Joel writes in response to the post, “Is the Gospel Preached or Lived?” to ask for a response to his post responding to criticisms of the expression “living the gospel.” The substance of the post is to observe that the NT uses a number of verbs in connection with the gospel. Verbs are words of doing, therefore there is doing associated with the gospel. Amen. That was never in doubt. Ever. What is in doubt is whether such critiques ever understood what was in question in the first place. In this regard there are a couple of important comments in the post illustrate the problem. Joel writes, “I quote those not to involve myself in the whole Law-Gospel distinction discussion….” and “the New Testament does use a few verbs with euaggelion [gospel-rsc] that might make us as Protestants a little nervous.” These sorts of caveats illustrate the problem of biblicism and ahistorical biblical exegesis generally. Joel is a teaching elder in the PCA and he cites a well-known Dispensational writer who has argued that the NT use of subjunctives (verbs the grammatical mood of which signals the sense of “ought”) invalidates the law/gospel distinction.
Posts and claims such as these quite miss the point. They seem to assume that Reformation (and all that occurred before it) may be ignored as irrelevant for the purposes of understanding what Scripture actually teaches. Why would such an approach commend itself to thoughtful interpreters of Scripture? On its merits, it should not but such biblicism (see below) is attractive to moderns, who imagine themselves as more intelligent or more enlightened than pre-modern biblical interpreters. Of course that imagination rests to a considerable degree upon ignorance of pre-modern biblical interpretation or upon supposition about what the quality and characteristics of pre-modern biblical interpretation.
Second, Americans are particularly disinterested in the past. Oh, they’re fascinated with genealogies but they don’t typically care much about history beyond their own families. Americans came to this land in order to escape the past. We tend to be a busy, industrious people and that’s a good thing for economics and society generally but that a-historical attitude isn’t necessarily a blessing when it comes to figuring out how to read Scripture and how to speak about what it teaches and implies. American Christians, particularly evangelicals and those in a broadly evangelical orbit need to learn to adopt one attitude relative to their identity as Christians and another as citizens of the United States. In God’s sovereign providence we live in two spheres simultaneously. As Christians we are organically related to a great family of believers, which really is our family, that stretches back two millennia in Christian history and for several more millennia of biblical or redemptive history. Scripture (e.g., Hebrews 11) describes Noah, Abraham, and Moses as our forebears, who shared substantially the same faith as we do. Hebrews does not present them as mere theists but as Christians looking forward to the same Christ in whom we believe. That is why, the writer argues, that it’s foolish to apostatize back to the synagogue. Perhaps Dispensationalists, because of their two-level reading of redemptive history (Israel and the church), which focuses on national Israel is less able to see the organic development in redemptive history and thus misses the organic, developmental nature post-canonical history?
Third, Reformed Protestants are, in many important ways, the children of all that transpired between the ascension of Christ and the Reformation but the way the story of Christianity is often told in evangelical circles, it is as if Christ ascended, the church did well briefly and then essentially disappeared until the Reformation. As a matter of history this story has no merit at all. The Reformation was deeply influenced by the Fathers and the medievals and it is impossible to understand the Reformation well without understanding the Fathers and medievals. To the degree Reformed Christians, however, are influenced by the a-historical ethos, they are influenced by this story of the magically disappearing and reappearing church. What we say about our history will shape our behavior and biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). If we think of ourselves as disconnected from most of Christian history then we will read the Scriptures as if the Fathers, the medievals, the Reformation did not have much to say. As one who spends time reading pre-modern biblical interpretation I can testify that is an unwarranted and profoundly impoverishing assumption indeed.
Fourth, as a matter of fact everyone reads Scripture with someone. There are those, however, who do advocate the principle of attempting to read Scripture as if no one has ever done it before. Now, I understand the attraction of this approach. Sometimes the work of reading Scripture can become entangled in this view and that. To read Scripture seriously, carefully, historically, contextually, grammatical etc involves balancing a lot of what scholars call “horizons” simultaneously. Young seminary students may sometimes be overwhelmed by it all. I was. I remember being relieved to see Bob Strimple diagramming Greek sentences on the blackboard. It was a relief to see someone interpreting Scripture. It was the difference between training for a race by, e.g., running in water and running the race in ultra-light racing shoes. Of course the racer trained in order to race and he brought with him to the race all that hard work slogging through the pool. When Bob Strimple began exegeting a passage he brought with him all the work he had done in text criticism, source criticism, and the history of exegesis.
