Archive for March 27th, 2014

(NOTE: The following is a quick sketch of my thoughts on the hermeneutical connection between Calvinism, Presuppositionalism and Dispensationalism; I plan sometime in the future to interact more with the literatures on Covenant Theology, hermeneutics and Presuppositionalism, particularly the essays in Revelation and Reason by the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary, many of whom I have grown so much from their work!)

As Christians, one’s ultimate authority should be the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16, etc).  Its authority should be over every area of our lives.  If we truly believe the Word, we would live our lives in light of it’s truth; namely it should be interpreting our experience, prescribing to us what to do and not to do, along with the Word providing the provisions of God’s truths that motivate one to obedience (Note: John Frame’s Perspectivalism is helpful here, with his triade of the situational, normative and existential).  That’s a round-about way of saying that knowing Scriptural truths should lead us to apply God’s Word.  Heed the word of James 1:22 (NASB):

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”

If we could illustrate this truth:

Bible apply to life

But one must remember that one can also misapply God’s Word.  That can happen in two ways: (1) One can misinterpret the truths from the Bible, (2) or one can misinterpret one’s situation and apply the wrong Biblical remedy, even though the principles themselves are true and from God’s Word.  Two quick examples: With (1), you have a cultist who thinks the Bible teaches salvation by works which bring with it  an array of negative effects (damnation in eternity, and present experience of  unresolved guilt, condemnation from one’s conscience, etc).  An example of (2) is when you have someone who knows that the Bible teaches marriage fidelity between a man and a woman; but then this individual is calling a particular girl he likes to be faithful to him–even though they are not in a relationship and she doesn’t want to be with him.  He just merely thinks he’s married already.

The fact that we can misapply God’s Word by misinterpreting what it says should sober us and make us desire to be more conscious of how we interpret the Bible.  In fact, interpretation of God’s Word has logical priority over it’s application, because one cannot apply God’s Word if one does not understand or know it.  In order to get the proper interpretation, we want to apply good and sound principles of interpretations to the Word.  The study of the principles, method and other presuppositions involved in interpretation is called hermeneutics.

We illustrate it like this:

Bible hermeneutical bridge to life

To reach the goal of applying the Bible to one’s life, the journey of interpretation travels over a hermeneutical “bridge.”  I think the bridge is quite an appropriate analogy since it is foundational for interpretation.  Furthermore, a good hermeneutic will rise above and not crumble into the sea of meaninglessness, subjectivism, etc.

If one wants to be more nuance, we might add that the content of one’s interpretation of the Bible is what we call doctrine.  Think of God’s attributes, the Trinity, Incarnation, etc.  For the purpose of this essay, we will call bodies of doctrines ” theology.” The content of our theology will impact our lives, but we want to make sure they are coming from God’s Word.  Our illustration is thus modified:

Bible hermeneutical bridge to theology


Theology can be quite broad.  For instance, we have the following traditional divisions in theology:

  • Bibliology (Doctrines pertaining to the Word of G0d)
  • Theology Proper (Doctrines pertaining to God Himself and His Works)
  • Anthropology (Doctrines pertaining to man)
  • Hamartiology (Doctrines pertaining to sin)
  • Christology (Doctrines pertaining to Christ)
  • Soteriology (Doctrines pertaining to Salvation)
  • Pneumatology (Doctrines pertaining to the Holy Spirit)
  • Ecclesiology(Doctrines pertaining to the church)
  • Eschatology (Doctrines pertaining to Last things)

More could be added, to include:

  • Israelology (Doctrines pertaining to the ethnic group of Israel)
  • Apologetics (Doctrines pertaining to the defense of the faith)

Or things concerning a “Christian philosophy:”

  • Epistemology (Philosophy of knowledge)
  • Metaphysics (Philosophy of reality)
  • Ethics (Philosophy of moral standards)
  • Aesthetics (Philosophy of beauty)

We can go on and on, but you get the idea.

As one notice above, I put apologetics under theology, because I believe apologetics ultimately is the application of God’s Word to unbelief.  I also believe one’s theology will shape one’s apologetics:

Bible hermeneutical bridge to apologetics


The divisions in theology that will shape one’s apologetics include the following (note the sample questions):

  • Theology Proper (Is God knowable or not?)
  • Bibliology (Is God’s revelation of Himself clear?  Is the Bible self-evidencing?)
  • Anthropology (What is man and does he have dignity and meaning?)
  • Hamartiology (What is the extent of man’s sinfulness and how will he interpret the evidences?)
  • Soteriology (How does God bring people to a saving knowledge of Himself?)
  • Pneumatology (What is the role of the Holy Spirit in apologetics?)

How Calvinistic Theology answer the above question will lead to a method called Presuppositional apologetics (those unfamiliar with Presuppositional apologetics might want to listen to Greg Bahnsen’s lectures first):

Bible hermeneutical bridge to calvinistic theology then presuppositional apologetics


If we answer the above questions we get this:

  • Is God knowable or not?  Yes (Psalm 19:1-6).
  • Is God’s revelation of Himself clear?  Yes (Romans 1:18ff, Psalms 19).
  • Is the Bible self-evidencing?  Yes (Luke 16:31).
  • What is man and does he have dignity and meaning?  Yes, because He’s made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26 cf. James 3:9).
  • What is the extent of man’s sinfulness and how will he interpret the evidences?  Total depraved, who suppresses the truth (Romans 1:18ff).
  • How does God bring people to a saving knowledge of Himself?  Among many things, the Gospel being preached (Romans 10:14-15); ultimately, salvation is not on the basis of man’s will (John 1:12) since man doesn’t even seek God (Romans 3:10) unless God bring about through His effectual call.
  • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in apologetics?  Holy Spirit convicts and regenerate sinners on the occasion of the Gospel being preached (John 16:8, Titus 3:5, etc).

