Tag Archives: Graeme Goldsworthy

Book Review: Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics

Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics

The other day I mentioned this book by Graeme Goldsworthy.  Today I’m reposting my review from 2007.  Going through the book again, I’m impressed by Goldsworthy’s commitment to starting with what the Word of God says when it comes to developing principles of biblical interpretation.  He doesn’t call it that, but this is a Reformed approach because it honours the crucial principle of sola Scriptura.  Whether it comes to apologetics, worship, ethics, hermeneutics (or anything!), we have to begin with the Bible — and the Bible alone.  It’s so basic to being Reformed — and it’s in danger of being lost.


Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics:  Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation, Graeme Goldsworthy.  Downers Grove:  IVP Academic, 2006.  Hardcover, 341 pages, $20.15.

There is nothing more important than rightly understanding the Bible.  In its essence, we believe that the Bible is a clear revelation from God.  Yet because of the fall, what should be clear is many times clouded by human sin and weakness.  For this reason, when there are difficulties in understanding the Scriptures, it is the divine Scriptures themselves that must shed light and lead the way.

One man from our own tradition who understood this was Dr. Seakle Greijdanus (1871-1948).  Greijdanus was a professor of New Testament in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  In 1946 he published his most important work, Scripture Principles for Scripture Interpretation.  In this book (a summary of which can be found here), Greijdanus drew out in detail what it means to believe that “Scripture interprets Scripture.”  We call this a presuppositional approach to hermeneutics; this approach to the science of Scripture interpretation says that we have to begin with the presupposition that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God that also speaks to this science.

In Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, Graeme Goldsworthy (a retired lecturer from Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia) follows the same presuppositional method of Greijdanus, develops it further, and applies it to our contemporary situation.  In the first four chapters, Goldsworthy lays out the presuppositions for a biblical way of interpreting the Bible.  While not mentioning Greijdanus, he does give credit to another Reformed theologian from our tradition who promoted presuppositional methodology, Cornelius VanTil.  In the following section, the author goes through the history of hermeneutics and illustrates the various ways in which the gospel has been eclipsed through different theological and philosophical developments.  In the final section, using what he developed in the first section and taking the cautions of history to heart, Goldsworthy proposes a reconstruction of “evangelical hermeneutics” along biblical, gospel-centered lines.  He concludes with a helpful section on “hands-on hermeneutics,” a “proposed list of some important ingredients in understanding the Bible.”

This is an important book for our age, an age (not unlike others) in which proper understanding of the Scriptures is under attack.  While it is a technical book that would serve well as a text for college and seminary students, informed “laypeople” would also benefit from Goldsworthy’s gold.  This is the third Goldsworthy book that I’ve read in the last year (According to Plan & Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture being the others) and while the other two are also worth recommending, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics is the best.

Thoughts on John Walton’s Reading Genesis with Ancient Eyes

John Walton

I was recently asked to watch and provide some feedback on Dr. John Walton’s lecture, “Reading Genesis with Ancient Eyes.”  Walton was recently in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia giving this same lecture and I understand that several Canadian Reformed people were in attendance.  There is some interest in Walton’s approach to Genesis 1.  Some find his arguments compelling.  That being the case, and since the question of origins is being debated in our churches, I thought it worthwhile to watch the lecture and share some thoughts.  I’m not going to interact with everything he said, but simply touch on some key points of concern.

First of all, who is Dr. John Walton?  He is a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.  He has taught at Wheaton since 2001.  He’s written many books and articles including The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.  Furthermore, he is on the Board of Advisors for BioLogos.  In case you’re unfamiliar with this organization, you can read their beliefs here.  BioLogos actively holds to and promotes theistic evolution:  “We believe that God created the universe, the earth, and all life over billions of years…We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent.”

This lecture deals with Genesis 1.  At the very beginning, Walton said that he is not a scientist and would not be pushing any science.  His goal is simply to read the Bible well.  This is a commendable goal.   We all want to read the Bible well.  The question:  does Walton succeed in reading Genesis 1 well?  As I mentioned, what I’m offering here is not a point-by-point review of the lecture.  I will not rehearse everything here.  What I just want to do is isolate three major problems.

