by John M. Frame
Over the years I have sometimes engaged in playful banter with colleagues concerning the relative importance of church history and systematic theology. In these arguments, I was, of course, on the side of systematics, mocking the tendency of many of us academics to magnify the importance of our own fields of specialization. That was, of course, all in the spirit of good fun. I think that fair readers of my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God1 will grant that I have a high regard for church historians and for the contributions they can make toward our understanding of God’s Word. Indeed, I tend rather to stand in awe of scholars in that field. My impression, which I have, of course, never tried to verify, is that writers in that discipline have typically mastered far more data and organized it more impressively than most of those (including myself) in the fields of systematics and apologetics.
Nevertheless, I do believe that the present situation in Evangelical and Reformed theology demands a more careful look at the relationships between the disciplines of history and systematic theology. The need is such that the playful banter will now have to give way, for a moment, to a more serious consideration of the issues.
I am here writing primarily to the orthodox Reformed community of theological scholarship, that community which I inhabit. For that reason I will give little attention to some options that are important to the general theological community but not specifically to those addressed here. I recognize, of course, the importance for orthodox Reformed scholars to address the broader society, and I hope this essay will, among other things, enable us to do that better.. But sometimes we must huddle together to think about what we should be saying to the larger world, before we actually say it.
My overall purpose here is to reiterate the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, the doctrine that Scripture alone gives us ultimate norms for doctrine and life, and to apply that doctrine to the work of theology itself, including both historical and systematic disciplines. That point may seem obvious to many of us, but I am convinced that there are applications of this doctrine that need to be re-emphasized in the present situation.
The term “history” can be used in both objective and subjective senses. Objectively, it refers to the actual facts of past time, or to that portion of them which is significant for human beings. Subjectively, it refers to human recollections, descriptions, interpretations, and reconstructions of those facts. In that subjective category, this article will consider especially the historical disciplines which contribute to the work of theology: history of the ancient near east, church history, history of doctrine, and history of doctrine.
“Systematic theology” is that discipline which “seeks to apply Scripture as a whole.”2 In my understanding, it is perspectivally related to exegetical theology (which focuses on individual passages) and biblical theology (which focuses on the historical-narrative aspects of the biblical text, on Scripture as a history of redemption).3 By “perspectivally,” I mean that these three disciplines examine the same subject matter with different foci or emphasis, rather than examining three different subject matters. All three examine the totality of the biblical revelation, and all three aim to make significant applications of that revelation to our doctrine and life. The question before us concerns the relation between systematic theology, so defined, and “historical theology,” which in my definition “applies the Word to the church’s past for the sake of the church’s present edification.”4
Since Scripture, and the biblical way of salvation, are profoundly historical, theology must always be interested in history. Hence the important discipline of redemptive history (biblical theology). Other forms of historical study are also important: the history of the ancient near east, the history of the church, the general history of mankind. The history of the biblical period enables us far better to understand the Scriptures, and the post-biblical history helps us far better to apply the Word to our own times. The latter helps us both to avoid the mistakes of the past and to build on the foundations laid by those who have gone before.
Nevertheless, history-oriented theologies have sometimes been snares and delusions for the Church. This has happened whenever theologians have adopted an autonomous5 historical method and have replaced biblical authority with history in the subjective sense as the ultimate theological norm. This happened in the late nineteenth century when, on the one hand, the Ritschlians, and on the other the History of Religions School, sought through historical study to overcome Lessing’s “big ugly ditch” between history and faith. Ritschl sought to return to the historical Jesus by way of Luther and the Reformation (a twofold use of historical science). But Van Til says of his effort:
Ritschl therefore cannot be said to have overcome the mysticism and the rationalism that he sought to overcome by his appeal to the historic Jesus. His “historic Jesus” is an utterly ambiguous figure. To the extent that he is said to be known, he is nothing more than another human personality. To the extent that he is more than human personality, that is to the extent that he is God, he is nothing but the projected ideal of would-be autonomous man, and is therefore wholly unknown.6
Ritschl’s historical method is the method of secular historiography, which begins with the assumption that Scripture is a merely human book and that its truth is subject to the assessment of merely human criteria. The result is an account in which Jesus is a mere man. Ritschl does, of course, go on to say that Jesus is divine in a sense, because as we encounter this man in history we come to value him as God. But to do this, says Van Til, is to make Jesus subject to our standards of evaluation and thus to deny his deity altogether.
The History of Religions School, of which Ernst Troeltsch was the systematic theologian, adopted historical relativism as its central concept, so that they denied the uniqueness of Christianity among the religions of the world. As with Ritschl, these thinkers evaluated the biblical history according to the standards of one kind of secular historical science.
The influential currents of twentieth-century theology have tried to restore some positive significance to the idea of revelation in history. The chief concept of Karl Barth’s theology was Geschichte, history in its fullest revelational meaning. But Barth failed to locate Geschichte in calendar time and concrete historical space, creating more confusion than ever about “what actually happened” and how those happenings were related to human salvation.
Oskar Cullmann, C. H. Dodd, G. Ernest Wright, and others seized upon J. A. Bengel’s concept of Heilsgeschichte and sought to present Scripture as “the book of the acts of God.” For them, revelation was in event, rather than word, and therefore, importantly, “historical.” Unlike Barth, Cullmann emphasized this history taking place along a timeline. Revelation occurred when a historical event was perceived by faith. But the declaration that only event, never word, could function as revelation, was plainly unbiblical, as demonstrated by many, such as the liberal scholar James Barr.7 And that proposition is incapable of any other defense except one which presupposes rational autonomy, the disease of the older liberalism which these thinkers sought to overcome.
Nevertheless, many influential recent theologians, such as Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and the theologians of liberation have sought to make “history” the unique locus of revelation: history, again, as opposed to word. For Pannenberg especially, revelatory history is discovered by the criteria of secular rationality, by autonomous reflection not itself subject to the revelation.
Now I presume that these particular history-centered approaches are not live options for orthodox Reformed theologians; hence my relatively brief treatment of them. It should at least be plain from our survey that an emphasis on “history” is not sufficient to justify a theological method. It is important also to ask what history means to the theologians in question, whether they are right about the relation of history to revelation, and how they justify their descriptions, interpretations, and evaluations of history. And we should answer those questions in ways that are consistent with Scripture itself.8 Therefore Scripture, not a concept of history developed independently of Scripture, must be the ultimate standard in theology generally and, indeed, in the formulation of a theological method.
The term “biblicism” is usually derogatory. It is commonly applied to (1) someone who has no appreciation for the importance of extrabiblical truth in theology, who denies the value of general or natural revelation, (2) those suspected of believing that Scripture is a “textbook” of science, or philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, aesthetics, church government, etc., (3) those who have no respect for confessions, creeds, and past theologians, who insist on ignoring these and going back to the Bible to build up their doctrinal formulations from scratch, (4) those who employ a “proof texting” method, rather than trying to see Scripture texts in their historical, cultural, logical, and literary contexts.
I wish to disavow biblicism in these senses. Nevertheless, I also want to indicate how difficult it is to draw the line between these biblicisms and an authentic Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura. Consider, first, (1):Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that Scripture, and only Scripture, has the final word on everything, all our doctrine, and all our life. Thus it has the final word even on our interpretation of Scripture, even in our theological method.
It is common to draw a sharp line between the interpretation of Scripture and the use of Scripture to guide us in matters of philosophy, politics, economics, etc. This is sometimes described as a line between finding “meaning” and making “application.” I have elsewhere given reasons for questioning the sharpness of this distinction.9 For now let me simply point out that neither interpretation nor application is a mere reading of Scripture. In both cases, the scholar asks questions of the text and answers them using some scriptural and some extra-scriptural data. This activity takes place even at the most fundamental levels of Bible interpretation: the study of words and syntax, the work of translation, the attempt to paraphrase. So what we call “interpretation” is a species of application: in it, scholars ask their own questions of the text and apply the text to those questions. Questions of Bible interpretation and questions of, say, Christian political theory, are, of course, different in their subject matter, though there is some overlap. And the questions of interpretation certainly precede the questions of, e.g., application to contemporary politics in any well-ordered study. Even so, sometimes our conclusions about politics present analogies applicable to other fields and therefore of broader hermeneutical significance. Thus conclusions about politics can in some ways be “prior to” hermeneutics as well as the other way around, illustrating further the broad circularity of the theological enterprise. But my main point here is that both types of study involve asking contemporary questions of the text, and thus they are usefully grouped together under the general category of application. In both types of cases we apply Scripture to extra-scriptural questions and data.
There is, therefore, an epistemological unity among all the different forms of Christian reflection. In all cases, we address extra-scriptural data, and in all cases we consider that data under the sola Scriptura principle. That principle applies to Christian politics as much as to the doctrine of justification. In both cases, Scripture, and Scripture alone, provides the ultimate norms for our analysis and evaluation of the problematic data before us.
It is important both to distinguish and to recognize the important relations between Scripture itself and the extrascriptural data to which we seek to apply biblical principles. Scripture is something different from extrabiblical data. But what we know of the extrabiblical data, we know by scriptural principles, scriptural norms, the permission of Scripture. In one sense, then, all of our knowledge is scriptural knowledge. In everything we know, we know scripture. To confess anything as true is to acknowledge a biblical requirement upon us. In that sense, although there is extrabiblical data, there is no extrabiblical knowledge. All knowledge is knowledge of what Scripture requires of us.
At this point, we may well be suspected of biblicism, for the biblicist, as we have seen, also disparages extrabiblical knowledge. But unlike the biblicist we have recognized the importance of extrabiblical data in the work of theology and in all Christian reflection.
Which brings us to (2) among the distinctives of biblicism: From a viewpoint governed by sola Scriptura, the “scope”10 of Scripture, the range of subject matter to which it may be applied, is unlimited. As Van Til says, there is a sense in which Scripture “speaks of everything:”
We do not mean that it speaks of football games, or atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work but it also tells us who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.11
Here we hear Kuyper’s claim that all areas human thought and life must bow before the Word of God. We also begin to smell the odor of biblicism: Scripture speaks of football games, atoms, cosmology, philosophy. But there is a difference. Van Til is not saying that Scripture is a “textbook” of all these matters. Hence his distinction between “direct” and “indirect.” Nor did Van Til deny, as biblicists have sometimes been accused of doing, that Scripture is a “centered” book. As a faithful disciple of Geerhardus Vos, he understood that Scripture is concerned to tell a particular “story,” the story of God’s redemption of his people through Jesus. The direct/indirect distinction should be taken to make this point as well: that Christ is central to the biblical message in a way that football games and atoms are not. But like the biblicist, Van Til believed that every human thought must be answerable to God’s Word in Scripture. To many, this affirmation will sound biblicistic in the present context of theological discussion.
Distinctive (3) of biblicism raises the question of the relation between Scripture and the traditions of the church. Sola Scriptura historically has been a powerful housecleaning tool. By this principle the Reformers gained the freedom to question the deliverances of popes, synods, and councils, as well as those of learned and respected past theologians. They did respect tradition, particularly the early fathers and Augustine. But what was distinctive about the Reformation were its differences, rather than its continuities, with the past.
Certainly the Reformers did not, however, try to rebuild the faith from the ground up. They saw themselves as reforming, not rejecting, the teachings of their church. They saw the Protestant churches, not as new churches, but as the old Church purified of works righteousness, sacerdotalism, papal tyranny, and the idolatry of the Mass. So they were not biblicists in sense (3). But they came close to it. In present day Romtura, we are reminded of how close Protestantism does come to biblicism on this score.
Sola Scriptura actually provides support to theology against (4), the last kind of biblicism. For it places the whole Bible as authority over any specific exegetical proposal. Hence Scriptura ipsius interpres. This demands attention to contexts, narrow and remote. For an interpretation falsified by a relevant context is not an interpretation of Scriptura. Interpretations must also be consistent with what we know about the literary genres and historical backgrounds of the texts under consideration. Thus, as we saw under (1), we see that theology requires consideration of extrabiblical data. This is not so that we can be in line with secular fashions of thought. Quite the opposite: we do this to learn the true meaning of the Bible and thus to be accountable to it.
But for all this attention to contexts both scriptural and extrascriptural, sola Scriptura also demands that theological proposals be accountable to Scripture in a specific way. It is not enough for theologians to claim that an idea is biblical; they must be prepared to show in Scripture where that idea can be found. The idea may be based on a general principle rather than a specific text; but a principle is not general unless it is first particular, unless that principle can be shown to be exemplified in particular texts. So a theology worth its salt must always be prepared to show specifically where in Scripture its ideas come from. And showing that always boils down in the final analysis to citations of particular texts. This is why, for all that can be said about the abuses of proof-texting, proof texts have played a large role in the history of Protestant thought. And there is something very right about that.
I conclude that although Protestant theology under the sola Scriptura principle is not biblicistic, it is not always easy to distinguish it from biblicism. We should expect that those who hold an authentic view of sola Scriptura will sometimes be confused with biblicists. Indeed, if we are not occasionally accused of biblicism, we should be concerned about the accuracy of our teaching in this area.
Sola Scriptura at Westminster
Born out of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, Westminster Theological Seminary (both eastern and western campuses) has always sought above all to deliver to its students “the whole counsel of God.” It has remained firm on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy while other evangelicals have wavered, without falling into hermeneutical naiveté. The Seminary has published four faculty symposia over its history, and all four of them have dealt in some way with biblical authority, sufficiency, and interpretation.12
Not only has the seminary taught an authentic Reformation theology of Scripture, but it has shown a particular zeal about teaching Scripture to its students. Westminster has emphasized the teaching of original biblical languages when such an emphasis has fallen into disfavor among evangelicals. It has provided very thorough instruction in the various parts of Scripture, and in the disciplines of exegetical, biblical, and systematic theology. In homiletics, it has stressed the use of biblical theology and in general the responsibility of the preacher to preach not himself but the Word. In apologetics and Christian philosophy it has continued Van Til’s emphasis that Scripture has the right to rule every area of human thought and life.
But it is John Murray’s view of method in systematic theology which I would consider at greater length. Murray taught at Westminster from 1930 to 1966 and left an indelible imprint upon the seminary. In his article, “Systematic Theology,”13 Murray reviews the history of dogmatics, mentioning names such as Athanasius, Augustine, and Calvin.14 He then comments,
However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other.15
He cites Calvin’s own encounter with “stagnant traditionalism,” when the Reformer dared to take issue with the view of Athanasius and others that the Son of God “derived his deity from the Father and that the Son was not therefore α_τόθεoς.”16 He continues,
When any generation is content to rely upon its theological heritage and refuses to explore for itself the riches of divine revelation, then declension is already under way and heterodoxy will be the lot of the succeeding generation…. A theology that does not build on the past ignores our debt to history and naively overlooks the fact that the present is conditioned by history. A theology that relies on the past evades the demands of the present.17
Murray here recognizes the importance of church history in the work of systematic theology, but he cautions us not to remain content with even the best formulations of past theologians. For the rest of the article, Murray drops the subject of historical theology entirely and focuses on the centrality of exegesis and biblical theology to the work of systematics.18 Murray’s actual theological writing consists almost entirely of the exegesis of particular texts: the proof texts of the doctrines under consideration.
There have been Reformed theologians (Berkouwer is the example that comes most readily to mind) who construct their theological writings as dialogue with past and contemporary theological texts. In these theologies, Scripture plays an important role, to be sure; but the exegesis is often somewhat sketchy and often seems like an addendum to the pages of historical analysis. Murray avoided that model of theology very self-consciously.
I remember many years ago helping to collate the results of a survey of Westminster alumni about the teaching they had received in seminary. One alumnus regretted that Westminster did not have any “real systematic theology.” In his view, Murray’s courses were not true systematics courses, but mere courses in exegesis. I disagree radically with that alumnus’s evaluation of Murray, but I grant that that alumnus observed a genuine and important difference between Murray’s teaching and other systematic theologians.
My own observation as a student was that Murray’s approach was a wonderful breath of fresh air, despite his often opaque, archaic language and his insistence on the students’ reproducing his lectures nearly verbatim on examinations. My fundamentalist friends at college criticized Reformed thinkers for relying on their traditions rather than the Bible. Murray showed me that the Reformed faith was purely and simply the teaching of Scripture. Thus he presented Reformed doctrine in the way most persuasive to Christian minds and hearts. This is the proper answer to anyone who considers Murray’s method to be biblicistic.
In short, a Westminster education trained students to ask first of all, about any subject matter whatever, what Scripture had to say about it. And it prepared students to expect Scripture to address every possible question in one way or another.
Westminster’s Theological Creativity
The notion that Scripture addresses, to some extent, every important human question, produced at Westminster a high quality of theological creativity. We often associate orthodoxy with stagnancy and traditionalism. But at Westminster, the commitment to sola Scriptura propelled it in the opposite direction.
I have mentioned the independence of Murray’s theology. He self-consciously followed the example of Calvin’s struggle for the α_τόθεoς: “A theology that relies on the past evades the demands of the present.” And so Murray’s theology impresses the reader both with its faithfulness to Scripture and with the independence and creativity of its formulations.
The same is even more obviously true with the thought of Cornelius Van Til: strongly insistent upon biblical authority and sufficiency, boldly innovative in epistemology, apologetics, and even in some theological formulations. Other examples, too, are not difficult to find, such as the redemptive-historical emphasis of Kuiper, Stonehouse, Clowney, Kline, and Gaffin, building on the work of Geerhardus Vos. I should mention also the nouthetic counseling of Jay Adams, building on the insight that Scripture has much to say about human problems, and that indeed it contains all of the ultimate norms for resolving them.
Even Westminster’s teaching of church history has been creative. I remember Paul Woolley as a brilliant and urbane teacher, more like a Princeton professor than were any of his Westminster colleagues. We joked that Woolley was living proof that one need not need to have a Ph. D. to know everything. His independence of mind was legendary: in faculty meetings and church courts, he was often a minority of one, and it was rare that anybody could guess in advance on which side Woolley would come down. As a teacher, he had a rare ability (very much like that of J. Gresham Machen) to get inside the skins of historical figures whose ideas were very different from his own. Most of us emerged from his classes convinced that the Reformed way was best. But if we paid attention, we could not avoid a genuine sympathy for those in other traditions.
At times the creativity of Westminster has been problematic. Theonomy, for example, is certainly an child of Westminster. Its founder, Rousas J. Rushdoony, has seen himself as applying Van Til’s insights to the areas of politics, economics, and social ethics. Both Gary North and the late Greg Bahnsen studied at Westminster. The two Westminster Seminaries have not been hospitable to theonomy,19 but the movement has certainly introduced some new approaches in the use of Scripture and has challenged Reformed scholars to take more seriously the legal elements of God’s Word.
I will not speak of Norman Shepherd’s rethinking of the doctrine of justification, or of the “multi-perspectivalism” of Frame and Poythress, concerning which different readers will have different opinions, except to say that in these cases as well, students of the early Westminster faculty were moved to reconsider traditional ideas by going back to Scripture. The important thing is that this creativity has not been at the expense of sola Scriptura; it has not been a movement away from Scripture to accommodate secular modes of thought, even though that is what “creativity” usually means in a theological context. Rather, as was the case with the first Protestant Reformers, it has been a creativity motivated by Scripture itself.
One might also raise questions concerning the relative absence at Westminster (again, I think mainly of the early ’60s when I was a student) of a confessional or traditional focus. I must be careful here in my formulation. But I felt as a student that we were being stimulated to originality more than we were being indoctrinated into a tradition. That may be a surprising comment, and I must immediately qualify it. All professors subscribed ex animo to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and the subscription formula was more detailed and forceful than most ordination vows in Presbyterian denominations. Our professors loved the great teachers of past ages: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the many others since their time. But Westminster was independent of denominational control, and students came from many denominational backgrounds, Reformed and non-Reformed. Students were not expected to subscribe to Reformed doctrine in order to matriculate or to graduate. There was, in my experience, an atmosphere of openness. We were encouraged to ask hard questions, and our professors generally sympathized with the questions, if not with our answers.
During my student years, I was never asked to read any of the Reformed confessions, or Calvin’s Institutes, except in small bits. I never read any official standards of church government or discipline, not to mention Robert’s Rules of Order. We used Hodge and Berkhof in our systematics classes, but for the most part we were graded not on our reading but on our knowledge of Murray’s lectures. After graduation I became ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and I confess I was rather surprised at the seriousness with which my fellow ministers took the Confessional Standards and Presbyterian traditions. Eventually I became more like my fellow Orthodox Presbyterian (and later Presbyterian Church in America) elders, but not without some nostalgia for the openness of theological discussion during my seminary years.
It is legitimate to criticize this openness in some respects. In my own theology courses, I always assign relevant portions of the confessions, and I try to make sure that every student understands the traditional formulations, even when I seek to improve upon them. Surely one important function of a seminary is to perpetuate and recommend the confessional traditions. Students seeking to be ordained in Reformed churches must understand fully what they are being asked to subscribe to. The Westminster of the early 1960s did not do a thorough enough job in that aspect of its teaching; I do believe it has improved since that time.
But as an academic theological community, seeking to encourage students how to do careful and hard thinking about theological issues, Westminster of the early 1960s was superb. I was not entirely ready for the Orthodox Presbyterian Churchtudy at Yale. Some students, I think, responded to this combination of freedom and orthodoxy in the wrong way: by taking the original insights of, say, Van Til, Kline, or Adams and trying to make them tests of orthodoxy.20 But that was, I think, more the fault of the students than of the professors. Clearly, at any rate, Westminster’s particular understanding of sola Scriptura did not lead to a stagnant traditionalism, but to a flourishing of original and impressive theological thought.
Some Epistemological Observations
Westminster’s use of sola Scriptura in theology is quite inescapable if we understand correctly the relationship between norm and fact in human knowledge. A description of church historical facts does not in itself tell us what we ought to believe. In and of itself, description does not determine prescription; “is” does not imply “ought.” To suppose that it does has been called the “naturalistic fallacy.” To assume that the historical genesis of an idea determines the proper evaluation of it is called the “genetic fallacy.” To avoid these fallacies, our formulations of doctrines must always appeal to something beyond church history, to the biblical norm.
It is this insistence that distinguishes the Protestant sola Scriptura from the Roman Catholic view of tradition. And indeed, this principle itself is ultimately based on scriptural warrant. For Scripture itself condemns any appeal to tradition which places that tradition on the same level of authority as itself (Isa. 29:13, Matt. 15:8-9, Mark 7:6-7, Col. 2:22).
Sola Scriptura and Evangelical Intellectualism
Protestantism at its best has typically avoided opposing sola Scriptura to human reason as such. Reason is that God-given faculty which applies the norms of Scripture to the data of experience.21 Therefore, the Reformers saw no conflict between sola Scriptura and high standards of scholarship. Luther and Calvin were scholars, and their theological distinctives were the result of careful scholarly exegesis. Indeed, in Protestantism to some extent even worship emulated the model of academic teaching. Ulrich Zwingli excluded music entirely from the worship of the church in Zurich, Switzerland and made the church service into a teaching meeting. For this he has been accused of rationalism.22 His policy was not followed by other reformers, but there was among leaders of the Reformed churches, a very cautious attitude about music. Following Book Three of Plato’sRepublic, they recognized a great emotional power in music which could, if not tightly controlled, elicit unruly emotions and lead the worshipers away from the pure teaching of the Word. The early Reformed churches excluded musical instruments, and many excluded most hymns other than Psalm settings. There were theological reasons for these decisions,23 but the net effect of them was to make worship much more an intellectual than an aesthetic experience.
