Volume 43 - Issue 2

The Rule of Faith and Biblical Interpretation in Evangelical Theological Interpretation of Scripture

By Adriani Milli Rodrigues


One of the features of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement is the use of the rule of faith in biblical interpretation. However, a comparison of evangelical scholars in this movement shows that there are significant disagreements on the concept of the rule and its hermeneutical role. The present study attempts to clarify these disagreements and briefly analyze them. This article suggests that an engagement with Cullman’s notion of apostolic and post-apostolic traditions and with aspects of Irenaeus’s concept of rule of faith might be helpful for the understanding of the concept and role of the rule of faith.

The last two decades have witnessed the development of a movement that attempts to recover theological interpretation of Scripture.1 In its appreciation of aspects of patristic exegesis,2 contemporary Theological Interpretation of Scripture (hereafter TIS) emphasizes the concept of rule of faith,3 attempting to reflect the practice of the early church (notably Irenaeus and Tertullian) of reading Scripture guided by this rule.4 In the early church, this rule was “the sum content of apostolic teaching,” a confession that outlined “the authoritative articles of faith.”5

The fact that written samples of the rule in the early church were not exactly the same does not make its usage a puzzling endeavor that would require a prior selection of one sample as the pattern to the others.6 In fact, the multiple forms of expression of the rule of faith is a phenomenon consistent with the regula (rule) in Roman law around the first and second centuries.7 As “a short summary of the contents of a statute,” a regula possessed legally “the same authority as that statute in so far as it faithfully reproduced the spirit of the original.”8 Accordingly, “this neat device made it possible to consult the whole corpus of Roman law without reading every words on each occasion, and it greatly speeded up the conduct of business.”9 In this way, “as long as a regula faithfully reflected its original, the jurists of the classical period were not unduly concerned with its precise formulation.”10

Therefore, the present article assumes a non-problematic view of different forms of expression of the rule in the early church according to the background of regula in the Roman law. From this perspective, the specific samples of the rule in the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian indicate that the main topics summarized in the rule of faith are the One and Trinitarian God; Creation; Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, assumption, and second coming; resurrection of the saints; judgment; and salvation.11 In fact, the outline of the rule of faith was used as a “hermeneutical key for the interpretation of Scripture.”12

However, in the context of evangelical TIS, an attentive reading of some of its proponents reveals that there are differences about the concept of the rule of faith and its use in biblical interpretation. The purpose of the present study is to briefly describe and analyze the proposals of this concept in evangelical theological interpretation, as indicated by Robert Wall, Joel Green, Daniel Treier, and Kevin Vanhoozer.13 My contention is that the discussion of the relationship between the rule of faith and Scripture is enriched by an engagement with two complementary perspectives, one ancient and the other modern, namely, aspects of Irenaeus’s concept of rule of faith and Cullman’s notion of apostolic and post-apostolic traditions. Therefore, before I outline the proposals of Wall, Green, Treier, and Vanhoozer, I will briefly articulate a framework of analysis on the basis of the perspectives of Irenaeus and Cullmann.

1. A Framework of Analysis: The Rule of Faith, Scripture, and Traditions

I begin this investigation by describing aspects of the rule of faith in the thought of Irenaeus in conjunction with Oscar Cullmann’s conception of apostolic and post-apostolic traditions.

1.1. Aspects of the Rule of Faith in Irenaeus

Irenaeus refers to the rule of faith as “the truth,” “the canon (or rule) of truth,”14 which is conceived by him as a hermeneutical framework for a proper interpretation of Scripture.15 Hence, the rule of faith is “an organic system or framework which constitutes the shape and the meaning of God’s revelation. Without the system, God’s revelation is not intelligible. Placed within another system, that revelation is distorted and perverted,”16 and for Irenaeus this is the case of the Valentinians. Their approach is compared to someone rearranging the pieces of a beautiful image of a king in a mosaic, constructed out of precious jewels by a skillful artist, into the image of a dog or a fox. Thus, the Valentinians pull apart the system found in Scripture and use its pieces to create their own system.17 Nevertheless, Irenaeus emphasizes that those who previously know the correct system of Scripture are capable of recognizing the biblical pieces without being deceived by the false mosaic.18

In these considerations, the rule of faith seems to be described as a framework or system that serves as the correct set of presuppositions or preunderstanding for the activity of biblical interpretation.19 However, this rule does not appear to be distinguished from Scripture. In his criticism of the Valentinians, Irenaeus argues that, by “violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found,” they “disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures,” and ultimately “dismember and destroy the truth.”20

Elsewhere, Irenaeus points out that “the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all.”21 In this sense, one should not “apply expressions which are not clear or evident to interpretations of the parables,” because if this is done “no one will possess the rule of truth; but in accordance with the number of persons who explain the parables will be found the various systems of truth, in mutual opposition to each other.” On the other hand, if the interpretation is based on what is clear and evident in Scripture, then “the body of truth remains entire, with a harmonious adaptation of its members, and without any collision [of its several parts].”22

In short, Irenaeus seems to affirm the identity between the rule of faith and Scripture, and this rule is derived from an evident system in Scripture. I will connect this concept with the notion of apostolic and post-apostolic traditions in Oscar Cullmann.

