Frame-Poythress.org – Triperspectival Theology for the Church
This site collects resources from the pens of John Frame and Vern Poythress, two Reformed theologians who have made contributions to the body of Christ in systematics, epistemology, linguistics, sociology, and other fields.
How should we think about the relation of science to the Bible? What about the relation of science to Genesis 1-3 in particular?
These are challenging questions. As a general principle, it makes sense for us to take into account everything that we think we know when we are making life decisions. And the times for decision-making include the times when we read the Bible and the times when we think about science. It is not wise to block off one source of knowledge and tell ourselves that we will not let it influence us beyond some narrowly defined sphere.
Nevertheless, there are special challenges when we consider the relation of Genesis 1-3 to science.
The Authority of the Bible
First, the Bible has a special authority. It is unique, because it is the Word of God in verbal form; it is what God says. In a short article, we cannot review the many evidences and arguments for this claim. It is well to remember that our personal attitudes or doubts or convictions do not change what the Bible intrinsically is. If it is not the Word of God, our believing that it is will not make it so. If it is the Word of God, our disbelieving will not destroy its intrinsic character. As the Word of God, it deserves our unreserved allegiance, unlike any merely human source, including the claims of modern scientists.
So we must beware of trying to mold the meanings in Genesis 1-3 to fit the claims of science. Consider the question, “Should science inform our reading of Genesis 1-3?” That depends crucially on what kind of “informing” we have in mind. It is far more important that Genesis 1-3 should inform our reading of science.
We should not treat the two sources of knowledge as if they were on the same level. We should certainly resist the widespread Western perception that science is the premier source of knowledge of all kinds, and that the Bible is obsolete. It is easy to be carried along by fascination with gadgets, with technological innovation, and with practical successes that build on science. But we need to be careful, because practical success can be combined with human flaws.
One of the major flaws in the foundations of contemporary science is the widespread influence of philosophical materialism, a philosophy that says that the world consists in matter and energy and motion, and that is all. There is no God; or if he exists, he is uninvolved and irrelevant.
So when we compare scientific claims with the Bible, we need to be aware of what assumptions drive the understanding of science. We also should be aware of what assumptions drive the understanding of the Bible. In both areas, human sin and the distorted assumptions that come from it can have an effect. Sin affects the understanding of science when philosophical materialism comes in, and scientists think of the world as merely a mechanism or the result of random motions of atoms, rather than the personal domain that God rules.
Sin can come into our understanding of the Bible if we ignore the fact that it is the Word of God and has special divine authority. But sin can also affect our understanding of the Bible in subtler ways. Though we might verbally acknowledge that it is the Word of God, we can still discount what it says about the far past and the origins of the world, because we view it as naive. Another faulty alternative claims that it merely inherits naive views from its ancient Near Eastern environment.
It is true that God chose to give Genesis 1-3 originally to people who lived in the ancient Near East. But because God is God, he can say something different from what the surrounding cultures believed. And indeed he does. Genesis 1-3 contrasts markedly with the ancient Near East because it proclaims that there is one God who made everything. It departs from the surrounding polytheism. Likewise, if God wishes he may say things different from what the ancient cultures may have believed about the natural environment.
We can also subtly miss the point of the Bible if we think that it has to be technically precise in a scientific way, in order somehow to “measure up” to the quality and prestige of modern science. God in his wisdom chose to write Genesis not primarily to technical specialists in sciences, but to all kinds of people in all kinds of cultures, including prescientific cultures. He, therefore, speaks in ordinary ways, on the level of ordinary experience. As full human beings, we need to know what he says about sin and redemption, more than we need to know technical insights from science.
Dealing with Apparent Discrepancies
So what do we do if we find an apparent discrepancy between Genesis 1-3 and what modern scientists claim about the origin of the world? It should be an occasion to reexamine Genesis 1–3 and to reexamine the claims of modern scientists. Misunderstandings can creep in within both areas.
Highlighting proper hermeneutical principles for interpreting Genesis 1–3, this book offers a clear direction for approaching these early chapters correctly.
But it would be a mistake to force Genesis 1–3 into a mold already formed by modern scientific claims. That would result in a distortion of the meaning of Genesis 1–3. And it would also involve naively accepting scientific claims, rather than critically sifting them.
Actually, the sound approach is to try to fit science into the view of the world that the Bible gives us, especially in Genesis 1–3. We live in God’s world. And we are made in the image of God, which gives hope for scientific investigation: scientists made in the image of God can try to think God}s thoughts after him on a creaturely level.
