Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Christ, the Scope of Scripture in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on July 29, 2008 at 6:43 pm

Seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy had a “whole-Bible” hermeneutic which was manifested, among other places, in their understanding of the scopus of Scripture.[1] Though scopus could refer to the immediate pericope, it also had a wider, redemptive-historical focus. Scopus, in this latter sense, referred to the center or target of the entirety of canonical revelation; it is that to which the entire Bible points. For the Reformers and for the seventeenth-century Reformed orthodox, Christ was the scopus of Scripture.

The First Helvetic Confession of 1536 gave early Reformed expression to this concept in Article V, entitled the Scope of Scripture.[2] The first sentence of that article reads as follows:

The position of this entire canonical scripture [or of the entire actual canonical scripture] is this, that God is kindhearted [or shows kindness] to the race of men, and that he has proclaimed [or demonstrated] this kindness [or goodwill] through Christ his Son.[3]

William Ames, for instance, says, “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.”[4]

Kelly M. Kapic says of John Owen:

For Owen, all Scripture points to Christ, for “the revelation 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 whereinto they are resolved” (Works, 1:314-15). Owen attempts to avoid allowing the original context and meaning of any Old Testament passage to be lost; yet, he also maintains that a Christian exegete must ultimately find the passage’s Christological meaning.[5]

Isaac Ambrose gives eloquent expression to the concept of Christ as scopus of Scripture in later Reformed thought:

Keep still Jesus Christ in your eye, in the perusal of the Scriptures, as the end, scope and substance thereof: what are the whole Scriptures, but as it were the spiritual swaddling clothes of the holy child Jesus? 1. Christ is the truth and substance of all the types and shadows. 2. Christ is the substance and matter of the Covenant of Grace, and all administrations thereof; under the Old Testament Christ is veiled, under the New Covenant revealed. 3. Christ is the centre and meeting place of all the promises; for in him the promises of God are yea and Amen. 4. Christ is the thing signified, sealed and exhibited in the Sacraments of the Old and New Testament. 5. Scripture genealogies use to lead us on to the true line of Christ. 6. Scripture chronologies are to discover to us the times and seasons of Christ. 7. Scripture-laws are our schoolmasters to bring us to Christ, the moral by correcting, the ceremonial by directing. 8. Scripture-gospel is Christ’s light, whereby we hear and follow him; Christ’s cords of love, whereby we are drawn into sweet union and communion with him; yea it is the very power of God unto salvation unto all them that believe in Christ Jesus; and therefore think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul and scope of the whole Scriptures.[6]

Muller, commenting on scopus in seventeenth-century Reformed thought, says:

Christ…is the fundamentum and scopus of Scripture inasmuch as he is the redemptive center on which the entire principium cognoscendi or cognitive foundation rests and in whom it find [sic] its unity.[7]

…the theologies of the Reformers and of their orthodox successors consistently place Christ at the center of their discussions of redemption, consistently understand Christ as the center and fulfill­ment of divine revelation, and equally consistently understand the causality of salvation as grounded in the divine purpose. Christ, as Mediator, must be subordinate to the divine purpose, even as Christ, considered as God, is the one who with the Father and the Spirit decrees salvation before the foundation of the world: Causal theocentricity guarantees redemptive Christocentricity. Neither the doctrine of God nor the doctrine of Christ, however, serves as the basis of a neatly deduced system: The loci themselves arise out of the interpretation of Scripture.[8]

James M. Renihan, commenting on the confessional theology of the Reformed orthodox, says:

It is necessary to insist that there is a further step to identify in this process, which is to say that in agreement with Athanasius, the English Reformed confessors understood their statement to imply that Christ is the scope of all Scripture. This is evident in at least two ways. First, the Reformed authors, following the text of Holy Writ, argue that Christ is the incarnation of the glory of God. If the scope of Scripture is to give all glory to God, and all glory comes to God through Him, then by definition this statement must have reference to the person of Jesus Christ. Secondly, they recognized the intimate relationship present between the two testaments and their constituent books. The Old, whether considered as a whole or in its parts, is an anticipation of the work of God in Christ. From the protevangelium through the historical revelation of the Covenant of Grace in the history of Israel, everything looked forward to his coming. Likewise, the New is the full revelation of the promises progressively revealed in the Old. This unity finds it fullness in Jesus Christ and his work. In every place, the Bible points to Christ-he is the target-the scope of Scripture.[9]

According to Reformed orthodoxy, then, Christ is the scopus (target) toward which the whole of Scripture tends. This view of the scopus of Scripture was closely related to their view of the relation between the testaments. The relationship between the testaments was seen in terms of a promise/fulfillment, figure/reality, type/anti-type motif.[10] Hence, “the New Testament may be understood as the interpreter of the Old.”[11] Revelation was progressive, self-interpreting, and consummated in the coming of Christ.

