Thursday, 18 September 2008

Blogging the Confession 5 - hermeneutics

I’ve been looking forward to working on this installment of the WCF, since it is a chance to look at the principles of the Biblical hermeneutics in the confession.

The rest of the sections of this chapter deal with how we should read God authoritative and sufficient word. The most important theological assertion about hermeneutics is that the “inward illumination of the Spirit of God” is necessary for the saving understanding of Scripture (Section 5). The purpose of the Bible is to bring salvation (not simply to bring conversion but to lead the church in its pilgrimage) and it does this when the Spirit brings saving understanding. This is not a negative statement which portrays the Bible as an obscure book which can only be decoded by the enlightened few. Rather it is a positive statement that Spirit who inspired Scripture will lead his people to understand it. This confidence continues in section 7 which admits that there are parts of the Bible which are not easily understood but affirms that the central message of the Bible can be understood. It is sufficiently clear that the unlearned as well as the learned can grasp its message. The confession does not make this connection, but I think the implication is that the major obstacle to understanding the Bible is not its obscure or difficult message but spiritual deadness of the reader apart from the Spirit.

The framers of the Confession were confident in the clarity of the Bible under the work of the Spirit, but they were not naïve in their approach to interpreting the Bible. They recognised that readers did need to make use of ‘ordinary means’ (careful reading, using a knowledge of grammar and some awareness of the historical and literary context of Biblical texts). The church as a whole needs teachers who can study the Biblical text in its original languages for it is these which are immediately inspired and preserved by God. Today we are more aware of textual critical issues in the Bible than were the members of the Assembly; however we can agree that just as all we need to know from Scripture can be found “in some place of Scripture or other”, so no Confessional doctrine is dependent exclusively on dubious texts.

A further confessional principle of Biblical interpretation is expressed in section 5, that things which can be deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence are part of God’s counsel and have his authority. This assertion shows that the Assembly’s method was different to what we might call a more “biblicistic” approach. The most extreme version of this was 
Socinianism which would accept only doctrines which were explicit in Scripture and allowed no terms or concepts which were not in scripture. In contrast the Assembly was committed the normative authority of Scripture, but allowed that reason had a proper role in the understanding and exposition of Scripture. Rather than crowding this post with more material I’ll put up another post with an interesting quote from George Gillespie on ‘necessary consequences’. The section also allows that there are matters involved in the ordering of the church in which what we might call “common sense” should be applied.

Section 8 expresses two common Reformation hermenutical principles. One is that Scripture should be interpreted by Scripture. The flow of thought is that the Bible is God’s inspired word and so despite complexities and puzzles presents a unified message, which means that when the meaning of one passage is not clear we should expect other passages to illumine and explain it. The section also rejects the medieval tradition of allegorical interpretation of multiple senses of Scriptures and affirms that there is one sense. These hermenutical principles are an entry way into both Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology (but that would be the topic for another blog).

Section 8 affirms the need for translations. It expresses the Reformation view that the Bible belongs to the whole people of God and should be available to all in readable translations so they may be able to worship God and experience his care.

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