3. The Harmony of Scripture
Now we should turn to a second way in which recent hermeneutical posturing [A somewhat derogatory, even alarmist, phrasing.] toward human origins has affected our doctrine of Scripture: the harmony of the Bible. I have in mind here the question of whether or not the Bible contradicts itself.
One of the firm conclusions of critical scholarship over the last 150 years is that the Bible represents a compilation of competing points of view. [This is slippery language. “Competing” does not mean “contradictory.” Does Pratt’s position allow for true theological diversity?]
As the various voices of Scripture are allowed to speak, they present viewpoints that are incompatible as far as they are concerned. These contradictory views include smaller matters like details of history, as well as larger issues like theological and political points of view. For the most part, this fragmentary approach to Scripture [Is this “fragmentary”? What does Pratt hope to accomplish by posing the very real issue of theological diversity in Scripture this way?]
has been closely tied to critical reconstructions of Israel’s history and questions of how the compositional history of Scripture fits within those historical reconstructions. At times, incompatible viewpoints are attributed to various literary strata within one book of the Bible so that one part of a book of the Bible conflicts with another part of the same book. For instance, it is widely accepted in critical circles that one stratum of Noah’s flood presents its duration as 40 days and nights while another stratum of Noah’s flood presents it as lasting 150 days and nights. At other times whole books are seen as competing with each other, for instance, the many differences between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles. This propensity toward finding [This is another caricature. It is not so much that people are reading suspiciously, looking for disharmonies to exploit. The disharmonies are there on the pages of Scripture. The fact that they are being more openly discussed is healthy and may lead to better articulations of Scripture that what Pratt seems to be advocating.]
disharmonies in Scripture has been so strong that often the slightest logical tensions between texts are magnified to the point that they are portrayed as diametrically opposed when critical scholars handle them. [Are we to conclude that Pratt, who has worked on Chronicles, finds no “competing” points of view between CHR and DTR? How would he explain the synoptic Gospels? I may simply be missing a larger point Pratt is aiming for here, but he seems to be painting a picture I would think he himself would have trouble accepting.]
Now, is there any wonder that this is true? After all, in this view the Bible reflects the outlooks of a multitude of human writers who composed their literature over nearly 1000 years. [The Bible does reflect this fact. To deny it is to deny its human authorship, or at least to render God’s use of human agents to be of no consequence.]
What could make more sense than to expect them to reflect contradictory and competing points of view? [I, at least, do not say this in I&I. Rather, this state of affairs reflects diversity. Pratt is free to deny theological diversity if he wishes.]
Frankly, if we center our attention on Scripture as a collection of human writings as critical scholars have done, this conclusion makes perfectly good sense. [No, it is God who was pleased to have his word written in various times and place, for various purposes and by various authors, and thus to reflect a clear degree of diversity. Denying that diversity is to deny what God himself has put there. God himself seems pleased to allow this state of affairs. Why is Pratt so resistant? What is he concerned about that might be lost?]
I remember once having a professor who presented the prophetic denunciations of Israel’s sacrifices as an example of competing views in the Bible — a conflict between the worship regulations requiring sacrifice and the prophets’ rejection of sacrifices. Of course, he had no desire to see any harmony between the prophetic witness and the worship legislation of the Pentateuch because he had so reconstructed Israel’s history that there was no reason to presume that everyone in Israel owed allegiance to Mosaic legislation. At one point I suggested that perhaps the conflict was not between the prophets and faithful interpretations of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, but between the prophets and hypocrisy among the Israelites that biblical worship legislation itself condemned. His answer was predictable. “That answer is too simple. It doesn’t allow all the voices of Scripture to speak.” (Remember that answer, please.) [I wonder how that professor would respond to what appears to be a caricature. Pratt may disagree with the history of critical scholarship as standing against the clear teaching of the Confession, but these scholars are not fools who simply refuse to see the utterly simple harmony that is so evident to any who don’t carry the critical baggage.]
Now, I have been saddened to find that very similar attitudes have taken root in our circles. Once again, I am not concerned with statements like those of B.B. Warfield who was one of the first in our tradition to acknowledge that the Scriptures contain multiple “concatenations” or “theologies.” He firmly coupled this belief with the belief that there was extensive harmony [On what level? Demonstrated concretely or merely postulated theoretically?] among all of these theologies, and a harmony that could be seen in systematic theology. Instead, my concern is how much we hear these days in our own circles about the diversity of Scripture. And increasingly, our own scholars’ characterization of attempts to harmonize the diversity of Scripture is the same as that of my professor: “That answer is too simple.” [Yes, I certainly do think that many attempts to harmonize Scripture, as Pratt seems to be suggesting, are “too simple,” and I would add either dishonest (for a biblical scholar) or perhaps at best rhetorical.]
