Confession and Theology: Explicit and Implicit Scriptural Teaching

I have been having a lot of theological conversations of late. In fact, just last night I spent nearly five hours with a friend discussing the current Trinitarian controversy among Reformed complementarians while enjoying a delightful dinner (we were worried we were overstaying our welcome but no one said anything to us, much to our relief). Eventually we got around to the question of whether we ever go too far in theological precision. Do we say more than Scripture says? That is a real possibility and we need to keep watch of ourselves. This is sometimes referred to as filling in the gaps of an underdetermined Scriptural doctrine. It is quite possible that we might be tempted to say more than the Bible. However, I suggested to my brother-in-the-Lord that whenever we are tempted to wonder whether a given discussion or formulation is straying into the penumbral zone of speculation we also need to counter that fear with another question. Are we tempted to be theologically lethargic, not to say plain ole lazy?

I am afraid that when we discover that we in waters too deep or that we are out of our theological depth (we all experience this reality every once in a while) that our eyes begin to glaze over and our minds shut down. When this happens rather than admit what we are experiencing we declare that our opponents are being speculative. Because this is possible we can get away with this ploy. Let me admit up front that when I worry that we have gone well beyond the limits of Scripture (Deut.29:29) I also want to make sure that I am not simply giving in to my lazy disposition.

Why I want to counter the concern for speculation with the concern for intellectual slothfulness is that we can fall into either ditch. The fact of the matter is that I do not know my Bible as well as I really should. I am not thinking merely of memorizing various passages and books, but I have in mind being aware of the multitudinous intersections, convergences, jug handles, and round-a-bouts between different texts. I am thinking of both intentional inner-biblical exegesis, but also echoes, allusions, faint traces of interaction. The Bible, the Westminster divines tell us, is God’s Word in all that it says both explicitly and implicitly.

In the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 we read 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.

Note the italicized words. Scripture is authoritative in what it expressly sets down and what can be deduced by good and necessary consequence. That is not to say that everything we think we can deduce from Scripture is authoritative but that what is deduced by good and necessary consequence is. We will have to build arguments to defend our understandings of Scripture and we will have to persuade the church. We will have to unpack our logic and the texts that come together to form the bedrock of our hermeneutical convictions. Maybe it would be nice if we had a proof text for everything. But I suspect not because God has chosen to give implicit authoritative teaching in the Bible.

How do we know this? Is this something concocted in the fevered imaginations of some 17th century pastor-theologians crammed into the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey in London? Not at all. One of the classic places we can turn to see Jesus draw from implicit teaching in in Luke 20:27-40. Here Jesus is asked by  group of Sadducees about who a woman who shared seven brothers as successive husbands would be married to in the resurrection. Jesus chides these men that they err because they do not understand the Scriptures. He knows that among other things, the Sadducees rejected belief in the resurrection and so he corrects their fallacy. There will be no marriage in the resurrection, but there will be a resurrection for sure. Where does Jesus turn to justify his belief in the resurrection? To Exodus 3:6 and the encounter between Moses and the angel of the Lord at the burning bush. From this account Jesus notes that God tells Moses there that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus zeroes in on the present tense of the verb is. God is the God of Abraham, not was. By the present tense of the verb is (to be), Jesus deduces the doctrine of the resurrection.

So we need to reckon with the fact that what the Bible teaches explicitly and implicitly is God’s Word. Period. End of discussion. But let’s admit that we don’t all have all of these biblical intersections memorized. Do we? When we are wondering whether our favorite theologian or our not-so-favorite theologians have over-extended themselves, remember that it is quite possible that we haven’t thought about all the connections possible in the Bible.  What are we to do? Give ourselves to studying the Word of God and over time slowly learning these connections.

It’s worth pursuing both the explicit and the implicit teaching of Scripture.

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.

Jeffrey Waddington