Review of Light in a Dark Place

John Feinberg is a renowned evangelical scholar, having laboured for a life time to do theology from the word of God. Light in a Dark place represents the sum of his life-long commitment to labouring under the authority of Scripture. Because of my interest in the doctrine of Scripture, I was delighted to receive a copy of Light in a Dark Place through Crossway’s blog review program. It is the most thorough exposition of the doctrine of Scripture on the basis of the presuppositions behind the Chicago statements on inerrancy (1978) and hermeneutics (1982; hermeneutics considers how the Bible is to be interpreted). These documents are still immensely influential among conservative North American Evangelicals, especially for those of the Dispensational persuasion. For such a reader, this volume will be highly valuable.

I have deep respect for John Feinberg and his life work, and I am always encouraged to see books written from a commitment to the Scriptures as God’s inerrant word.  Over four parts in 20 chapters, Feinberg covers every significant feature of a doctrine of Scripture, including formation of the canon—an oft neglected issue. However, in this review I want to draw attention to three deficiencies which I believe greatly impair the value of this book for our time. In sum, Light in a Dark Place address the concerns of late 20th century Evangelicalism, not the concerns of today; it ignores several of the most significant Evangelical works on the doctrine of Scripture; and the size of the book inhibits its effectiveness.

The Presuppositions of Light in a Dark Place

The Chicago statements were drafted to combat many issues in theology and biblical studies during the 70s and 80s, one of them being the truthfulness of Scripture. It was important at that time to emphasize that the Bible is wholly true, without error in anything it teaches. This remains an issue today, and so the doctrine of inerrancy needs to be re-emphasized. Yet a bigger issue today is the question of truth itself. The unbelieving and academic world is not asking whether the Bible is true or not. Instead, it is asking whether a book—or any communication—can be true. The question has moved from truthfulness to truth itself. Feinberg does not sufficiently address this question.

Another problem here is the definition of truth. Feinberg wrote a paper for Chicago II, the conference on hermeneutics, discussing theories of truth (“Truth: Relationship of Theories of Truth to Hermeneutics”) in which he defended a correspondence view of truth. That is, something is true if it corresponds to an extra-mental reality, the way things really are (whether it is an object or event). This view of truth is presupposed in both statements and is maintained in this book. However, philosophy throughout the 20th century wrestled with this very question and has cast significant doubt on this definition. That is, correspondence theory believes that a proposition (e.g. the rock is green) represents an extra-mental reality, it describes the object of knowledge apart from the subjective influence of the knower. This is not an adequate understanding of knowing: knowledge involves an external reality and a subjective knower (along with norms of understanding). In the words of Cornelius Van Til, there is no brute (or uninterpreted) fact.1

The correspondence theory of truth often leads to a flawed understanding of hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture). This probably explains why he dismisses presuppositionalism (a form of Christian apologetics and epistemology) without a decent hearing and thus may be the reason for the next deficiency in the book, dismissing a significant contribution to the doctrine of Scripture from a presuppositionalist perspective.2

The Books Overlooked in Light in a Dark Place

Books are written over a period of time, so it is understandable when a publication does not interact with other recent books on the same topic. However, it is a glaring absence when an author demonstrates no interaction with a significant work written years before its publication. The book I have in mind is John Frame’s the Doctrine of the Word of God. Though published in 2010, the book presents decades of careful meditation on the doctrine of Scripture by a committed Evangelical teacher. Frame’s teaching has been influential on some of the biggest names in evangelical theology (I am thinking Wayne Grudem) and this book was lauded as a significant achievement. Despite the influence of Frame and the fantastic insights of this book, it doesn’t even get a mention in Feinberg’s work.

And, though they may be more excusable, Feinberg also fails to interact with John Piper’s significant recent contributions to the doctrine of Scripture in A Peculiar Glory (2016) and Reading the Bible Supernaturally (2017). Feinberg fails to give due consideration to the doctrine of Scripture’s self-attestation, which is admirably defended in Piper’s A Peculiar Glory. He also laments a lack of evangelical writing on illumination, a significant topic in Piper’s Reading the Bible. Furthermore, his discussion of canon may have been helped by interacting with Kruger’s Canon Revisted: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament (2012). A better interaction with these sources, and giving a better ear to presuppositionalism, would have significantly helped his methodological approach to the topic of inerrancy, led to a better definition of canon (maybe even some interaction with Meredith Kline’s pioneering work on canon and covenant), and resulted in a more adequate treatment of Scripture’s self-attestation.

The Practicality of a Book this Size

Lastly, I found the size of this book a hindrance to truly benefitting from it. That is, it may serve as a helpful reference resource, especially those who follow the presuppositions of the Chicago statements, yet it is a difficult read. The book could have been half or even a quarter of its present size and adequately dealt with the topic at hand. At 769 pages, it is an intimidating read for the busy pastor and an inconvenience for the busy theologian.

The book could have been shortened by avoiding extensive interactions with other books; many chapters felt like a long chain of book reviews (an option to retain such content would have been to move such interactions to several appendices, where the interested reader could turn for further information; this is the approach of Frame’s book). There were also several dozen times where Feinberg said something like “I am not at all intending to say this”; in most of these instances, the preceding content could have been worded better to remove the need for the following explanation. In several instances, I doubt any reader would need the explanation that followed. Cleaning up these features alone would make the book an easier read.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I applaud John Feinberg for remaining faithful to the Scriptures throughout the course of his long career. I think that readers committed to or curious about both Chicago I and II and those of a dispensational persuasion will find this book quite helpful. For everyone else, the theologian or student committed to inerrancy may find Light in a Dark Place a helpful reference resource. I myself share many of Feinberg’s beliefs about Scripture—including its full inerrancy—and yet found this a tedious read.

 

Notes

[1] For a detailed discussion of Christian epistemology, see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987).
[2] E.g. consider page 295: here Feinberg seems to be poking at Presuppositionalism without properly considering its claims. A presuppositionalist does not hold to his presupposition blindly, he only believes that God is his ultimate authority. If his ultimate authority for reasoning is the Bible (God’s words) then his approach to Scripture will look very different than the one who presupposes human reason as the ultimate measure of truth. This is especially true when it comes to proof: proof will look very different for one who presupposes Scripture as the ultimate authority and one who presupposes human reason as the ultimate authority. See further John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1995); Frame, Doctrine of Knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *