Life in the Trinity: Interpreting Scripture

This post continues a series in the book Life in the Trinity by Donald Fairbairn. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1235678.

Fairbairn advocates the Christ-centered approach to biblical interpretation utilized by many of the church fathers. That approach begins with the central message of Scripture (what the fathers called the rule of faith) and then understands a specific text in that light. In this way, one starts with the broad context (story) of all Scripture and only then focuses on the narrow particulars.

Unfortunately, we often do the reverse. We read a particular passage, then look only to its immediate (narrow) context to determine its meaning. When we do so, the broad context and thus the true meaning is often distorted or entirely missed.

Fairbairn elaborates, pointing to the church father's understanding of the rule of faith:
We [tend to] start with ourselves and ask how God relates to us. The church fathers started with God, and especially with Christ, and asked how we participate in Christ. This is why virtually all of patristic thought saw theosis - humanity's becoming somehow a participant in the divine life - as the link between God and humanity. Furthermore, this is why one strand of patristic thought...understood theosis in terms of the Father's relationship to the Son and saw our participation in this relationship as the scarlet thread of the Christian faith. If one does theology in the way the church fathers did, with the life of the trinitarian persons as the heart, then one will seek to find those trinitarian persons - especially the preincarnate Son - throughout the Old Testament. (p115, emphasis added)
Note that the church fathers saw the rule of faith as Jesus and our relationship with God in him. To them, this  scarlet thread unifies all Scripture and the Christian faith. Fairbairn illustrates with a quote from Irenaeus concerning interpreting the parables of Jesus:
All Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things. (p112, emphasis added) 
In interpreting the Old Testament, the church fathers "scoured the Hebrew Scriptures for hints, prefigurings and foreshadowings of Christ..." (p111-112).  In order to avoid over-allegorizing the Old Testament in order to find Jesus there (as some of the church fathers are accused of having done), Fairbairn suggests that we look in Scripture for the important Christ-centered theme of promise, upon which the related biblical idea of covenant is built:
Shortly after the Fall, God gave humanity a promise that a single person would come to undo the effects of that Fall and bring humankind back into the fellowship of the Trinity. Then throughout the Old Testament period, God revealed with increasing specificity where this promised person would come from, why people would need him, what he would do, and most important, that he would be not merely a human person but a divine person, the Son of God. 
...This idea of promise is fundamental to the Old Testament...even more foundational than the concept of covenant or the question of how God relates to humanity at different periods in redemptive history. The concept of promise places the focus on God, because God has made the promise, and the content of the proimise is that God will send his own Son to us. Thus the idea of promise provides the context in which the question of God's relationship to humanity is addressed. Or, to say it differently, the promise underlies and provides the groundwork for God's covenant (or covenants) with human beings. (pp 121-122)


Anonymous said…
Hi there!

I find this post very encouraging in one sense. But I also find it discouraging in another. This is because many have corrupted the wonderful harmonious melody of the Bible, and so its Christ-centered theme of promise is missed by many. But there is great harmony in the Bible based on the fulfillment of a promise God gave to Abraham.

You see, humans fell completely and totally with Adam and Eve. Then God made a promise to Abraham that in his seed all peoples will be blessed. That promise was extended to and through David and others, until finally, Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected in fulfillment of that promise. And that is what the Bible is--the telling of God's story of the fulfillment of His promise. Furthermore, when the early Christians stepped forth, they told with great joy that story, and what it means to Christians, as they saw that:

Galatians 3:29--If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV)

Anyway, I wish you well.

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your comment Richard. The theme of promise, which points to the covenant, is indeed the central story of the Bible. I think Fairbairn's explanation in this regard is very helpful.
Ting Bejo said…
Yes, the theme of promise drives the drama of the whole biblical narrative. The biblical narrators tell us how God gives the Promise of the Seed and then build the suspense by telling us how the promise is endangered with matriarchs who are not capable of bearing children, with pagan kings who could have taken the matriarchs as part of their harems, with famines that could have wiped out the whole clan, slavery in Egypt, wealth in the Promised Land, disobedience in Canaan and exiles in Assyria and Babylon. I find it truly inspiring that after 400 years of silence after the Prophet Malachi, when it seems all hope is lost, the narrative resumes and Matthew declares that the Son of Abraham and the Son of David has finally arrived! Promise Given, Promise Endangered, Promise Fulfilled, this can be a major outline for a narrative reading of the whole Bible.
Ted Johnston said…
One of the readers of this blog, posted a comment relevant to this post on my FaceBook page. Here is his comment. I'll reply in the next comment.


