It is a commonplace of theological retrieval that contemporary evangelical hermeneutical approaches to Scripture differ significantly from those of the Church Fathers, medieval commentators, and Reformers. Pre-critical exegesis assumed the unity of Scripture, on grounds of its divine inspiration, and adopted a Christological hermeneutic in a way that many commentators today often regard as unscholarly and illegitimate. The joke is often made that Augustine’s approach to Scripture (to say nothing of St. Paul’s) would not pass muster in most seminary classes on biblical studies. Contemporary Bible commentary tends to approach Scripture as it would any other literature, attending closely to the meaning of the words in their literary and historical context, but treating the particular passage or book in question as principally, if not exclusively, the work of its human author. Divine authorship, even if believed, is in practice sidelined, called in to aid assertion of the authority or inerrancy of Scripture, rarely to inform its theological interpretation. That the Bible speaks with one voice–and that voice divine–is now denied by many either directly or in practice, leaving commentators free to set one part of Scripture against another or to avoid altogether the task of addressing how Scripture coheres into a unified theological whole. The idea that the Old Testament could have very much, if anything, to say about Christ is downplayed or ignored. These trends have left their mark on evangelical commentary too, so that it can look very different from the commentaries and sermons of earlier centuries that have come down to us.
The Shift in Evangelical Hermeneutics
This essay builds on and develops a paper that I presented at the Davenant UK Convivium Irenicum held at Oak Hill College, London, in September 2022. In that paper, I subjected to close examination the history of the exegesis of the first three or four verses of the letter to the Hebrews, beginning with John Chrysostom’s 34 homilies on the epistle. The paper shows how orthodox trinitarianism underpinned Chrysostom’s exegesis of the exordium of Hebrews, with the preacher demonstrating at length how those verses teach Christ as the only-begotten of the Father, consubstantial with him, co-creator and one with the Father in his essence, yet with a subsistence of his own as the Father has. Chrysostom’s exegesis provided the foundation for subsequent exposition of Hebrews for centuries to come. Contemporary evangelical commentary on the opening verses of Hebrews reads quite differently, on the whole. These commentaries are welcome for the range and detail of their exegesis of the biblical text, the connections that they make with Old Testament and other texts, and the care with which they work out and present their conclusions. They all, as befits evangelical commentaries, understand the opening verses of Hebrews as propounding the deity of the Son. They particularly emphasize how the verses teach that the Son shares in the divine eternity. What they do not do, however, is express the relationship of the Son with the Father in the terminology of classical, historic trinitarianism. In particular, modern evangelical commentaries eschew the use of the terminology of “essence” and “subsistence” and tend to avoid references to eternal generation, though they are willing to speak of the “eternal Son.” For these evangelicals, the first verses of Hebrews teach us how God has chosen to reveal himself in and through the Son, who shares in his deity, and by him to bring about salvation and inherit all things. Their explanations of how the author of Hebrews achieves this is admirable, stirring and edifying. But their failure to articulate the teaching of these verses in terms of traditional trinitarian categories represents a significant shift in the exegesis of an important passage of Scripture.
Commentaries such as these represent a move away from the hermeneutical approach of the tradition founded on Chrysostom. My Convivium paper sought to identify when this shift took place and focused on the work of the early eighteenth-century Dissenting minister Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), whose Family Expositor included an exposition of the entire New Testament. Although less well-known today, Doddridge was a well known and influential figure within the British evangelical tradition during his lifetime and until the early nineteenth century, and his legacy lives on today (as we will see). I showed that, in his section on the opening verses of Hebrews, Doddridge avoided any theological exposition of the relationship of the Father to the Son. Though he sought to uphold the deity of the Son, he made no reference to the concepts of essence or subsistence. The difference from the exegetical tradition up to this point is subtle but marked. Doddridge is clearly to be identified as an evangelical: he believed in the divine inspiration and reliability of Scripture and in the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith and was, in most respects, Calvinistic in his understanding of them. His departure from the exegetical tradition with regard to the opening verses of Hebrews is thus significant and remarkable.
