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May 03, 2009


A co-worker said that it might be helpful if I add context for this post. Here’s the context: I recently read “Prodigal God” by Tim Keller, which I consider an awesome book. In the book, Keller sometimes speculates beyond what the text clearly states. And he does so in a way that I considered edifying and enlightening. One example where I think Keller provides helpful speculation on symbolism is when he says that the Elder Brother at the end of the parable is left with the decision to either join the Younger Brother's feast or stay out and sulk. Keller suggests that this symbolizes the Pharisees’ options: they could either join with Jesus and his followers or stay separated from Jesus in their self-righteous practices. And this got me asking the question: what kind of liberty do we have to speculate on the symbolic meanings of the Bible?

It seems you may be ready to read Peter Leithart: leithart.com

Reading Leithart, exactly what I was thinking! You should pick up his forthcoming book, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture. Here's the description of Deep Exegesis from Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/cgyq4k
I've been profiting from reading Leithart for years.

Thanks for the comments, Chris and Uri. I'll check out that book. I hadn't heard about it - thanks. Looks intriguing.

"I do remember one rule of interpretation from college English classes: Speculate freely, but the further you get from the clear meaning of the text, the less dogmatic you should be. That sounds to me like a pretty good rule of thumb, but I'm curious your thoughts."

I agree that this is a pretty good rule of thumb. It reminds me of the statement that one should not shout where the Bible whispers. That is if an individual thinks he/she perceives an implicit meaning regarding a text, but it is not explicit one should not make it an essential which everyone need to agree upon. I enjoyed Keller's book "The Prodigal God" immensely and found it very edifying. The part regarding Christ as being the missing elder brother particularly affected me. I have also read or heard commentaries by individuals such as John MacArthur and Dr. Albert Mohler regarding the Biblical text. Each individual nuanced certain parts of the text differently. I believe in the nuances you find the freedom you allude to.

My only concern regarding the statement is the use of "freely." There are certain principles that students of the Bible should follow when interpreting the Bible. Biblical hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation concerning the books of the Bible. I think the serious Bible student is limited by these principles in their interpretation.

"The Prodigal God" was based on a sermon by Clowney. You can download it by clicking the following link.


Craig - Thanks for those helpful comments. That's a good corrective on the word "freely." I appreciate it.

I enjoyed and appreciated the following comment:

"Every word of the Bible is God-breathed and 100% true, so I don't believe that Paul was relying on speculation. But I'm not sure if this is an allegory that all Old Testament readers were supposed to grasp or if Paul received this insight exclusively as an inspired author of Scripture."

We have the fortunate advantage of looking at the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. Paul had the advantage over Old Testament saints in this regard too. He had been present for the ministry and subsequent death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. He had a leg up on them so to speak. It is hard to say who knew what and when. I believe some Biblical characters were given more clarity than others.

The following is a statement from Kerux:

"Biblical Theology approaches the Bible as an organic drama of God's unfolding revelation through history. In distinction from doctrinal or systematic theology, biblical theology follows the progressively unfolding revelation of God's words and deeds through history. This linear aspect of revelation unites each revelatory event and proclamation both retrospectively and prospectively. Geerhardus Vos described the organic continuation of revelation in history as a flower expanding from bud to blossom. The blossom is retrospectively united to the bud; the bud is prospectively united to the blossom. One of the tasks/privileges of the interpreter of Scripture is to draw out these organic prospective and retrospective relationships. At the center of this organic unity is the person and work of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Even as our Risen Lord related all of Scripture retrospectively and prospectively to himself (Luke 24:27), so Reformed biblical theology is preeminently Christocentric."

I think that this statement points out the progressive nature of scripture in a poignant way and may somewhat answer your query. It may have been possible for Paul to naturally infer his assertion regarding the Old Testament passage in question. It would not have been possible for a contemporary of the author of the passage to naturally understand the inferences made. In order for them to fully comprehend the fullness of the passage they would have had to be aided by God.

Interestingly enough in seeking material to further discuss your post I found a new resource that you might enjoy.

It is a book entitled "Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament" and is edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson. It is worth a look.


There is a good interview in Christianity Today regarding the book.


1 Corinthians 13:12 (English Standard Version)
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

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