1.2. Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Traditions in Cullmann

In his remarks on the rule of faith and the biblical canon in the first centuries, Cullmann rejects a distinction between oral tradition and written Scripture, where the rule of faith is identified with oral tradition and distinguished from Scripture. In contrast, he proposes a differentiation between “apostolic tradition and ecclesiastical [or post-apostolic] tradition, the former being the foundation of the latter.”23 Following this perspective, “what matters is not whether the apostolic tradition was oral or written, but that it was fixed by the apostles.”24 In other words, there is no dichotomy between the rule of faith (conceived only as a summary of the apostolic teaching) and Scripture, because both of them are in the category of apostolic tradition.

Cullmann argues that this view can be discerned in the formation of the biblical canon. For him, the existence of the canon indicates that the church at one point was “losing the criterion for judging the validity of the claim to apostolicity made by the many traditions in circulation,” and then the church realized that “without a superior written norm its teaching-office could not keep pure the apostolic tradition.”25 Cullmann writes, “The fixing of the Christian canon of scripture means that the Church itself, at a given time, traced a clear and definite line of demarcation between the period of the apostles and that of the Church between the time of foundation and that of construction, between the apostolic communion and the Church of the bishops, in other words, between apostolic tradition and ecclesiastical tradition. Otherwise the formation of the canon would be meaningless.”26 Therefore, “by establishing the principle of a canon the church … declared implicitly that from that time every subsequent tradition must be submitted to the control of the apostolic tradition.”27

In fact, the affirmation that the rule of faith historically precedes the Scriptures needs to be properly qualified, because the idea of giving normative authority to the rule of faith “was conceived at the same time as that of giving a normative authority to the canon, that is to say, about the middle of the second century.”28 To put it differently, “the definitive fixing of the apostolic rule of faith corresponded exactly to the same need of codifying the apostolic tradition as did the canonization of the apostolic writings … the two form henceforth one block of apostolic tradition over against the post-apostolic tradition.”29 Further, “by misunderstanding the significance of certain declarations of the Fathers of the second century we are too accustomed to contrast rule of faith and canon.”30

Therefore, this concept of apostolic tradition, which comprises rule of faith and Scripture, restricts the scope of the rule only to the apostolic tradition, which does not include the post-apostolic creeds and doctrines of the church. In addition, this concept affirms the identity of the rule of faith and Scripture, which is consistent with the position of Irenaeus in the second century.

The idea of identity between the rule of faith and Scripture, within the scope of apostolic tradition, provides a helpful framework of analysis of the rule of faith in evangelical TIS. After I outline the proposals of Wall, Green, Treier, and Vanhoozer, I will briefly analyze them according to this framework.

2. A Brief Description of the Rule of Faith in Evangelical TIS

I begin this brief description of the rule of faith in evangelical TIS with the interpretation of this concept provided by Robert Wall.

2.1. The Rule of Faith according to Robert Wall

Robert Wall defines the rule of faith essentially as “the heart of Christian faith” that constitutes the “theological boundary markers” of Christianity.31 Following this perspective, he expounds (1) his conception about the rule of faith and the activity of biblical interpretation, (2) his notion of the relationship between the rule of faith and Scripture, and (3) the scope of the rule of faith.

First, “right interpretation is determined by whether the content and consequence of a text’s interpretation agree with the church’s rule of faith.”32 This means that correct interpretation does not derive from strict application of critical methodology authorized by accredited scholarship, which speculates the “first meanings” of the text, the identity of the author, and the setting of the first recipients.33 Rather, Wall advocates a hermeneutical shift from the emphasis on authorial intent to “divine meaning,” which implies a broadening of the concept of intended audience that is not restricted to the readers originally addressed by the author, but also includes the contemporary church.34

Second, Wall’s assertion that the rule of faith is necessary to guarantee a proper interpretation of Scripture is further explained by his conception of the relationship between the rule of faith and Scripture. By denying the notion that Scripture interprets itself, Wall concludes that biblical interpretation demands faithful interpreters guided by the rule of faith.35 Moreover, he rejects the equation of Scripture with the rule of faith.36 With this distinction, Wall appears to suggest a primacy of the rule of faith over Scripture, which is expressed especially through the historical argument that the biblical canon took shape in the time of Irenaeus on the basis of the agreement of its content with the rule of faith.37

