A few years ago I read Graeme Goldsworthy‘s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation. In Chapter 12 Goldsworthy discusses what he titles “The Eclipse of the Gospel in Evangelicalism” (pp. 167–80). Goldsworthy recognizes “that eclipses are not always total and can even be partial enough to pass unnoticed by all but those trained to look for them” (p. 90).
In this insightful chapter, Goldsworthy surveys eight evangelical hermeneutical approaches that approach Scripture naively. I found his observations and warnings challenging and convicting. Take some time to consider these categories. These summaries are taken from Andy Naselli’s post on the same topic.
1. Quietism: Evangelical Docetism (pp. 168–69)
“the tendency to overspiritualize and dehumanize Christian existence, including the way we use the Bible. We have seen it in the ‘let go and let God’ holiness piety. Overall, it is an inclination to downplay the function of our humanity in life, as if our relationship to God is almost entirely passive. It leads to strange aberrations, for example, in the matter of guidance. . . . The human characteristics of the biblical documents are ignored. Historical and biblical-theological contexts are regarded as irrelevant. If a text ‘speaks to me’ in whatever way, the careful exegesis of it is dismissed as cerebral intellectualism. The gospel is neatly eclipsed by what exists beneath a veneer of spiritual commitment.”
2. Literalism: Evangelical Zionism (pp. 169–71)
“Some evangelical literalists use what is sometimes referred to as the ‘slippery slope’ argument—that is, a claim that failure to adopt this particular approach will lead to certain disaster. Thus we are told that if we do not interpret the Bible literally, the text can be made to mean anything we want it to mean. Hermeneutic chaos is predicted as the inevitable result. Yet literalism has seldom proved to be much protection against such a tendency . . .“The New Testament clearly does not support such a simplistic hermeneutic as literal fulfillment of prophecy. . . .
“If the gospel is our hermeneutic norm, then while it is true that the interpretation of the New needs an understanding of the Old, the principal emphasis is on the way the gospel and the New Testament as a whole interpret everything, including the Old Testament. The literalist must become a futurist, since a literalistic fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy has not yet taken place. Christian Zionism not only reshapes the New Testament’s view of the future, but also affects the present period in which such a future is anticipated.”
3. Legalism: Evangelical Judaism (pp. 171–73)
“Legalism is something to which we are all prone, because it is one of the key tendencies of the sinful human heart. At its base it is an assertion of our control over our relationship to God. It is a soft-pedalling of the greatness of God’s grace to sinners. On the surface it may appear to be an exalting of the law, however the law is understood. Yet when we examine the nature of legalism, we find that the opposite is true. Once we imagine that we can somehow add to God’s grace or establish our righteousness by our deeds, we have in fact dragged God’s law down to our level of imperfection. If salvation is by faith in Christ plus some form of obedience, the gospel is diminished to the extent that we add to the principle of Christ alone. . . .
“Legalism is a subtle thing. Those who do not place the same emphasis on the law will be branded as antinomians, as against law, even lawless. But it needs to be emphasized that recognizing that God requires us to honor his laws and to be lawful is not the same as being legalistic. Sometimes the problem is cultural. Young converts often find themselves in a subculture that is strong in its spoken and unspoken taboos. In becoming more mature in the faith, they may realize that the safety of legalism needs to give way to the more risky business of being responsible to work out in the light of Scripture what is acceptable behavior. All behavioral norms need to be owned, or disowned, on the basis of their consistency, or inconsistency, with the gospel. Legalism is attractive because it is safe. It is easier to have a set of rules agreed on by the wider group than to have to make responsible decisions for Christian living. . . .
“The legalism I am concerned with here is a more uniformed piety that has not really reflected in any concerted way on the relationship of grace to law, of gospel to works. However, even largely unthought-out positions reflect a hermeneutic, and such unreflective evangelicalism can eclipse the gospel.”
4. Decisionism: Evangelical Bultmannism (pp. 173–74)
“A key evangelical belief is that people must be called to make a decision concerning the claims of Christ. Thus when people decide that Jesus Christ has indeed lived and died for them, they are often said to have made a decision for Christ. There are plenty of grounds for challenging people to repent and believe the gospel. That is not in dispute. . .
“I have experienced and witnessed the effects of calls to ‘decide for Jesus’ that have been made when almost no reason had been given why anyone should so decide. Rudolf Bultmann applied his existential philosophy in such a way that for him the historicity of the events of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth is not the central issue. What matters is the telling of the story, which may or may not be historically factual, and the way this story helps us in our self-understanding and authentic decisions in life. While not endorsing Bultmann’s philosophy and historical skepticism, there are evangelicals who are so earnest in calling for decisions for Jesus that they seem to forget to tell people why they should decide for Jesus. . . . It seems that the decision can become everything. . . .