Now, my own concentration in biblical studies for a number of years has been the book of Chronicles. If there is one place in the Bible where the diversity of Scripture is evident, it is there. Working with the differences and [sic, in] detail between Samuel/Kings and Chronicles seriously challenges anyone who believes that the Scriptures are harmonious. So, I do not consider myself simplistic in my assessment of these matters. [But is Pratt simplistic in his solution?] But at the same time, I am convinced that the unity of Scripture, the harmony and compatibility of its various parts, has been inappropriately obscured by a growing number of our biblical scholars. [What we would need to see is for Pratt to pick, say, ten areas of tension between CHR and DTR and then explain them in such a way that essential harmony is preserved, and whether such a model would be convincing to scholars who are sympathetic with Pratt’s theological concerns while also being fluent in the issues involved. If he cannot do so, and recedes to the defense that Scripture is ultimately harmonizable regardless, even if we do not see it here, it would be incumbent upon him to present a (confessional) model of Scripture whereby God gives us books that so clearly do not harmonize but that really need to. In other words, does Pratt really think that God gave us two very distinct interpretations of Israel’s history to see how clever or faithful we can be to resist their distinctives and maintain a theory of “unity” that sidelines the very Scripture we are committed to handle and submit ourselves to?]
Here again, I want to suggest that this tendency does not reflect the wisdom of Westminster. Rather, it has a different hermeneutical orientation. The position of Westminster is straightforward: the Bible is God’s Word, and therefore it must be conceptually harmonious. We can see this orientation in a number of ways. In the first place, Westminster explains in 1.5 what distinguishes the Canon of Scripture from other writings as the Word of God. [Am I right in concluding that Pratt has problems with such respected Reformed OT scholars as Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman III? Further, we should be reminded here again of WCF’s purpose, which is not to solve the problems of modern scholarship (of which the divines, by their historical setting, were largely ignorant), but to provide the church with a model of biblical authority so that no one would be beholden to human traditions (in that case, Rome). As I said earlier, Pratt expects too much from WCF in the current debate about the dual authorship of Scripture. And so as not to be misunderstood, let me restate it here: the external evidence, which is considerable, does not determine whether Scripture is of divine origin. Rather, it helps us understand the kind of Scripture this divine author has given the church. And, as is so often the case, God seems to have given us something that makes us a tad bit uncomfortable. That God would be so like us is something that bothered Jesus’ opponents and has continued in various errors in the church throughout history. The “problems” Pratt refers to are not problems, but reminders of how great God is and how willing he is to become one of us.]
Westminster 1.5 is best known in our circles for insisting this: that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” Most of us remember from that paragraph in the confession that the testimony of the Spirit is so compelling that it is the source of “our full persuasion and assurance.”
In scholarly discussions in our circles, appeals to the testimony of the Holy Spirit have become more frequent. [Which is good, I think. He has, in my view, too often been relegated to the task of inspiring biblical authors. A more vibrant doctrine of the HS might actually help us as we approach the many difficult issues before us.]
This is an interesting feature of recent discussions. It is fascinating to me, however, to see how this appeal to the testimony of the Holy Spirit occurs in a context where the humanity of Scripture is emphasized. [That is perfectly understandable and desirable if one has a properly biblical, i.e., incarnational, model of Scripture.]
As the humanity of the Scriptures is stressed to the point that the harmony of Scripture comes into question, [No, the humanity is stressed to the point where earlier articulations of Scripture’s harmony are called into question.]
the testimony of the Spirit is brought in to counter the negative impact of what scholarly research says about Scripture. It serves as a personal deus ex machina (God as machine) — a sort of last-minute rescue of faith from the internal conflict we feel over Scripture. [This is a disappointing, somewhat condescending, comment. I would also add that, if the HS were brought into the discussion at the outset, there would be no need to insert him at the end as “last-minute rescue of faith.”]