The process of reexamining science is a complicated one. Fortunately, we have books where Christian authors with a loyalty to the divine inspiration of the Bible try to approach the questions in detail. They sometimes disagree with each other. But the task is a worthy one: to try to understand the ways of God in governing the world, within the framework provided by the understanding that God gives us in the Bible..
1. Genesis 1 shows that God brought the created world into existence and sovereignly governs it according to his personal purposes.
The world we live in is personally governed. It is not a mechanism, not merely atoms randomly in motion, not a chaos with no meaning. Human persons have deep significance. We alone among the earthly creatures are made in the image of God.
2. Many of God’s acts of creation may have been miraculous, and throughout history he may work miracles when he pleases.
Genesis 1–3 is radically at variance with modern thinking in elite cultures of the West. Modern thinking considers Genesis 1–3 to be obsolete, but that is mainly because it has absorbed the assumption that the world goes on by itself. It thinks of God as either nonexistent or relevant only at an internal psychological level. Genesis 1–3, by contrast, shows that God is continuously active. He is active in what is ordinary, and active when he works miracles.
3. Science makes sense within the world described in Gen. 1–3.
Scientists can hope to think God’s thoughts after him, on a creaturely level, because they are made in the image of God. By contrast, philosophical materialism cannot explain human uniqueness or the meaning of human thoughts or the rational regularity of the world that God created.
4. We must not reject Genesis 1–3 because some mainstream scientific claims seem to be at odds with it.
Rather, we should work patiently to see whether we have understood Gen. 1–3 correctly, and whether the scientific claims have understood the world correctly. Scientific work even at its best is fallible. And in our time, due to the increasing influence of philosophical materialism and an impersonal conception of the world, science is not always at its best.
5. Genesis is the inspired word of God, and therefore fully trustworthy in all its claims.
Treating Genesis as if it were a purely human document leads to distortions because Genesis claims to give an account of very early events, including the creation of the world before any human beings existed.
6. In genre (type of literature), Genesis is Hebrew nonfiction prose narrative. It belongs to the same broad category as Numbers, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings.
Much confusion has been introduced by scholarly claims that the closest links are with ancient Near Eastern myths. These myths belong to other cultures and other languages, and most of them are imaginative poetry. They do not belong to the same genre as Genesis. Moreover, they are polytheistic in content. In content, Genesis 1 overlaps with Psalm 8 and Psalm 104, which are much closer to it than polytheistic accounts of origins.
7. Genesis 1–3 is a part of the first two sections of prose narrative in Genesis (1:1–2:3 and 2:4–4:26).
It follows that, like Genesis as a whole, Genesis 1–3 gives us nonfictional prose narrative. It describes events that really happened in time and space, long ago.
8. Genesis 1–3 describes events that are analogous to later events in God’s providential rule over the world.
Genesis 1–3 contains a considerable number of one-time events, belonging to the creation of the world, the creation of Adam and Eve, and the first sins. These one-time events are never to be repeated. But Genesis 1-3 presents them in ordinary language to Israelites, in order that they may understand what happened by analogy with events in their ordinary experience. For example, Gen. 1:11–12 describes the original creation of various kinds of plants. The Israelites can observe that plants continue to reproduce according to the pattern that God established. Barley seeds lead to barley plants, which produce more barley seeds in the next generation.
These analogies depend on the reality of two poles: the once-for-all founding event (Gen. 1:11–12), and later events of providence that are analogous to the founding event. Genesis 1–3 affirms the reality of both poles.
9. Adam and Eve were specially created.
The sins of Adam and Eve were events that happened once and for all. But they are analogous to temptations to sin that we experience all through history. Adam in particular is the pattern for Christ, who was the last Adam and who obeyed perfectly in contrast to Adam’s disobedience.
10. The events during the six days of creation and the later events in God’s providential control of the world are different, yet still analogous.
The uniqueness of events during the six days, and the differences between those events and the later continuation of God’s rule, mean that we must be cautious in inferring how God was at work in detail during the time of creation. We can have confidence in the description that Genesis 1–3 gives, but uncertainties enter when we try to extrapolate into further details, as we may do if we are trying to explore correlations between Genesis 1–3 and claims from modern science.
Vern S. Poythress is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. He earned his PhD from Harvard University and ThD from the University of Stellenbosch. Dr. Poythress has written numerous articles and books such as God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (P&R, 1999); In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach (Crossway, 2009); : Inerrancy and Worldview Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible (Crossway, 2012); Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Crossway, 2012); Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God (Crossway, 2016); and Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing (Crossway, 2018).
