What is Reformed Theology? – Hermeneutics

*This blog is part of a series I am writing on the Covenant Reformed Church website.

what-is-reformed-theology

The Reformed view of the Bible is simple. We believe that the Bible is inspired by God, infallible, inerrant, authoritative, sufficient, unified, necessary, useful, singular in truth and powerful. God does not continue to speak today, since the canon is closed, but he illuminates his word through the work of his Holy Spirit to make us alive in Christ as we deepen our understanding of Scripture. Our bibliology informs our reading of Scripture and church practice. It is why we emphasize the reading of his word in church and the expositional preaching of his word in our sermons.

It is the above outlined view that determines how we read the Bible. Reformed hermeneutics is much greater than what we can outline here, but these points will give the important tenets that distinguish Reformed hermeneutics from those of general evangelical interpreters. Essentially Reformed hermeneutics can be described as Redemptive-historical (explained below) and is characterized by a few important ideas, in no particular order:

Historical-Grammatical – Let’s get this one out of the way first since most broadly evangelical Bible interpreters will say that they interpret the Bible this way. But what does it mean? Essentially it means that when we read the biblical text, or any other piece of literature for that matter, the “natural meaning of a passage is to be interpreted according to the normal rules of grammar, speech, syntax and context.” (Sproul) So we read a text in light of what it is as a text (poetry, narrative, apocalyptic, etc.) and the rules that govern that genre. We also read the text within its historical and social context. Finally, we read the text according to its literary context in what kind of text and where in that text the passage is located. Essentially, this part of interpretation recognizes the human author and the necessary interpretive realities accompanied with understanding a text. BUT historical-grammatical interpretation only goes so far because Scripture has another author, a primary author – God himself. What historical-grammatical interpretation will not help with is to see the meaning of the text in question in light of the overall context of the Bible as divinely ordained redemptive-history; a story of how God is, through Christ, redeeming a people unto himself. This is something we MUST do in order to understand Scripture as God intends.

Gospel-centered – Have you ever wondered why the New Testament writers beyond the Gospels rarely quote the words of Christ? With all of the words of Jesus we have recorded, you would think that they would quote him more, use his words to settle disputes and quote him to build a theology for the fledgling church. But they don’t. Instead, they focus on the death and resurrection of Christ and interpret everything through the lens of the cross and the empty tomb and how God has used those events to save a people unto himself. In this way, it is not the life or words of Christ (even the Sermon on the Mount) that are important to the New Testament authors. What IS important to them is the reason for which he came – to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28) – and what that means in light of redemptive-history. Even Jesus affirmed this perspective while he was incarnate (cf. John 6:35-40).

Reformed theology takes seriously the following passages of Scripture which confirm this as the way in which Scripture should be read (NB: these are important but not exhaustive). In short, we must read Scripture through the lens of the work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection – for this is the singular point of all of Scripture.

And he [Jesus] said to them [the men on the road to Emmaus], “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27 ESV)

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2 ESV)

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, (1 Corinthians 15:1-4 ESV)

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)

These texts point to the reality that the gospel – the work of Christ to save sinners as part of redemptive-history – is the main point of all of Scripture and must therefore guide our interpretation of Scripture, not the words of Christ, nor the life of Christ. These are important, but only as they help us to understand the work of Christ to redeem lost sinners in obedience to his Father. This means that, “[t]he person of Christ lies at the heart of both testaments, even when they are discussing something else.” (McCartney & Clayton) The center of Scripture, its main point, and its climax is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Covenantal or Redemptive-Historical – God reveals Christ as the Redeemer through a series of covenants – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, New Covenant. This is how Scripture is constructed and it is how the story of redemption unfolds. (Click here, if you want a good overview of salvation in the Bible – from the ESV Study Bible.) We could say it this way – the material content of Scripture is a unity that focuses on the redemptive-historical or covenant-historical. The Bible is itself revelation and it possesses its unity as a record of the revelatory work of God focused on his redemptive work in history culminating in Christ. This history began in the garden of Eden with the protoevangelium (the first gospel proclamation, Genesis 3:15) and consummates in Christ. The emphasis in Scripture, then, is on the work of Christ as revealed by the progressive nature of God’s revelation of himself in redemption – something that happened in history and to which all of history prior pointed. To summarize, the context and text of the Biblical narrative must always be “read in its redemptive or salvation-historical context, understanding the text’s subject matter within the horizon of the unfolding history of salvation.”(Gaffin)