The first problem is a subtle one.  That has to do with the starting point.  Let me first state what our starting point ought to be when we deal with questions of how to read the Bible.  Simply put:  we have to start with the Bible.  We go to the Bible to learn how to read the Bible well.  There are some points related to this.  Because Scripture has God as its author, the Bible possesses an intrinsic unity.  Because the Bible has this unity, we can and must use the entire Bible to understand the Bible.  When it comes to interpreting the Bible, we should draw our principles of interpretation from the Bible itself.  Now when we do that, we are reminded that God is the primary author (2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:21), but God did bring his word through human beings.  Yet we must insist that the divine stands over the human when it comes to the Bible.  To keep this from being overly long, I won’t expand on a biblical method of biblical interpretation any more than this.  Those want to pursue that further should begin with this summary of Dr. Seakle Greijdanus’ Scripture Principles for Scripture Interpretation.  For a book-length approach in English, I would recommend Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the approach of Walton.  His first slide in the lecture and the associated comments lead me to that conclusion.  One of the bullet points on the slide is “Authority is vested in the author.”  When I first saw that, I thought that this was an orthodox statement.  If God is the author of Scripture, then certainly authority is vested in the author.  But Walton said, “The authority of Scripture is vested in the human authors.”  Where does the Bible teach this about itself?  This is not a good place to start.  Throughout the rest of the lecture that follows, Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 is to essentially treat it as any other Ancient Near Eastern text.  He treats it as a human text that carries a divine message, rather than looking at as a text first of all inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired all of Scripture.  As a consequence, Walton gives no attention to the New Testament and its approach to Genesis 1.  Genesis 1 is mentioned by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 19:4 and also by Paul in 1 Timothy 2.  How is Genesis 1 regarded in those passages?  Should we not allow Scripture to interpret Scripture?  Instead, it seems to me that Walton takes a humanistic approach to the Bible.  Such an approach is dangerous and will inevitably lead to wrong conclusions.

My second point builds on the first.  Reformed theology teaches that Scripture possesses several properties.  One of these is its clarity.  Some have spoken of the perspicuity of Scripture.  Scripture is a lamp for our feet – it sheds light (Ps. 119:105,130).  The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in Ancient Near Eastern studies or the Hebrew language.  In referring to the Pentateuch, the apostle Paul wrote that the stories of Israel’s failings in the wilderness “were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).  Those Spirit-inspired words were written to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been Jews, but many of whom were not.  Paul expected that the Word would be clear and he understood that the book of Exodus, though written hundreds of years before, was intended by God to speak clearly also to the Corinthian Christians.

Walton’s approach compromises the clarity of Scripture.  With this proposal, Christians today need a background in Ancient Near Eastern studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis 1.  In fact, with Walton’s approach, the church has been in the dark for centuries until these ANE studies were conducted and brought to light what had previously been dark.  There is a simple and clear message in Genesis 1 and we should not allow academics to propose darkness where God has given light.  Yes, there are difficult passages in Scripture and the doctrine of perspicuity does not deny that given what Scripture itself says in 2 Peter 3:16.  However, historically, Genesis 1 was not regarded as a difficult passage.  Taken in the context of the entire Bible (letting Scripture interpret Scripture), what it is saying is so clear that a child can understand it.  It only became a difficult passage because of the challenges posed by unbelieving scientists.

My third point interacts more directly with Walton’s proposed reading of Genesis 1.  Walton thinks that Genesis 1 is speaking in terms of a functional ontology.  He argues that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, things comes into existence by reason of their function.  Genesis 1 is therefore not describing the creation of material, but the taking of that material and ordering it and putting it into use.

I respond by first of all noting the false dilemma Walton seems to present between material and functional.  Though I picked this up on my own, with some research I noticed that I’m not the first one to identify this as a problem.  Why can’t there be both in Genesis 1?  In fact, I think if we have to take the approach of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, this might be our conclusion.  I don’t see how recognizing the functionality of what’s described in Genesis 1 rules out its material nature or its historicity as an account of what really happened in those six days.  Interestingly, this “both…and” approach is what we find in article 12 of the Belgic Confession.  God created heaven and earth and all creatures out of nothing (non-material to material), and he also gave every creature not only its “being, shape, and form,” but also to each “its specific task and function to serve its Creator.”