The principle of sola scriptura, when applied to church officers and to preaching, implies that preachers are given authority by Christ to proclaim and teach the content of Scripture, but not to add to or subtract from that content. This limitation constrains the content of preaching and teaching, but leaves much freedom with respect to form and selection of texts and topics at any particular time and place. As part of the total process of teaching, we can affirm the value of grammatical and historical study, study of human spiritual and moral examples, study of the process of redemption leading to Christ, study of types and analogies with Christ, study of the nature of God, and more.
When we apply these principles to Genesis 15:1-6, it follows that we can have many kinds of study of the passage. We take into account its literary place in Genesis 15 and in the whole of Genesis; we take into account the historical setting of patriarchal times. We take into account themes that link the work of God in Genesis 15:1-6 to the climactic work of Christ— themes like promise and fulfillment, blessing, offspring, inheritance, fear, and protection. All these are linked together by their coherent, mutually reinforcing presence in Genesis 15:1-6. The centrality of Christ in the life of the NT church implies his centrality in the preaching and teaching of the church. But there may be a spectrum of ways through which this centrality is wisely expressed and maintained. ________________________________
I appreciate being invited to contribute to a discussion of expository preaching, using Genesis 15:1-6 as an example.
A Homily Using Edmund Clowney’s Triangle
Let us begin with a short homily on Genesis 15:1-6. This homily illustrates the use of Clowney’s triangle of typology, which represents a two-step process: finding the meaning of a symbol (S) in its own time (truth T1), and then discerning how the truth is fulfilled in Christ (truth Tn).2 Application is best worked out as a third step, after discerning the role of Christ. (See fig. 1.1.)
Fig. 1.1: Edmund Clowney’s Triangle, Summarizing Steps for Typological Reasoning3
Proclaiming the Word
1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15:1-6)4
In this life, what grips you? What grabs your attention and energy? Abraham was concerned to have a son who would be his heir. That concern does not necessarily strike us as gripping. So what grips you? What grips me? The desire for happiness? Family? Achievement at work? Increase in knowledge? Many of us know that the right answer should be something like “God himself” or “the glory of God.” But that might not be the same as what actually grips our attention and desire. Whatever good things we may experience in this world are gifts from God. They are tokens and expressions of his blessing. At their best, they express personal communion with God, and we experience the presence of God through them. But in sin we are tempted to seize the gifts apart from the Giver.
Abraham belongs to a culture different from our own, but at a fundamental level his desires are the same. A son who is an heir is a blessing from God. It betokens the fundamental blessing, communion with God: “I will be your God” (see Gen 17:7-8). A line of descent offers a shadowy symbol of ongoing life. The ongoing life represents Abraham’s life blood, extending from generation to generation. It is a shadow of eternal life, in communion with the living God, the God who is the fountain of life. Moreover, in Abraham’s case his offspring is special. God’s promises in Genesis 12:2 and 13:15-16 already suggest that Abraham’s offspring is also the offspring of the woman. Through this line definitive, climactic salvation will come.
How will you have communion with God, the God of all life? How will Abraham? How could God bring it about for you and me? How—when we, like Abraham, are doomed to die because of our sin? It is by God speaking and promising: God says, “Your very own son shall be your heir” (15:4). God who knows the inmost heart knows the question behind Abram’s question. He understands the feeling of impossibility. It is as if he says, “Come outside, Abraham. I want to show you something.”
“Come outside, Christian, I want to show you something.” “Look toward heaven.” In the silence of the night, in the countryside, what do you see? Stars. Many of them. It is magnificent. They testify from age to age about the power and beauty and magnificence of the one whom made them (Ps 19:1-2). Theirs numbers testify to abundance of God’s power, his power to multiply and make fruitful. The stars of heaven link us symbolically to the reality of heaven and the one who dwells there. Each star links us to the beauty and brightness and purity and abundant power of God. The stars thereby represent communion with God. God says to Abraham, I grant you blessing, beyond the bounds of earth. Blessing that signifies the reality of communion with God. The blessing of a son. But not one son only. A multitude. A multitude testifying to the fruitfulness of God, analogous to the multiplication of stars. The blessing of communion with God is such that it multiples and deepens beyond calculation.
The name of “Isaac” means “he laughs” (Gen 21:3, 6). Envision laughter, the laughter of joy from God, multiplying beyond Isaac up to the stars of heaven, to uncountable joy, joy “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet 1:8). “So—” says God, “so shall your offspring be” (15:5). God promises fullness of joy, overflowing life, life forevermore (Ps 16:11).
The promise of God is as if God took a star, a star symbolizing heavenly presence, and brought it down for us. He brought it down by putting words of promise in our ear, so that we could absorb it, as if to eat it with our own mouth. The promise expresses the light of God. He brought down light in the form of a son to Abraham.