It is as if our study of Scripture has raised so many problems, including disharmony, that we must have an indisputable basis for believing that it is in any sense God’s Word. And that indisputable basis is found in the testimony of the Holy Spirit, a religious intuition that is impervious to examination, impervious to disqualification — but also equally devoid of content and definition. [Thus far, this is how I would have described Pratt’s argument.] Do I need to say that one again? An indisputable basis is found in the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Our religious intuition that is impervious to examination (nobody can argue with you if you have the Holy Ghost telling you this is true), impervious to disqualification (what open-minded person would say that God is not telling you this?), and also, however, equally devoid of content and definition. In other words, “I feel the Holy Spirit is telling me that this is the Word of God” — but the definition of what that means is an entirely different matter. [Pratt’s caricature impugns motives to scholars in “our circles” that I do not recognize. In fact, I would argue that Pratt’s point here is at odds with the Reformed faith. He seems to suggest that a religious intuition re: God’s word, based on the work of the HS, is a problem. Warfield disagrees:
But, we may be reminded, the church has not held with such tenacity to all the doctrines taught in the Bible. How are we to account, then, for the singular consistency of its confession of the Bible’s doctrine of inspiration? The account to be given is again simple, and capable of being expressed in a single sentence. It is due to an instinctive feeling in the church, that the trustworthiness of the Scriptures lies at the foundation of trust in the Christian system of doctrine, and is therefore fundamental to the Christian hope and life. It is due to the church’s instinct that the validity of her teaching of doctrine as the truth of God,–to the Christian’s instinct that the validity of his hope in the several promises of the gospel,–rests on the trustworthiness of the Bible as a record of God’s dealings and purposes with men (“The Church Doctrine of Inspiration,” in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible [ed. S. G. Craig; Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948], 120-21)]
But in Westminster, this is not the process. In Westminster, the testimony of the Spirit is not a religious intuition that overcomes us in spite of what we know to be true [This is an odd way of putting the issue. No one is posing that the HS has to convince us of something contrary to what we know. Rather, the HS convinces us to know what we ought to know.]
of the Bible. Quite the contrary, Westminster views the testimony of the Spirit in conjunction with what we learn from the study of the Bible. As 1.5 puts it, “the inward work of the Holy Spirit [is a testimony] … by and with the Word in our hearts.” The testimony of the Spirit is conjoined with the Word itself. [I have absolutely no argument with this, but it neither follows from nor is relevant to the point Pratt is making. The Spirit does not convince us of the historicity (by modern standards) of, say, Gen 1-11. The Spirit, in and through Scripture, convicts us that Scripture is our guide to faith and practice.]
And this conjunction of the Spirit’s testimony with what we know to be true of Scripture becomes even clearer in the way that Westminster 1.5 lists the qualities of Scripture. As it lists them, these qualities offer evidence of the divine origin and authority of the Bible. You know how it goes. Westminster 1.5 notes “the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole … the full discovery it makes of the ways of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God.” It doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God, and then follows the word of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Notice that the results of exploring Scripture make it “abundantly evident” that the Bible is the Word of God. Our explorations do not make it necessary for the Spirit of God to rescue [Again, this is Pratt’s unfortunate word based on his caricature above; no one is talking about rescuing the Bible from itself; Pratt is.]
us from what we see there. Are you catching my drift here? This is extremely important.
Now, I wish we had time to touch on each of these evidences, but for our purposes here we should note that one thing Westminster expects us to discern in Scripture that makes the authority of Scripture “abundantly evident” is “the consent of all the parts.” Put simply, this means that one way the Scriptures reveal that they are from God is that all the parts of Scripture consent with the other parts, they agree with each other, they are harmonious. Lack of harmony in the Bible would be evidence to the contrary. [It is debatable whether the “consent of all the parts” clause speaks to the issue of theological diversity of the OT. “Consent” does not mean “harmonizable” in the way Pratt assumes.]
Once again, we see the hermeneutical orientation of Westminster deeply influencing the logic of the doctrine. Here is the logic: the Bible is the Word of God, not among the human writings mentioned in 1.3. It is authoritative because it comes from God, “the author thereof,” “who is truth itself” (1.4). And this divine authorship is abundantly evident in features we find as we study the Scriptures, one of which is “the consent of all the parts” of Scripture or the harmony of Scripture (1.5). [I have absolutely no argument with this. As long as Pratt remains on the level of the Confession attesting to Scripture’s authority because it is a book of divine origin, he is on safe ground. Where his point begins to get muddled is when he assumes that this confession is poised to address the varied, complex, and legitimate issues raised in modern biblical studies. The problems don’t go away by appealing to the Confession. More importantly, the church is not helped by its ministers virtually hiding behind the Confession to be protected from these commonly discussed issues raised in the modern study of Scripture. To put it more plainly, the reading strategy passionately argued for here by Pratt, where tradition trumps evidence every time, expresses well my motivation for writing I&I. Pratt may feel his words here are a timely and needed message of correction, but I see in them more a reluctance to engage the issues head on along with the tradition. Toward that end, a truly timely warning is that of Richard Longenecker, who, in addressing the Second Temple evidence for the NT’s use of the OT (which Pratt gets to below) says:
It has become all too common today to hear assertions of a theological nature as to what God must have done or claims of a historical nature as to what must have been the case during the apostolic period of the Church—and to find that such statements are based principally on deductions from what has previously been accepted and/or supported by current analogies alone. The temptation is always with us to mistake hypothesis for evidence or to judge theological and historical formulations by their coherence and widespread acceptance, rather than first of all by their correspondence and exegetical data. History is replete with examples of this sorry condition and its sorry results, and hindsight permits us to recognize it in the past for what it was: a perversion of the truth. But we are ‘sons and daughters of our parents,’ composed of the same stuff and subject to the same pressures and temptations. And nowhere do we need to guard against our own inclinations and various pressures more carefully than in our understanding of the New Testament writers’ use of Scripture. Neither piety nor speculation—both of which are excellent in their own ways when properly controlled—can substitute for careful historical and exegetical investigation. Nor can traditional views of either the right or left be allowed to stand unscrutinized in the light of recent discoveries. The Jewish roots of Christianity make it a priori likely that the exegetical procedures of the New Testament would resemble, at least to some extent, those of Judaism of the time (Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period [2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 185-86.)
