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No. 9: What Is “Interpretive Maximalism”?

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 9
January, 1990
Copyright 1990, Biblical Horizons

From time to time people ask me about "interpretive maximalism." They want to know what it is, and sometimes want to know if it represents some departure from the Reformed grammatico-historical, Biblico-theological approach to the Bible.

I have something of a problem with these questions, because "interpretive maximalism" is not a new approach to anything, and in fact is not a term I’ve ever used in print, though I have used something quite similar. The question is legitimate, however, since from time to time reviewers make mention of "interpretive maximalism" as something distinctive to some writers and not to others.

Now, where does all this "interpretive maximalism" talk come from? First of all, it comes directly from the introduction by David Chilton to his fine commentary on Revelation, The Days of Vengeance (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), pp. 36ff. Chilton makes the point that everything in the Bible, every detail, is important. He also makes the point that everything in the Old Testament points to Christ. In the course of his discussion, he thanks me for making these two points clear in my introduction to my book, Judges: God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985), and he says that I call this "interpretive maximalism."

Let’s consider Chilton’s points. Are there commentators who hold that there are details in the Bible that are not important? Are they saying that when we read, study, meditate, and expound a passage of Scripture we are to dismiss or ignore the details and just go for the overall thrust? Yes, there are commentators who advocate this. There has been a tendency on the part of some Reformed and evangelical exegetes to say that we should regard details in some passages as merely colorful information. Amazingly, even the great B. B. Warfield says just this in his essay on Biblical chronology, arguing that the chronological data of Genesis 5 and 11 are not important. (See my comments on this in my paper, The Biblical Chronology Question: An Analysis, available from Biblical Horizons for $3.00, postpaid.)

This is an easy trap to fall into, particularly if the details don’t seem to call out for analysis. For instance, 2 Samuel 11:4 says that when David slept with Bathsheba, then "when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house." Many exegetes would simply say that this refers to the Israelite custom in the law of Leviticus 15, and then move on to the next verse. I suggest, however, that we should consider why the Holy Spirit gives us this information. Did David fail to cleanse himself? My guess is that David did not purify himself, knowing what this rite meant. In fact, since the Ark was in the field and holy war was being conducted, David was supposed to avoid all women (1 Sam. 21:4; 2 Sam. 11:11), so that his uncleanness was not ordinary innocent uncleanness, but willful defiance of God’s ceremonial law (in addition to being adultery!). Moreover, an examination of Psalm 51 will show that David mentions every kind of uncleanness discussed in Leviticus 11-15. Thus, uncleanness is in fact a major theme in the story. Only if we take the details seriously, however, will we see this.

The second aspect of "interpretive maximalism" that Chilton mentions is that everything in the Old Testament points to Christ. Are there some expositors who deny this? Certainly there are. Many older King James Bibles have a star next to those isolated verses that prophesy Christ. The assumption is that the rest of the verses don’t prophesy Christ.

Now it was this approach that I was arguing against in my comments in the introduction to Judges. There are those in the evangelical and Reformed world who believe that only selected verses and passages of the Old Testament prophesy Christ, and that we know what those verses are because they are quoted or referred to in the New Testament. In other words, the only prophecies and types are those the New Testament specifically mentions.

The other position, equally Reformed and evangelical, is that everything in the Old Testament points to Christ. This position holds that the specific types and prophecies mentioned in the New Testament provide us with examples and patterns to follow, but that we can find others in the Old Testament as well. Moreover, this position maintains that some aspects of the Old Testament are more pointed and specific types and prophecies, while other aspects of the Old Testament are more vague and general types and prophecies. This is what most of my teachers in seminary believed.

Now, what I wrote in Judges (p. xii) is this: "We have to explain this [i.e., the business about types and prophecies] in order to distance ourselves from the `interpretive minimalism’ that has come to characterize evangelical commentaries on Scripture in recent years. We do not need some specific New Testament verse to `prove’ that a given Old Testament story has symbolic dimensions. Rather, such symbolic dimensions are presupposed in the very fact that man is the image of God. Thus, we ought not to be afraid to hazard a guess at the wider prophetic meanings of Scripture narratives, as we consider how they image the ways of God. Such a `maximalist’ approach as this puts us more in line with the kind of interpretation used by the Church Fathers."

Now, that’s all I wrote and that’s all I meant. Interpreting the Old Testament "maximally," as I used the term, simply means trying to deal with the typological dimension, being open to finding Christ in the passage. There are Reformed and evangelical exegetes who disagree with this. At the same time, I have plenty of company in my view as well.

In fact, I think that those who take this kind of typology seriously are the only people doing justice to the Biblico-theological dimension of interpretation, and my criticism of the Bahnsen-Rushdoony type of "theonomy" is precisely that I don’t think they do justice to this dimension. In common with most of my teachers, I believe that the grammatico-historical "methods" of interpretation need to be complemented by Biblico-theological considerations, and that is what I have sought to do in my own work. (On "theonomy" see James B. Jordan, "Reconsidering the Mosaic Law: Some Reflections — 1988," available from Biblical Horizons .)

Of course, if anyone wants to challenge any of my specific interpretive suggestions, that’s fine with me. The introductions to all my books state clearly that I’m not trying to say the last word, only a helpful word. I welcome interaction that is based on the text of Scripture.

Let me conclude by saying that I don’t use the term "interpretive maximalism," and I don’t call myself an "interpretive maximalist." I used the words "minimal" and "maximal" in attempting to give laymen a grasp of common, garden-variety Biblical theology. (It seemed easier than phrases like "homological typology.") I’m sorry if has caused confusion to some people, and I hope that this essay has clarified matters.

A Bit of Bibliography

I can recommend my own study of typology, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), for more information on my own views. Biblical studies that I have found helpful (not the last word!) in opening up the Biblical symbolic worldview include Meredith G. Kline, Images of the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980); Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1949); and two commentaries by Gordon Wenham, Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) and Numbers (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1981). The book of Revelation is the symbolic climax of Scripture, and nothing matches David Chilton’s commentary, The Days of Vengeance (Fort Worth: Dominion Press, 1987). Also very helpful is G. Lloyd Carr’s commentary on The Song of Solomon (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984).

A valuable study of the redemptive historical approach as it was hammered out in the Reformed Churches of The Netherlands is Sola Scriptura: Problems and Principles of Preaching Historical Texts by Sidney Greidanus (Toronto: Wedge Pub. Co.; 1970). Greidanus puts his principles into practice in his book The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). Unfortunately, this book does not have sections on preaching the law and preaching symbolic prophecy, and Greidanus’s failure to deal with these two matters, and to integrate them into the rest of his methodology, is a weakness in the book.

A popular redemptive historical Bible survey is the four volume set by S. G. de Graaf, Promise and Deliverance (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co.). Much more in-depth, and available only in mimeograph (but well worth having) are the series of Old Testament History books by Homer Hoeksema. Each of these volumes gives very good redemptive historical insights into the text. They are available from the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, 4949 Ivanrest, Grandville, Michigan 49418. I had read all these books years before I ever wrote Judges, and that is partly why I have been amazed when some people regard what I wrote in Judges as new or different. It was old hat to me.

Finally, three recent books relevant to Biblical exegesis need to be noted. They are Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology by Vern S. Poythress; Science and Hermeneutics, also by Poythress; and Has the Church Misread the Bible? The History of Interpretation in the Light of Current Issues, by Moises Silva. Both men teach at Westminster Theological Seminary. These men are setting out the kind of hermeneutical models that I regard as ideal, and I highly recommend their works.