“The problem is not the call for a decision. The error of decisionism is to dehistoricize the gospel and to make the decision the saving event. To that extent it expresses an existential hermeneutic.”
5. Subjectivism: Evangelical Schleiermacherism (pp. 174–76)
“Friedrich Schleiermacher is regarded as the father of liberal Christianity. . . . [He propounded] a whole system of theology that centered on the notion of a feeling of absolute dependence on the divine. . . . From time to time one encounters evangelicals who are convinced of the centrality of Christ and the authority of the Bible, but who nevertheless seem to operate primarily on the basis of feeling. Schleiermacher’s ‘feeling’ is not simply subjective emotion, but rather intuitive feeling. In the same way, evangelical ‘feeling’ is not necessarily purely emotive, but may be an intuitive conviction that is popularly expressed in terms of what a person feels to be the case. . . .
“The problem arises when we assume the meaning and significance of words that are translated from Hebrew and Greek as ‘happy,’ ‘blessed,’ ‘rejoice,’ ‘peace,’ etc. We easily read into them meanings that are insufficient or misleading. . . .
“Here we have two related problems affecting evangelical hermeneutics. The one is eisegesis, reading into the text an assumed meaning rather than trying to ascertain how the word is used in the biblical text. The other is allowing the importance of emotion, and an idea of Christian experience, to dull the objectivity of the word. It is in fact a form of reader-response hermeneutics in which the reader, often under the guise of being led by the Spirit, determines the meaning of the text. Gospel-centered hermeneutics sees Christ as the determiner of meaning.”
6. “Jesus-in-my-heart-ism”: Evangelical Catholicism (pp. 176–77)
“Many evangelicals use the evangelistic appeal to ‘ask Jesus into your heart.’ The positive aspect of this is that the New Testament speaks of ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col. 1:27); of Christ dwelling ‘in your hearts through faith’ (Eph. 3:17), and the like. It speaks of the Christian as having ‘received Christ the Lord’ (Col. 2:6). But it also makes clear that Christ dwells in or among his people by his Spirit, for the bodily risen Jesus is in heaven. Furthermore, there are no examples or principles of evangelism or conversion in the New Testament involving the asking of Jesus into one’s heart. In many cases this practice represents a loss of confidence in faith alone, for it needs to resort to a Catholic style of infused grace to assure us that something has happened. . . .
“When the legitimate subjective dimension of our salvation begins to eclipse the historically and spiritually prior objective dimension, we are in trouble. The New Testament calls on the repenting sinner to believe in Christ, to trust him for salvation. To ask Jesus into one’s heart is simply not a New Testament way of speaking. . .
“Once again, we see that it is not always an outright error that we are dealing with. Rather, it is allowing something that is good and necessary (Christ present by his Spirit) to eclipse something that is of prior importance (faith in the doing and dying of Christ) and upon which the good thing we emphasize actually depends. The result can be disastrous.”
7. Evangelical Pluralism (pp. 177–79)
“I would suggest that an important hermeneutical question, if not the crucial one, is this: does God say contradictory or incompatible things in Scripture, or is it that some things may appear to us as contradictory or incompatible because we do not fully understand them in relation to the ‘big picture’ of the Bible? The fact that we can and do err, and that no interpreter of the Bible other than God himself is infallible, does not mean that God did not speak a unified truth in his word. If pluralism means that the Bible does not speak with the one voice of the Holy Spirit, then it is in error. But if it means that the gospel message, or even a specific text, may have different applications in different situations, I can see no problem. . . .
“If the descriptive and synchronic study of the Bible [i.e., systematic theology] is not checked by the diachronic holistic approach based on the recognition of the unity of the word of God [i.e., biblical theology], it can lead to a revision of the sense of the authority of the Bible.”
8. Evangelical Pragmatism (p. 179)
“Evangelical aberrations are often a dehistoricizing of the gospel. When the gospel is reinterpreted primarily as how God does good and useful things in our lives now, a pragmatic hermeneutic may take over. This can take many forms, but the same basic problem is the constant of these aberrations. Good and important biblical truths are allowed to crowed out the central truths of the historic events of the gospel. Theologically speaking, this usually involves allowing the present experience of the Christian, rather than the finished work of Christ, to become the hermeneutical norm. It means focusing on the continuing work of the Spirit at the expense of the finished work of Christ. It undermines the centrality of our justification in Christ. . .
“Evangelical pragmatism takes on many forms and may include any or all of the matters already mentioned. Pragmatism is the view that what works is true. It ignores the issue of how we determine what kind of results we should look for. Thus, if it feels good it is true; if it brings people to church it is valid and right; if we get the numbers and a good cash flow our methods are correct. We conclude from good results that we must be acting biblically. Once again, it need only be said that the gospel hermeneutic does not necessarily support these views. Pragmatism is really a hermeneutical framework that is used to determine not so much the meaning of texts, but the meaning of events. . . . It is at its core a trinitarian error and a form of religious humanism.”
Biblical theology is not just about reading the Bible rightly, though it begins there. It serves to guard and guide the local church. It maintains the right message, defines the task of the messenger, identifies imposters, tells us what we do when we gather, and sets the trajectory of our mission. It answers the question, Who are we, as the church in the world?
- How Biblical Theology Guards and Guides Churches – Jonathan Leeman
- Biblical Theology and Gospel Proclamation – Jeramie Rinne
- Biblical Theology and Counseling – Michael Emlet
- Biblical Theology and Shepherding – Bobby Jamieson
- Biblical Theology and Corporate Worship – Bobby Jamieson
- Biblical Theology and the Sexuality Crisis – Albert Mohler
- Biblical Theology and Identity – Michael Lawrence
- Biblical Theology and Liberation – Steven Harris
On June 10th, 2014, at The Southern Baptist Convention, Ed Stetzer, Frank Page, David Platt, and Trevin Wax discussed the topics of salvation and the mission of God.
- Does one’s belief on the extent of the atonement affect their understanding of mission and the offer of the gospel?
- Can two Christians disagree on soteriology and partner in ministry?
- Does the order of salvation affect how one does evangelism?
- When it comes to the theological particulars of salvation, what is the difference between compromise and cooperation?
We hope you are encouraged and challenged by the audio of this important discussion. Below are Ed and Trevin’s reflections on the discussion.
- Salvation and the Mission of God: A Panel Discussion Worth Your Time: Ed Stetzer
- Reflections on The Gospel Project’s Panel on Calvinism and Missions: Trevin Wax
- If only I could gain… (1:3-7)
- If only I could be satisfied… (1:8)
- If only I could be remembered… (1:9-11)
Yogi Berra once said, “It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much.”
Most groups have one of two problems when it comes to meaningful spiritual conversation: discussion can feel like pulling teeth or herding cats. Either people won’t talk, or they won’t stop talking about things unrelated to the Bible study.
Leading a meaningful conversation that engages the hearts and minds of people takes practice. But healthy discussion can be the difference between people going to a group and growing througha group. A life-changing discussion has the following characteristics.
Everyone participates. Encourage everyone to ask questions, share responses, or read aloud. Discussion isn’t one-sided. Seek balance.
No one dominates—not even the leader. Be sure that what you say takes up less than half of your time together. Ideally, good questions will result in group members speaking at least twice as much as the leader. Politely redirect discussion if anyone dominates.
Nobody is rushed through questions. Don’t feel that a moment of silence is a bad thing. People often need time to think about their responses to questions they’ve just heard. They may also need to gain the courage to share what God is stirring in their hearts. Give room for others to move—including the Spirit.
Input is affirmed and followed up. Always point out something true or helpful in a response. Don’t just move on. Build personal connections with follow-up questions, asking how other people have experienced similar things or how a truth has shaped their understanding of God and the Scripture you’re studying. People are less likely to speak up if they fear that you don’t actually want to hear their answers or that you’re looking for only a certain answer.
God and His Word are central. Opinions and experiences can be helpful, but God has given us the truth. Trust Scripture to be the authority and God’s Spirit to work in people’s lives. You can’t change anyone, but God can. Continually point people to the Word and to active steps of faith.
Ask for action. Discussion is the starting point. Action is the goal. Ask people how they need to respond to what they have heard. Based on what they’ve said, what will they do?
Pay attention to these 6 things during your next group discussion. If your desire is to see lives changed, intentionally engage each person with the truth of God’s Word.
I have enjoyed The Gospel Project’s summer study – God’s Way: A Journey Through the Ten Commandments. With every study we run a corresponding blog series as an additional resource for churches and groups using The Gospel Project. Here is the series on the Ten Commandments.
- Daniel Davis – Do not have other gods besides me
- Aaron Armstrong – Do not make an idol for yourself
- Micah Fries – Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God
- Mark Rooker – Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
- Jani Ortlund – Honor your father and your mother
- Mary Jo Sharp – Do not murder
- Jeremy Pierre – Do not commit adultery
- David Jones – Do not steal
- Jason Duesing – Do not give false testimony against your neighbor
- Tim Brister – Do not covet
I also wrote one post on Jesus and the Ten Commandments for this series. Enjoy.
Philip Nation and I are preaching our way through the book of Jonah at The Fellowship in Nashville. One of the things I love about preaching Jonah are the clear hints of the gospel throughout the story.
He does so by referring to his own death and resurrection as “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39) and by comparing Jonah’s experience with his own (“for just as Jonah . . . so will the Son of Man”). This suggests that the shape of Jesus’ experience is roughly similar to Jonah’s experience. If we know the stories of both Jonah and Jesus, we can immediately see the similarities. The raging sea and the cross are both places of desperation and death. The fish and the tomb (in which both Jesus and Jonah lie for “three days and three nights”) are (quite unexpectedly in each case) a step along the way toward life after death. In both cases, God is the one responsible for this new life—he tells the fish to deposit Jonah on dry land (Jonah 2:6, 10) and he exerts his great power to raise Jesus Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20).
Jesus sees Jonah’s experience as analogous to his own. You might say that in this case, the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament (i.e. Jesus’ reference to Jonah) actually points to the Old Testament’s use of the New (i.e. Jonah’s story embodying hints of a greater story to come—the redemptive events most central to the gospel itself).
Are there other hints of the gospel in Jonah’s experience? Jesus’ self-comparison with Jonah invites us to ask this question. I think the answer is yes. Most of these hints, however, come by way of contrast between Jonah and Jesus rather than comparison. This is not surprising. It’s easy to imagine that the story of a wayward and disobedient servant of God would more naturally point by negative example toward the perfect servant of God who perfectly fulfilled his mission. Jesus himself says he is “greater than Jonah” (Matthew 12:41). The similarities between Jonah and Jesus show us the glory of Jesus and the gospel, but the differences cause the gospel to shine even more brightly.
And the differences are many. For instance, although Jonah describes his experience in the sea and the fish in terms that sound like death (Jonah 2:1, 5-7) he didn’t actually die in the raging sea or the hungry fish. That’s because his mission was to preach, not to die. By contrast, Jesus’ mission was to preach and also to die. Thankfully, Jesus had more than a near-death experience. He really did die (John 19:34; 1 Corinthians 15:3). Because he did, there’s a gospel to preach.
Moreover, the reason Jonah came close to death was because of his own sin. He himself says this to the sailors on his ship: “I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12). In fact, throughout the book of Jonah, we see the pagans in the story acting more honorably and righteously than the prophet. The prophet who despises non-Jewish peoples and wishes them harm (Jonah 4:1-2) is the recipient of their sacrificial kindness (Jonah 1:13). The prophet who is slow to experience a change of heart (and it’s not clear that his heart has changed even by the end of the book) sees pagan sailors (Jonah 1:16) and pagan Ninevites (Jonah 3:10) repent and draw closer to God. Jonah’s near-death experience is clearly because of his own sin. The cause of Jesus’ death is utterly different. He dies not because of his own sin but because of the sins of others (2 Corinthians 5:21). The righteous dies for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18).
Jonah didn’t willingly choose to enter the raging sea or the belly of the fish. He was thrown into the sea by the hands of the sailors (Jonah 1:15), but he knew it was actually God casting him into the sea (Jonah 2:3). And it was God’s decision, not Jonah’s, that Jonah would enter the fish: “And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). In the case of Jesus, it is clear that God sent him to the cross (Acts 4:27-28; Romans 3:25; 8:32). But it is equally clear that Jesus willingly chose the cross: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18).
Jonah grudgingly obeyed God after his near-death experience in the fish and went to Nineveh to preach, although his heart still wasn’t in it (Jonah 4:1-3). Jonah’s almost-death was intended by God to win his obedience. But Jesus’ death was his act of obedience: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). After the fish, Jonah’s work was just beginning; God gave him a second chance to fulfill his commission (compare Jonah 1:1-3 and 3:1-3). But at the cross, Jesus could say his work was finished (John 19:30). God’s redemptive plan was accomplished through Jesus’ obedience. With less-than-ideal material to work with in the person of the prophet Jonah, God sovereignly used Jonah’s disobedience to draw people to himself (Jonah 1:16).
What happened to Jonah and Jesus after the fish and the grave? Jonah’s “resurrection” left him in an inglorious pile of fish vomit on the shore (Jonah 2:10). Jesus rose gloriously from the dead (Romans 1:4) and ascended into heaven, to the right hand of God (Ephesians 1.20-23). So although Jesus went lower than Jonah (he actually died), his ascent was infinitely higher.”
To read the whole thing click here.