Longenecker’s warning is one we should heed and is fully in keeping with our Confessional heritage, and in fact seems to be a requirement of that very heritage (WCF 1.10).]
What we see here in Westminster is a principle that applies to every communication event. Under the influence of contemporary deconstruction, it has become almost commonsensical in our day (and all of us in this room would agree with this) that it is possible to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion successfully to practically any piece of literature we choose. [Pratt here is introducing inflammatory concepts (deconstruction and hermeneutic of suspicion). These are his words and do not describe those with whom he is arguing.]
If we have certain assumptions about the author of a text, capable readers can deconstruct their texts by dismantling them into contradictory, self-defeating claims. When we suspect that writers oppose us on some important issues, with enough effort we can read their texts as riddled with internal conflict, [This works both ways: if one makes certain assumptions about how Scripture ought to behave, then, with a little effort, one can squeeze it into any mold one wishes.]
and thus dis-empower their “will to power” over us. We can all do this with any text we want. We can do it today right now with the Koran, we can do it right now with the Bible if we believe certain things about the writer of the Bible. [Pratt’s Bible is actually more “Koran-like,” with its discomfort with incarnation, than he may be willing to admit.]
But contemporary hermeneutical discussions have also made us aware that at the same time, when we have alternate assumptions about writers, when we sympathize with them, when we are supportive of their views, we know how to spend our energy on finding ways to understand the coherence and harmony of their texts so that their text can have their intended impact (consider the way talk radio personalities and television pundits do this). [My point is that Scripture’s “intended impact” may be different from how Pratt understands it. Also, coherence and harmony, as mentioned above, are not synonymous, and Pratt should not collapse them together. For example, I believe the synoptic passages cohere but I do not think they can (or are intended to) be “harmonized” in the way Pratt seems to assume they should be (i.e., because the Bible is God’s word, here is how it should behave).]
Now, one thing that can be said about the Westminster Assembly is this: they knew the Bible well. [No question there, but it is beside the point.] They were not naïve about the logical tensions and apparent disharmonies of Scripture. We can say the same thing about Jesus and his apostles and thousands of biblical scholars from patristic times to the period of Westminster. Although an argument can be made that some of these witnesses did not question the historical reliability of the Bible because they were unaware of many historical problems raised by modern research, we can say with confidence that they were well aware of the fact that the diversity of Scripture presents difficulties for harmonization.
What made it possible then for Westminster (or, for that matter, Jesus and his apostles and the host of faithful scholars of historical Christianity) to affirm the harmony of Scripture? [I am not clear where Jesus affirms the harmony of Scripture, at least in the way Pratt understands it. I understand that calling upon Jesus should clinch any argument, but Pratt needs to be more careful here. Also, perhaps the divines did not define “harmony” as rigidly and modernistically as Pratt does.]
To cast it in terms of contemporary post-structuralist hermeneutics, they all had certain predispositions toward the divine author of Scripture. They were sympathetic toward him. They were supportive of him. [As am I. In fact, I am so supportive of the divine author that I am willing to submit myself to Scripture in order to allow it to set its own parameters. I am eager to allow how Scripture behaves to define how we understand such concepts as “harmony” etc., rather than imposing notions onto Scripture or church history.]
As Westminster put it, God is truth; it would be impossible for an entirely truthful God, trustworthy in every way, to contradict himself as he spoke in one place or another. [This is the very point to be demonstrated. It also depends entirely on how one understands “contradiction.” If one takes a more redemptive-historical approach to Scripture, one can understand the tensions (not contradictions) in Scripture to be reflective of the historical drama the Spirit records in Scripture. The coherence of Scripture is seen in where it is heading, which is what I mean by a Christ-centered coherence, or better, a “Christoltelic” coherence: Scripture’s coherence is Christ-centered and therefore eschatological.]
