For Instruction, Doctrine, and Morals: Not the God of the Dead
For a decade the Westminster Assembly of divines (i.e., theologians) met at Westminster Abbey in London (1643-1653) to produce a Scriptural doctrinal standard and church government. During that time the well-known Confession of Faith was drawn up to explicate the system of doctrine drawn from the text of Scripture itself. In the profound first chapter of the confession where the primacy of Scripture was trumpeted, the divines articulated an interpretive principle that protects the sound handling and understanding of God’s Word. In particular, we find the following:
6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.
Since the Bible is God’s Word itself, what it says God says. But we need to go beyond what the Scriptures say explicitly. Rich theology requires affirmation of what we may explicitly locate by chapter and verse in the Bible. But sound doctrine also requires that we reckon with what is taught implicitly. That is, what may be deduced from Scripture by good and necessary consequence is equally authoritative with what is stated in black and white and so is therefore equally binding. Deduction of good and necessary consequence involves getting at the background of a text or the bringing together of texts from different parts of Scripture and asking what these texts together mean.
There is significant biblical precedent for deducing good and necessary consequences from Scripture. In Luke 20:27-39 our Lord Jesus Christ has a verbal exchange with some Sadducees regarding a woman who had seven husbands (she married each of seven brothers successively in order to have children) and they wondered whose wife she would be in the “resurrection.” Of course, this whole conversation was a trick to trap Jesus between a rock and hard place. Sadducees, one of the sects of Judaism in Jesus’ day, didn’t believe in the resurrection or in the existence of angels. And they only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament. Knowing this, Jesus was wary of their shenanigans.
Where would you expect Jesus to turn in order to prove the reality of the resurrection? Probably not Exodus 3:15-22. But that is exactly where Jesus turned to refute the errors of the Sadducees. Jesus goes right to the encounter that Moses had on the back of Mount Sinai when he discovered a burning bush that was not consumed. In the conversation between Moses and the angel of the Lord/the Lord in the burning bush God identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why does Jesus turn to this text to prove the reality of the resurrection? What is there about it or within it that Jesus looks to?
Jesus’ argument for the reality of the resurrection (and of angels too) is in the present tense of the verbs in God’s expression that he is the God of Abraham. God is the God of the living, not of the dead. It is not merely that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the days of the flourishing. That is, of course, true enough. But God reveals himself to Moses and the children of Israel as the God of the living. He is the God of their fathers. Not He was. He Is. Jesus here provides us with an example of deducing an authoritative and binding biblical teaching that is not on the surface of the text but is nevertheless present and indeed required for the text to make any sense.
God is not the God of the dead. He is the God of the living. While we can glean this truth from many places in God’s Word where this is taught in a prima facie way, Jesus does not go that route. By providing us with this example he is putting his stamp of approval on the deduction of good and necessary consequences from Scripture and showing us that these are equally binding with explicit doctrine.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.