The above answer will definitely shape how one goes about defending the faith such as what constitute as evidences, the weight of the evidences and how does the nonbeliever handles the evidences, who should be in the “dock,” etc.

No doubt the Calvinist believes that his answer is properly drawn out from the Scriptures (see the verses with it; obviously space does not permit a lengthy exposition of the above but an older Reformed Systematic Theology text by Berkhof can be accessed here).  The Calvinist will say that his correct interpretation of the Scriptures is the result of a strong hermeneutical foundational “bridge.”

What is the Calvinist’s foundation that led him to arrive at his answer in interpreting Psalm 19, Romans 1, Luke 16:31, Titus 3:5, etc?  It’s the historical-grammatical approach:

Bible historical grammatical hermeneutical bridge to calvinistic theology then presuppositional apologetics

He interprets the passages in it’s original context, with consideration of the function and meaning of words while aware of the literary forms of what’s he’s reading.  He looks at the verses and is careful to draw out grammatical and syntactical insight from the Bible.  To that I say praise the Lord!

Recognizing how foundational hermeneutics is should definitely make us give it some attention in one’s own theological approach and also when we dialogue with others; and an important litmus test of a good hermeneutic is consistency.

When the subject of Dispsensational theology comes up, the majority of Calvinists reject it (there are of course a subset that are Dispensationalists). An example of this rejection happened in a recent discussion I had with a particular individual:

Dispensationalism is built upon two foundations or presuppositions. (Ryrie et. al.) Number one is that we must absolutely make the distinction between Israel and the church. We must not confuse those two. The second foundation or presupposition is that we must take a literal interpretation of the Scriptures, especially Old Testament prophesies. So, from that foundation, it is asserted in dispensationalism that God has two peoples, his earthly people – the Israelites, and his heavenly people – the Church.

From that, it is taught that in the OT, God primarily dealt with his earthly people, gave them his law, promised to give them the land of Canaan forever etc. So, when it comes to reading the books of the major and minor prophets, and the prophesies concerning the regathering of Israel into the land, the rebuilding of the temple, the sending of a Davidic king to physically reign on earth etc., they expect all that to be fulfilled literally.

This individual also added: “Reformed theology on the other hand, sees the history of salvation completely differently.”

To reject Dispensationalism because of it’s literal, historical and grammatical hermeneutics as a Calvinists seems problematic:

  1. If Dispensational theology is the product of interpreting the Bible via a literal reading of the Scriptures, then IT IS what the Bible teaches.
  2. Calvinism is arrived at from a literal hermenutic.  So is Dispensationalism.  If I may give the analogy, both Calvinism and Dispensationalism are like two trucks of God’s truth crossing the hermeneutical bridge of historical and grammatical approach:

Dispensationalism Calvinism Hermeneutical Bridge

 If you want to “blow up” the bridge, you also blow up the very bridge that Calvinism is traveling on.  If you don’t attack the bridge, Calvinism comes out from the Bible–with Dispensationalism right behind it.

3. I realize that one might object to my second point, that the interpretation is not as literal for the Old Testament prophetic books, etc.  However, there are prophecies in the Old Testament that are taken literally in predicting the fulfillment of the Messiah.  I would say that the same historical-grammatical hermeneutic that Christian apologists used to demonstrate that the Old Testament points towards Christ is also the same hermeneutic which reveal certain promises to Israel in the Prophetic genre:

Hermeneutics Bridge

Sometimes these Messianic prophecies and promises to Israel are closely interwined in the text.  The same historical grammatical approach in the Messianic passage also yield the promises of God to Israel.  Again, for the Calvinist who reject Dispensationalism it’s a case of inconsistency:  Will one accept these literal Messianic prophecies while rejecting the embedded promises to Israel as being literal?

I can only provide a sketch at this time but Lord willing I would like in the future to explore more Messianic prophecies and how some are sitting right next to additional promises God made towards Israel.  These are promises to Israel that God hasn’t fulfilled yet–and suggests eschatological significance.  I have looked briefly in Zechariah 12:10 in the past as one example and again, I hope to explore more of Christ in the Old Testament–while also discovering promises to Israel in the context as well.


I know many who read this are cautious about the subject of Dispensationalism; like you, I’m rather weary of  the sensationalism of Pop Dispensationalism (think of Left Behind Series, Chick Tracks, the guy who read the headlines to interpret the Bible, those who have End Times as a hobby horse but have no love for other truths in Scripture , etc).  But it seems that as we look at the hermeneutical foundation for Presuppositional Apologetics, it does have implication concerning Dispensationalism.  Specifically: the very hermeneutic that leads one to interpret the Bible and become a Presuppositionalists is also the very hermeneutic that gives us from the Bible Dispensational truths.

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