In many respects, this is little more than the judgment of charity applied to God. We read his book with the expectation, even the firm conviction, that it will not present incompatible outlooks. And with this basis, this sympathetic reading, with this bias, we lead ourselves to see this issue in terms of theology proper, as a matter of our outlook on the character of God. It is much more responsible to say, “We don’t know how these elements fit together, though we believe they do,” than it is to say, “These elements of the Scripture given to us by God do not fit together.” [This is an assertion with which I strongly disagree, and Pratt needs to demonstrate, not merely state, if he wishes to persuade others not already convinced of his position. I would add, also, that it is actually “much more responsible to say” that, if our theory keeps running up against how Scripture self-evidently behaves, it may be time to re-examine the theory, and not to hold to it tenaciously despite the evidence. Ironically, in principle Pratt’s method of argumentation is similar to the “appeal to the HS” argument he chides earlier. For Pratt, his understanding of the tradition seems to be the unassailable and unalterable starting point for any subsequent issue that may arise. This is not only contrary to reason, but it is out of accord with the healthy confessionalism that I feel is modeled by many others in the PCA (and the WCF itself).]
This is not dishonesty or naiveté as some scholars are prone to say these days. It is a matter of theological conviction about the character of God and our sympathetic reading of that God. [It is a matter of a “theological conviction” but some convictions, regardless of how strongly held, are still susceptible to error and can be held for bad reasons (either naiveté or dishonesty).]
When the historical orientation of holding divine authorship as the primary frame of reference and human authorship as secondary is preserved, the authority of Scripture is “abundantly evident” in “the consent of all parts of Scripture.”
When this basic hermeneutical orientation is reversed, as has been done for some time now in our branch of the church, when human authorship takes first place and divine authorship takes second place, [It is most unfortunate if this is what Pratt has picked from I&I or others “in our branch from the church”; more perceptive readers have not drawn this conclusion.]
it is no wonder that the Bible is characterized as a problem for scholarly evangelicals. [It is a problem among evangelicals. Think of how many lose their faith because of trite answers they get to these real problems. Such a scenario may not be part of Pratt’s experience, but it is certainly part of mine. Also, Pratt’s phrasing here is clearly a reference to the subtitle of I&I. But, the entire point of the book is that the humanity of Scripture is not a problem.]
It is no wonder that it is treated as a book of such diversity that it is disharmonious.
When we default to the humanity of Scripture as our primary reference point, we should not be surprised at all to find that passages like Proverbs 26:4-5 (“Do not answer the fool according to his folly … Answer the fool according to his folly”) appear to be self-contradictory — even though there has been a long history of successfully handling these verses in other ways. It should not be surprising that the differences between the legal codes of Exodus and Deuteronomy are treated as somehow disharmonious, beyond harmonization. It should not shock us that the New Testament use of the Old Testament is characterized as incompatible with the original meaning of the Old Testament. This is said to be nothing more than recognizing the truly human character of such passages. Within this frame of reference, these and countless other portions of Scripture seem obviously contradictory. [And Pratt’s way of handling these issues are, what? I should make it clear here that I in no way referred to these issues in I&I as contradictory. In fact, I say the opposite, and, e.g., concerning Prov 26:4-5, I offer a perfectly legitimate and well-known explanation. As for how he presents the issues above, Pratt continues to set up straw men, in my opinion.]
But within the frame of reference afforded by millennia of Christian scholarship and reflected in Westminster, these differences are nothing more than opportunities for God’s people to demonstrate their trust in the truthfulness and integrity of God the author of Scripture by putting forth the effort it takes to read these texts sympathetically with the goal of demonstrating their harmony to whatever degree our feeble scholarship allows us. [That’s why these things are there? So we can demonstrate faith? Is this really what “millennia of Christian scholarship” have taught? This is shallow solace. Moreover, much of what is discussed in a book like I&I are things that were not know before the 19th century.]
It surprises me sometimes how the term “harmonization” has become a word of disdain in our circles. Have you noticed that? In some sense, I can understand why. After all, at times the desire to harmonize has caused us to be satisfied with simplistic, inadequate outlooks on the Bible. And it has cut us off from many of the riches that Scripture offers. But rather than reject all attempts at harmonization, it is better to judge each attempt at harmonization on its own merits. This is what Westminster does. [No, that is what WCF says. It does not do it in the sense of taking specific, problematic, examples and walking readers through them. And neither does Pratt. Thus far, unless Pratt would put into writing something to the contrary, I would submit that the position he is advocating on this matter is indeed simplistic and inadequate.]
Westminster’s commitment to the consent of all the parts is not simplistic in principle. [No, but to remain on the level of principle, as Pratt is doing, is simplistic.] Westminster does not flatten the Bible as if it were written one afternoon by some man sitting in his easy chair. It acknowledges the diversity of Scripture. But at the same time, Westminster shows such high regard for divine authorship that it works hard to demonstrate the underlying harmony of this diversity.