Here we must be careful not to infuse later, neo-orthodox concepts of Christocentricity into the historical data. The Christocentricity of the Reformed and Reformed orthodox was redemptive-historical and not principial, as Muller points out.[12] In other words, it came as a result of Scripture functioning as the principium cognoscendi (principle of knowing) or cognitive foundation of our knowledge of God. Scripture, and not Christ the Mediator, is a fundamental principle or foundation of theology in Reformed orthodoxy.[13] They started with Scripture and concluded Christocentricity in terms of the historia salutis. Their Christocentricity is revelational and connected to redemption. As Muller says, such “Christocentrism consistently places Christ at the historical and at the soteriological center of the work of redemption.”[14] But we must still be careful with the term Christocentricity. Christology must not be viewed as the central dogma of the Reformed orthodox. As Muller says:

Such doctrines as God, predestination, Christ, and covenant provide not alternative but coordinate foci – and the presence of each and every one of these topics in theology rests not on a rational, deductive process but on their presence as loci in the exegetical or interpretive tradition of the church.[15]

The method of Reformed orthodoxy, then, started with the text of Scripture and its exegesis, went to the synthesizing of Scripture in terms of interpreting difficult passages in light of clearer ones and identifying its (i.e., Scripture’s) unifying theme or themes based on its various levels of meaning[16], and then (and only then) categorizing the exegetical and canonical-theological findings in the long-practiced loci method of dogmatics.

Richard Barcellos
The Midwest Center for Theological Studies

[1] For a helpful historically and theologically aware introduction to this concept see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, II:206-23. Cf. also Martin I. Klauber, “Hermeneutics and the Doctrine of Scripture in Post-Reformation Reformed Thought,” Premise, Volume II, Number 9 (October 19, 1995): 8ff. and James M. Renihan, “Theology on Target: The Scope of the Whole,” RBTR, II:2 (July 2005): 36-53.

[2] Cf. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Volume III: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, Reprinted 1996), 212.

[3] This English translation of the original Latin was provided by Amy Chifici, M.A. Cf. Schaff, Creeds, III, 212-13, for the German and Latin originals.

[4] Ames, Marrow of Theology, 202 (XXXVIII:5).

[5] Kelly M. Kapic, “Owen, John (1616-1683)” in Donald K. McKim, editor, Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, 797-98.

[6] Isaac Ambrose, Works (1701), 201, as quoted in Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 103.

[7] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:156.

[8] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:155.

[9] Renihan, “Theology on Target: The Scope of the Whole,” 43-44. Renihan makes these comments after quoting John Owen, who, according to Renihan, was, in effect, exegeting “the scope of the whole” terminology as found in the Westminster Confession, Savoy Declaration, and Second London Confession.

[10] Muller, PRRD, II:492.

[11] Muller, PRRD, II:492.

[12] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:157.

[13] Muller, Dictionary, 245-46.

[14] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:157.

[15] Muller, “Calvin and the “Calvinists”,” II:157.

[16] Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” 27-38, for a discussion of levels of meaning and also Muller, PRRD, II:469-82.

  1. I have heard Lutherans and New Covenant Theology people claim they are “more Christocentric” than us Reformed folk. Like you wrote, it depends on what is meant by Christocentric!

  2. New Covenant Theology people sounds weird…New Covenant Theologians? NCTers?

  3. Thank you for the “Christocentric” post Richard. I’m been reading a lot from the Puritans lately and one of the great benefits is because they constantly bring Jesus Christ before the reader, wooing us unto him in all his glory. I do have a question for you, or anyone else who would like to answer, but I don’t want the fact that I’m raising a question to take away from how much I appreciated your post. How do we, whether we be pastors or laypeople, read the Bible with Christ always in view yet without forcing him into passages where he may not be, or at least may not be one of visible actors in the current Script (to use theo-drama language)? You have probably heard sermons or read men who so wanted to see Christ at the center of Scripture that everything was turned into a type/shadow of him, if not declaring him present in substance? The substance of both testaments and the substance of all texts may point to Christ, but we should not fail to rightly interpret a text with proper hermeneutical and theological means because we’re reading every text with the goal of seeing a reference of Jesus. My guess is that you would agree, so my hope is that you could help us both rightly read the Scriptures and keep Christ as the scope of them. Thank you again.

  4. […] Christ, the Scope of Scripture in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy « Reformed Baptist Fellows… […]

  5. I thought you might be interested in an electronic edition of Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4 Vols.) available on the Logos Bible Software Pre-Publication page.

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