Some Reformed scholars argued for the “primacy of the intellect,” the doctrine that the intellect does or should rule unilaterally the will, emotions, and other aspects of human personality.24 I reject this concept as well as the academic model of worship, and therefore I believe that Protestants have carried their intellectualism rather too far.
More serious, however, was the later modernist appeal to academic standards as a justification for the virtual abandonment of biblical authority. The theological modernists thought that a consistent respect for the intellect required them to accept the conclusions of the fashionable university scholarship. Protestantism affirms reason; why should it not accept the conclusions of recognized scholarship?
A proper answer to that question requires a distinction between the intellect itself and the norms which the intellect must follow in reaching its conclusions. Calvin affirmed the intellect, but he believed that the intellect should operate subject to the norms of God’s Word. The modernists substituted for those norms the norms of secular scholarship, particularly the historical disciplines. As Van Til emphasized, the intellect, like a buzz saw, can function very well while pointing in the wrong direction. To make the right cut, the saw must not only turn efficiently; it must also be governed by a norm which points it the right way.
American evangelicalism inherited many of the ideas of the Reformers, but also many Anabaptist, Pietist, and Arminian influences. At times it produced notable scholarship, but it also went through some periods in which anti-intellectualism was dominant, particularly in the period following the infamous Scopes trial. Following the Second World War, however, Carl F. H. Henry, Harold John Ockenga, J. Howard Pew, Billy Graham, and others sought to lay foundations for a “new” evangelicalism more hospitable to serious scholarship and compassionate social action. The new evangelical intellectuals, however, repeated the mistake of earlier Protestants by failing to face squarely the question of intellectual norms. They rejected the apologetic of Van Til who insisted on the rule of Scripture in all human thought, and sought in various ways and degrees to find common ground with unbelief. I believe this uncritical intellectualism paved the way for the rejection of biblical inerrancy by many evangelicals in the 1960s. For many evangelicals in the 1960s, a serious commitment to rationality demanded acceptance of the norms of critical biblical scholarship. Few even asked the question whether Scripture itself contained its own norms for scholarship, different from and opposed to those of the negative critics. So the sometimes sharp difference between evangelical and liberal scholarship has since the 1960s become a blur.
One breath of fresh air, however, during this period, came from Francis Schaeffer and his followers, such as Os Guinness, Udo Middelmann, Ranald Macaulay, Jerram Barrs, and David Wells. They affirmed biblical inerrancy and insisted, like Schaeffer’s teacher Van Til, that there was a sharp antithesis between those who believed in the biblical God and those who thought the universe was merely matter, motion, time, and chance. The latter position, they argued, destroyed all meaning and intelligibility. These writers argued their position learnedly and graciously, earning a wide readership and a position of respect, though not dominance, within evangelicalism.
These writers present a theology with real backbone, standing up courageously against secular thought and the secularizing movements witties remain. I cannot find in this literature any clear affirmation that Scripture contains its own distinctive epistemological norms, different from those of secular thought. Schaeffer, indeed, gave the impression that the secular philosophers of Greece affirmed an adequate concept of truth– “true truth” or “objective truth”– which was lost only in the wake of Hegel’s dialecticism. And the Schaeffer apologetic focused to some extent upon “objective truth” as an abstraction, rather than that distinctive kind of truth, that divine Word, which is identical with Jesus himself. To that extent, the Schaeffer movement also has not been fully consistent with the Reformation sola Scriptura.
Evangelical Critique of Culture
David Wells has expressed his debt to Francis Schaeffer, and the title of his No Place For Truth reminds us of Schaeffer’s emphasis on “true truth.” He reminds us of Schaeffer also in his conviction that the “modern” era is very different from previous times and therefore presents unique temptations to the church. Evangelicals, he thinks, have fallen prey to those temptations, to such an extent that God’s truth no longer rules in the churches.25
In Wells’s analysis, modernity has fostered a new way of thinking, which he characterizes in various ways, including:
1. Subjectivism: basing one’s life upon human experience rather than upon objective truth.26
2. Psychological therapy as the way to deal with human needs.27
3. A preoccupation with “professionalism,”28 especially business management and marketing techniques as the model for achieving any kind of common enterprise.29
4. Consumerism: the notion that we must always give people what they want or what they can be induced to buy.30
5. Pragmatism: the view that results are the ultimate justification for any idea or action.31
The effects of this mentality on the church, according to Wells, have been entirely detrimental. (“This book is insistently antimodern,” he says.32) Because of the influence of modernity, theology no longer rules in the church.33 Therefore God himself becomes unimportant, “weightless,” in Wells’s memorable term.34 Although the church believes in God’s existence, his existence makes no difference to the church’s practical decision-making. God becomes “user friendly,” not the holy, transcendent, awesome God of Scripture.
Therefore, says Wells, theology no longer governs the church in any meaningful way.35 Sermons don’t seek to set forth God’s Word, but baptized equivalents of the latest cultural preoccupations (“felt needs”): psychic well-being, success in marriage, etc.36 Theories of church growth and the practice of “mega-churches” substitute management and marketing theory for biblical principle, viewing congregations the same way businesses regard consumers of their products. So churches cater to the wants of people rather than to their true spiritual needs. Seminaries aspire to become professional schools, training ministers in these worldly values and skills.37
Wells’s books are wonderfully erudite and eloquently written. And there is much truth, certainly, in his indictment of evangelicals as individuals and as churches. Some, however, have criticized his position as one-sided. Marva Dawn says,
Wells’s passion for truth needs to be balanced with an equally immense passion for love. He does indeed caution us appropriately to avoid an overly simplistic acceptance of technology that does not recognize the values of the attendant milieu. Moreover, he rightly bemoans the loss of biblical fidelity, which reduces the gospel’s subversive power. However, his remarks do not seem to contain enough concern for how that truth can be communicated to the modern generation, which has no context for receiving it. The Church needs careful creativity to find the best means for promulgating the truth and educative processes by which we can train the uninitiated in habits for cherishing it.
Unfortunately, many books that emphasize the pole of love within the dialectic discuss reaching the world outside the Church only in terms of marketing strategy.38
Dawn’s comments raise the important question of how we can achieve such a balance in our critique of culture and of the church.
There is a remarkable irony about Wells’s two books. On the one hand, his main theme is that theology should play a much larger role in the church’s thinking, practice, evangelism, and worship. On the other hand, there is very little theology in either No Place For Truth or God in the Wasteland. There are a few theological observations, mostly about the transcendence of God, the importance of history, revelation, and eschatology.39 But Wells’s primary tools in these books are the disciplines of history and sociology. Through them, he discerns a process of change in American life over the last two hundred years, and he is able to trace changes in the church over the same period. Thus he is able to define the “modern” mentality and show how the church has capitulated to it.
What is the alternative? Here Wells does not go much beyond the negative point that we must reject the modern mentality. Although he does not quite say this, the structure of his argument strongly suggests that we ought to go back to the traditions of the church as they existed before the modern mentality took over. No Place begins with a very long discussion of the history of Wenham, Massachusetts: how it changed over two hundred years. He titles the chapter, nostalgically, “A Delicious Paradise Lost.”40 Doubtless he would not advocate that we merely turn back the clock. But the only guidance he gives us is that the old was better. Thus he gives aid and comfort to the most immovable traditionalists, and no help at all to the “reformers.”
Or perhaps what he really wants us to do is to develop a strategy for present-day ministry by a “way of negation:” everything the modern marketers do, we will do the opposite. So the Wellsian church becomes a kind of mirror image of the marketer-consumer church: an exact reversal. But what is the opposite of consumerism? Giving no thought at all to the nature of the community to which one seeks to minister? Surely that is not what Wells would have us do. So mere negation is not much help. And as we know, mirror images retain many of the characteristics of the realities they reflect. That should at least give us pause.
As Dawn says, there is imbalance in Wells’s books. But the more fundamental problem is that of his method. A plea for the primacy of theology must itself, surely, be theologically grounded, not grounded merely in history or sociology. And surely our methods of evangelism and principles of worship must be based on Scripture, indeed sola Scriptura. Now of course scriptural principles must be applied to situations, and to understand the situation it is legitimate to consider data from history, sociology, and other sciences. But Scripture alone provides the ultimate norms for evaluating these data. So far as I can see, Wells never actually tries to formulate biblical principles of evangelism, church planting, or worship, nor does he call our attention to other writings in which this work has been done. Rather, he rather oddly tries to derive these principles from his historical-sociological analysis itself, together with some broad concepts of divine transcendence and the like. Thus the reader is pushed toward either a blind traditionalism or a mirror-image reconstruction.
Simply opposing the modern model at every point is an entirely inadequate approach. I say that for theological reasons. I certainly wish to be counted among those whose thoughts and actions are based on principle, not pragmatism. But I confess I find myself, on the basis of biblical principle itself, very often siding with those who are considered pragmatists rather than with those who are regarded as the most principled among us.41 The fact is that when we seriously turn to Scripture for guidance, that guidance usually turns out to be more complex, more nuanced, than anything we would come up with ourselves. Scriptural principle, typically, also leaves more room for freedom than man-made principles do, and, as we saw earlier, it gives more encouragement to our creativity. Certainly scriptural principle is more complex than any mere negation of existing cultural trends.
For one thing, Scripture itself does not merely negate the cultural trends of its time. It is true to say that in the Bible there is an antithesis between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world (1 Cor. 1-3), and between the church and the world (John 17:9-25, James 1:27, 4:4, 1 John 2:15-19). But Scripture never derives from this antithesis the conclusion that all our beliefs and actions must be opposite to those of the world. Unbelievers do know truth, although they suppress it (Rom. 1); so they can sometimes even teach God’s truth with some accuracy (Matt. 23:1-4). And the church’s missionaries must adopt at least some elements of the cultures which they seek to reach with the Gospel.42 Says the Apostle Paul,
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so as to win those not having the law. To the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor. 9:19-22)
There are, in other words, some areas in which Christians may and should be like those to whom they preach, so their witness may be more effective. Obvious instances are speaking the language of one’s community and observing to some extent the local customs in food and clothing. The same principle, according to the above passage, applies to some kinds of moral scruples. For example, Paul may have observed the Mosaic dietary laws when in the company of Jews, but not when in the company of Gentiles.
This flexibility is not religious compromise. Paul did not disobey God when he behaved, sometimes as a Jew, sometimes as a Gentile. It was God’s own Word, indeed, which gave him the freedom to behave either way. This is not relativism. There were many areas where Paul did not have such freedom, many forms of worldly behavior which he plainly condemned (as Gal. 5:19-21). But there were also significant areas of freedom. And Paul’s judgments as to where he was free and where bound were based, not on any autonomous analysis of culture, but on the Word of God.
So let us think about our own time. Does Scripture condemn all “marketing” techniques in setting forth the gospel? Well, that depends on what you mean by marketing techniques. Certainly there are similarities between selling and preaching. (To say that is, of course, to say very little: everything is similar to everything else in one respect or other!) Both activities convey information. Both seek to elicit a commitment. Both require a speaker to attract the attention of his audience. If “marketing techniques” are simply rules for clear communication, vivid ways of attracting attention and motivating commitment, then they should certainly be taught to preachers.
Does this analysis neglect divine sovereignty? I think not. Salvation is entirely by divine grace, and God needs no human help to draw sinners to Jesus. But God has freely chosen to use human means to accomplish this task, in most cases (Matt. 28:18-20, Rom. 10:14-15, 1 Cor. 1:21). As in other aspects of salvation, there is in evangelism both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We must preach and teach.
But to preach and teach requires effort. We must speak clearly and persuasively, in order to reproduce the clarity and persuasiveness of the Gospel itself. So we must learn rules for gospel communication just as a seller must learn techniques for communicating the virtues of his product. Many of those techniques are valid for all forms of communication. So it is not impossible to imagine that we might learn something of value from secular marketing theorists.
Now of course there are also many respects in which evangelism is different from marketing. The church’s “product” is very different, eternally urgent, the ultimate in divine blessing. Our approach to communication should reflect the solemnity and holiness of our God. It should reflect our own willingness to humble ourselves in order to exalt the Lord. In these respects, we leave the secular marketing world far behind.43
Sometimes, then, we would do well to learn from the marketers, sometimes not. When marketers tell us that it is unwise to fill an auditorium beyond 80% of its capacity, we do well to listen, though we must never put such advice on a par with God’s Word. Scripture never says that we must fill our buildings to the point of standing room before going to two Sunday morning services or two assemblies or a larger facility. So there is nothing wrong in taking the marketers’ advice in the absence of more important considerations. But if marketers tell us we must avoid the subject of sin in order to keep the seekers comfortable, we must at that point disagree in the sharpest terms, for biblical principle is then at stake.
Is it wrong for preachers to address “felt needs” as an opening to preach the Gospel? Well, many felt needs today are genuine spiritual needs according to Scripture. People want to know how to make marriages work; the Bible answers that need (Eph. 5:22-33). People want to know how to avoid anxiety; Scripture addresses that concern (Phil. 4:6-7). Why should preachers not address these topics and answer them through the riches of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Of course, many other felt needs (the “need” for health, wealth, self-esteem, etc.) are either ambiguous or condemned by Scripture. Nevertheless, even these– with their scriptural evaluations– should be the subjects of preaching.
So biblical worship and evangelism should not be viewed as simple negations of every element of an unbelieving culture. Rather, there should be a discerning use of the elements of culture, governed by the values of God’s word.
Consider also the content of the church’s preaching. Should the church’s preaching focus on the objective rather than the subjective, on God and history rather than our response, on objective truth rather than human experience, as Wells argues? Here I tend to be more sympathetic with Wells than I have been in the preceding paragraphs, because I do believe that in general preaching today needs to place a greater emphasis on the objective.
But again Wells misses nuances. In theory of knowledge it is wrong to force a choice between object (what one knows) and subject (the knower). All knowledge involves both: you don’t have knowledge unless you have both a subject and an object.44 Therefore, Scripture records the objective truth of God and redemption; but it also records the experiences by which the biblical writers came to know these objective facts. And indeed there is in Scripture much teaching about believing subjectivity. The Psalms are full of “I” and “we,” full of personal testimonies about how God has entered human experience. We learn much in Scripture about our emotional life: about joy, fear, anxiety, peace, anger, erotic passion, and so on.
And there is a subjective side to salvation itself. The objective side is that Christ, the Son of God, lived a perfect human life, died for the sins of his people, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. The subjective side is that when he died for sin, we died to sin (Rom. 6:1-14) and rose with Christ to newness of life. God not only atones, he regenerates. We are new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17), partakers of Christ’s abundant life (John 10:10).
Preaching, in Scripture, does not merely present the objective truths of the history of redemption. It also responds to those truths in a personal way, giving testimony of what God has done in the life of the preacher and what He can do in the lives of the hearers. The Psalms are full of such testimony, as are the letters and sermons of Paul. And biblical preaching calls for its hearers to respond to it, both inwardly and outwardly. Biblical repentance is a change of heart that brings change in behavior, and it is a crucial goal of preaching (Acts 2:38-39).
Wells, therefore, loses credibility when he bases so much of his case on historical and sociological analysis, without giving substantial attention to the biblical values which must judge the culture. For one thing, our time is probably not much better or worse than past ages, contrary to Wells’s Schaefferian rhetoric about the uniqueness of modernity. But in any case, we are to address culture today in the same way Paul addressed the culture of the first century: by the Word of God, communicated by all scripturally legitimate means available in the culture.
The recent Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals45 seeks to recommend to the evangelical churches a renewed confessionalism. It is organized around the great solas of the Protestant Reformation: Scripture, Christ, grace, faith, and glory to God. Many emphases of this document are welcome and greatly needed. Naturally I am pleased that the first article reaffirms sola Scriptura and follows the sentence, “These truths we affirm not because of their role in our traditions, but because we believe that they are central to the Bible.”
The document is recognizably Wellsian. In the sola Scriptura section, we read, “Therapeutic technique, marketing strategies, and the beat of the entertainment world often have far more to say about what the church wants, how it functions and what it offers, than does the Word of God.” The discussion goes on to say that in these and other areas to which Wells has given attention, the church should turn to Scripture, rather than the culture, for its message. True enough. But as in Wells’s books, I believe that more needs to be said. The attempt of churches to learn from therapists, marketers, and consumers is not, in my mind, motivated by unbelief pure and simple. If lack of faith is one factor, there is also the motive of seeking to reach out to the world, to apply Scriptural principles in a way that is relevant to the present world and communicable to the unchurched. The strengths and weaknesses of this document are similar, then, to the strengths and weaknesses of Wells’s own writings.
Positively, the document recommends a return to the attitudes and convictions of an earlier time:
The faithfulness of the evangelical church in the past contrasts sharply with its unfaithfulness in the present. Earlier in this century, evangelical churches sustained a remarkable missionary endeavor, and built many religious institutions to serve the cause of biblical truth and Christ’s kingdom. That was a time when Christian behavior and expectations were markedly different from those in the culture. Today they often are not. The evangelical world today is losing its biblical fidelity, moral compass and missionary zeal.46
The last sentence is surely true, but the rest of the paragraph seems rather naive in its assessment of evangelical Christianity in the early twentieth century. The missionary movement of those days was a wonderful thing in many ways, but as it was aided and abetted by the imperialism of the western nations, it was not entirely counter-cultural, nor unambiguously righteous. The document, like Wells’s books, calls us back to a nostalgia for a past age. That, in my view, is a frail reed. It also calls us back to a greater fidelity to Scripture. That is a strong element in the document. But it needs to be spelled out in detail: what does Scripture say about missions, church growth, marketing, as opposed to the notions prevalent in our culture today? We need a document that gives us positive guidance, rather than merely negating present trends.