Much of the literature on theological retrieval would understand this exegetical shift in terms of the large-scale changes in biblical hermeneutics brought about, it is said, by the Enlightenment and especially as a result of the work of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). I want to suggest that we need to look back a little earlier than that, to find the roots of this shift. It may be helpful, first, to be clear about the kind of shift of interest in this essay. Those who identify Kant as central to a hermeneutical shift tend to focus on the move toward viewing Scripture as no different from other literature. The hermeneutical task is therefore confined to an analysis of the literary features of the biblical text within its context. So far as the substantive content of the text is concerned, efforts to access the intended meaning of the human author have been abandoned by many exegetes as an impossible task, subjective intentions being inaccessible to others. Insofar as the Bible may be regarded as connected with divine revelation, it is to be understood as a witness to that revelation, rather than as itself constituting revelation; the revelation itself is said to consist in the events to which the biblical text makes reference. A primary task of the exegete, on this latter view, is to explore the historical background to the biblical text. The aim is to find a way to “go behind” the biblical text, which is likely to be marked by error and partiality, in the hope of reaching the genuine historical acts that lie behind it, insofar as they may be recoverable.
The shift I am identifying, however, is rather different. For evangelicals, the Bible is still the inspired, trustworthy revelation of God by which God speaks. The task of the exegete, therefore, is to come to a right understanding of the biblical text, so as to hear rightly what it is that God has to say to us. That aim surely underlies all biblical commentary that is genuinely of an evangelical nature, whatever strand of the broader evangelical theological tradition may be held by any particular commentator. Contemporary evangelical commentaries make genuine attempts to understand accurately what Scripture is teaching, so that preachers and teachers can convey clearly the true message of God found in that text. Although evangelical commentators make plentiful use of the specialist linguistic, literary, and historical tools available today to biblical exegetes, their aim is to understand what the text says, rather than trying merely to access the intended meaning of whoever wrote Hebrews or go behind the text to discern the historical realities that underlie it. Something of these latter tasks may well be apparent in evangelical commentary, but they do not represent the ultimate aim, which remains an accurate understanding of the biblical text.
The shift that we have identified, then, does not lie so much in the understanding of the nature of the text that is being handled. Rather, it lies in the extent to which that text may be understood as teaching or defending orthodox theology, particularly of the kind that is articulated in the historic creeds and confessions of the Church. Many modern evangelical commentators have concluded that it is not legitimate to impose (as they would see it) “confessional theology” and its terminology on the authors of Scripture. They feel constrained, by the canons of the discipline within which they work, to confine their comment on the biblical text to the questions and issues that arise directly from that text, on its own terms and expressed as far as possible in the phraseology of the text and the thought-world of its presumed human author. It seems anachronistic to these commentators, in discussing a New Testament text, to use theological terminology about the deity of Christ from the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), or about the incarnation of Christ from the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), or about the nature of justification from the Westminster Confession (1646)—gatherings which, even if they were carried out by sincere, orthodox believers, occurred centuries after the writing of the New Testament. Their commentary will generally extend to a consideration of other biblical texts that may have influenced the text on which they are commenting in some way. It will not, however, extend to a consideration of how the text relates to the confessional theology and terminology used by the Church subsequent to the New Testament. Chrysostom and those who for centuries followed his exegesis, in contrast, believed that the opening verses of Hebrews were legitimately to be used in the defence of the Church’s creedal understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son, over against the heresies of Arians, Sabellians, and others.
