Biblical symbolism – when is it taken too far?


cover of biblical theology by geerhardus vos

Trees as symbols of men. The old covenant high priest as a picture of the redeemed man, dressed as a pomegranate tree. The tabernacle as the body of Christ, literally and figuratively. This is biblical symbolism, but can it be taken too far? 

The prophecy of Genesis 3 said that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the seed of the serpent. In the story of David and Goliath, we see David, the seed of the woman, cutting off the head of a giant evil man, dressed in chain mail armor that reminds us of the scales of a serpent.

What about the biblical significance of numbers? 40 days, 40 nights. 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. 40 days Jesus was tempted in the desert.

What about the significance of the number of times a certain word is used in a verse or chapter? Five times, seven times, ten times. Two times and three times are common.

What about seeing the 12 tribes in the 13 zodiac constellations?

Astrology. Numerology. Tree altars (sometimes known as Christmas trees). Aren’t these pagan practices? At some point we start getting uncomfortable about some of this. David Chilton’s Days of Vengeance applies biblical symbolism to expound the book of Revelation, including all three of the types just mentioned. It provides enormous insight. But is it legitimate?

Biblical symbolism is an aspect of biblical theology, which is the study of the unfolding of God’s special revelation (scripture) as he revealed more and more about himself and his plan in history. This is also called the redemptive-historical hermeneutic, or method of interpretation.

One fear expressed by critics of Days of Vengeance is that biblical symbolism can be taken too far, that any man can come up with any number of meanings about what he calls biblical symbols and depart from orthodox interpretation. He can lead others astray. Certainly there is a danger of that.

This extravagant, unbiblical excess is typically referred to derisively as interpretive maximalism. But if anyone uses this term as a warning, especially in reference to James Jordan’s theology or Chilton’s Days of Vengeance, you should first understand the context of the argument before recoiling in fear.

INTERPRETIVE MAXIMALISM

I believe the term interpretive maximalism actually originated with Chilton, at least in print. He used it as a subheading in Days of Vengeance [p.36] to describe James Jordan’s approach to exegesis. Jordan himself didn’t actually use the term originally, but came close. Here’s the context in which Jordan describes his approach:

“We have to explain this in order to distance ourselves from the ‘interpretive minimalism’ that has come to characterize evangelical commentaries on Scripture in recent years…Such a ‘maximalist’ approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers.

It seems dangerous, because it is not readily evident what kinds of checks and balances are to be employed in such an approach. Such a ‘maximalist’ approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers. Do the five loaves and two fishes represent the five books of Moses and the Old and New Testaments? Almost certainly not. What, however, is our check on such an interpretation? We have to say that the check and balance on interpretation is the whole rest of Scripture and of theology. As time goes along, and we learn more and more, our interpretations will become refined.” [from his book Judges: God’s War Against Humanism, p. xii-xiii]

David Chilton studied under James Jordan, so he incorporated Jordan’s use of biblical theology to write his books on eschatology. Jordan is a theological heir of Geehardus Vos, Princeton Theological Seminary’s first Professor and Chair of Biblical Theology (1893, 1894).

Describing Jordan’s methods, Gary North wrote that “Jordan, like Vos, has always preferred to work in the luxuriant swamp, where, within a few months, everything is covered by the kudzu of multiperspectivalism.” [Hierarchy and Dominion, p. 261]

THEONOMIC DISSENTERS

But there were (and still are) those in the theonomic camp that disapprove of these methods. They are the spiritual heirs of Greg Bahnsen (which isn’t a bad legacy to be a part of, let me assure you). Bahnsen was a powerhouse theonomist, one of the founders of the movement alongside Rushdoony and North. His work is respected, and rightfully so. But that’s why his criticisms of other theonomists and Reconstructionists need to be examined in depth. His word is highly valued, so you are certainly right to take pause when Bahnsen criticizes certain methods or interpretations.

In his review of Days of Vengeance, Bahnsen attacked Chilton’s use of biblical symbolism and employment of the five-point biblical covenant model‘s structural framework. Regarding the interpretive maximalism approach, Bahnsen wrote that “IM leaves the interpreter with an unsure game of ‘guessing’…rather than a confident ‘Thus saith the Lord.'” Regarding the five-point covenant model, Bahnsen wrote that Chilton’s “monumental error is his artificially imposing the covenantal structure advocated by Ray Sutton (That You May Prosper, Tyler: I.C.E., 1987) upon the text of Revelation like a Procrustean bed.”

Bahnsen was keen on the use of logic, but not so much on the use of the creative structures produced by biblical theology and symbolism. Gary North described Bahnsen’s methods as standing “on the solid but rocky ground of integrated systems, where it is always hard plowing, and the soil is historically thin.” [Hierarchy and Dominion, p. 261]

North’s quote comes in the context of his discussing the exegetical weaknesses that lie at the heart of Bahnsen’s definitive work on theonomy, titled Theonomy in Christian Ethics. Bahnsen emphasized the aspect of continuity in the laws between the Old Testament and the New (“the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail”), but he never developed a partner exegesis that dealt with the discontinuities (the laws that are no longer binding) in a comparably rigorous fashion.