I certainly favor a renewed confessionalism if it means a better appreciation for the teaching of the Reformation solas, indeed for the distinctive teachings of the Reformed faith. The argument of this paper, however, should help us to guard against certain abuses of the confessionalist position, such as (1) emphasizing Confessions and traditions as if they were equal to Scripture in authority, (2) equating sola Scriptura with acceptance of confessional traditions,47 (3) automatic suspicion of any ideas which come from sources outside the tradition, (4) focusing on historical polemics rather than the dangers of the present day, (5) emphasizing differences with other confessional traditions to the virtual exclusion of recognizing commonalities,48 (6) failing to encourage self-criticism within our particular denominational, theological, and confessional communities.
A reaffirmation of confessionalism for our time ought to repudiate the commonly understood equation between confessionalism and traditionalism. It should rather reiterate a doctrine of sola Scriptura like that of Westminster at its best: one which will encourage careful thinking about the movements of our time rather than overstated condemnations and which will discourage romantic notions about past ages. A doctrine of sola Scriptura must actually, practically, point us to Scripture itself, rather than generalizations about historical trends, for our standards.
In a number of ways we can improve on Wells’s analysis by a more consistent application of sola Scriptura: We can see more fully the ways in which modern culture has strayed from God’s path but also understand how to use certain elements of that culture with God’s blessing. Sola Scriptura, which is often perceived as a narrowing, limiting doctrine, actually opens our vision to behold a greater complexity in modern culture than we would otherwise recognize. And it is a liberating doctrine in the sense that it gives us greater freedom than any mere traditionalism or via negationis could provide. At the same time, it sets forth true restrictions on the use of culture with greater clarity and gives us direction to avoid the traps of the modernists and the evangelical accommodationists.
Westminster’s emphasis on sola Scriptura, therefore, provides us with a powerful tool for the critical analysis of culture, one rarely found elsewhere in evangelical scholarship. It guards us against both secularism and traditionalism. We would be wise to continually stress this principle, neither compromising it nor forgetting to apply it to every matter of controversy.
Scripture, therefore, must be primary in relation to history, sociology, or any other science. It is Scripture that supplies the norms of these sciences and which governs their proper starting points, methods, and conclusions.49
1 Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987. Hence, DKG.
2 DKG, 212.
3 Ibid., 206-212.
4 Ibid., 310.
5 An autonomous historical method is one which is not itself subject to the ultimate authority of Scripture.
6 Cornelius Van Til, The Triumph of Grace (Privately published, 1958), 64.
7 Old and New in Interpretation (London: SCM Press, 1966).
8 To do this, of course, is to introduce a kind of circularity into our process of thought: Scripture must judge our way of reading Scripture. But circularity of a kind is inevitable when we are seeking to justify our ultimate standard of truth and falsity. I have dealt with this question most recently in my Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), 299-309.
9 DKG, 81-85, 93-98, 140.
10 Or scopus, if you prefer.
11 Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia, Presbyterian and Reformed, 1963), 8.
12 Paul Woolley and Ned B. Stonehouse, ed., The Infallible Word (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946, third revised edition, 1967); John H. Skilton, ed., Scripture and Confession (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973); Harvie M. Conn, ed., Inerrancy and Hermeneutic (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988); William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, ed., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).
13 In Collected Writings of John Murray, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), IV, 1-21.
14 Ibid., 5.
15 Ibid., 7-8.
16 Ibid., 8.
17 Ibid., 8-9.
18 Compare B. B. Warfield, who in “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981, reprinted from Oxford University Press edition of 1932), spoke of the relationship of systematics to historical theology as “far less close” than its relation to exegetical theology (65). Note also his remarks about tradition on 101.
19 See William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, ed., Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).
20 Cf. my observations on the “movement mentality” among some of Van Til’s followers in my Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), 8-14, 17-18, passim.
21 I am not here defining reason, but rather describing one of its important functions in theology.
22 See Klass Runia, “The Reformed Liturgy in the Dutch Tradition,” in Donald A. Carson, ed., Worship: Adoration and Action (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 99, and Carlos M. N. Eire, War Against the Idols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
23 Reasons which I have discussed and rejected in Worship in Spirit and Truth Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), Chapter 11.
24 I have criticized this notion in Clark and Van Til in my Cornelius Van Til, 141-149.
25 Compare Schaeffer’s alarms about the “Great Evangelical Disaster,” in his book of that title (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1981). To him, the disaster was particularly the evangelical compromise of biblical inerrancy. The focus of Wells’ attention is somewhat different.
26 No Place For Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 118, 142, 172, 174, 264, 268, 278, 280, and many other places. God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 101-111.
27 Wasteland, 61, 77-84, 115, 153, 176, 202.
28 No Place, 218-257.
29 Ibid., 60-87.
30 Ibid., 63-87, 100.
31 Ibid., 67.
32 No Place, 11.
33 Ibid., 218-257.
34 Wasteland, 88-117.
35 No Place, 95-136, Wasteland, 186-213.
36 No Place, 250-57. Wasteland, 149-51.
37 No Place, 113-115.
38 Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) 60-61.
39 No Place, 270-282, Wasteland, 118-185.
40 No Place, 17-52.
41 We may recall that Jesus himself was considered something of a pragmatist, compared to the Pharisees who proclaimed their allegiance to divine principle, but who in fact placed their tradition above God’s Word. See, for example, Matt. 15:1-9.
42 For a full discussion of “antithesis,” see my Cornelius Van Til, Chap. 15.
43 Although this sort of self-abasing servant-attitude deserves to be a model for Christians even in the marketing field!
44 And also, thirdly, a norm or standard. See my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987).
45 I am working from a photocopied version without publication data.
46 Cambridge Declaration, 5.
47 Actually, as I have argued, it would be more accurate to derive from this principle a critical stance toward traditions.
48 For more observations on this subject, see my Evangelical Reunion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), now out of print.
49 This paper will serve as my reply to Richard Muller’s “The Study of Theology Revisited: A Response to John Frame,” WTJ 56:2 (Fall, 1994), 409-417. I have not engaged Muller’s arguments specifically, but, then, he did not engage mine either. But his response leaves me still with the impression that his theological method, in order to avoid some aspects of hermeneutical circularity, gives priority to neutral or autonomous historical study over the methodological principles of Scripture itself.