My research, on this subject, really comes down to one pivotal question. Is the Holy Bible written to everyone, or is it written only to God's Elect. (Elect being defined in Mt 24:22,24,31 Lk 18:7, Rom 8:33, 9:11, 2 Tim 2:10 and Tit 1:1). An individual's answer to this question will filter how they interpret the entire Bible. Here is an example in 2 Cor 5:14-15, "For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised."

Question. Who is "all"?

If you believe that the Bible is written to everyone, then all means "all without exception"; meaning every human being

If you believe that the Bible is written to God's Elect ONLY, then all means "all without distinction"; meaning every one of God's Elect.

I believe the second answer is scripturally correct for many reasons. Here is one. If you believe that every human being was "justified" at the Cross, the Bible says that the following now applies to everyone; Justification is God declaring those who receive Christ to be righteous, based on Christ's righteousness being imputed to the accounts of those who receive Christ (2 Cor 5:21). Though justification as a principle is found throughout scripture, the main passage describing justification in relation to believers is (Rom 3:21 -26)

.."This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.." So we are justified, declared righteous, at the moment of our salvation. Justification does not make us righteous, but rather pronounces us righteous. Our righteousness comes from placing our faith in the finished work of Christ.

So according to the scriptures, everyone is not justified by the redemptive work of Christ. That work makes possible a reconcilation between man and God, but does not automatically accomplish that work for everyone!

That's why 2 Cor 5:20 says ".. We implore you on behalf on Christ, be reconciled to God."

So back to 2 Cor 5:14 - 15. If "all" means everyone, then every human being has died with Christ, rose with Christ, and is now justified.

That is completely impossible, for many reasons.

The scriptures I've listed, would be broken. For the sake of time, many other scriptures I could list, would also be broken.

God, the Son, gave himself for the church, not the world. Notice the conditional phrase in the latter part of John 3:16.

And how interesting is Acts 20:28

"Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the CHURCH of God, which he obtained WITH HIS OWN BLOOD."

Jesus died for His church, not the world! Those are the people that have "died" and "rose" with Him.

Those are the only people that have the God given ability to understand the Gospel, and believe the Gospel.

The phrase, "We are all included" is correct. But the "we" is God's Elect, not the world.

Thank you for the opportunity and I welcome analysis of other scriptures as imperfect human beings are just following a perfect God.
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for this comment. I agree with you that the meaning of "all" is pivotal in understanding the issue of God's provision of grace to humanity in the person and work of God's Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, I disagree with your assessment that "all" is limited to "all the elect." I believe the weakness of your argument to limit the scope of "all" is exposed by a careful exegesis of the primary text to which you refer, namely 2Cor. 5:11-21. To suggest that the "all" that Christ died for (v14) is any less than the "all" that he created and sustains, is to make him of two wills - one in creation, but another in redemption. To the contrary, Paul exclaims that the "all" for which Christ died is no less than "the world" that God was reconciling to himself in the death (and resurrection) of Christ (v19). On that basis, we are given to ministry of proclaiming to all people, that this reconciliation is an accomplished fact, and to invite them to live into that reality.

Paul develops this thought even further in Romans 5 where the "all" to which he refers is the "all" who, in Adam who have sinned (v12). And it is the same "all" that he speaks of in v18 as having been given the gift of life in Jesus, the second Adam (v18).

This universal gift of accomplished reconciliation with God, is then experienced by individuals as they embrace, accept and thus live into (by faith) what is theirs already in Christ.

Thus in reconciliation with God there is the universal aspect and the personal aspect. But note that the personal has no meaning; no efficacy, if the universal is not true beforehand.
RCSingleton said…
Thank you for your response.

Who is ultimately responsible for why one comes to Christ, or not?

Since Eph 2:8 - 10, Phil 1:29, and 2 Pet 1:1 says that grace, through faith, is a GIFT of God, its therefore impossible for anyone to believe in Him without the power of God, the Holy Spirit.

Since God desires everyone to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), then isn't he powerful enough to orchestrate circumstances such that the presentation of the Gospel would be successful in every case? In other words, why doesn't God enable a 100% spiritual birth rate? We know that is not going to happen, because the Bible tells that everyone is not going to heaven.

Is the will of the "lost" more powerful than God's will? Obviously not, so what is the deal here?

I firmly believe that the "doctrine of unconditional election" most accurately reflects the scriptures. To me, this means that God singled out certain ones in His mind both from among angels and from among men (1 Tim 5:21) and ordained them unto eternal life and grace.

I have many scriptures that support this view, but for the sake of time, I will list just two of them.

"As many as were ordained to eternal life believed" (Acts 13:48), and not "as many as believed, were ordained to eternal life." Since, then, faith flows from divine grace, it cannot be the cause of our election. The reason why other men do not believe, is because they are not of Christ’s sheep (John 10:26); the reason why any believe is because God gives them faith, and therefore it is called "the faith of God’s elect" (Titus 1:1).

It is not God’s foreview of these things in men which moved Him to choose them. God’s foreknowledge of the future is founded upon the determination of His will concerning it. The divine decree, the divine foreknowledge, and the divine predestination is the order set forth in the Scriptures. First, "Who are the called according to his purpose"; second, "for whom he did foreknow"; third, "he also did predestinate" (Rom. 8:28, 29). The decree of God as preceding His foreknowledge is also stated in, "Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). God foreknows everything that will be, because He has ordained everything that shall be; then it is to put the cart before the horse when we make foreknowledge the cause of God’s election.

Acts 13:48, Heb 10:14, Eph 1:4, Mt 22:14, all of Rom 9 tells us that God choose who would be extended grace and eternal life; and who would be extended judgment before the foundation of the world. God determines who is saved, not man!

There are really only three groups of people.

1. God's Elect - as defined in detail in Heb 10:14,16. Those who currently believe in the Gospel and are walking with God, in the process of sanctification.

2. God's Sleeping Elect - also chosen by God, but have not yet turned to the finished work of Christ. But they will, before their physical death. God has promised that in John 6:39 - 40.

3. The Lost - they have been chosen, by God, to judgment and will remain spiritually dead. There is no possibility of them choosing to understand spiritual matters, on their own. Any more than a dead body can resurrect itself.

Just my two cents,

Thanks for the discussion.
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Randy,

The issues you raise are nicely addressed by Jeff McSwain in the You're Included interview posted at,+Arminianism,+and+Karl+Barth

The view you articulate is essentially that of Five-point Calvinism, which posits among other key ideas those of limited atonement and irresistible grace. I don't say that to demean your view, but to note its historic context.

As McSwain's comments in the interview show, there are ways to understand the same Scriptures you cite, but drawing very different conclusions. Why the difference? It primarily has to do with one's theological "grid." I prefer one that is more fully Trinitarian and Christ-centered. Yours necessitates a distinction between God's mind in creation from that of redemption. I can't go there with you. However, I know we do share a commitment to Christ and a total reliance for salvation on God's grace in Christ.

If you'd like to read something more in depth, I'd recommend chapter one in the book "Incarnational Ministry: Essays in Honor of Ray S. Anderson" edited by Kettler and Speidell. This chapter reproduces an essay by Tom Torrance titled "The Distinctive Character of the Reformed Tradition" in which Torrance discusses the very issues you raise and give some helpful historic and theological perspective.
RCSingleton said…
hi Ted,

Thanks for the research suggestions. I will continue to study and verify the author's view against the scriptures. I believe that GCI is on the cusp of realizing that God is neither grace, all the time, or judgment, all the time. But that he is perfectly both, all the time. Elmer Colyer had an interesting discussion, on video, where he discussed the reality of hell, as an example of God's love. That is an excellent step in seeing that all things that God either does, or allows, is Godly love. Including, what I believe is the reality of "double predestination". Under Armstrong, WCG believed that God was judgment, all the time, except to WCGers. Which, of course, led us to legalism. Under Torrance, we believe that God is grace, all the time, which is taking us to an interesting form of universalism. Where we now believe that the "total depravity of man", was somehow nullified, or modified, at the Cross. And now anyone can understand spiritual matters.

I perceive that, at the end, we will have a very different understanding of Godly love, than what the denomination currently experiences.
Unknown said…

Acts 8:30-35 - 30 Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?"

31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone instructs me?" So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him.

32 This was the scripture passage he was reading: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

33 In (his) humiliation justice was denied him. Who will tell of his posterity? For his life is taken from the earth."

34 Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply, "I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?"

35 Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.

2 Peter 1:20 - Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation,

2 Peter 3:16 - Speaking of these things 12 as he does in all his letters. In them there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures.