Much could be said, and much has been said, about how Christians, and every person, for that matter, ought to read the Bible. At the outset, I want to urge caution: there is a danger in talking about what we believe ABOUT the Bible that we forget that we must in fact READ the Bible.
May that not be true of us.
Having said this, I learned early on in my training for the ministry that it is important that in every new generation of Christians we undertake to fresh defenses of God’s Word. CS Lewis’ warning notwithstanding (he is supposed to have said that he would rather defend a roaring lion than to defend God’s Word, or God Himself, I don’t remember which), the engaging in careful defenses (L., apologia) of the Scriptures is important in our witness as Christians.
Rarely do such defenses convince an unbeliever of the rightness of The Faith; but they can play a role, through dialogue and debate, in helping to lower, or reduce, people’s resistance to faith in Jesus Christ.
The current apologia for the Scriptures centers on how Christians are to read the Old Testament. Let me explain.
In the last generation, theologians like RC Sproul and JI Packer wrote books in defense of an evangelical understanding of the Scriptures in the 1970s. Packer’s books included Fundamentalism and the Word of God, and God Has Spoken.
These books were part of his efforts to defend the Scriptures, work which eventually helped produce the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
The Packer book I have on my shelf, Beyond the Battle for the Bible, quotes the Chicago Statement on pp. 57-58, where we agree to “pay the most careful attention to [Scripture’s] claims and character as a human production.”
What does the Chicago Statement mean by the character of Scripture “as a human production”?
Sometimes we call this the organic (as opposed to the mechanical) character of inspiration: God didn’t merely mechanically or robotically dictate His Word to His prophets (as if they played no part in the process); God used the faculties and capacities of each author of Sacred Scripture to uniquely inscribe His Infallible and Inerrant Word to His people.
For example, Paul was tutored under Gamaliel; this part of his background played a huge role in his ability to write the Epistle to the Romans.
But it is possible to pay such careful attention to the aims and intentions of the human author (call these the organic characteristics of Scripture) that you can go too far and make a kind of separation between THAT and the Divinely intended meaning of the Scriptures.
This is the kind of danger that I believe some are toying with in some evangelical scholarly circles. Which brings us to the present day.
Recently (as in the last several years) there have been changes in the faculty at Westminster Seminary (Glenside, PA) which have revolved around issues which I believe Packer and others have addressed.
Dr. Richard Gaffin of WTS summarizes the issue in a paper responding to Clair Davis, in which he calls the approach some scholars are taking to reading the Scriptures as “first read-second read.” He explains this approach in this way:
“The first read seeks to establish the original historical meaning or original human author meaning of an Old Testament passage on its own terms without any reference to the New Testament. The second read of the passage then seeks to show how in the light of the New Testament it is about Christ, to disclose its Christotelic content.”
Gaffin then comments:
This approach as a whole is ill-conceived and seriously flawed. Though it is motivated in part by the legitimate concern to avoid reading New Testament meanings back into Old Testament texts–no doubt a danger–there is a difference between reading the New Testament back into the Old and reading the Old Testament in light of the New. The former is wrong; the latter is not only legitimate but also requisite. As it is carried out, the first read tends towards highlighting the “messiness” of the Old Testament, as its proponents put it, towards finding unrelated or discordant trajectories of meaning in the Old Testament. It obscures both the organic connection between the meaning of the divine author and what the human authors wrote as well as the organic connection and unity between the Old Testament and New Testament. Multivalent, even contradictory trajectories will appear to be the case when the Old Testament documents are read “on their own terms” in the sense of bracketing out their fulfillment in Christ and the interpretive bearing of the New Testament.
Gaffin is saying that while we can make a mistake by reading the New Testament context artificially back into the Old Testament, we cannot suggest that the Old Testament context can be read independently of the New without obscuring the organic character of Biblical Revelation.
Augustine’s motto, though simple, is still true: the New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.
May God help His Church, and His Preachers, speak the whole truth of Scripture without failing to both understand Scripture’s organic and human character, and still reading the Old Testament in light of the greater revelation of the New Testament.