Archive for the ‘Patrick Fairbairn’ Category

Fairbairn on the Free Offer (He’s good here too!)

May 10, 2008

Patrick Fairbairn was probably the best exegete the Free Church of Scotland produced.  Sinclair Ferguson says that he “was one of the brightest stars in the galaxy of brilliant biblical theologians in nineteenth century Scotland.”  His works on The Interpretation of Prophecy, The Typology of Scripture, The Revelation of Law in Scripture and Opening Scripture: A Hermeneutical Manual Introducing the Exegetical Study of the New Testament are magisterial treatments of the subjects covered from a reformed perspective.  In addition to these works the application of Fairbairn’s exegetical principles can be see in his works on Ezekiel, The Pastoral Epistles and Jonah.  He also wrote a work on Pastoral Theology.

I might post some time on Fairbarin’s painstaking work on how the NT writers quoted the OT.  Roger Nicole comments “It is high time that in the midst of controversies in which all kinds of accusations are leveled against the use of the Old Testament by New Testament authors that the painstaking work of Patrick Fairbairn and his monumental scholarship be once again taken into consideration.  I am sure that those who read his volumes will find themselves amply rewarded.” (Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole, Mentor, 2002, 87).  Sadly, it is evident that Nicole’s plea has not been headed.

However, this week I’m posting on his views on the free offer as his works on the Pastoral Epistles and Ezekiel touch on two verses related to the free offer debate:

[God] who wills/desires all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
1 Tim 2:4

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? says the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
Ezek 18:23 & 33:11

Fairbairn understands these verses to speak of the desire of God for the salvation of all who hear the gospel.  On 1 Tim 2:4 Fairbairn comments, “And the whole character of the Gospel of Christ, with its universal Call to repent, its indiscriminate offers of pardon to the penitent, and urgent entreaties to lay hold of the hope set before them, is framed on the very purpose to give expression to that will;[1] for, surely, in pressing such things on men’s acceptance, yea, and holding them disobedient to His holy will, and liable to aggravated condemnation, if they should refuse to accept, God cannot intend to mock them with a mere show and appearance of some great reality being brought near to them.  No; there is the manifestation of a benevolent desire that they should not die in sin, but should come to inherit salvation (as at Ezek. xxxiii. 11) … This, necessarily, is implied; and it is the part of the church … to give practical effect to this message of goodwill from Heaven to men, and to do it in the spirit of tenderness and affection which itself breathes.” (The Pastoral Epistles, 114). 

[1] Fairbairn defines will here as revealed will i.e. not with any “implied purpose or intent”.

Now Fairbairn is aware that given God elects some to salvation and not others, and that God does not even send the gospel to some “grave questions are ready to arise as to whether  … God can be sincere in seeking through His church the salvation of all.”  In framing a response to this he notes that these things touch on “the deep things of God” and that “it is impossible for us, with the materials we now posses, to answer satisfactorily to the speculative reason.”  However, “Knowing who and what He is with whom in such things we have to do, we should rest assured that His procedure will be in truth and uprightness; and the mysteries which meanwhile appear to hang around it will be solved … when the proper time for doing so shall have arrived.” (Ibid, 115).  As I read him, he goes on to limit “all” in v6 to be speaking of “not the preserved of Israel alone, nor a few scattered members besides of other nations, but also the fullness of the Gentiles” (Ibid, 117) i.e. all refers to Jews + Gentiles not Jews only.

Given his reference to Ezekiel 33:11 above Fairbairn’s understanding of this text is clear but I’ll quote it for completeness: “You [unbelieving Israel] think of me as if I were a heartless being, indifferent to the calamities that befall my children [outward covenant people], and even delighting to inflict chastisement on them for sins they have not committed.  So far from this, I have no pleasure in the destruction of those who by their own transgressions have deserved it, but would rather that they turn from their ways and live.  Thus he presents himself as a God of holy love, – love yearning over the lost condition of wayward children, and earnestly desiring their return to peace and safety…” (Ezekiel, 207).

In these extracts Fairbairn is simply expressing standard Free Church of Scotland doctrine.  [I hope Fairbairn’s misguided (in my view) support for Moody & Sanky and union with the United Presbyterians will not devalue what he has to say on this subject.]

Now in offering Fairbairn’s understanding of 1 Tim 2:4 I am not asserting that it is the only viable reformed view of that text (or even necessarilly mine).  Whilst Charles Hodge and many others take the same view as Fairbairn, a large group who have held firmly to the free offer have understood “all men” in this text as limited in application to the elect.  There is no “consent of the Reformed fathers” on how texts like 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9 and John 3:16 are to be understood. (Although there probably is on Ezek 18:32!)  Exegesis of these text as relates to the meaning of “world” or “all” is not a case of “reformed” or “not reformed” but, rather, is a debate between confessional reformed believers who all affirm the well meant offer.

How much accommodation is too much?

May 2, 2008

In certain evangelical (and now Reformed) circles there has been a sea change in the way Scripture is viewed.  No longer do stout defences of plenary verbal inspiration and inerrancy run off the presses.  Instead we are confronted with “the messiness of the Old Testament”, “the synoptic problem” and the need to “advance beyond the old liberal/orthodox impasse” etc.  In other words, the new doctrine of Scripture allows for the Bible to be shot through with historical errors and for certain portions to be “myth”.  Ultimately where this takes us is that, for example, the account of creation in Genesis has as much relevance to actual events asThe Silmarillion

This, you would think, would be an uncomfortable position to be in.  Apparently not.  For Scripture is still “the Word of God” and all this historical inaccuracy and “myth” is ok because that is how God wanted Scripture to be.  And, actually, Reformed doctrine has always pointed in this direction by speaking of the “accommodated” nature of revelation.  In Scripture, then, God has accommodated himself to man by revealing himself in ways that are “messy” i.e. incorporating human myths in the Bible.  To speak of errors in the Bible and myths is therefore standard Reformed doctrine – it is simply applying the doctrine of accommodated revelation faithfully.