Third, Wall’s understanding of the scope of the rule of faith is influenced by his conviction that the rule is not only a summary of Christian beliefs produced in the past. Rather,

the rule exists as various “rules” of faith that bear a striking family resemblance to each other. Each rule conforms, more or less, to the core beliefs and deeper logic of the catholic rule of faith. Yet, each communion’s rule of faith is the product of many small changes that have taken place in every fresh attempt to respond faithfully and often courageously to new contingencies and cultural movements the church catholic has encountered, always in creative and open-ended dialogue with the stable truth claims confessed according to the rule.38

To put it sharply, the various contemporary traditions and denominations in Christianity represent different appropriations of the ancient rule of faith, with distinct emphases demanded by specific circumstances. In fact, this expanded conception of the scope of the rule of faith implies not only a primacy of this rule over Scripture, but ultimately gives priority of the church over Scripture,39 since contemporary ecclesiastical traditions function as rule of faith in the process of interpreting Scripture.

2.2. The Rule of Faith according to Joel Green

For Joel Green, the relationship between the rule of faith and the Bible raises the question of the status of doctrine in TIS. While he comprehends theology as an “ongoing critical reflection,” doctrine designates a “relatively stable” and “authoritative teaching” that is essential to Christianity. 40 In this sense, doctrine refers to the “rule of faith and its codification in the ecumenical creeds of the early church.”41 In contrast to Wall, Green does not believe that additional statements of diverse contemporary ecclesiastical traditions are an extended part of the rule of faith. Rather, he stipulates that these statements are not essential for the identity of Christianity. Notwithstanding, Green seems to agree with Wall in distinguishing the rule of faith and the Bible. In his view, “we cannot argue that the church has simply received its doctrine from the Bible” from a historical perspective. Indeed, “the canon of Christian Scripture was not in place at the very time that the Rule of Faith … was taking shape among early church theologians.”42 Furthermore, he claims that, “taken on their terms and without recourse to a history or community of interpretation,” biblical “texts are capable of multiple interpretations, many of which could be understood as ‘good readings’ (i.e., readings supported by careful analysis of the text), but not all of which are worthy of the name ‘Christian.’”43 Associated with this idea is the notion that ‘the diversity of voices and perspectives within Scripture and among the biblical books’ finds unity, not in Scripture itself, but in the rule of faith.44

Green acknowledges that this view runs the risk of reducing biblical texts “to the role of a marionette attached to doctrinal strings.”45 In order to avoid this risk, he proposes, among other principles, that the rule of faith should not be used to “predetermine the meaning of the Bible or to read later doctrinal formulations back into the Bible.”46 Another challenge to Green’s position is the question of how he is able to allow both church’s doctrine and the Bible to speak on their own terms and intentions when there is a disagreement between them.47 One example of this situation is the tension between the Bible and the creeds of the early church on the issue of anthropology. More specifically, according to Green’s understanding of biblical anthropology and its interface with neuroscience, “we do not possess souls but simply are souls.” In other words, “we are characterized by the indivisibility of our embodied human lives. We have no need for recourse to a second entity, such as soul or spirit.”48 In contrast to this monist view of humanity, the Chalcedonian Definition and the Athanasian Creed point out that Jesus has a rational soul and body,49 implying a dualistic anthropological perspective.50

Nevertheless, Green replies that these creedal statements “affirm Jesus’ full humanity,” and not “body-soul dualism.” Even though these “statements employ nonbiblical categories and an erroneous science, with the result that they use the problematic language of ‘rational soul and human flesh’ in order to secure their affirmation of Jesus’ full humanity,”51 Green believes that “the creedal statements in question are focused on christological arguments and are not concerned with theological anthropology per se.”52 However, in my view, this answer does not seem to deal adequately with the potential challenge that a distorted view of anthropology misconstrues the humanity of Christ.

In short, Green includes the ecumenical creeds of the early church as part of his definition of the rule of faith. Considering that, for him, the rule is not to be identified with the Bible, the affirmation that the rule of faith is indispensable for a proper theological interpretation of Scripture implies that ecclesiology has priority over Scripture, at least in terms of the early church and its creeds.

2.3. The Rule of Faith according to Daniel Treier

According to Daniel Treier, the contention that “truly ‘Christian’ understanding of Scripture occurs within the boundaries of the rule of faith and even receives helpful guidance from Nicene orthodoxy,” raises the question of “the broader use of Christian doctrine in biblical interpretation,” especially when the teachings of different traditions disagree.53 To put it more sharply, “can or should particular theological tradition inform interpretation?”54 His answer to this question may be described in two steps: (1) the relationship between the rule of faith and contemporary ecclesiastical traditions, and (2) how doctrine informs biblical interpretation. Firstly, Treier considers the doctrines of ecclesiastical traditions that go beyond the basic information of the rule of faith as “extensions of the rule.”55 In this way, he proposes a narrow and a broad concept of rule of faith. Narrowly, the rule refers to “the Trinitarian and Christological heritage of the early church that became formalized in symbols such as the Nicene Creed.”56 However, broadly speaking, it includes the “living tradition” of the church, namely, “confessions or other dogmatic symbols” that “may extend the regulative function of doctrine into more specific churchly contexts.”57 Hence, while Treier distinguishes the rule of faith and ecclesiastical traditions/doctrines, he does make room for them in his concept of rule, at least in an extended sense. As a result, ecclesiastical tradition/doctrines are necessary for guiding biblical interpretation.