And so he did in the climax of history. God, the eternal light (1 John 1:5), sent God of God, light of light, down to the earth, and he became man, “which we looked upon and touched with our hands” (1 John 1:1). The Son and heir is our Lord Jesus Christ. “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). The morning star (Rev 22:16) has come to us, the Son and “the heir of all things” (Heb 1:2), “the radiance of the glory of God.”
Here is fullness of life, fullness of joy—in him. Believe what God has said, as Abraham did. Reject the folly of the world. Believe, in order that you may participate in eternal life, the life in communion with God through this Son. In him you inherit communion with God, and with that communion all that is God’s. Abandon the grip of this world, to lay hold of God and his life in his Son.
Exploration of Significance
We could use the whole article to give an expository sermon on Genesis 15:1-6. But in the context of a larger discussion of expository preaching, a choice like that would leave many questions. So we are going to discuss the principles guiding interpretation and preaching, with Genesis 15:1-6 as an example. Given the space limitations, we must be sketchy; we cannot explore full justifications.
Qualifications and clarifications
At the outset, let me include two qualifications.
First, I believe in Christocentric preaching in a certain sense. But I do not consider myself a typical representative of that approach,5 for reasons that will appear. I may disappoint those who expect a robust defense of a classical understanding of Christocentric preaching.
Second, I do not endorse Christomonism, under which I include two defective approaches: (1) the strategy of preaching only on Christ incarnate, and (2) the strategy of preaching Christ apart from the context of the Father and the Spirit. A restriction to the incarnate Christ is in tension with the NT teaching about his pre-existence. What about the issue of the Trinity? The work of Christ takes place as the execution of the plan of the Father, by his anointing, in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38). Accordingly, Christ-centered interpretation and Trinity-centered interpretation should be seen as two sides of the same coin.
Let us expand a bit on the complementary relation between being Christ-centered and being Trinity-centered. We know Christ in the context of knowing the Father and the Spirit, through the power and illumination of the Spirit of Christ, who proceeds from the Father ( John 15:26). Proper understanding of Christ naturally includes the Trinity. So the approach we are considering might be called Trinity-centered preaching. Rightly understood, Christocentric preaching is also necessarily Trinity-centered preaching.
Conversely, Trinity-centered preaching is Christ-centered. Trinity- centered preaching ought to acknowledge the centrality and pre-eminence of Christ and his work in the redemptive reconciliation to God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Knowledge of the Father and the Spirit is mediated by the words and work of the Son.6
This mutuality involving Christ as center and the Trinity as center is confirmed by the examples of apostolic preaching in Acts. Pre-eminently, the apostles expound Christ and his work. But their exposition includes attention to God in his trinitarian work, as illustrated by the reference to the Father and the Spirit in Acts 2:33:
Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.
The same holds for the instruction found in the NT letters (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; Ephesians 1; 2 Tim 3:15; 1 Peter 1; 1 John 1).
Freedom in Preaching, within Limits
To provide a framework for assessing preaching, let us now briefly take up the topic of freedom and constraint in preaching. The only constraints should be scriptural.
We should hold to a principle of sola scriptura for ethics. No extra ethical principles have to be added to the canon of Scripture in order for Christian living to be complete. One can see this principle of sufficiency of Scripture in Psalm 119:1:
Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD!
Does someone want to be blameless? The only thing that he needs to do is to “walk in the law of the LORD.” Nothing else needs to be added.
The principle also applies to officers of the church, as can be seen from 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The famous passage about the breathing out of Scripture by God ends with the goal: “that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (v. 17). The phrase “man of God” focuses on those responsible for ministry of the word. Scripture is sufficient to make them “competent.”
Attempts to add to Scriptural commands most often end up in the long run unintentionally undermining Scripture, as Jesus observes in his critique of tradition in Mark 7:6-9:
And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
The basic principle governing church officers, including preachers, is that they have no genuine legislative authority, but only executive authority. They cannot rightly legislate; that is, they cannot invent extra ethical principles and bind the people of God to them; neither can they annul the rules of Scripture or implications deducible from Scripture. Rather, they are given the responsibility of carrying out what God has already said (executive authority).
Now this principle of sufficiency has implications for expository preaching. The preacher or teacher must teach the teaching of Scripture. He is not authorized to add or subtract. When he speaks the word of God, which it is his duty to do, his words have authority derivative from God. But only then. In sum, this means that he is authorized to teach “the whole counsel of God” in a sense similar to Acts 20:27. That is the main constraint on preaching.
