Paradigms, Tradition, and the Lexicon, Part 1

Or, Jason Stellman’s “already-existing apostolic tradition”

Bryan Cross and Jason Stellman have got a problem. Modern Biblical scholarship is locating the content of their “Tradition”. And it’s not what they think it is.

First, let’s see what Bryan says about it, and let’s quote him precisely so he doesn’t get ticky about it. In his article The Tradition and the Lexicon, Bryan says:

In general, Protestants think differently about how to go about interpreting Scripture than do Catholics. When trying to understand the meaning of a passage in Scripture, Catholics have always looked to the Tradition; we seek to determine how the Church has understood and explained the passage over the past two millennia. We look up what the Church Fathers and Church Doctors have said about the passage. By contrast, Protestants typically do not turn first to the Church Fathers when seeking to understand the meaning of a passage or term in Scripture that is unclear. Protestants generally turn to contemporary lexicons and commentaries written by contemporary biblical scholars whom they trust. Only rarely, and perhaps as a final step, do they turn to the Church Fathers. The common form of the Protestant mind is ready to believe that the Fathers often got Scripture wrong, and to use their own interpretation of Scripture to ‘correct’ or critically evaluate the Fathers.

How does this play out in real life? Some time ago Steve posted this list of Eastern Orthodox Priorities, and he noted the particular emphasis on “Church Fathers”:

Notice what’s missing from this lengthy list: it’s all historical and philosophical theology. Nothing specifically on exegetical theology. No commentaries. No OT or NT theologies. No exegetical monographs. Eastern Orthodox theology isn’t based on divine revelation; it’s based on man-made tradition and speculation. Eastern Orthodox theology is an exercise in the history of ideas. Now there’s nothing wrong with historical and philosophical theology. But Christianity is first and foremost a revealed religion. That’s the starting point. That’s the primary source and standard.

Similarly, as I’ve written in the case of the various uses of the word χάρις (charis, grace), it was possible to trace various particular usages back through the Old Testament, especially the following:

χάρις in Greek Culture and Philo

OT, LXX and New Testament usage of χάρις

Well, guess where the “lexicons” come from?

For the Apostles, who wrote the New Testament Scriptures, both “the Tradition” and “the Lexicon” came from the Hebrew Scriptures and the Septuagint (LXX).

Here is how Jason Stellman steps in it, er, portrays the issue, in his blog post, On Paradigms Protestant and Catholic:

As a Protestant, the interpretive paradigm with which I approached Scripture derived from the confessional tradition of the Reformed churches of the sixteenth- and seventeenth centuries. According to this paradigm, God demanded absolutely sinless law-keeping from any human hoping to gain eternal life, and since no man can accomplish this, God in his grace provided a solution to man’s plight in the Person of Jesus Christ, who assumed a human nature and rendered to his Father the perfect law-keeping which man could not, and then submitted to death on the cross in order to suffer the Father’s wrath in the stead of the elect. That obedience, both passive and active, is imputed to the sinner through the instrumentality of faith alone. As I began to take the Church’s claims seriously, however, I started to discover more and more passages in the New Testament that failed to fit the Reformed paradigm well.

Is Jason sitting around, looking at “passages”, and trying to “fit them into paradigms”? It seems so. The first one he picks out in his series, of Luke 1:5-6 he writes:

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

Please remember that the issue here is not that I couldn’t fit this and other passages into my existing systematic framework, for as I said in my previous post, pretty much every Bible-believing Christian has figured out a way to incorporate difficult texts into whatever paradigm he may hold to. Instead, the issue is whether someone holding my paradigm would actually say the things set forth in the passaging posing the problem.

Stop here. First of all, this not a difficult passage, if we understand that Luke is not writing for the sake of “the Reformed paradigm”. He is not writing for any “paradigm”. He is (as he said two verses earlier) seeking “to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught”.

Turning then to Luke’s description of John’s parents, a few questions presented themselves to my mind: Did their being “righteous” and “blameless” entail actual sinlessness? The answer is obviously “no.” Still, if Zecharaiah and Elizabeth had died in this state, would they have been saved? Unless Luke’s description is pointless and even deceptive, the answer would have to be “yes.”