It is important to note the difference between these two shifts in approach to Scripture, one initiated and developed by those who view Scripture just like any other literature and the other adopted by evangelicals who want to understand Scripture as God speaking. This is important because the two shifts can too easily be regarded as effectively one and the same, in which case the second, evangelical shift usually tends to be subsumed by the first. The historical descriptions and explanations for the first shift are then simply applied to the second, evangelical shift. The blame for the shift is thus placed firmly on what is often rather generally referred to as “the Enlightenment” and the finger is pointed at the writings, especially, of Kant in the later eighteenth century. It is my contention that this is the wrong place to look, so far as concerns the peculiarly evangelical shift that we have noted. I believe that it is necessary to go further back than Kant. It is here that Philip Doddridge becomes of interest.
Philip Doddridge and Early Anti-Confessionalism
Doddridge’s avoidance of theological language in his exposition of Hebrews was no mere oversight on his part. In other writings, he makes clear his reluctance to use non-scriptural theological terms drawn from the historic creeds and confessions. He disliked the term “person” in trinitarian discussion, because he said it had such a variety of meanings; he preferred to avoid the phrase “eternal generation;” and while he himself held clearly to the deity of Christ, he was prepared to accept the way in which others chose to express their understanding of the relations between the Father and the Son even when this appeared to put in jeopardy the full deity of Christ, at least as understood in historic, orthodox trinitarianism. Doddridge’s firm preference was to express biblical truth in biblical language. He believed strongly that the use of extra-biblical, merely human language to express the teaching of scriptural truth was likely to breed division and factionalism among Christians.
Doddridge was not, of course, alone in this approach in the early part of the eighteenth century. Other Dissenters whose understanding of Scripture and of its main teachings was clearly evangelical took a similar line. This was the issue at the heart of the dispute which broke out at the conference of Dissenting ministers at Salters’ Hall in London in 1719, which had been called to discuss what to do about the disagreements over trinitarian doctrine that had arisen in the Dissenting meeting in Exeter where James Peirce (d. 1726) had been a minister. Peirce’s views on trinitarian doctrine had come under suspicion among his Exeter congregation; he had been asked to sign an orthodox statement on the doctrine but had refused to do so. Ostensibly concerned with the doctrine of the Trinity, the debate at Salters’ Hall soon became divided between those who believed that ministers should be required to subscribe a confessional statement on the doctrine in question and those who opposed such subscription. Doddridge was too young to have been at Salters’ Hall, but it was the non-subscribers’ position that he later adopted and which led him to avoid the use of confessional language where possible.
Anti-confessional attitudes that aspired simply to exegete Scripture as it stands, without recourse to extra-biblical creeds or orthodox theological dogma, can be found elsewhere in the early eighteenth century and earlier. The book that influenced many Dissenters (and others) in an anti-trinitarian direction was The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity by the Church of England minister Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), published in 1712. As its title suggests, it sought to expound the doctrine of the Trinity from Scripture, without dependence upon traditional orthodox trinitarian terminology or categories. The result was an account which departed in important respects from the doctrine as historically held by the Church. Earlier, in the seventeenth century, William Chillingworth (1602-1644) had famously pronounced, “The Bible and the Bible only is the religion of Protestants;” Scripture alone was all that was needed to refute and suppress heresy. The 1694 Assembly of the General Baptists resolved that debates about trinitarian doctrine must be carried out “in Scripture words and terms and in no other terms.” Such views reflected the emphasis of the anti-trinitarian Socinians, who rejected the orthodox doctrine entirely on the basis, as they argued it, of the plain teaching of Scripture alone, understood without reference to creeds and confessions of merely human manufacture.
Doddridge’s refusal to rely upon such creeds and confessions and his consequent avoidance of traditional trinitarian categories in his exposition of the opening verses of Hebrews was thus not new in the early eighteenth century. It has forerunners, though it is not clear to what extent these actually influenced Doddridge’s own approach. He may have been influenced principally, in this regard, by the pietism that he and some of his colleagues in Dissenting ministry certainly imbibed from Germany: two addresses by Doddridge’s tutor, John Jennings (c.1687-1723), were published in 1723, with a preface by Isaac Watts and a letter on preaching by the German Pietist Augustus Franck (1663-1727), as translated by David Jennings—these were all well known to Doddridge and shared his theological outlook. The publication is clear evidence of how this group of English Dissenting ministers were influenced by German Pietism, with its distaste for confessional theology.
