in Daniel,” Torch Trinity Journal 19.2 (2016): 223-254.
2 Carl Trueman, “Foreword,” in J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, new edition.
3 Geerhardus Vos, “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard Gaffin.