That’s not to say Dr. Bahnsen didn’t acknowledge the discontinuities, because he did. He wrote as much in print. He just never developed an in-depth exegetical reason why. To do so, he would have had to rewrite his entire book to integrate discontinuity into his hermaneutic (method of interpretation). It would have been a lot of work. His time was limited (he died in 1995, at the young age of 47).

That’s why North described the need to integrate biblical theology and systematic theology. He wrote:

“The Protestant church needs a systematic theology. It does not
have one today. Such a systematic theology must incorporate the insights of biblical theology, i.e., the study of the uses and development of biblical symbolism (rhetoric) from Genesis to Revelation. In other words, systematic theology must incorporate the work of Geerhardus Vos and his disciples. At the same time, the speculations of Vos’ disciples must be brought under the discipline of the judicial theology of the Bible.” [Boundaries and Dominion, p.1156]

Biblical theology is the legitimate study of the redemptive-historical progressive unfolding of God’s revelation in Scripture (the legacy of Geerhardus Vos). Biblical theology examines the form and contents of God’s revelation to the world. Both things (form and contents) changed and developed throughout history, and their historical development is documented in Scripture.

Most importantly of all, biblical theology is the antidote to evolutionary criticisms of the Bible (think “documentary hypothesis,” JEPD, higher criticism, etc).

[Note: Just so that I don’t appear to be intentionally dense, by “form and contents” of divine revelation, I mean things like the way God spoke to certain people in Scripture, and what he told them. Think about the way he made himself known to Abraham compared to the way he would later make himself known to Moses and King David. Appearing in dreams, in burning bushes, or through prophets and pillars of fire and smoke. Then compare his words to Abraham to those he spoke to Moses. Notice the differences and similarities.]

Systematic theology, on the other hand, is a logical grouping of divine relation sorted according to relevant categories. Historically, there have been seven primary categories, some of which are Christology (study of Christ), soteriology (study of the process of salvation), anthropology (study of man in relation to God), pneumatology (study of the Holy Spirit), ecclessiology (study of the church and its government), hamartiology (study of sin), and eschatology (study of the end times).

Historically, these categories have been informed by Greek philosophical ideas rather than biblical ones. That’s a problem.

In short, biblical theology examines special revelation from God’s perspective, and systematic theology examines it as arranged so that people can better understand it. The Book of Revelation is obviously filled with symbolism. The key to understanding Revelation is to understand the symbolism. The symbolism at the end of the Bible is comprehensive and sophisticated because it is well developed. But the symbolism at the beginning of the Bible is simple because it has just been introduced and hasn’t had time to develop.

BAHNSEN’S BIAS AGAINST THE 5-POINT COVENANT MODEL

A brief word needs to be said about Bahnsen’s disdain for Sutton’s five-point biblical covenant model and Chilton’s employment of it in Days of Vengeance.

A preliminary covenant model was developed by Meredith Kline at Westminster seminary; he built upon the work of George E. Mendenhall. Kline, being an amillennialist, refused to apply his insights in this matter to the New Testament. Sutton, being an unreserved postmillennialist, picked up where Kline refused to go and extended it to the New Testament. Published in That You May Prosper in 1987, North took it and ran with it, applying it to almost all of his work since.

In 1978, Kline published a scathing and hostile essay in the Westminster Theological Journal. More ad hominem than refutations of arguments, it savaged Bahnsen’s Theonomy. But the problem is that Kline worked out in advance a deal with the editor of that journal that Bahnsen would not be allowed to respond. That’s a little heavy-handed and one-sided, don’t you think?

Dr. North had Bahnsen publish his response to Kline’s review in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction (Winter 1979-80 issue). North wrote that “Bahnsen’s reply silenced Kline. Kline got his academic head handed to him on a platter.” [Authority and Dominion, p.520]

So, there was bad blood between Bahnsen and Kline. To promote the five-point model was to promote Kline.

“Kline did not approve of this theonomic application—or any other theonomic application—and remained silent for two decades regarding Sutton’s book. This is not surprising. Kline’s premier opponent in the theonomy movement, Greg Bahnsen, did not appreciate works built on Kline’s insights, and he remained unconvinced by Sutton’s application. This is also not surprising.” [Boundaries and Dominion, pp. 1155-6]

RESOLVING THE TENSION BETWEEN BAHNSEN AND CHILTON

North wrote that biblical theology and systematic theology need to go hand-in-hand, but to prevent unbridled creativity the insights of biblical theology must be bounded by the five-point Bible-revealed covenant model. This means developing a five-point systematic theology informed by biblical theology as opposed to the classic 7-point “scholastic loci.”