There is also freedom in preaching, as an implication of the Reformation doctrine of the freedom of the Christian man. How so? The principle of sola scriptura also governs how the preacher does his preaching. Scripture does not command us to use just one style. So in fact there is vast freedom for the teacher to use his God-given wisdom as to just how he expresses and conveys teaching. He may use verbal illustrations; he may use blackboard or slides. At a particular time or place, he may expound the teaching of the whole Bible by topic; he may expound the meaning and implications while focusing on a single passage like Genesis 15:1-6. He may focus on explaining the relations of one or two passages in Genesis to the whole of Genesis. He may explain how, in the context of the whole canon, an OT passage has links forward to the work of Christ on earth. All of these approaches and more may operate within the general task of teaching the whole counsel of God.
Of course in the long run, in the case of a person who preaches or teaches regularly, he should consider also whether his teaching is balanced and avoids always returning to a few pet topics or pet verses.
Now, within this framework, what about expository preaching? What is it? To some extent, people may operate with different definitions and different conceptions. At the very broadest, it might mean only that the content of teaching is orthodox and is built on canonical content. This constraint is the one already mentioned, concerning “the whole counsel of God.” But often expository preaching is considered more narrowly. It often means focusing on expounding one verse or one passage from the Bible. This latter sense is one way, but only one, of carrying out the task of teaching.
If we were to say that it is the only way or the best way, that would be a matter of human tradition. We may indeed affirm that it is a tradition with wisdom and it can serve to instruct aspiring preachers. The principal people who advocate expository preaching do not themselves claim that single-text preaching is absolutely the only way to preach—only that it is generally preferable. In particular, they offer it as wise counsel for young men who are still gaining their feet with the practice of preaching. With that understanding we may agree. But we should nevertheless remember the principle of sola scriptura. It implies that the tradition as such has no exclusive claim on us, as the only proper way to teach the word of God. No passage in Scripture restricts preachers to this method. And a restriction of this sort is contradicted by the sermons in Acts and by the NT letters, none of which is exclusively focused on expounding one OT verse or passage.
Our focus on exposition is useful. But it produces a danger that we would bring in expectations from tradition about how it ought to be done. The principle of sola scriptura for ethics and for the “how,” the method of teaching the word of God, leads to the conclusion that there is not only one way or one method or one technique for having “the word of Christ dwell in you” (Col 3:16), but many. Many ways of teaching may be faithful to the teaching found in Scripture itself. All of these good ways necessarily contrast with heretical and false teaching, as well as with teaching done by people whose lives do not commend their words. 7
Centrality of Christ for Spiritual Life
Though there is vast freedom, the Bible shows us the importance of Christ for the long-range spiritual health of the church. There are several motivations for keeping Christ central in the whole life of the church, preaching included.
First, as we have seen, preaching in Acts and the letters in the NT provide examples of the centrality of Christ.
Second, Christ is central in the gospel, which is the central proclamation of the NT. The gospel is both the gospel that Christ proclaimed (Mark 1:15) and the gospel about Christ that the apostles and other early preachers proclaimed (Rom 1:1-3; 1 Cor 15:1-8; Col 1:28). The gospel needs to be central in the church, which is the body of Christ, whose members are those who follow Christ.
Third, the NT indicates that union and communion with Christ is central in salvation and in Christian growth (e.g., 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 1; Col 2:3). Neglecting the centrality of Christ is not responsible and leads to spiritual unhealthiness when the sheep of Christ’s flock are not wisely fed. The centrality of Christ should therefore be continually considered, and should be a regular focus for people who feed the sheep.
Fourth, the NT indicates at various points that the OT is centrally about Christ. Most prominent is Luke 24:25-27, 44-49, but we may add John 5:39, 45-46; 2 Corinthians 1:20; Hebrews; and 1 Peter 1:10-12. These passages certainly need to be taken into account in our interpretation of the OT. But we do not have time to consider them at length.
The upshot is that Christ should be central in preaching as well. But how? That question returns us to an affirmation of freedom within the boundaries of the whole counsel of God. The interpreter who respects the word of God must respect the many thematic and rhetorical unities that belong to each individual passage. He must also respect the unity that belongs to the whole biblical canon, unity in doctrine, unity in accomplishment of redemption in Christ, and unity in the history of redemption, as progressing through time.8 Those unities give unity to preaching. But still there is diversity— diversity of passages, and diversity of various aspects of each passage.
Affirmation of Variety
The unities are perhaps more attended to. So let us take the time to affirm a variety in the ways that we study Scripture. Variety need not be understood as opposed to the centrality of Christ. We can affirm in principle the positive value of a focus on grammatical and historical study of the communication of God through human authors to an ancient audience. That kind of study contributes as one aspect of the whole, that is, the total process of teaching Scripture.