Secondly, like Green, Treier rejects the idea that the rule of faith necessarily determines “all of our exegetical decisions,” which means that the hermeneutical role of doctrine is not intended to regulate “biblical interpretation arbitrarily.”58 Conversely, he stipulates that “doctrine shapes both the questions we ask of biblical texts and the ways we communicate our answers.”59 In fact, doctrine works at the level of presuppositions in biblical interpretation, especially challenging “cultural assumptions” of interpreters and fostering the revision of these assumptions “in light of how the church has understood Scripture as a whole.”60 Even though presuppositions are often seen negatively in the context of biblical interpretation, being considered a “‘baggage’ to be set aside as much as humanly possible in a quest for ‘objectivity,’” they actually “provide essential points of connection to the true subject matter of Scripture.”61

Finally, in contrast to Wall and Green, Treier attempts to avoid the idea of ecclesiology having priority over Scripture in biblical interpretation. Being aware of this implication in many proposals of contemporary TIS, he highlights that “the essential theme of much literature on theological interpretation of Scripture” appears to be the church.62 Thus, Treier suggests that the most important subject in theological interpretation is God, and not the church. This suggestion takes into account “the church’s weakness and need for biblical correction,”63 which implies the primacy of Scripture over the church. Furthermore, the recognition of the weakness of the church acknowledges the weaknesses of the interpreters of Scripture. More specifically, “although truth is comprehensive and certain in terms of God’s knowledge, human perception” is finite and fallen. Therefore, “at any given time and place we see only partially.”64 In this context, he recommends that interpreters of Scripture need to open themselves to correction as they read the texts, allowing Scripture to rectify their perspectives and presuppositions.65

2.4. The Rule of Faith according to Kevin Vanhoozer

Like Treier, Kevin Vanhoozer denies the idea of the church having priority over Scripture. He criticizes the argument “of the authority of tradition,” namely, the idea that the canon is insufficient for biblical interpretation and that the rule of faith is the hermeneutical key, provided by the Holy Spirit and developed by the Ante-Nicene church fathers, that unlocks the correct meaning of Scripture.66 Whereas Vanhoozer recognizes that there is room for a positive view of tradition, and even for the acknowledgement of the work of the Spirit in church and tradition, he emphasizes the importance of admitting the weakness of church and tradition. In his words, “tradition, inasmuch as it is a work of the Spirit preserving and prolonging the word, is indeed authoritative…. While tradition may be inevitable, it is also corrigible; we cannot presume that there is always coincidence between the work of the Spirit and what a particular church does.”67 For Vanhoozer, the church fathers did not mean to control the meaning of Scripture by the rule of faith. Instead, their intention was “to confess what Scripture does mean.”68 Thus, “confession” is the best description of the rule of faith, and this coheres with its ancient use “as a baptismal confession.”69

In addition, he agrees with Treier that the rule of faith works at the level of presuppositions in biblical interpretation. Indeed, “the purpose of the rule is to provide readers of Scripture with the right presuppositions as to its basic subject matter.”70 More concretely, the rule of faith provides the presupposition of “Scripture as a unified narrative,” which demands the reading of the OT in conjunction with the NT, and the identification of “God the Creator with God the Father of Jesus Christ.”71 Hence, the rule of faith presupposes the unity of Scripture, which contrasts with the view that “the disparate biblical texts would not be unified Scripture apart from their use in the rule-governed community of faith.”72 While in the argument of the authority of tradition the principle of unity in biblical interpretation resides in the rule of faith, for Vanhoozer, the principle of unity is in Scripture itself, and the rule of faith only makes it explicit.73 Whereas in the former the rule is an ‘“extratextual’ control”74 of interpretation, in the latter “the rule of faith is actually a servant of intratextuality.”75 In this sense, “the authority of the rule depends on its conforming to the Scriptures,”76 and “the ultimate purpose of the rule of faith is to let Scripture interpret Scripture.”77

The notion of the rule of faith working at the level of presuppositions in biblical interpretation clarifies the statements that the rule comes from Scripture, allowing Scripture to interpret itself. Vanhoozer emphasizes that “all exegesis presupposes some theology or other.”78 In fact, the belief that “‘Scripture interprets Scripture’ never meant that interpretation could take place without interpreters making presuppositions, only that these presuppositions should themselves be drawn from Scripture.”79 Hence, the rule of faith allows Scripture to interpret itself by providing presuppositions that come from Scripture itself.