North articulated the nature of resolving the two extremes. “Somewhere out there in the misty no-man’s land in between Bahnsen and Jordan, we must seek both coherence and fruitfulness, just as we must seek both goals in the no-man’s land in between Charles Hodge and Geerhardus Vos.” [Hierarchy, Ibid.]

To see how he’s tried to do this, we must return to North’s farming metaphors one last time. “As for me, I prefer to do my plowing in the misty middle distance, using Sutton’s five-pointed plow. I cannot always see where I am going, but a crop comes in every year—sometimes several times a year.”

Finally, getting back to the concern that speculative symbolism can be destructive, North concurs: “Biblical theology must always be governed by the terms of systematic theology in order to keep biblical theologians from flying into the ‘wild blue yonder’ through unrestrained interpretive maximalism.” [Boundaries and Dominion, p.1180-81]

CONCLUSION

Bahnsen’s supporters have a tendency to throw around the term “interpretive maximalism” and quote his devastating assessment of it when the issue of biblical symbolism arises, especially in the context of Chilton’s Days of Vengeance.

Dr. Bahnsen’s judgments are not to be taken lightly, but at the same time they must be understood within the context of the bigger picture. I don’t think a lot of the “IM” naysayers understand the bigger picture. He cited Vos several times in Theonomy to support his assertion of continuity between covenants, but none of the citations were direct applications of Vos’s use of biblical symbolism.

In addition to that, Vos was an amillennialist. He was at odds with post-millennialism. Bahnsen criticized Vos for mis-characterizing post-millennialism. So Bahnsen didn’t agree with Vos on everything.

Has North’s opinion on Chilton’s commentary changed over the years? Days of Vengeance was first published in 1987. As of 2015, that’s 28 years. He updated the book’s preface for a 2007 re-printing. In both copies, old and new, we find this:

In this book, he has taken his remarkable memory of the Old Testament, and he has fused it with an interpretive technique developed by James Jordan in his book, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (1985). Jordan works with dozens of Old Testament symbols that he has sifted from the historical narratives and the descriptions of the Tabernacle and Temple. Then he applies these symbols and models to other parallel Bible stories, including the New Testament’s account of the life of Christ and the early church. No one does this better than Jordan, but Chilton has successfully applied this Biblical hermeneutic (principle of interpretation) to the Book of Revelation in many creative ways. Chilton is not the first expositor to do this, as his footnotes and appendixes reveal, but he is unquestionably the best at it that the Christian church has yet produced with respect to the Book of Revelation. [Bolded emphasis mine]

He didn’t delete that portion in 2007, and I haven’t seen him print a retraction in the years since. I don’t think North disagrees with “interpretive maximalism” as such, but rather “unrestrained interpretive maximalism.”

Biblical theology is considered to be an orthodox Christian discipline. Westminster Theological Seminary describes biblical theology as follows:

“Westminster understands biblical theology in the tradition pioneered by Geerhardus Vos, that is, as the study of the historical aspect of God’s dealing with humanity. The Bible discloses to us that God has chosen throughout history to speak to different individuals both at various times and places and in diverse ways (Heb 1:1). This speech has been accompanied by and coordinated with God’s action to redeem fallen humanity from sin.”

If anyone is quick to dismiss “IM,” first ask them if they also regard all biblical theology, as in the kind Vos wrote, as untrustworthy. If they say yes, then they are dismissing a legitimate branch of exegetical study; they will miss much. If they don’t reply, or they give some version of “I don’t know,” then their understanding of the matter is only an inch deep.

Either way, you can safely dismiss them. Form your own opinions from better sources. Bahnsen’s own writings are such a source.

But recognize that, though he was brilliant, being more from the academic tradition than pioneers North, Chilton, and Rushdoony, coupled with his bad blood with Meredith Kline, he may have been less objective on this matter than in others. Though he may have been favorable to Vos in certain areas, Bahnsen’s specialties and gifts were in other areas: apologetics, logical analysis and debate, teaching, theonomy, philsophy, and philosophical history. He was not an expert in biblical theology like he was in these other areas.

Where perhaps he should have deferred to the expertise of others, he may have pushed back on the matter at least in part to actively suppress the legacy of a brilliant, but rival, theologian.

Ken Gentry has been working on his own commentary of Revelation. As a theological heir of Bahnsen, I suspect we will see favor towards Bahnsen’s interpretation of some of the specifics of Revelation over and against Chilton’s.

But, having been so close to Dr. Bahnsen, I hope that Gentry will illuminate the issues described in this article and add value to the debate. Having been a friend of Dr. Bahnsen, collaborating with him on at least one book, but also being a proponent of the five-point covenantal model, I hope his insights can edify the Christian community and help resolve some of these old tensions with true fraternity towards our dear, departed brothers in the faith.

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2 responses to “Biblical symbolism – when is it taken too far?

  1. Pingback: Improper use of biblical symbolism – an example | Rebuild Your Biblical Worldview

  2. Pingback: 15 observations about the number eight | Rebuild Your Biblical Worldview

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