We can affirm the value of a focus on redemptive-historical movement, leading forward to the once-for-all appearing of Christ on earth at the proper historical moment (“the fullness of time,” Gal 4:4). This focus, properly executed, would be a valid form of “Christotelic” exposition. The focus on grammar and language, the focus on history and the immediate historical and social environment, and the focus on redemptive movement forward to Christ represent moments within a rich and complex meditation on the word of God that is addressing us (Rom 15:4).
We treat these various foci as moments within a larger whole. These moments can be isolated from that whole only at the cost of distortion and illusion. In fact, we always have a larger background, hermeneutically speaking, constituted by our previous understandings and assumptions and practices in living, a background that we do not explicitly address, but which helps to guide our research on a single passage. Truth in Christ is not composed merely of isolated bits, like marbles in a bag.
Illustration of Variety with Genesis 15:1-6
We may illustrate with Genesis 15:1-6.
(1) First, it is valid and useful to do a careful study of the words, phrases, and larger linguistic textures of the passage. As one example, after examining the flow of the six verses, we may judge that verse 5 forms a kind of literary peak, with verses 4-6 forming a somewhat broader mountain top. So we try to appreciate how the earlier verses lead up to this peak, and how the peak functions as the main point for the entire episode.
(2) In addition, it is valid and useful to study the historical environment, which includes previous promises to Abram and the social contexts of the time. Included in social context would be the cultural atmosphere of placing value on having sons and having an inheritance to pass on. We may also study how Genesis 15:1-6 fits into a larger context: the further developments and the ceremony in 15:7-21; the section on the generations of Terah beginning in Genesis 11:27; the larger story of early history and the patriarchs found in Genesis as a whole; the context of the Pentateuch; and the context of the history of Israel continuing in Joshua, Judges, and beyond. Because God has a plan from the beginning, we may also consider how all this history leads to Christ. The history includes the promise of offspring, offspring traced through the line of Seth, the line of Noah, the line of Abraham, and the line of David. Genesis 15:5 offers us one point on this developing line.
(3) We also affirm the positive value of meaningful connections between passages, connections in many dimensions, through many themes. So, for example, human beings long ago, in Abram’s time, were human like us. They serve therefore as moral and spiritual examples, good and bad and mixed. The climactic example is found in the humanity of Christ. We may ask of a passage, “What are human beings doing, and how are they analogous to Christ and to us?” In Genesis 15:1-6, what do we learn about Abram? We see his faith and also his insecurities and possible doubts, which he brings before the Lord. He is like us. And Christ is the climactic human being who trusts God with all his heart.
(4) All of the events in the OT are redemptive-historical preparations, along a time line. According to the unfolding plan of God they lead to the coming of Christ. A sermon may choose to focus on this aspect of preparation. Genesis 15:1-6 represents one episode along this long time line. How does it fit into the whole? As father of the faithful, Abram exercises faith, and is the fountainhead for a line of offspring of faith (as in Hebrews 11 and Romans 4). The final offspring and heir is Christ (Gal 3:14, 16, 29).
(5) Since God is always the same God, we affirm a systematic-theological, God-centered approach that focuses on the question, “What is God doing, and what do we learn about him?” The climactic revelation of the character of God is in Christ:..
Christians have long discussed and debated the first three chapters of the Bible. How we interpret this crucial section of Scripture has massive implications for how we understand the rest of God’s Word and even history itself. In this important volume, biblical scholar Vern Poythress combines careful exegesis with theological acumen to illuminate the significance of Genesis 1–3. In doing so, he demonstrates the sound interpretive principles that lead to true understanding of the biblical text, while also exploring complex topics such as the nature of time, the proper role of science, interpretive literalism, and more.
The books of the Old Testament and the New Testament were written by different human authors over a long span of time. But they share profound unities.
Every book in the Bible has God as the divine author, who inspired each human author. All of Scripture is the very Word of God.
All of the Bible is Trinitarian communication to us. God the Father speaks all of the words through the Son, the eternal Word (John 1:1), and God speaks in the power and means of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).
All of the Bible is Christ-centered. Christ is the central subject and focus of the Bible. This focus is obvious in the New Testament, but it is present in the Old Testament also (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47; John 5:39–40, 45–47; 1 Pet. 1:10–12).
The Bible reveals how God redeems his people. Its focus is salvation as it applies to individuals and also to God’s people as a corporate unity.
The Bible bears a unified message of salvation. The fall of Adam (Gen. 3:6–7) resulted in sinfulness coming to the whole human race, Christ excepted. There is only one way of rescue, namely, Christ himself: “Jesus said…, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). People cannot make up for their sins by accumulating good works, because God is perfectly holy, and sins must receive judgment by the Father, who is just. Only Christ, who was also perfectly holy, can bear the burden of the penalty for sins (1 Pet. 2:24).