The trouble for this new view is that Reformed theologians have reflected on the “accommodated” nature of revelation and defined tightly what this means and what it does not mean.  A classic example is the outstanding Scottish Biblical theologian Patrick Fairbairn (1805-74).  Fairbairn has a chapter in his Opening Scripture: A Hermeneutical Manual Introducing the Exegetical Study of the New Testament (Rept. Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2005) entitled “Of False and True Accommodation; or the Influence that should be allowed to Prevailing Modes of Thought in fashioning the views and utterances of the Sacred Writers”.  I’d like to offer some reflections on his chapter to highlight how Reformed theology has understood the “accommodation” of Scripture.

A history lesson

Fairbairn begins by defining what he is seeking to discuss “In what relations did the sacred writers stand to the spirit of their age – to its prevailing modes of thought and popular beliefs.  Were they in any material respect modified by these?  Or did they pursue an altogether independent course – never bending in aught under the prevailing current, if this at all deviated from the exact and natural line of things?  Or, if they did to some extent accommodate themselves to this, how far might we expect accommodation to go?” (89).

Following from this we get a history lesson.  It is always encouraging to see exegetical theologians who are historically self aware.  Fairbairn discusses briefly the views of the early Church on “accommodation” before noting “It was reserved for modern times to apply the principle of accommodation to the teachings of Scripture in a full and proper sense, and to represent Christ himself and the apostles as pandering to mistaken views and narrow prejudices of their time.” (90).  Fairbairn highlights Wetstein’s work on New Testament interpretation (1724) as articulating a full doctrine of accommodation in arguing that the authors of Scripture should be read “as not always expressing their own opinion … but occasionally also expressing themselves according to the sentiment of others, or the sometimes ambiguous, sometimes erroneous, opinions of the multitude.” (90-1).  Thus some portions of Scripture are simply speaking ex vulgari opinione and not divine truth.  Fairbairn traces the historical outworking of this view of accommodation: “The door was thus fairly open for exegetical licence… By degrees everything was reduced to a subjective standard; and if in anything an interpreter found statements recorded, or doctrines taught, which did not accord with his notions of the truth of things, the explanation was at hand, that such things had found a place in Scripture merely on a principle of accommodation; the people were capable of appreciating nothing higher, or the writers themselves as yet understood no better.  And so … the proper teaching of the Gospel came to be reduced to the scanty form of a Sadducean creed.  The doctrines of the Trinity, of the Divine Sonship of Messiah, of the atonement, of the personality of the Spirit, of a corporeal resurrection and a final judgement, have all been swept away … as merely a mode of speech suited to the time of its appearance.” (91-2).

Steady on I wouldn’t go that far

Fairbairn then moves from what had been historically “the practical result of the accommodation theory” to consider those who stop short of totally evacuating revelation of any meaning.  So, for example, those who apply accommodation to “historical” and “chronological” errors in the Bible and also to “exegetical errors, or false interpretations of several passages of the Old Testament, which were erroneously supposed to contain what the words did not really indicate” which could be explained away by the New Testament authors accommodating themselves to a “Rabbinical style” (92-3).  Fairbairn rejects even this truncated view of accommodation, arguing “We hold it, therefore, to be contrary to any right views of the mission of Christ and his apostles, to suppose, that they in such a sense accommodated themselves to the modes of thought and contemplation around them, as to admit error into their instructions – whether in respect to the interpretation of Scripture, or in respect to forms of opinion and articles of belief.” (94).

But there is some room for accommodation

While rejecting any accommodation with respect to the “matter” of Scripture, Fairbairn is content to allow us to speak of accommodation as regards the “form” of Scripture.  Fairbairn defines this kind of accommodation as “falling in with prevalent modes of thought or forms of conception, so as, not to lend countenance to error, but to serve for the better apprehension of the truth.”

One example of this kind of accommodation is speaking of God having eyes and hands.  Such forms of speech are fitted to teach us truth but are accommodated to our weakness rather than expressive of a literal reality. (95-7).  Another example of accommodation is the expression and modes of speech Scripture uses which may not appear at first sight compatible with our usage.  Fairbairn gives an example of this in the genealogies where “X begot Y” does not necessarily indicate a father son relationship.  He also applies this principle to Stephen’s statements in Acts 7:15-6.  Realising that certain forms of expression were incorporated into Scripture in a manner consistent with their historical usage at the time can help us understand passages which might at first sight appear contradictory to us today.

But we must be careful for it is “to be borne in mind … that the accommodation has respect merely to the form and manner in which statements are made, not to the substance of the truth therein communicated; – its whole object is to render the truth mode distinctly comprehensible, or to give it greater force and prominence to the mind.” (102).


Accommodation in Reformed theology relates to the “form” of revelation only and not the “content”.  The “problems” and “messiness” of Scripture have themselves long ago received adequate answers e.g. many of the points that modern Evangelicals bring up as “problems” in the Bible receive discussion in Matthew Poole’s 17th C commentary on the Bible.  What is called for is a robust articulation of the old doctrine of infallibility and inerrency in modern and accessible ways and not recasting of old doctrine.