Now at this point my Reformed paradigm would compel me to attribute this status that Zechariah and Elizabeth shared to their (proleptic) possession of an alien righteousness, since no one can be soteriologically righteous by any means other than the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ through faith alone. The problem, obviously, is that not only does Luke not attribute their righteousness to a source external to them, he explicitly attributes it to their own blameless (not sinless) walking in God’s commands. And it would have done me no good whatsoever to stop here and insist that this obedience was Spirit-wrought, since this would have played right into the Catholic’s hands. After all, the whole point of the Catholic gospel is that the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus make it possible for the Father to produce spiritual fruit in our lives by which he is glorified (John 15:8).

There are several things going wrong here with Stellman’s analysis.

First, he himself is creating an anachronism, trying to find ways to describe Zechariah and Elizabeth in Reformed terms. The most appropriate thing to do is to let Luke, and hence, to let the Scriptures, speak for themselves, without putting these passages into any “paradigm” at all. After all, Luke is capable to provide “certainty” without paradigms.

And second, what he is doing, is forcing a Roman Catholic “paradigm” back onto Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Calvin does examine this passage, in his commentary, and he lets the Scriptures speak for themselves. I’ll cite him at length, to try to understand his purpose:

6. And they were both righteous before God He awards to them a noble testimony, not only that among men they spent holy and upright lives, but also that they were righteous before God This righteousness Luke defines briefly by saying that they walked in all the commandments of God Both ought to be carefully observed; for, although praise is bestowed on Zacharias and Elisabeth for the purpose of showing us that the lamp, whose light went before the Son of God, was taken not from an obscure house, but from an illustrious sanctuary, yet their example exhibits to us, at the same time, the rule of a devout and righteous life. In ordering our life, (Psalm 37:23) therefore, our first study ought to be to approve ourselves to God; and we know that what he chiefly requires is a sincere heart and a pure conscience. Whoever neglects uprightness of heart, and regulates his outward life only by obedience to the law, neglects this order. For it ought to be remembered that the heart, and not the outward mask of works, is chiefly regarded by God, to whom we are commanded to look.

The first thing to note is that Calvin holds them up to us as an example for believers in their rightness of heart: They “delight in his way”. They honor the Lord’s word first. It is these “commandments and statutes of the Lord” that is their first love.

Obedience occupies the second rank; that is, no man must frame for himself, at his own pleasure, a new form of righteousness unsupported by the Word of God, but we must allow ourselves to be governed by divine authority. Nor ought we to neglect this definition, that they are righteous who regulate their life by the commandments of the law; which intimates that, to the eye of God, all acts of worship are counterfeit, and the course of human life false and unsettled, so far as they depart from his law.

In Calvin’s day, the Reformers were being accused of antinomianism: nothing could be further from the truth. Such righteousness is a fruit of having a right heart.

Commandments and ordinances differ thus. The latter term relates strictly to exercises of piety and of divine worship; the latter is more general, and extends both to the worship of God and to the duties of charity. For the Hebrew word הקים, which signifies statutes or decrees, is rendered by the Greek translator δικαιώματα, ordinances; and in Scripture הקים usually denotes those services which the people were accustomed to perform in the worship of God and in the profession of their faith. Now, though hypocrites, in that respect, are very careful and exact, they do not at all resemble Zacharias and Elisabeth.

For the sincere worshippers of God, such as these two were, do not lay hold on naked and empty ceremonies, but, eagerly bent on the truth, they observe them in a spiritual manner. Unholy and hypocritical persons, though they bestow assiduous toil on outward ceremonies, are yet far from observing them as they are enjoined by the Lord, and, consequently, do but lose their labor. In short, under these two words Luke embraces the whole law.

These two were exemplary Old Testament saints.

Note that only after Calvin makes this through description does he put the Old Testament into the context of the New:

But if, in keeping the law, Zacharias and Elisabeth were blameless, they had no need of the grace of Christ; for a full observance of the law brings life, and, where there is no transgression of it, there is no remaining guilt. I reply, those magnificent commendations, which are bestowed on the servants of God, must be taken with some exception. For we ought to consider in what manner God deals with them. It is according to the covenant which he has made with them, the first clause of which is a free reconciliation and daily pardon, by which he forgives their sins. They are accounted righteous and blameless, because their whole life testifies that they are devoted to righteousness, that the fear of God dwells in them, so long as they give a holy example. But as their pious endeavors fall very far short of perfection, they cannot please God without obtaining pardon.