Simply, the redemptive-historical hermeneutic is interpreting revelation in the manner in which it was revealed. Specifically, God is creator, author, and interpreter of his revelation in the process of redeeming his people. Hence, the redemptive-historical hermeneutic is the most Biblical hermeneutic or method of preaching because it enters into the exact same unfolding pattern in which God himself records his infallible Word and interprets his works. (Dennison)

Scripture interprets Scripture – This means, simply, that the clearer parts of Scripture are used to interpret the less clear. This principle places a control over meaning that confines the meaning of any text to that which fits with the rest of Scripture. Or to put it in a slightly different way,  the meaning of any part of the Bible must be understood in the context of the Bible as a whole. In this way we follow the lead of the New Testament writers who understood the texts of the Bible in their redemptive-historical setting, related them to the ultimate biblical goal of fulfillment in Christ and applied them to God’s people wherever they were.

Pactum Salutis, Historia Salutis and Ordo SalutisThese are very important to understand:

Pactum Salutis (Covenant of Redemption) – This is the pre-temporal (before time), intra-Trinitarian agreement of the Father and the Son concerning how people will be saved from their sins through the work of the Son incarnate. In short, before time began, before creation, the Godhead covenanted amongst themselves to save sinners.

Historia Salutis (History of Salvation) – This refers to the actual events in human history to bring about the salvation that the Godhead covenanted. Creation, the fall, the flood, the call of Abraham, the exodus, the captivity of Israel, the life and death of Christ, Pentecost, the beginning of the church, all of these are events of the historia salutis.

Ordo Salutis (Order of Salvation) – This refers to redemption as it is applied to the sinner which brings them into union with Christ and gives them all of the benefits of that relationship. These would include regeneration, conversion, justification, adoption, glorification.

Let’s look briefly at Ephesians 1:3-2:10 to see how these three must be kept in mind in order to understand these verses correctly. We are told clearly in chapter 1 that God has unconditionally chosen those whom he will save so that he will be glorified – in love we are chosen in Christ (pactum salutis) before the foundation of the world, to the praise of his glorious grace. This pursuit of his own glory is God’s ultimate goal in everything that he does; not reciprocal love from his creation or free will or anything else. Then in the later stages of chapter one and in chapter 2 we see that he brings about the salvation of his elect by giving them the gift of faith on account of his grace as the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit is applied to us (historia salutis). He also tells us that we need to have faith alone for our salvation and that we need to live out our faith “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (ordo salutis)

Unfortunately, this distinction is often missed and as a result God’s actions are bound by time rather than originate in eternity past, his goals are bound by humanity rather than his own glory, indicatives become imperatives and our salvation becomes works minus grace. The task of the biblical interpreter, and the Christian minister is to bring what was planned in eternity and accomplished in history and apply it to the life of the church. Our goal is not to separate the ordo salutis from the theological or exegetical, rather we ground it there.

Conclusion

This brief overview is intended to highlight the distinctiveness of redemptive-historical / Reformed hermeneutics. It’s like drinking from a firehouse, but it is important to have at least a small understanding of it. By know I hope you are beginning to see that Reformed theology is more than mere ‘Calvinism’ or ‘predestination’ or ‘TULIP’. I hope you understand that it is an ancient, theological rich and Biblically committed theological perspective.

Soli Deo Gloria

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