Whatever the influences that led Doddridge to his own distrust of creeds and confessions of faith, however, there can be little doubt about the extent of his own influence on subsequent generations of evangelicals. His Family Expositor, in which his exposition of Hebrews appears, was designed, like modern-day daily devotionals, to be read and used in the home by heads of households and other laypeople. Its hermeneutical approach would thereby go on to influence how many ordinary evangelical Christians sought to understand Scripture. Yet perhaps even more influential upon subsequent generations of evangelicals was Doddridge’s work as a tutor training men for pastoral ministry. Over 100 men went through his academy with a view to ministry and heard Doddridge’s lectures, which adopted an equally anti-confessional approach. These lectures were published posthumously in 1763 and went through several editions until the early nineteenth century, proving influential in a wide range of Dissenting academies. Philip Doddridge’s anti-confessional stance towards the interpretation of Scripture must be accounted significant in the development of the hermeneutical approach that has been identified above as now typical of contemporary evangelical commentary.
Implications for Contemporary Evangelical Ministry
What practical implications does all this have for evangelical ministry today? There is a great deal to be gained from contemporary commentaries, in terms of linguistic analysis and historical and cultural background, as well as stimulating connections with other parts of Scripture and thought-provoking explorations of themes interwoven through the various stages of divine revelation. Nevertheless, the lack of confessional theology in evangelical commentary today and the avoidance of its attendant technical terminology represents a significant weakness which does no service to the Church. In our fragmented, over-individualized culture, there is a desperate need for a unified theology. Evangelicals believe that Scripture, though multi-authored, ultimately speaks with one voice, that of the living God. It is that voice that we wish and need to hear in the exposition of Scripture. If evangelical commentators are to help us hear it, they must recover confidence in the unified message of the Bible: though it comes to us from many human pens at many different places and in many different ways, yet in the end it comes through the Son—all of it, Old as well as New Testament, even if the new covenant revelation comes in an especial and unique manner as in or by the Son.
This means, surely, that the teaching of the whole of Scripture on any of its principal topics–the nature of God, the person of Christ, the plan of salvation–must be capable of being captured and summarized by those in the Church who have the ability and the resources to study it in sufficient depth. In other words, there is such a thing as the “analogy of faith:” a reliable doctrinal summary of the Christian faith, drawn from and summarizing the sweep of Scripture, which serves as a governing rule for the interpretation of any particular scriptural passage. This is something which the creeds and confessions of the Church attempt to express in their own terminology. It is surely legitimate to make use of such a tool in an authoritative manner in the exegesis of individual portions of the Bible. As R. R. Reno puts it, “To a great extent, the Nicene tradition as a whole should be understood as an argument made across many generations about how best to account for the truth of scriptural teaching, church practice, and apostolic proclamation,” though it may involve “constant restatements, reconsiderations, and revisions.” I would go further on this point than those, such as Kathryn Greene-McCreight, who argue that the rule of faith should be used as a boundary marker to rule out certain unacceptable interpretations of Scripture, but not as a means of mandating particular interpretations of Scripture. It is true that confessions and creeds must always be subject to Scripture and are therefore only a subordinate authority. They must not be used to force a biblical text to teach a doctrine that it does not in fact teach. Yet creeds and confessions nevertheless have a derived authority, born of the fact that they are held to be a summary of the teachings of Scripture as a whole. In that sense, it is surely right to use them positively as well as negatively, to help arrive at the true teaching of a biblical passage, in the context of the whole of Scripture, and not just to exclude illegitimate readings. They can help us to decide what Scripture must be saying, not simply what it cannot be saying. This is the approach that we have seen centuries of Christian commentators adopting toward the opening verses of Hebrews. This is the approach that, in my view, we need to see recovered in our day.