If ever there were an example of theological tension in the Bible it would have to be the differences between the Old Testament and New Testament, or more specifically between the Mosaic legislation and New Testament ethics. Westminster acknowledges these differences. For instance, in 19.3-5 the Confession explains that the abiding significance of the moral law is different from that of the ceremonial and judicial laws. There is plenty of recognition of the diversity between the testaments in Westminster. But despite this diversity, Westminster strongly asserts that harmony exists even between the Old Testament and New Testament. You will recall how it closes its assessment of the differences between the Old and New Testament in this way in 7.6: “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” The covenant of grace is a theological construct that brings harmony to the most radical diversities we find in the Bible. [This is a fine example, but it is in the realm of ethics and Scripture’s broad covenantal harmony, with which I strongly agree. The example, however, is not germane to the points discussed thus far. Better would be for Pratt to pick, say, an example of the NT’s use of the OT that “appears” to be at odds with the OT context, and then allow his presupposition of what a divinely authored book ought to do to orient his explanation. Then others can chime as to whether that explanation is adequate, convincing, reasonable, etc.]
I don’t believe it is going too far to say that this commitment to harmonization reflects the mainstream of Christian theology from the earliest of times. Take for instance what the Council of Chalcedon said about the natures and person of Christ. You know how it goes:
[Christ is] truly God and truly man … recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons.
Add to that the fuller expression of Westminster 8.2:
The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Himself man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost; in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.
I must tell you that whenever I read these and similar formulations in Christology, I hear voices shouting inside of my head, and they are shouting questions at me. Are there any outlooks given in Scripture that seem more obviously mutually exclusive than the ones that are listed together here in these statements? [I am confused here. “These statements” are about the nature of God/Christ, not Scripture.] That Jesus is one person with two natures, a divine nature that maintains all of the attributes of the Creator without exception, and a human nature that maintains all the limitations of sinless human creatures? Have you ever heard any harmonizations of different viewpoints in the Bible that go this far? Can you imagine an attempt to show the compatibility of different outlooks in the Bible that stretches credulity any thinner than these do? Those voices are screaming in my head every time I think of the hypostatic union. I more than suspect that many of us hear the same voices. Yet, this harmonization, this display of the consent of all parts of Scripture, is a pillar of Christian orthodoxy. [This may be a bit of an overstatement with respect to Scripture.]
Why then has the church worked so hard to bring these teachings into harmony, [What teachings specifically?] even to the point of admitting that we cannot fathom how all these things can be true? It is because orthodox Christianity, reflected in Westminster, has approached the Scriptures with an assumption: the assumption that they come from God and would not therefore contradict themselves. When we shift our hermeneutical priorities away from the priorities of Westminster to the point that we find the Scriptures to be disharmonious, we not only find ourselves out of accord with Westminster but also out of accord with basic Christian orthodoxy. [My comments here would just be repeating what I said above, but let me add that, since Vos, the Reformed faith has articulated a model of Scripture, a redemptive-historical one, that, if Pratt accepted it, would nuance if not negate much of his argument.]
And more than this, stressing the human diversity of the Bible to this extent also robs our tradition of any possibility of having a system of doctrine that unites us. When we believe that the Scriptures are so diverse that they contradict each other, there is no longer any basis for the traditional notion of systematic theology, or for a meaningful acceptance of our ordination vow that the Westminster standards represent “the system of doctrine taught in Scripture.” [This seems more of a scare tactic to me than an argument. Let me simply say that I disagree with Pratt’s assumptions and his use of language. The task that lies before us, as contemporary Reformed Christians, is how to formulate a system of doctrine that brings into the conversation what we have come to understand about Scripture, the contexts in which it was given, etc. Pratt seems to think that to engage such a task is to deny our heritage. In my opinion, it is to be faithful to it. Moreover, what ultimately unites us, and what should be the focus of all our systems of doctrine, is the Spirit of the risen Christ and our faith in him.]
Now to counter this conclusion, some of our scholars have suggested that we shift our hopes for harmony in Scripture away from the traditional view of finding a coherent system of doctrines undergirding everything that is taught in Scripture. They have proposed that our commitment to Christ is the focal point that brings unity out of the diversity of Scripture. [Yes, I feel this is what Scripture teaches, namely Paul. It is in Christ, specifically, the crucified and risen Christ, that Scripture now coheres. Abstract systems of doctrine are extremely valuable and even unavoidable, but are only valid to the extent that they bring Scripture’s focus to Christ. What God has done in Christ and continues to do through his Spirit, that is what makes all of Scripture—even all of life—cohere.]
This focus on Christological readings of the Bible as the unifying concern of the Bible has taken many forms. In our circle, it began in full force with the understanding of New Testament eschatology and how the New Testament saw Christ as the climax of all redemptive history. As you know, this outlook derived largely from the works of Geerhardus Vos and Hermann Ridderbos, two of the most influential authors of the last century in our branch of the church. Building on their work, others argued forcefully that all Christian preaching and thus all reading of the Old Testament must be filtered through this Christocentric eschatology of the New Testament. Fair enough. I don’t know how anyone could seriously doubt this basic orientation for Christian interpretations of the Bible.
But unfortunately, this stream of thought went further than the earlier advocates. [This is a telling statement and helps us understand much of the rhetorical strategy of Pratt’s argument: old is right, new is wrong.]
This development was less concerned with establishing the harmony of the original meaning of Old Testament passages with New Testament Christological readings. New Testament Christological themes were discerned in the Old Testament at every turn whether or not they were tied to the original meaning of the Old Testament. In a word, Christological interpretation became increasingly eisegetical in our tradition.
Now as I see it, until the last decade or so, Christological eisegesis was largely based on the notion of divine authorship of Scripture. The assumption was that in his wisdom God designed the Old Testament to present all kinds of anticipations of Christ, even when these concepts were not in the view of human writers. Thus, Christian interpreters were thought to be right to find such Christological motifs in the Old Testament because God had ordained this feature of Scripture. Now frankly, I have never been convinced of this basic orientation, but my concern is not to quibble over that here. My concern has much more to do with more recent developments in this stream of thought.
In more recent years, as the Scriptures have been increasingly approached as a human book, Christocentric reading of the Old Testament has not disappeared. Rather, it has found a new validation. [Or perhaps a better way of putting it, a Christocentric reading of the OT has continued to mature.]
Rather than validating Christological eisegetical readings of the Old Testament on the basis of divine authorship [Again, Pratt is assuming some things about the nature of divine authorship, namely, that it will not be in any serious way affected by historical context.],
more recent reflections on this approach have been squarely based on the humanity of the New Testament. Just as the Old Testament has been understood in terms of its ancient Near Eastern literary context, the New Testament is now read in terms of its cultural and literary setting. [Again, is Pratt saying we should not read the NT against its background? This would be a strange admission. As an OT scholar, one wonders just what role historical context plays for Pratt, practically speaking.]
And as we might expect, just as in Old Testament studies, the tendency in New Testament studies has been to draw heavily from extra-biblical parallels to determine the intent [Curious word choice. Not sure what Pratt is after here, but I would rather say that the extra-biblical “parallels” do not “determine intent” but clarify genre expectations for contemporary readers.] of New Testament writers.
Now, the reality is that we don’t know much about the ways Jewish writers interpreted the Scriptures in the first century. [Yes we do. We know a lot, hence the problem. I’ve seen this argument uttered elsewhere, and it just doesn’t wash. Entire doctoral programs are devoted to its study, and even then hardly scratch the surface.]
There was hardly one way it was done; methods of interpretation were about as numerous as the sects of Israel at the time. [Interestingly, these two sentences stand in stark contradiction, and may reveal Pratt’s lack of familiarity with the issues. How can Pratt, on the one hand, be so sure that we don’t know much about Second Temple writers, and then say, on the other hand, that there were numerous methods of interpretation?]
We can, however, reconstruct the practices of many of these competing sectarian groups this much. Many of them interpreted Scriptures in ways that hardly conform to what we might call in our circles grammatico-historical methods. [Absolutely true.] Instead, many first-century Jewish sects approached the Bible in a very esoteric, charismatic, intuitive, eisegetical way. [These are somewhat modern, biased, designations, but they can remain for the sake of discussion.] And this eisegesis was forcefully driven by a desire to show that their sectarian views were supported by Scripture. One only has to read a few pages of Pesher Hababbuk to have a sense of how far these sectarian readings went. And I think it is fair to say that many groups’ readings (compelled by their convictions and sectarian viewpoints that they found support for in parts of Scripture) would be considered illegitimate in Westminster’s “due use of ordinary means” sense (1.7). But these esoteric readings were held, nevertheless, by a number of groups in the first century. [So far so good.]
Now, it isn’t difficult to understand that when the humanity of the New Testament is emphasized, [Pratt throughout at best pays lip service to Scripture’s humanity, which is functional docetism, and therefore an error.]
it is only natural to look for [one does not have to look very hard, hence the problem] connections or parallels between the ways these sectarian voices handled the Bible and the ways the New Testament writers handled the Bible. On the basis of what I consider rather superficial connections, [Pratt is free to maintain his opinion, but many scholars, Reformed or otherwise, would not characterize the connections as “superficial.”] the argument is made that New Testament writers read Christ into the Old Testament much like their contemporaries read their own views into the Old Testament. After all, New Testament writers were compelled by the inescapable conviction that Christ was the Messiah and that their sectarian views were true. So, they went about interpreting the Bible in the same ways that their contemporaries did. The only significant difference was that they were followers of Jesus and not of some other leader. [No, the difference is not that they were merely followers of Christ, as other groups followed other leaders or ideologies. The difference is that Christ rose from the dead. THIS is the foundational, central conviction of the church, the center of Paul’s theology, and the center around which we are to form our theologies today, including how we understand Scripture as God’s word bearing witness to his saving acts, which reach their climax in Christ.] They understood the truth that God had been revealed in Jesus and in no other, and so they found him in the Bible.