This principle that salvation comes only in Christ is obvious in the New Testament but found in the Old Testament also. Before Christ came, sins were forgiven for the sake of Christ’s future work (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 10:4, 10). Saved people in the Old Testament believed in God’s promise of a Redeemer and enjoyed communion with God. He applied to them beforehand benefits based on what Christ would accomplish.
The Old and New Testaments differ because they stand on the two sides of the center-point of history, the coming of Christ. The Old Testament sets forth the earlier part of the history of redemption, with anticipations of Christ. God was working all of history together to lead up to the time at which Christ would come (Gal. 4:4). The New Testament sets forth the later course of history, looking back on Christ’s redemption accomplished in his life, death, resurrection, and exaltation. And the New Testament also encourages Christians by reminding them to live in light of his present-day reign and his future return.
Christ’s death and resurrection brought the turning point in history, moving us from a previous age, the “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), into the inaugural stage of the “age to come” (Heb. 6:5), characterized by Christ’s victory over sin and death (Heb. 2:14–15). Jesus’ earthly ministry inaugu- rated the kingdom of God (Matt. 12:28), and it continues now toward its culmination through Christ’s rule over those who belong to him (Rom. 14:17; Col. 1:13).
God works out his plan in history:
Old Testament (anticipation)
New Testament (inaugural realization)
Adam, representative of humanity, who failed
Christ the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), who triumphed as the representative of the new humanity promises of redemption fulfillment of promises in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20)
promises of redemption
fulfillment of promises in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20)
offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:15)
Christ the offspring (Gal. 3:16)
Christ the final prophet (Heb. 1:1–2)
kings (David, Solomon, etc.)
Christ the king, the Messiah, the son of David (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 1:1; Eph. 1:20–22)
law showing God’s righteousness
Christ the Righteous One (Acts 3:14)
priests (Aaron and sons)
Christ the Great High Priest (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:21–8:1)
God’s dwelling with humanity
God with us in Christ (Matt. 1:23; Rev. 21:3)
tabernacle/temple/house of God
Christ the temple (John 2:21)
Christ the Holy One (Acts 3:14)
Christ the final sacrifice (Heb. 10:1–14)
redemption from slavery in Egypt
Christ, redeemer from slavery to sin (Col. 1:13–14)
deliverance from earthly enemies
Christ, deliverer from Satan and death (Col. 1:13; Heb. 2:14–15)
Christ the realization (Gal. 4:1–7)
shadows, images, foreshadowing
Christ the reality (Col. 2:17)
true but partial revelation
fullness of revelation in Christ (Col. 1:26; 2:9–10)
Differences and Correspondences between the Two Testaments
The Old Testament differs from the New Testament because Christ had not yet come. But it also corresponds to the New Testament in giving promises and signs pointing forward to his coming. We can see many correspondences:
Law and Gospel
The Ten Commandments and other laws in the Old Testament also point forward to Christ. God’s commandments function in several ways. Such laws:
reflect God’s holy and righteous character;
convict us of sin and guilt, convince us of our spiritual inability, and drive us to see the need for Christ the Redeemer;
reflect the righteousness of Christ;
guide us in the way of Christ.
The gospel of Christ, proclaimed in the Old Testament in promises and signs, is proclaimed in the New Testament by announcing what Christ has accomplished for us in fulfilling the Old Testament.
Are all of God’s operations inseparable? How should we identify each person’s work in creation, providence, redemption, and other external works of God? Why does the unity of God’s being not annul the distinctions between the persons?
In this new Credo video, Vern Poythress explains how the actions of the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct yet inseparable. Watch other videos like this one on the Credo Video page.
How do all three persons of the Trinity work inseparably in the works of creation, providence, and creation? - Vimeo
Nathan P. Gilmour recently interviewed Vern Poythress at “Christian Humanist Profiles,” on the topic “Knowing and the Trinity.”
To claim that God created all things, seen and unseen, is as uncontroversial as the historical creeds–and as controversial. Such a claim leads readily to questions about the nature of those unseen things: what would it mean for Logic to stand relative to an absolute creator God? What of Time? Number? Knowledge? That last one, knowledge, is the matter of Dr. Vern Poythress’s recent book Knowing and the Trinity, and Christian Humanist Profiles is glad to welcome him on to talk about Trinity and epistemology.
Question #1 – Tell us a little bit about yourself: where you’re from, family, job, personal interests, unique hobbies, what you do in your spare time, etc.