The righteousness which is commended in them depends on the gracious forbearance of God, who does not reckon to them their remaining unrighteousness. In this manner we must explain whatever expressions are applied in Scripture to the righteousness of men, so as not to overturn the forgiveness of sins, on which it rests as a house does on its foundation. Those who explain it to mean that Zacharias and Elisabeth were righteous by faith, simply because they freely obtained the favor of God through the Mediator, torture and misapply the words of Luke.

In fact, here Calvin expressly does chastise those who would attempt to fit this passage into some kind – any kind of “paradigm”. Stellman is stung by Calvin himself.

With respect to the subject itself, they state a part of the truth, but not the whole. I do own that the righteousness which is ascribed to them ought to be regarded as obtained, not by the merit of works, but by the grace of Christ; and yet, because the Lord has not imputed to them their sins, he has been pleased to bestow on their holy, though imperfect life, the appellation of righteousness. The folly of the Papists is easily refuted.

With the righteousness of faith they contrast this righteousness, which is ascribed to Zacharias, which certainly springs from the former, and, therefore, must be subject, inferior, and, to use a common expression, subordinate to it, so that there is no collision between them. The false coloring, too which they give to a single word is pitiful. Ordinances, they tell us, are called commandments of the law, and, therefore, they justify us. As if we asserted that true righteousness is not laid down in the law, or complained that its instruction is in fault for not justifying us, and not rather that it is weak through our flesh, (Romans 8:3.) In the commandments of God, as we have a hundred times acknowledged, life is contained, (Leviticus 18:5; Matthew 19:17;) but this will be of no avail to men, who by nature were altogether opposed to the law, and, now that they are regenerated by the Spirit of God, are still very far from observing it in a perfect manner.

Note that here, Calvin is responding to Roman claims that Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous” precisely because they “keep the commandments, which justify us”. There is a need to speak against the false word that Stellman is speaking.

There is no difficulty for Calvin at all in describing the righteousness and the blamelessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth, either in terms of the Old Testament law and covenant, nor within the covenant of grace.

He describes their need for grace, and in fact, he uses their righteousness as a mirror with which to view the mock righteousness of the “hypocrites” who, being “very careful and exact, they do not at all resemble Zacharias and Elisabeth. For the sincere worshippers of God, such as these two were, do not lay hold on naked and empty ceremonies, but, eagerly bent on the truth, they observe them in a spiritual manner.”

There are several things are going wrong with Stellman’s “paradigm” reasoning.

First, Jason is creating a straw man out of Reformed teaching, and portraying a “Reformed paradigm” that is not based on a genuinely Reformed understanding of things.

Second, he is accusing the Reformed in general of mistakenly trying to force some kind meaning upon the text. Nothing of the kind is happening.

And finally, he misses the real Reformed teaching provided by Calvin, which asserts, as I’ve bolded above, “In ordering our life, (Psalm 37:23) therefore, our first study ought to be to approve ourselves to God; and we know that what he chiefly requires is a sincere heart and a pure conscience…”.

23 The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way;
24 though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong,
for the Lord upholds his hand.

We love the Lord first, and his law, and then we obey it. And when we fail, the Lord upholds our hand.

Luke’s understanding here is perfectly consistent not with some “Reformed paradigm”, which never has really existed, but with the Reformed understanding of Scripture, which, as I’ve mentioned in the past, “begins with a patient and humble listening to the text, with the willingness to hear an alien word” or in the words of Vos, “lies a passive, receptive attitude on the part of the one who engages in its study. The assumption of such an attitude is characteristic of all truly exegetical pursuit. It is eminently a process in which God speaks and man listens”.

Listening, thus, Luke’s description of Zechariah and Elizabeth are perfectly consistent with the Reformed understanding of all Old Testament saints:

The key is God’s one plan, a plan that unfolds so that his later and better covenant does not invalidate the earlier, or exclude its participants. Rather, the greater blessings given to us are the very blessings that [the Old Testament saints] sought, and that they will receive together with us. The two great administrations of God’s one plan are distinguished in time and form, but not in God’s purpose, or in the nature of his salvation, then, now, and for ever (Edmund Clowney, “The Church”, Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1995, pg 55).

But there’s a larger issue at point, and I’ll get to it in my next blog post on this topic.