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Biblical Interpretation and Doctrinal Formulation in the Reformed Tradition: Essays in Honor of James De Jong edited by Arie C. Leder & Richard A. Muller

Martin Emmrich

Biblical Interpretation and Doctrinal Formulation in the Reformed Tradition: Essays in Honor of James De Jong, edited by Arie C. Leder and Richard A. Muller. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2014, xvii + 338 pages, $25.00, paper.

How has the Reformed tradition come to be? More precisely, given its commitment to theologically precise formulation, how can its trajectory from biblical exegesis to dogmatic statement be traced? This festschrift of fourteen articles in honor of James De Jong attempts to provide an eclectic answer to the inquiry by examining a group of theologians and philosophers spanning a chronological spectrum from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. It is impossible to provide a fair appraisal of all the essays, the first of which consists of an appreciation of De Jong’s life and work as a theologian and president of Calvin Theological Seminary. A brief synopsis of some of the contributions will have to suffice.

The introductory honorific essay is followed by four studies relating to Calvin. Joel Beeke’s investigation into Calvin’s notion of the doctorate as a proper ecclesiastical office, yielding a fourfold ministry of pastor, teacher (cf. Eph. 4:11, “pastor and teacher”), elder, and deacon, explores the Reformer’s influence on the Dutch Reformed tradition. The article raises questions of acute relevance for the contemporary Reformed church, which harbors a schizophrenic attitude with respect to the doctorate. Is a professor of a theological institution a free agent in the kingdom of God, not unlike an NHL star, or does such a person hold a formal ecclesiastical teaching office with all the responsibilities and accountability that such a calling implies? In our contemporary Reformed circles, we are neither here nor there, failing to adopt a formal teaching office, yet lacking the courage to jettison the notion completely. Beeke’s article furnishes a fine reminder that the doctoral office remains firmly anchored in biblical exegesis, such as Calvin’s, and that despite its decline in the Dutch tradition and elsewhere, the Reformed church would do well in resolving one of its current problems.

Muller’s essay interacts with Bouwsma’s assessment of Calvin’s sermons and commentaries. Contrary to Bouwsma, Muller finds Calvin’s sermons ripe with amplifications and rhetorical extrapolations, while his commentaries evince a notably sparse and utilitarian style. Calvin’s sermons show his awareness of the needs of a less educated audience, which translates into a homiletical rhetoric that serves the interests of the hearer’s edification. Arguably, as Muller points out, his sermonic rhetoric can be compared to the rhetoric of the biblical text itself, insofar as its patterns of speech and argument often do without the most flowery and eloquent oration for the sake of a clear communication of the divine message. In particular, preachers of the Word, who may be tempted by wanting to sound smart and educated rather than to set aside their own agenda for the benefit of the church, can emulate Calvin’s practice.

For most readers, “Calvin’s Lectures on Zechariah: Textual Notes” (Al Wolters), may only be of antiquarian interest, inasmuch as the essay deals predominantly with textual criticism. This is also a contribution that could come with the warning, “Don’t read if your Latin is rusty,” not to speak of those who never had the privilege of earning a Latinum.

Rather interesting exegetical details are reviewed in Stanglin’s study of Calvin’s interpretation of the “Maccabean Psalms.” Stanglin places the Reformer in a time-honored tradition reaching from Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 340) to the Antiochene Father Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428) and to a number of early and late medieval exegetes who assigned a Maccabean Sitz im Leben for Psalms 44, 74, 79, 85, 106, 123, and 129. Yet, although Calvin followed in the steps of his predecessors on a number of counts (most notably Psalm 44), he also disagreed with them, refusing to ascribe any of the said psalms to a tenth-century author. He believed them to be the products of the second-century Jewish community under the persecution of Antiochus IV. Such a late date raises the question of the so-called “silent period” or the cessation of the prophetic Spirit since the fifth century BC. Calvin himself based his conclusion on a strict grammatical exegesis, as he saw it. The use of the past tense, so Calvin says, indicates that the text relates a past experience, not a future event. Calvin’s argument cannot be ruled out, but there are biblical examples, such as the prophets Daniel and Zechariah (think only of Daniel 11), who did in fact predict future events in virtually historical terms. It therefore seems that his exegesis is ruled as much by the presupposition that predictive prophecy cannot or does not contain concrete historical details as it is by grammatical analysis. The presupposition itself can be traced to the Reformer’s concern for application. If a Psalm relates what appears to be an actual life experience (as in the Maccabean persecution), a proper identification of the Sitz im Leben is the necessary foundation for an application of the text to the reader’s own situation. Calvin’s concern for proper historical grounding when seeking to contextualize a biblical text remains an important hermeneutical principle. The question is whether Calvin or his predecessors have in fact succeeded in demonstrating a Maccabean background for the Psalms in question.

Mark J. Larson’s contribution deals with the Italian Reformed theologian Peter Vermigli’s (1499–1562) position that a just war has three constituents—proper authority, a just cause, and right intention. Vermigli is responsible for developing Reformed political thought in the sixteenth century, a time in which the question of the church’s authority in relation to the state was heavily debated. Vermigli’s work, Larson argues, shows that the Protestant Reformation did not hasten the decline of Scholasticism, as it draws on Aquinas’s Thomist tradition.

I wish to highlight two of the remaining essays. For one, Jay Shim’s early seventeenth-century treatment of the interpretation of Christ’s descent into Hades is of great interest because the Apostle’s Creed’s claim, “He (Jesus Christ) descended into hell,” is one that the average church member hears often enough in our services. It stands to reason that not everyone who is used to reciting it has a clear understanding of what it means. The article reveals how nuanced the understanding of seventeenth-century theologians (Broughton, Lightfoot, Ussher) was in regards to this article of the faith. Bringing to bear linguistic, textual, and cultural considerations, they were able to afford an interpretation that differed greatly from the dogma of the Catholic Church. Hades (the underlying Greek term for “hell”) was thus not seen as a descent into the realm of the damned, but as the first act of exaltation: in his soul Christ, having paid the penalty for our sins, entered paradise, while his body was laid in the grave. Hence, Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross, “Today you shall be with me in paradise,” meant what it said.

Finally, John Bolt’s article chronicles a tragic case of ecclesiastical failure in three acts from the twentieth century. “Herman Hoeksema Was Right” revisits the CRC’s 1924 Synod ruling on common grace. It was the common grace controversy that eventually led to the suspension of Herman Hoeksema by Classis Grand Rapids East. It would be unfair to say that the essay shows Reformed church polity at its worst, but it does serve as a stark reminder that even with the best of intentions (which must be assumed on both sides of the common grace conflict), the truth does not always win. This last of the contributions thus demonstrates that failure to ground dogmatic construction in sound biblical exegesis is a tale of one bad turn deserving another. May our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us!

Martin Emmrich is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Corvallis, Oregon. Ordained Servant Online, February 2015.

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