Moreover, Vanhoozer seems to concur with Treier’s affirmation of the weakness of the interpreters of Scripture and their need of constant correction, particularly at the level of presuppositions. For him, the process of biblical “interpretation provides us with an opportunity to refine, or even correct, our prior theological understanding.”80

3. A Brief Analysis of the Rule of Faith in Evangelical TIS

The foregoing description seems to suggest that these four theologians can be largely divided in two main groups on the basis of the hermeneutical use of the rule of faith. One group tends to emphasize the role of the church while the other tends to underline the role of the biblical text itself.

3.1. Emphasis on the Rule of Faith and the Church

In the first group, Wall and Green maintain two basic ideas about the rule of faith. First, the rule cannot be identified with Scripture because the former is historically prior to the latter, and the biblical canon took shape having the rule as its criterion. Likewise, one’s interpretation of Scripture is valid (in the sense of being Christian) inasmuch as it concurs with the rule of faith. Associated with this argument is the notion that it is not enough to use Scripture to interpret itself and, therefore, the rule is needed for biblical interpretation. Second, the rule of faith includes creeds and doctrines of the church. Green seems to include only the creeds of the early church, while for Wall the rule of faith comprises also the doctrines of contemporary ecclesiastical traditions.

Green’s argumentation exposes major implications for this conception of rule of faith as deriving from creeds of the church. For instance, he attempts to show that the hermeneutical use of the rule does not represent imposition of doctrine on Scripture. However, if the rule of faith and Scripture are not the same, and if a proper Christian interpretation of Scripture is largely dependent on the use of the rule, then it is not clear how the imposition of extra-biblical doctrine (even from the early church) can be avoided.

In addition, there is a problematic case of disagreement between the creeds and biblical anthropology, if his account of the nature of humanity in the Bible is considered. It appears that a key point of Green’s approach is his distinction of theology as an ongoing reflection, and doctrine as essentially stable and authoritative. Because in his view doctrine is not open to correction and his definition of rule of faith includes the doctrine of the creeds of the early church, Green does not conclude that the creeds should be corrected by his understanding of biblical anthropology. Thus, from a systematic perspective, Green does not acknowledge that the anthropology of the creeds and his understanding of biblical anthropology ultimately lead to distinctive Christologies, in the sense that different anthropologies imply distinctive views on the humanity of Christ.81

3.2. Emphasis on the Rule of Faith and the Biblical Text

In the second group, Treier and Vanhoozer affirm the identity of the rule of faith with biblical text itself.82 They avoid the notion of the rule of faith that emphasizes the church because both of them highlight the weakness of the church and tradition, and their need of biblical correction. Moreover, these theologians stress a conception of rule of faith that works at the level of the theological presuppositions of the interpreter. Since the rule is identified with Scripture, they underscore that these presuppositions must come from Scripture itself. In other words, the authority of the rule of faith for hermeneutical purposes depends on its conformity to Scripture. This discussion about presuppositions includes two main aspects, namely, the fact that the interpreter has presuppositions and the content of these presuppositions. With regard to the first aspect, Vanhoozer and Treier underline the weakness of the interpreter (just as the church), specifically in terms of his/her finite, fallen, and partial perception, which reveals the constant need of correction and refinement of presuppositions as he/she reads Scripture. Concerning the second aspect, Vanhoozer believes that the main presupposition of the rule of faith is the acknowledgment of the unity of Scripture, which allows Scripture to interpret itself.

This group emphasizes the weakness of the church and the interpreter, and the notion of the rule of faith as a theological presupposition. Nevertheless, two points are unclear in this approach. Firstly, in Treier’s twofold definition of the rule of faith, the narrow definition appears to agree with Green’s (a summary of the apostolic teaching and the ecumenical creeds of the early church), and the broad definition seems to concur with Wall’s (it includes the doctrinal extensions of contemporary ecclesiastical traditions). In fact, his belief that these ecclesiastical traditions and doctrines are necessary for biblical interpretation raises the following questions: how would Treier answer Green’s example of disagreement between Scripture and the early creeds? Are the creeds in need of biblical correction in the area of anthropology? If so, could they serve as hermeneutical presuppositions for the interpretation of Scripture? In this case, is it appropriate to consider the creeds rule of faith? Secondly, in the discussion of the identity between the rule of faith and Scripture, Vanhoozer and Treier do not seem to answer, at least not explicitly, the argument used by Wall and Green that the rule of faith precedes historically the Bible as a canon and, thus, that the rule has priority over Scripture.

4. Conclusion

The basic contribution of this study is the identification and clarification of the main issues involved in the discussion of the use of the rule of faith in evangelical TIS. With this contribution in mind, I conclude this article by highlighting two principal points. First, from the perspective of Cullmann’s distinction between apostolic and post-apostolic traditions, there is a general tendency in evangelical TIS of defining the rule of faith in a large scope that goes beyond a summary of the apostolic teaching. While Green adds the creeds of the early church, Wall and Treier tend to include also extensions of contemporary ecclesiastical doctrines and traditions. Hence, the large scope of the definitions of rule of faith encompasses the post-apostolic tradition. But this raises the question of the historical and theological rationale for sustaining a large scope for the rule of faith. In contrast, I suggest that contemporary evangelical definitions of the rule should be more cautious regarding its scope. In other words, the rule should be situated within the boundaries of the apostolic tradition. This caution does not deny, however, that the study of post-apostolic tradition may be helpful for understanding the rule of faith. Indeed, the investigation of post-apostolic tradition may reveal expansions or appropriations of the rule that can enhance our contemporary comprehension of it. But when the distinction of apostolic and post-apostolic traditions is blurred, the clarity needed for detecting distortions of or additions to the rule of faith in the context of post-apostolic traditions is strikingly reduced.

Second, Irenaeus’s conception of the identity between the rule of faith and Scripture seems to presuppose the clarity and unity of Scripture. The description above indicated that Green avoids these presuppositions while Vanhoozer appears to affirm them. In light of the TIS goal of a critical recovery of patristic hermeneutics,83 evangelical engagement with the rule could benefit from a critical assessment of similarities and differences between evangelical TIS and aspects of Irenaeus’s conception of the rule of faith and its presuppositions. One important aspect to be addressed is the systematic nature of the forms of expression of the rule of faith, which according to Irenaeus derive its formulation from the clarity and unity of concepts in Scripture. To be sure, this systematic nature does not imply a modern understanding of system,84 but minimally highlights an organized and coherent formulation of ideas. Furthermore, the affirmation of the unity of Scripture does not need to deny the diversity of emphases found in the biblical canon. But the systematic nature of the rule of faith, which derives its content from Scripture (induction) and then provides a basic preunderstanding for subsequent biblical interpretation (deduction), does underscore a hermeneutical spiral movement of induction and deduction85 that presupposes a harmonious view of the teachings of Scripture.

These two points regarding the scope of the rule of faith and its hermeneutical role from a systematic standpoint represent areas in which further elaboration could enrich the reflection on biblical interpretation in evangelical TIS.

[1] The author recently published a version of this article in Portuguese: “A regra de fé e as Escrituras: uma breve análise da regra de fé na interpretação teológica evangélica contemporânea das Escrituras,” PLURA 8 (2017): 154–71.  

[2] Daniel J. Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 39. For further information about precritical exegesis, see Kathryn Greene-McCreight, “Introducing Premodern Scriptural Exegesis,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 4 (2010): 1–6.

[3] See Scott R. Swain, “A Ruled Reading Reformed: The Role of the Church’s Confession in Biblical Interpretation,” IJST 14 (2012): 77.

[4] Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 57.

[5] Kathryn Greene-McCreight, “Rule of Faith,” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Craig G. Bartholomew, Daniel J. Treier, and N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 703 (hereafter DTIB).

[6] For samples of the rule of faith in the early church, see Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, 3 vols., Bibliotheca Symbolica Ecclesiae Universalis (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877), 2:11–44.

[7] It is noteworthy that Tertullian and the Latin Fathers employed the concept of regula “even more than … their Greek counterparts.” Gerald Bray, “Authority in the Early Church,” Churchman 95 (1981): 50. This point seems to underscore the importance of Roman law as the primary background to the early church use of “rule.”

[8] Ibid., 50–51.

[9] Ibid., 51.

[10] Gerald Bray, Holiness and the Will of God: Perspectives on the Theology of Tertullian (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1979), 103. See also, Peter Stein, Regulae Iuris (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1966), 49–73.

[11] See Irenaeus, Haer. 1.10.1; Tertullian, Praescr. 19; Prax. 2; Virg. 1. See also Tomas Bokedal, “The Rule of Faith: Tracing Its Origins,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 7 (2013): 238–39.

[12] Greene-McCreight, “Rule of Faith,” 703.

[13] The selection of these four names does not represent an exaustive list of evangelical theologians who deal with the rule of faith, but is rather a sample of these theologians.

[14] Philip Hefner, “Theological Methodology and St. Irenaeus,” JR 44 (1964): 299, who explains that Irenaeus also refers to this concept as “the body of truth,” and “the hypothesis of Faith.” Even though this concept is generally used to describe outline statements of Christian belief that circulated in the second and third century, it is first found in Irenaeus, since he “created his whole theology around scripture and the regula fidei.” Prosper S. Grech, “The Regula Fidei as a Hermeneutical Principal in Patristic Exegesis,” in The Interpretation of the Bible: The International Symposium in Slovenia, ed. Joze Krašovec (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 590. See also Richard Patrick Crosland Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (London: SCM, 1962), 75; J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds (New York: Continuum, 2006), 76–82. For further information about the concept of Rule of Faith in the second and third century, see Paul Hartog, “The ‘Rule of Faith’ and Patristic Biblical Exegesis,” TJ 28 (2007): 65–86; Grech; Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church, 75–129.