So it is that within a frame of reference where doctrinal disharmony is assumed for the Old Testament, it is said that we can now find harmony. But this is not a harmony that is founded on the “consent of all the parts” because God is the author of Scripture. [A return to a frustratingly circular argument.] And it is not a harmony that can be discerned through careful traditional exegetical work. On the contrary, it is a harmony that finds its center in intuitive, esoteric eisegesis driven by the sectarian conviction that Jesus is the Christ. [I wonder how Paul would feel about being characterized like this? Pratt seems to be suggesting that there really is no hermeneutical problem between the OT and NT. I would be interested to hear him defend that thesis, preferably in a refereed publication of some sort.]
In some respects, I think that this sort of appeal to Christocentrism as the harmonizing point of reference is similar to recent appeals to the testimony of the Holy Spirit that I have already mentioned. [And why is this such a problem for Pratt?] Just as the testimony of the Holy Spirit is often appealed to as the source of our conviction that the Bible is God’s Word despite the problems that the we find in the Bible, now our conviction that Jesus is Lord is the impervious religious conviction that makes it possible to read the Bible as a unity despite the problems of disharmony that appears on every page. In fact, we are encouraged to see Christ as the central integrating feature of Scripture despite — not because of — what we find through careful study of the Bible. Rather than being the fulfillment of the system of doctrine taught in antecedent portions of the bible, our commitment to Jesus is seen as the Deus ex machina for a Bible that is characteristically disharmonious. [This will only be persuasive when Pratt applies his understanding of how Scripture should work to explaining how it actually does.]
Now of course, I don’t know a Christian who would deny that in some sense [I am willing to try to articulate what this “sense” might be. It is not enough to give lip service to it.]
our commitment to Christ is a unifying force in our reading of the Bible. But at the same time, when Christ is proposed as a substitute for a systemic unity, [It is not so much Christ who substitutes a systematic unity, it is a question of what manner of “systematic unity” we have a right to expect from Scripture. The unity/coherence is actually a redemptive-historical one with Christ as the climax.] a conceptual unity that reaches to the details of every aspect of Scripture, one is left wondering how Christ can rescue [Again, this is Pratt’s word.] the Bible. When the teaching of one stratum of Scripture cannot even in principle be harmonized with another, when one stage of revelation is not compatible with another, when so few items in Scripture are harmonious, then even our commitment to Jesus becomes nebulous — so nebulous that he is subject to diverse voices and can offer no substantial unity for the Bible. [If Christ is the subject of these diverse voices, then he is the locus of “substantial unity.” The question to ask Pratt is whether he is willing to do the “hard exegetical work” (as he mentions earlier) to maintain the centrality of Christ, despite challenges, in every square inch of his Christian life, including his doctrine and interpretation of Scripture. This may not provide the kind of unity Pratt is arguing for, but it does offer a much deeper and ultimately more satisfying coherence. Perhaps what we are seeing here is the on-going debate over the relationship between systematic theology and biblical theology. That is a good debate that will not, and should not, recede into the background. But I have been too influenced by my theological training (i.e., Vos and Ridderbos as mediated through Gaffin) to yield the ground Pratt seems to require.]
Once again, I believe that all of this confusion is the opposite of what Westminster does. Westminster offers us a path of wisdom. The Scriptures are harmonious (and they even find their harmony in many ways in Christ) [O.K., but I thought earlier Pratt wasn’t too keen on this idea.] because they have come to us from God, the author thereof. Every detail of Scripture fits with every other detail, [Every detail?] and this belief leads faithful readers to the conclusion that Christ is the fulfillment of every hope the people of God expressed in every book, in every Scripture, at every point. This is why Westminster warns against understanding the full sense of any Scripture as a polyphony. Rather, everything the Scriptures teach, when rightly understood, is unified and harmonious. [Again, in what sense?] As Westminster 1.9 puts it, the “full sense of any Scripture … is not manifold, but one.” [The meaning of this sentence is not as obvious as Pratt would have us believe.]
To sum up what I have said, I believe that our confessing community would be wise to look to Westminster for guidance [I think Pratt is arguing for more than mere “guidance”] in contemporary hermeneutical discussions. I would by no means suggest that the Confession gives us everything we need to know; nor does it supply us with a complete guide to biblical interpretation. Yet, its orientation toward the primacy of divine authorship, and the implications it draws for issues like historical reliability and the harmony of Scripture, give us a path of wisdom. If we vary from this path, we are sure to find ourselves varying from some of the most essential doctrines of our faith. [The slippery slope argument, which has been sublimated until here at the end.]