Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Deplorable State of Evangelical Exegesis and Exposition: A Word from John Webster Applied to John MacArthur and David Jeremiah

 Read the following from John Webster on Holy Scripture, and then read my brief comment following:

[T]he particular relation of prophetic and apostolic words to God's own Word is ambassadorial; they are an embassy of God's eloquence. Not by embodiment or continuation but by authorized representation and testimony, the prophets and apostles are instrumental in the communication of the one who commissions them for their task. So commissioned, they bear authority. They do not do so by virtue of innate capacity; but their commissioning and the providential ordering of their course makes them fitting, drawing them into the movement of God's self-revelation. As God does this, raising up prophets and apostles in the history of the covenant, he makes his people into the community of the Word of God, one in which his Word can be heard in the ministry of his ambassadors.

Holy Scripture is the textual settlement of this embassy. In it, prophetic and apostolic speech is extended into the church's present. Scripture is the availability of prophetic and apostolic ministry beyond its originating occasion. We should note at once that this account of the nature of Scripture does not obliterate its human qualities, but sets them in relation to what Bullinger in a lovely phrase called "the history of the proceeding of the Word of God." Scripture is a human reality ordered to divine communication. There is a parallel here with the elements in the Lord's Supper. Bread and wine are signs in the economy of salvation: by them the ascended Christ distributes the benefits of his saving achievement, comforting and nourishing his people by his presence. These functions do not detract from the created materiality of the elements, but indicate, rather, that such created realities are taken up into the divine service. So also Holy Scripture: prophetic and apostolic words are no less creaturely for being servants of the divine Word; indeed, their creaturely nature is therein fulfilled. It is a bad dualist habit which assumes that scriptural texts are most basically products of a religious-cultural world to be investigated as such, and only secondarily describable as prophetic and apostolic testimony. The astonishingly simple and revisionary rule for understanding Scripture (on which the pre-critical exegesis of the church is predicated) is this: "those moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Pet. 1:21). John Webster, "Anglican Theological Review:90/4," 740-41.

Today, as I drove to Portland, OR (from Vancouver, WA, where I live with my family) I turned on local Christian radio :-(. I heard two sermons from Dr. John MacArthur (one of them was being featured on James Dobson's "Focus on the Family"), and then a sermon by Dr. David Jeremiah; both of these fellows, unfortunately, are prominent voices in large swaths and pockets of the Evangelical sub-culture. As I listened to them, my heart broke; I had a range of emotions: sadness, anger, frustration, unbelief, shock, unsurprised, etc. They both supposedly were doing exegesis and expositional teaching of the Bible. Instead, John MacArthur engaged in a pop-psychology exegesis of why natural theology is biblical; and David Jeremiah taught us how to be good financial planners by using principles he deduced from his exposition of the book of Daniel (the series of sermons that this one is a part of is entitled: "The coming financial Armageddon" or something like that).

Where is what John Webster is describing above present in the sermons given by MacArthur, Jeremiah, and a whole host of Evangelical biblical exegesis? It is absent. Instead what I heard today from Mac and Jeremiah, unfortunately, exemplifies what Webster wrote here "It is a bad dualist habit which assumes that scriptural texts are most basically products of a religious-cultural world to be investigated as such, and only secondarily describable as prophetic and apostolic testimony." Both MacArthur and Jeremiah (as representatives of Evangelical exegesis, in general) offered exegetical conclusions that took their pulse from current pop-cultural norms and mores instead of the the presupposition, point, and deep reality of Scripture; which finds its inner norm through the living voice of God revealed in Jesus Christ!

Do you see why I am so sad?


  1. Bobby,

    First, good job on not wrecking! Of course, you know better than to listen to J Mac and drive at the same time. ;-)

    I love Webster's explanation of Holy Scripture! How glorious and how powerful the Living Word is! When we understand the Word as the ongoing self-revelation of God, made perfect Reality in the Son, it should cause us to handle it with reverence,love, care, expectation, and anticipation. We should, ultimately, be brought to adore Jesus.

    I can see why you were saddened. I think you're making a pretty clear case for how one's grasp/view of Inspiration (or lack thereof) is feeding their exegetical approach. What role do you think, if any, ones view of Pastoral responsibility plays in the development of a series such as "The Coming Financial Armageddon"? In other words, do you think that such an exegetical approach (as the two had above) develops primarily as a consequence of a low view of inspiration? Or, do you think there are multiple factors, such as one's view of the pulpit's place in congregational ministry that are at play as well? I see both in play - even in my own ministry. There's certainly a tension that exists that has to be managed. I'd love to hear your view on how the Primary can and should feed the secondary issues in exegesis and (even) pulpit ministry.

    Thanks brother!