[15] In terms of canon, Irenaeus “recognized and appealed to the same collection of Christian writings as is listed in the Muratorian fragment, except that he included 1 Peter, which is not mentioned there.” However, Bruce argues that we should not ascribe to Irenaeus the idea of “a ‘closed’ canon by the very fact that it was later added to; but it was envisaged as a coherent corpus, comprising twenty-two books—all the books of the final New Testament, indeed, except Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 3 John and Jude.” F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 77.

[16] Hefner, “Theological Methodology and St. Irenaeus,” 299.

[17] Irenaeus, Haer. 1.8.1.

[18] Someone “who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognize the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them.” Irenaeus, Haer. 1.9.4 (ANF 1:330).

[19] As David Henderson points out, “what has been termed ‘the Rule of Faith’ is the set of hermeneutical presuppositions, derived from the canon itself, that have been employed throughout the history of the church in its effort to come to terms with what the church should teach and how it should live.” David Henderson, “Irenaeus on the Rule of Faith,” in Reading the Bible in Faith: Theological Voices from the Pastorate, ed. William Henry Lazareth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 115.

[20] Irenaeus, Haer. 1.8.1 (ANF 1:326). For Irenaeus, their system is derived neither from what “the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered.” Rather, “they gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures” and communicate them using the language of “the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support.” Ibid. He concludes that this practice of “collecting a set of expressions and names scattered here and there [in Scripture]” twists them “from a natural to a non-natural sense.” Haer. 1.9.4 (ANF 1:330).

[21] Irenaeus, Haer. 2.27.2 (ANF 1:398).

[22] Irenaeus, Haer 2.27.1 (ANF 1:398).

[23] Oscar Cullmann, “The Tradition,” in The Bible in the Early Church, ed. Everett Ferguson (New York: Garland, 1993), 129–30. He employs “the term ‘apostolic’ in its strict historical sense, and not in the extended sense often given to it by Catholic scholars who identify apostolic and ecclesiastical tradition.” Ibid., 109. This distinction between apostolic and post-apostolic tradition is based on the notion of the uniqueness of the apostolate: “the apostolate is by definition a unique office which cannot be delegated. According to Acts 1:22 the apostle is a unique, because direct witness of the resurrection … The bishops succeed the apostles but on a completely different level. They succeed them, not as apostles but as bishops, whose office is also important for the church, but quite distinct. The apostles did not appoint other apostles, but bishops.” Furthermore, “the Church also bears witness to Christ. But it cannot bear that direct witness which belongs to the apostles. Its witness is a derived witness, because it does not rest on the direct revelation which was the privilege of the apostle alone as an eye-witness.” Ibid., 127–28. See also Hans von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969), 295.

[24] Cullmann, “The Tradition,” 138.

[25] Ibid., 140, 142.

[26] Ibid., 139.

[27] Ibid., 140.

[28] Ibid., 144.

[29] Ibid. F. F. Bruce confirms that “the first steps in the formation of a canon of authoritative Christian books, worthy to stand beside the Old Testament canon, which was the Bible of our Lord and His apostles, appear to have been taken about the beginning of the second century.” F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 18.

[30] Cullmann, “The Tradition,” 144.

[31] Robert W. Wall, “Reading the Bible from within Our Traditions: The ‘Rule of Faith’ in Theological Hermeneutics,” in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology, ed. Joel B. Green and Max Turner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 89.

[32] Ibid., 99.

[33] Ibid., 99.

[34] Ibid., 93.

[35] Ibid., 97.

[36] Ibid., 99.

[37] Ibid., 98.

[38] Ibid., 102.

[39] Ibid., 104. This can be observed in Wall’s statement that the function of Scripture is somehow defined by ecclesial authority. In his words, “ecclesial authority, then, bestows upon Scripture specific roles to perform in forming Christians—nothing more than this, but surely nothing less.” Ibid., 104.

[40] Joel B. Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation: Engaging Biblical Texts for Faith and Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 71–72. This notion of doctrine is derived from Alister E. McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundations of Doctrinal Criticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 11–12.

[41] Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation, 72.

[42] Ibid. Similar to Wall’s view, Green claims that “the primary criteria by which” the canonical books “would compose the New Testament was their coherence with the kerygma as this was articulated in the rule of faith.” Ibid., 73.

[43] Ibid., 74. For Green, “Sola Scriptura can never guarantee that one is Christian.” Ibid.

[44] Ibid., 80.

[45] Ibid., 75.

[46] Ibid., 77. Other principles are: the rule of faith is not “the superstructure that has the Scriptures as its substructure;” “ecumenical creeds do not simply summarize the ‘stuff’ of the Bible;” following early patristic exegesis, “correct interpretation of Scripture must express its overall order of structure” and, according to Karl Barth, the ‘whole’ within which the parts of the Bible must be comprehended was its unified witness to God.” Ibid., 77–78.