Related to the foregoing false dilemma, Walton overstates his case in regard to the Hebrew verb bara’.  He argues that the verb is always used in Scripture to refer to things not material in nature.  He says, “Nothing material is going on with bara’.”  However, even on the slide discussing this verb, there were things material in nature.  For instance, people male and female.  People have a material nature and they were created out of material:  dust.  But readers do not have to take it on my authority.  This comes from one of the leading Old Testament dictionaries:

Though br’ does not appear with mention of material out of which something is created, it is regularly collocated with verbs that do (e.g. Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7,19; Isa. 45:18; Amos 4:13).  More significantly, br’ is used of entities that come out of pre-existing material: e.g. a new generation of animals or humans, or a ‘pure heart.’ (Ps. 104:29-30; 102:18[19]; 51:10[12]; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6.).  (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1.731).

In fact, NIDOTTE states that Walton’s view is “somewhat misleading.”

There is much more that I could say.  However, I think anything else I would say has probably been said by others and better.  Let me conclude by saying that Walton’s view falls along the same lines as the Framework Hypothesis approach to Genesis 1 and 2.  I recently reviewed ERQ pastor Paulin Bédard’s book In Six Days God Created (you can find my review here and order the book here).  He tackles a lot of these other issues that I haven’t touched on, though he doesn’t directly discuss Walton.  I highly recommend this book.  Unlike John Walton, Paulin Bédard takes the Bible seriously on its own terms — that’s how we read the Bible well.

Legalistic Exhortations

This morning let me say something about an interesting section of this book in chapter 9, “Can I Preach a Christian Sermon without Mentioning Jesus?”

Goldsworthy notes that preaching the whole counsel of God will necessarily include exhortation.  Most people like that sort of thing — they narrowly view it as the only thing that counts for application.   Unless the sermon tells me what to do and how to live, it’s not relevant and not applicatory.  Goldsworthy says, “I suggest that we love this kind of treatment because we are legalists at heart.  We would love to be able to say that we have fulfilled all kinds of conditions, be they tarrying, surrendering fully, or getting rid of every known sin, so that God might truly bless us.”  (p.118)  If the preaching can just give us a ten-step program to holy living, we love it.  People don’t want to hear so much about what God has done for us apart from us — that’s old news.  Tell us something we can do.

Goldsworthy goes on, “The preacher can aid and abet this legalistic tendency that is at the heart of the sin within us all.  All we have to do is emphasize our humanity:  our obedience, our faithfulness, our surrender to God, and so on.  The trouble is that these things are all valid biblical truths, but if we get them out of perspective and ignore their relationship with the gospel of grace, they replace grace with law.  If we constantly tell people what they should do in order to get their lives in order, we place a terrible legalistic burden on them.”  (p.118)  Goldsworthy doesn’t say this, but it is my observation that it is even more tempting when you see lifestyle issues in the congregation that are problematic.  You figure that the solution has to be to preach more law — and even if that is subsumed under the heading of “thankfulness” it can have a habit of becoming legalistic (what John Piper calls “the debtor’s ethic”).  The problems are not solved and in fact, get worse.  The solution is counter-intuitive.

Let me give the last word to Goldsworthy — this whole paragraph is worth reading carefully:

In practical terms, if we as preachers lay down the marks of the spiritual Christian, or the mature church, or the godly parent, or the obedient child, or the caring pastor, or the responsible elder or the wise church leader, and if we do this in a way that implies that conformity is simply a matter of understanding and being obedient, then we are being legalists and we risk undoing the very thing we want to build up.  We may achieve the outward semblance of conformity to the biblical pattern, but we do it at the expense of the gospel of grace that alone can produce the reality of these desirable goals.  To say what we should be or do and not link it with a clear exposition of what God has done about our failure to be or do perfectly as he wills is to reject the grace of God and to lead people to lust after self-help and self-improvement in a way that, to call a spade a spade, is godless.  (119)

This is a worthwhile book that I can recommend to pastors and aspiring pastors.

(Reposted from 07.31.07)