Four principles of older hermeneutics: #4 The Scope of the Scriptures (Scopus Scripturae)

 

#1 The Holy Spirit is the Only Infallible Interpreter of Holy Scripture.

 

#2 The Analogy of the Scriptures (Analogia Scripturae)

 

#3 The Analogy of Faith (Analogia Fidei)

 

#4 The Scope of the Scriptures (Scopus Scripturae)

 

Terms such as Christ-centered and Christocentric are used often in our day. But what do they mean? The older way of naming the concept these terms point to, the target or end to which the entirety of the Bible tends, is encapsulated by the Latin phrase scopus Scripturae (i.e., the scope of the Scriptures). This concept gained confessional status in the WCF, the SD, and the 2LCF in 1.5, which, speaking of Holy Scripture, say, “. . . the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God) . . .”

Reformation and post-Reformation Reformed theologians understood scope in two senses. It had a narrow sense—i.e., the scope of a given text or passage, its basic thrust—but it also had a wider sense—i.e., the target or bull’s eye to which all of Scripture tends.[1] It is to this second sense that we will give our attention.

Scope, in the sense intended here, refers to the center or target of the entire canonical revelation; it is that to which the entire Bible points. And whatever that is, it must condition our interpretation of any and every part of Scripture. For the federal or covenant theologians of the seventeenth century, the scope of Scripture was the glory of God in the redemptive work of the incarnate Son of God.[2] Their view of the scope of Scripture was itself a conclusion from Scripture, not a presupposition brought to it, and it conditioned all subsequent interpretation.

William Ames, for example, said, “The Old and New Testaments are reducible to these two primary heads. The Old promises Christ to come and the New testifies that he has come.”[3] Likewise, John Owen said, “Christ is . . . the principal end of the whole of Scripture . . .”[4] He continues elsewhere:

 

This principle is always to be retained in our minds in reading of the Scripture,—namely, that the revelation and doctrine of the person of Christ and his office, is the foundation whereon all other instructions of the prophets and apostles for the edification of the church are built, and whereunto they are resolved . . . So our Lord Jesus Christ himself at large makes it manifest, Luke xxiv. 26, 27, 45, 46. Lay aside the consideration hereof, and the Scriptures are no such thing as they pretend unto,—namely, a revelation of the glory of God in the salvation of the church . . .[5]

 

Coxe said, “. . .  in all our search after the mind of God in the Holy Scriptures we are to manage our inquiries with reference to Christ.”[6]

Their Christocentric interpretation of the Bible was a principle derived from the Bible itself, and an application of sola Scriptura to the issue of hermeneutics. In other words, they viewed the Bible’s authority as extending to how we interpret the Bible. Or it could be stated this way: they saw the authority of Scripture extending to the interpretation of Scripture.[7]

 

 

[1] See the discussion in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Volume Two – Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003 [Second Edition]), 206-23, where he discusses these distinctions. See also James M. Renihan, “Theology on Target: The Scope of the Whole (which is to give all glory to God),” RBTR II:2 (July 2005): 36-52; Richard C. Barcellos, “Scopus Scripturae: John Owen, Nehemiah Coxe, our Lord Jesus Christ, and a Few Early Disciples on Christ as the Scope of Scripture,” Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies [JIRBS] (2015): 5-24; and Stephen J. Casselli, Divine Rule Maintained: Anthony Burgess, Covenant Theology, and the Place of the Law in Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016), 102-07.

[2] See my forthcoming The Doxological Trajectory of Scripture: God Getting Glory for Himself through what He does in His Son An Exegetical and Theological Case Study, Chapter 5, “Christ as Scopus Scripturae — John Owen and Nehemiah Coxe on Christ as the Scope of Scripture for the Glory of God.”

[3] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1983), 1.38.5 (202).

[4] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 23 vols., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987 edition), 1:74.

[5] Owen, Works, 1:314-15.

[6] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 33.

[7] See Poythress, “Biblical Hermeneutics,” 11, where he says: “We use the Bible to derive hermeneutical principles. Then we use hermeneutics to interpret the Bible.”