[47] Ibid., 75.

[48] Ibid., 81. For further information about these conclusions on biblical anthropology, see idem, Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible, Studies in Theological Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008). Green contends that his critics did not contest of his conclusions in this anthropological study on exegetical grounds but by arguing that these conclusions disagreed with creedal statements of the Christian church. See idem, Practicing Theological Interpretation, 81. In his review of Body, Soul, and Human Life, Scott B. Rae claims that Green’s biblical interpretation “is driven by his understanding of advances in the neurosciences.” Scott B. Rae, review of Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible by Joel Green, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 61 (2009): 191. Joel Green replies, “What I attempt in this book is not to reread the Bible through a neuroscientific lens. To the contrary, I demonstrate that those views of the human person which are consistent with what we are learning from the natural sciences present no fundamental challenge to biblical faith.” In Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 61 (2009): 194.

[49] The Chalcedonian Definition affirms that Christ is “truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body.” Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 2:62. Similarly, the Athanasian Creed declares that Christ is “perfect God: and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.” Ibid., 2:69.

[50] Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation, 81.

[51] Ibid., 85. “To articulate their affirmations of Jesus’ full humanity, the church fathers turned to the categories of ancient Greek science and philosophy—not the categories of Scripture, but those of the ancient and developing Platonic tradition. Working from within these categories, the church fathers parsed the claim that Jesus is fully human in terms of body-soul dualism, and this claim made its way into these creedal affirmations in these terms: ‘of a rational soul and human flesh.’” Ibid., 94.

[52] Ibid., 85.

[53] Treier, Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture, 64. With regard to the Nicene Creed, Treier highlights that “New Testament passages together can teach the same judgment that we find in the Nicene Creed even if they do not contain the Greek philosophical language developed later.” Ibid., 62.

[54] Ibid., 64.

[55] Ibid., 76.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid., 201.

[58] Ibid., 201, 77.

[59] Ibid., 70.

[60] Ibid., 77.

[61] Ibid., 202.

[62] Ibid., 201.

[63] Ibid., 204.

[64] Ibid., 202.

[65] Ibid., 202.

[66] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 203.

[67] Ibid., 208.

[68] Ibid., 206.

[69] Ibid., 206–7, 203. In contrast to this statement, Bray argues that the “proposed link between the regula fidei and the batpismal confession has been strongly contested.” He adds, “it is now widely accepted that the baptismal confession, though in many respects similar to the regula fidei, cannot be identified with it.” Bray, Holiness and the Will of God, 99.

[70] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 203. See also idem, First Theology: God, Scripture and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 287.

[71] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 204; see also idem, First Theology, 286.

[72] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 205.

[73] The “rule of faith makes explicit what is already implicit in the canonical Scriptures.” Vanhoozer, First Theology, 294.

[74] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 205.

[75] Ibid., 206.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid., 207.

[78] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 287n23.

[79] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 206.

[80] Vanhoozer, First Theology, 287. Arguably, Vanhoozer uses the terms presupposition and preunderstanding interchangeably. Referring to the rule of faith, in First Theology he employs the terminology of preunderstanding (see pp. 287, 293), while in The Drama of Doctrine he uses the term presupposition (see pp. 203, 206). Thus, a prior theological understanding functions as presupposition for interpreting Scripture.

[81] I am not convinced that my point here is invalidated by the challenge of a Barthian approach that only reflects on anthropology from Christology, and not from the other way around. While I do recognize that the study of Christ’s humanity is certainly necessary for a proper understanding of anthropology, I resist to the idea that a study on the nature of humanity in the Bible does not have any bearing on the comprehension of Christ’s humanity.

[82] Vanhoozer seems to be more explicit on that.

[83] Green argues that this recovery does not simply mean “turning the clock backward,” but “a ressourcement … that takes seriously how locating Scripture in relation to the church might remold the craft of critical biblical studies.” Green, Practicing Theological Interpretation, 4, emphasis original. Similarly, Vanhoozer claims that “although so-called precritical interpretations took biblical authority seriously and sought to read for the church’s edification, they may be vulnerable at three points: They may fail to take the text seriously in its historical context. They may fail to integrate the text into the theology of the OT or NT as a whole. They may be insufficiently critical or aware of their own presuppositions and standpoints.” Vanhoozer, introduction to DTIB, 19.

[84] For a helpful account of the development of system in theology, see Gale Heide, Timeless Truth in the Hands of History: A Short History of System in Theology, Princeton Theological Monograph Series 178 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012).

[85] For a balanced view of induction and deduction in biblical hermeneutics, see Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 385.

Adriani Milli Rodrigues

Adriani Rodrigues is assistant professor of systematic theology at the Adventist University Centre of São Paulo in São Paulo, Brazil.

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