When we read Scripture we are reading it with a tradition, even if we’re not aware of the tradition. A small child may think that he if can’t see me that I can’t see him. When he matures, however, he realizes that, in fact, his closed eyes don’t close my eyes. I was there all the time. So it is with the church. Just because we close our eyes to the rest of the church doesn’t make them go away. Indeed, the attempt to read Scripture as if no one has ever done it before is itself a tradition. It’s called “biblicism” and it’s been around for a couple of centuries formally (i.e., by name) but substantially it’s always existed in the church—and it’s always been rejected by the church as a method of interpreting Scripture.
When the Council of Nicea (325 AD) met to work through the crisis created by the Arians (rationalists who taught that God the Son was not of the very same substance of the Father and therefore subordinate in his being to the Father) one of the first proposals was to put forward quotations from Scripture as a way of reaching a settlement. That proposal failed immediately because it was the interpretation of Scripture that was at stake. Thus, we had to find vocabulary to describe our understanding of what Scripture teaches and then we had to define our terms. Biblicism (simply quoting the bible) would have left the problem unsolved and basic Christianity would have been jeopardized.
Biblicists are part of a tradition, even if they don’t know it, and they tend to be more influenced by what is happening around them than they are by past practices. So, they prioritize the present over the past. David Hall has written about the Arrogance of the Modern. We may not always be aware of those with whom we read Scripture but it’s happening nonetheless. We read Scripture with our pastors and elders, i.e., they help to shape our reading of Scripture by weekly forming the grid within which we read it. Our friends help shape the matrix or context within which we read Scripture. So, despite the attempt to read Scripture as if no one has ever read it before, we are being influenced by others. If that is so, then we ought to choose our reading partners carefully and a good set of reading partners ought to include the past as well as the present. There’s a chapter on biblicism in RRC.
Fifth, to ignore the Reformation is to create the pre-conditions for the next one. The Reformation adopted a hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel for a reason: Scripture teaches it. If we fail to see understand and appreciate law/gospel distinction then we will find ourselves repeating the prior 1000 years, when the distinction was not understood well. That failure to appreciate the distinction had consequences: it obscured the gospel. In reaction to the threat posed by the Gnostics, many of the Fathers in the 2nd century and following adopted the stance that Scripture is composed entirely of law. The OT was the “the old law” and the NT was the “new law”. They thought in mostly in sequential, chronological categories. Moses/OT = old law and Christ/NT = new law. This was their way of maintaining a substantial continuity between Moses and Christ in the face of the radical dichotomy taught by the Gnostics, who discarded the OT as inferior. In our time, largely unaware of this history, some Reformed folk have done something similar in reaction to Dispensationalism. For a variety of other reasons, in the 20th century, we lost the hermeneutical/theological distinction between law and gospel. There’s a chapter on this in CJPM.
The Reformation recovered the biblical distinction law as one principle and gospel as another and it did so without losing the continuity between Moses and Christ. They were able to do this because they saw both the law principle and the gospel principle taught in both the OT and the NT. There was never any question for the Reformed churches whether the gospel produces sanctification. They knew that the only way to produce sanctity was the pure preaching of the gospel (Belgic Confession, Art 29). They knew that it is through the gospel that the Spirit creates new life (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 65) and they knew that the law never produces sanctity but it norms the Christian life (see Belgic Confession Art. 24 and the third part of the catechism).
The Reformation also understood that there are subjunctives and there are imperatives connected to the gospel but they persisted in teaching a theological distinction between law as a principle and the gospel as another principle because this distinction accounted for important biblical teaching. Yes, the gospel must be believed but that does not turn the gospel, the announcement of good news into law, which is bad news for sinners who want to use it to earn their acceptance with God. According to God’s Word, grace and works are two distinct principles:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6; ESV).
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…. (2 Tim 1:10–10)
Yes, Christ must be received by faith but that faith, the instrument through which we are justified, is itself a gift (Eph 2:8–10). Yes, grace produces sanctity and obedience in those who receive that sanctity is only and ever fruit and evidence of free acceptance with God (James 2) and never the basis or the instrument of that acceptance. The existence of verbs and grammatical moods of exhortation does not turn grace into works or into law. We do not earn grace. By definition grace is free. By definition wages are earned: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” (Rom 4:4).
If we understand what the Reformation was doing theologically, hermeneutically there is no reason to be the least bit queasy about what Scripture teaches, as if there were some dirty little secret in Holy Scripture of which we are afraid, for which we haven’t accounted—as if when we did, it would cause us to re-think the entire Reformation. Such a suggestion can only be made if one ignores what the Reformation actually wrote, taught, and accomplished.