    1. Thanks, Daniel ;-)!

      I don't think either Jeremiah or Mac have a "low view of inspiration," per se (but probably a defective one, yes). I am going to do in full post in answering your question about the primary and secondary and pulpit ministry etc. Stay tuned :-)

  2. Driving under the influence is against the law, Bobby. ;)

    1. Don't you normally have to ingest in order to be under the influence ;-) ... I outgested, so I think I'm okay ;-).

  3. If natural theology is not valid, then what does a person born into a place without the Bible know about God or how God wants them to act? Nothing?

    1. ChristianTrader,

      That is to argue from the consequent; which is a non-starter. And it also seems to presume that God is unable to make himself known to such people through missionaries, Bible translators, etc. So your point fails on multiple fronts. We, as Christians, have to work from what is revealed and not speculate from what isn't. Your point operates from the latter.

    2. Um, I never said that God could not reveal himself through missionaries etc. The simple question is whether or not people without Christian missionaries/Bible translations in their own language etc. have any knowledge of God.

      Next, exactly what has been revealed is the point in question, so I don't see how your comment moves the discussion forward at all.

    3. CT,

      First, restrain from snarky-ness (which your "Um" signifies), or you will not be commenting here much further.

      Second, to answer you question on "any knowledge of God;" the answer is yes, they have a knowledge of God which is projected from themselves (or they by biblical standards can only be idolaters). This is because of the homo in se incurvatus, or more commonly phrased, 'the bondage of the self-will'. They don't seek the true God, they seek a god fashioned like unto themselves---so to speak.

      2a. So based on what the Bible says they can only worship the creation rather than the Creator; because they are ensnared by themselves (given the definition of 'falleness' Gen 3 to Rom 3), and cannot have a genuine understanding of the Triune Christian God w/o the breaking in of God himself in Christ upon their enslaved situation.

      Third, "what has been revealed ..." is Jesus Christ. So the theo-logical consequent to this (or reductio) is that your question leads to the reality that folks w/o the revelation of God in Jesus Christ cannot know anything about the true God [this isn't any different than what the Apostle Paul noticed as he wrote here (about the Gentile-Pagan world): 1 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,[d] but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by[e] the Spirit. Eph 2.11-20]; all they can do, left to themselves, is worship themselves and/or creation (which is how it is in so many situations).

      I don't know what else you can say to that; expect assert to the contrary, but then that is just assertion.

  4. The Bible/proper teaching of the Bible is necessary redemption. That is what I gain from the long Ephesians quote. That is the same thing that Westminster etc have said for centuries.

    That the unbeliever does not know because he does not seek is actually a great point. But if the problem is simply one of seeking, that means that whether or not, one has a Bible or Christian missionary is irrelevant for the purpose of natural theology/natural law/natural revelation.

    The reason that God's breaking in beyond what He has revealed in General Revelation is because of the rebellion against that which was already revealed.

    The point of natural theology for the unbeliever is to help the unbeliever to see his rebellion and why he needs Christ vs. Islam, Atheism, Jehovah's Witnesses etc.

    The point of natural theology for the believer is to properly ground the various assertions of Christianity vs. those those assertions that people claim properly belong to Christianity.

    Natural theology done properly points to the Truine God.

    1. CT,

      No, my broader point about NT, is what is articulate in Col 1.15ff; i.e. that Christ is the point and telos of creation and that Creation is filled with God in Christ's pleroma (or Calvin's 'theater of God's glory' qualified) or fullness or plenitude. If so, then the key to knowledge of God is not the collapse of grace into nature; but the key is Christ who through the analogy of the incarnation and the Chalcedonian distinction (constructively construed) brings grace and nature together in his homoousion person, thus avoiding the impersonal dualism that NT works from (pitting nature and God against each other as it does). In short, if nature was created for Christ, and in Christ (with all the distinctions like uncontingent/contingent honored); then there can be no such thing as Natural Theology w/o sliding into some sort of christological heresy. Which leads me to assert, along with Athanasius (and all those who follow that tradition), that "Natural Theology done properly leads to Arianism" not to the Triune God.

      We are simply at much different points, it appears, CT; and thus I don't think we will have fruitful discussion around this. I, with Barth, think Natural Theology (unqualified in very modifying ways, like TF Torrance does) is akin to the 'anti-Christ' ... just to be clear.

  5. Apologies if you have answered this in another post, just point me there.

    So how do we understand
    Romans 1:19–20 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

    It appears to me to say that man can know something about God through His attributes that are able to be perceived in nature. I wouldn’t say that they can come to a saving knowledge of God/ Christ, they need to hear the word (Rom 10:14)

    You seem to be saying that any knowledge derived from the creation can only lead to man understanding God from the perspective of creation (i.e. themselves) – thereby that knowledge will be completely flawed and can never be enough of a starter (?) to lead them to seek the truth.

    Or can it be a place to start from?

    I understand that nature in itself can never lead to a saving knowledge of Jesus or the Triune nature of God.


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