I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

Interpretive maximalism

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While he does not prefer the term, James Jordan describes and defends the notion of interpretive maximalism, an approach to reading scripture that seeks to wring every last drop of life-giving water from the Bible’s cloth. Jordan also gives a good defense of his approach to structural-symbolic-typological reading of the Bible in chapter 3 of his outstanding book, Through New Eyes.

Jordan has many contemporary reformed friends and colleagues who appreciate this approach. Gary DeMar relies on Jordan. Vern Poythress has related thoughts in his book Symphonic Theology, and takes a similar approach in his book The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses. Peter Leithart takes the same approach; here are some thoughtful quotes from Leithart’s recent commentary on Revelation. (It’s such a thrilling thought to me that we must read Revelation neither in light of today’s newspaper nor yesterday’s newspaper, but in light of the Bible’s own language.) Kevin DeYoung writes that “every word in the Bible is in there because God wanted it there.” (Taking God at His Word, 118) Another contemporary biblical theologian doing great work in this area is L. Michael Morales; I highly recommend his book Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?

Many people are unfamiliar with this approach and are somewhat taken aback by it. Here are several reasons why I believe that a kind of interpretive maximalism must be a part of our diligent searching of the scriptures.

First, we know that God is the supreme poet and artist. We should expect to find him always doing something deeply beautiful and intricate and artistic in his revelation.

Second, we know that other ancient writing relies on dense interconnected structures involving things like chiasms, typology, and even numerology. We are unfamiliar with it only because we have perverse modern affordances that allow us to be lazy and effusive in our writing and thinking. Thus, multi-faceted writing is likely not just something God was doing completely independently of his human instruments, but normally with their awareness. Writers of scripture were largely members of a highly trained scribal class: the rocket scientists and brain surgeons of their day. It’s intriguing that the apostles dedicated themselves to the ministry of the word (Acts 6), which must have included the writing of the word.

Third, we begin with the perspicacity of scripture and also hold to the analogy of faith; scripture interprets scripture rather than contradicting it. Our reading begins with what is plain, and is disciplined and directed by what Scripture has already taught us. We are delighted to discover things that draw us further up and further in, and we wholly reject any kind of undirected and undisciplined speculation. What we should see in scripture is multiple complementary, interconnected, reinforcing layers—something like layers of transparent anatomy diagrams—rather than the alien interruptions of a prisoner sending contradictory Morse code signals with his eyelids. We are meant to have a feeling of increasing cognitive rest, of weird things falling into a pleasant harmony, of things coming into increasing focus; not a feeling of a detective’s crazy wall. This is not to say that we can’t experience gestalt shifts along the way, but we accept them only when they are compelling, only when we can “see it on every page.”

Fourth, Scripture does this everywhere. For example, Matthew 2:15 refers to something that is not obviously a prophecy. There is a puzzle here we are meant to figure out. Why does Matthew link this with Jesus’s entering Egypt? God links tabernacles and temples with Jesus’s body (John 2), with the individual human body (1 Corinthians 3, 6), and the corporate body (Ephesians 2); he tells us that altars are miniature mountains (Ezekiel 43:15).

Fifth, God explicitly tells us that he does this; e.g., Prov. 25:2. He charges us to chase him and wrestle with him. He gives us exact dimensions of buildings that were never meant to be built and then explicitly tells us there are theological and moral implications for us to work out (Ezek. 43:10). Paul even seems to suggest that the symbolic meaning of a passage is its first meaning in 1 Cor 9:9–10. (Incidentally, I think Paul’s reading works even in its original context; Deuteronomy 25:4 seems obviously connected with the immediately following passage on the levirate system, which taken together with Paul teaches us to think of pastors as a kind of temporary levirate husband for the church.) Peter behaves similarly in Acts 10, where he concludes that the primary purpose of laws of cleanness was to reveal something about the great cleansing accomplished by Jesus.

Sixth, we already recognize this. We agree with Peter and the author of Hebrews that ceremonial laws all speak to the work of Jesus and the formation and worship of his church. We are appropriately intrigued to find thirty pieces of silver here and there; we find sevens and twelves provocative (and should learn to find seventies provocative as well). We know that human marriage is a type (Eph. 5:32), which appropriately leads us to consider how each of the ten commandments also and necessarily refer to Jesus, and to consider how the Song of Songs also and necessarily refers to Jesus. We already recognize the challenge of seeing Jesus everywhere in Scripture. We must grow in recognizing all such hidden treasures.

Seventh, this is consistent with God’s trinitarian nature. We should expect to find him successfully accomplishing multiple related and uncontradictory things at once.

Eighth, related to the last, we are convinced that God is always working to his glory whenever he is also working for something else, such as our good. Every speck of dust, every jot and tittle, in the end strains for God’s glory. There are no errant words in scripture; as Jordan says, God does not waste his breath with needless detail.

Finally, the church has a long history of symbolic and typological interpretation. Certainly church history also shows the possibility of error, and this carries into the present. Although Jordan takes care to marshal enough evidence that I am usually convinced, not everyone is equally careful or convincing. For example, although I appreciate some insights from Ray Sutton and Michael Bull, at times they seem to me to be operating without a safety net. However, abusus non tollit usum! There is treasure to be found in this search. Michael Bull exhorts us that “the purpose of identifying [patterns] in the Scriptures is not to ignore their obvious message in favor of a hidden one. It is a foundation for interpreting them correctly so we can better understand the temptation and suffering we experience, and better obey God’s glorious purposes for us in Christ.” (Bible Matrix, 32)

Written by Scott Moonen

May 11, 2021 at 7:02 pm

Posted in Biblical Theology

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  1. […] of interpretive maximalism, although I’ve worked my way through James Jordan’s complete audio collection, I […]


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