I was born in Pittsburgh in 1939. Dad was a labor negotiator with Westinghouse Electric, Mom a homemaker. Oldest of four siblings. In my early teens, God led me to follow Jesus. I’ve taught theology since 1968, first at Westminster/Philadelphia (1968-80), then at Westminster/California (1980-2000), and since then at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. I’m a “teaching elder” in Central Florida Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of America. I have been a church pianist, organist, worship leader and choir director from time to time. My wife Mary and I have five children. My spare time is mostly spent in writing books and articles, but I enjoy films and news media.
Question #2 – When did you first want to write a book?
In the 1970s I produced a lot of lecture outlines and study guides for the courses I taught. Releasing these in book form seemed like the next logical step. A number of people, including some at P&R, encouraged me, and my The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God appeared in 1987. But throughout my adult life I have felt that theological books are an important ministry. It was the books of Van Til, Murray, and Young that led me to study at Westminster in 1961.
Question #3 – Which writers inspire you?
Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, C. S. Lewis, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, Vern Poythress.
Question #4 – Have you always enjoyed writing?
Yes, since high school or so. Of course, writing is hard work. But completing a book and seeing it released is one of my greatest pleasures.
Question #5 – What inspired you to write your upcoming book, History of Western Philosophy and Theology?
Like most of my books, History of Western Philosophy and Theology is an expansion of my course lectures. I felt a need for a book that treated the subject comprehensively and with an explicitly Christian evaluation.
Question #6 – Do you have a specific spot where you enjoy writing most?
The following is an exclusive interview with author Vern Poythress, conducted by John Hughes. Check out other author interviews on P&R’s blog.
What led you to write Knowing and the Trinity? How did you become interested in exploring the bible’s teaching on this topic?
The origins for the book go back quite a while. For decades John Frame and I have been using triads of perspectives. We think that having more than one perspective on a subject can help to enhance our knowledge of the subject. So, for example, building on the work of Cornelius Van Til, John Frame introduced three perspectives on ethics: the normative perspective, the situational perspective, and the existential perspective. According to a Christian view, the normative perspective focuses on the standard for ethics, which is the character of God, as expressed in his word and law. The situational perspective focuses on the goal, which is the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). The existential perspective focuses on motives. The primary motive is love. These three perspectives, when rightly used, are in harmony with each other, and using more than one helps us to deepen our appreciation and understanding of God’s will for our lives.
It should be noted that this kind of use of perspective takes place within a Christian worldview. We rely on the fact that God is true and is the source for human knowledge, through his revelation.
Frame and I have noticed similarities between the triads of perspectives on the one hand and the Trinitarian character of God on the other hand. Some people have asked us for a fuller explanation of how the triads reflect the Trinitarian character of God. Because God is mysterious, and the Trinity is mysterious, I was apprehensive about writing on the subject of the Trinity. I did not want to produce something that would appear to dissolve the mystery of the Trinity, or something that would claim to know more than God has given us to know. But as people continued to ask, I decided to write, in order to help clear up people’s understandings of these triads of perspectives.
What are the main things you learned from researching and writing this book?
I grew in admiring the greatness and depth in who God is. And I think I grew in appreciating that there is a kind of order in the triads, so that they relate to each other mysteriously, as well as reflecting the Trinitarian character of God.
What are some important truths you would like readers to remember from reading Knowing and the Trinity?
Here are some truths that come to mind.
God is one God in three persons. This is the mystery of the Trinity.
Specific texts in the Bible, as well as the larger contexts, confirm the truth of the Trinity.
The Trinity is unique. There is no “model” or “picture” in the world that explains how God can be both one and three.
In the Bible, God uses three main analogies in showing us the relations of the three persons to each other. (1) In the analogy with communication, God the Father speaks the Word (God the Son) by the breath of the Holy Spirit. (2) In the analogy with a family, God the Father has a father-son relation to God the Son, and expresses that relation in infinite love by the gift of the Holy Spirit. (3) In the analogy with reflections, God the Son is the eternal image of God the Father, through the communion of the Holy Spirit.
God shows himself in the world in a manner that reflects his Trinitarian character.
God’s redemption reflects his Trinitarian character.
The availability of multiple perspectives to human beings reflects God’s character.
The inner harmony among various biblical teachings about God is due to the fact that God is in harmony with himself, through the harmony among the persons of the Trinity. The harmony among the persons is reflected in the harmony of God’s acts in the world, and the ways in which he manifests his glory in the world.
The metaphysics of unbelieving philosophy is inadequate, because it is not based on the Trinity, which the foundation and source for the whole created world.
Holding robustly to the mystery of the Trinity helps in providing insight into long-standing questions that cannot be solved by unbelieving philosophy.