If we do not, we need not be surprised to find the ancient heresies on the rise again. Indeed, that is precisely what we have found. Recent decades have seen prominent evangelical theologians deny the eternal generation of the Son and cast doubt on the absolute equality of the Father and the Son in the Godhead. If our commentaries on the biblical text are not demonstrating explicitly how that text teaches and defends the historical confessions of the Christian church, preachers will not be provided with the material that they need in order to show their congregations how the doctrine and the terminology of those confessions are indeed biblical. If our congregations are not hearing their ministers and preachers expound those things from the biblical text, or if our seminarians are not being put through their theological paces to understand them in depth, then they will begin to imagine that the truths of confessional theology are somewhat suspect and its terminology redundant. A gradual, or perhaps precipitate, slide into some heresy or other may then be anticipated.
None of this means that we have to adopt every aspect of patristic exegesis uncritically and wholesale. There are disagreements, of course, between the early commentators on this passage from Hebrews just as on any other part of Scripture. We must be discerning and prayerful and make careful use of the linguistic and other specialist expertise that contemporary commentators provide, some of which is undoubtedly superior to that which the early church had at her disposal. I am far from suggesting that we slavishly follow Chrysostom or any other commentator, ancient or modern, at every point. John Webster illustrates this in an article on these verses of Hebrews. He takes issue with the general patristic exegesis of the phrase, “express image of his person” in verse 3. Because of the word ὑπόστατις used there, the Church Fathers tended to make this a reference to the distinct subsistence of the Son from that of the Father. Webster, with other modern commentators, argues that ὑπόστατις cannot have the technical theological meaning that such an interpretation assumes; the phrase is simply saying in a different way the same thing as the first phrase, expressing the “perfect ontological accord in the relation of Father and Son.” Exegesis may be improved in the detail without impugning the general validity of the theology of the analogy of faith. What I believe to be urgently needed is a recovery of confidence in the analogy of faith in the exegesis of biblical texts so as to show the Church today, through our preaching and teaching, that the truths taught by the historic confessions of the Christian church in the terms in which those confessions teach them are the truths taught by Scripture as the one, true message of the one, true, and living God.
Robert Strivens is Pastor of Bradford on Avon Baptist Church and teaches church history at London Seminary and other ministerial training institutions.
A recording of that paper can be found here: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/finding-theology-in-the-biblical-text-hebrews-1-1-4/id1160974597?i=1000580872627. ↑
John Chrysostom, “On the Epistle to the Hebrews,” in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 14, series 1 (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1890), 335-524. ↑
See Chrysostom, ‘Hebrews,’ 2.1. ↑
See further Robert Strivens, Philip Doddridge and the Shaping of Evangelical Dissent (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015). ↑
See further Strivens, Philip Doddridge, 47-65. ↑
See Stephen Copson, ed., Trinity, Creed and Confusion: The Salters’ Hall Debate of 1719 (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2020). ↑
See William Chillingworth, The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation (Oxford, 1638). ↑
Michael Watts, The Dissenters, vol. 1, From the Reformation to the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), 373. ↑
John Jennings, Two Discourses (London: J & B Clark, 1723). ↑
See Isabel Rivers, The Defence of Truth Through the Knowledge of Error: Philip Doddridge’s Academy Lectures (London: Dr Williams’s Trust, 2003). ↑
R. R. Reno, “What Makes Exegesis Theological?”, Nova et Vetera 9 (2011), 85. ↑
Kathryn Greene-McCreight, ‘Hebrews – Yesterday, Today, and Future: A Theologian’s Response’, in Jon C. Laansma & Daniel J. Treier, eds., Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 235. ↑
John Webster, ‘One Who Is Son: Theological Reflections on the Exordium to the Epistle to the Hebrews’, in Richard Bauckham et al., eds., The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 87. ↑