A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

“The Sense of Every Verse Analytically Unfolded”

David Dickson (1583–1663) wrote a lively commentary on NT epistles, in which he adopted a strongly analytic style. His method was to capture the main idea of a passage in the form of a proposition, and then to show that the proposition was supported by a number of arguments in the following verses.

That’s an interesting approach: different from a running grammatical commentary (one that would trace the way the epistle’s own argument unspools), but also different from rearranging the argument into a new sequence (for instance handling the theology under the heading of a doctrinal locus, as an excursus). In practice, Dickson’s approach seems like a hybrid of the two. It’s somehow both a bird’s-eye view and also a verse-by-verse, even phrase-by-phrase, walk-through.

Here’s a particularly clear example. Dickson takes up the section of Ephesians 1 in which Paul prays that God would give his readers illumination to understand the power of the gospel (1:15-23). (Page scans here; text here)

“The proposition to be confirmed” here is that “you Ephesians ought to bee confirmed in the faith of the Gospel.” And then, “the Arguments to prove this proposition are Fifteen.” (111) The proposition is abstracted from the entire passage. It certainly is not stated in the first verse, and in fact does not quite appear in that exact form anywhere in the passage. Dickson has formulated a key idea and placed it at the beginning of his exposition. It’s tempting to say he has exalted the principle to to a position of headship (ana-kephalaio), or to the rank of capital (kephale, chapitre, chapter-head) over all.

The fifteen (!) arguments then proceed, following the sequence of the text. Here are the first three:

[Faith in] Argument 1: Your faith in Jesus Christ is not that dead and hypocritical faith, but the lively faith effectually working by charity towards all Saints, and openly manifested to mee an Apostle, and others: Therefore you Ephesians should bee confirmed in the faith.

[Cease not to give thanks, etc.] Arg. 2. You are esteemed worthy that thanks should bee daily given unto God for you, even as I do: Therefore you ought to bee strengthened in the faith of the Gospel.

[Mention] Argument 3. Because the sincerity of your faith is manifested in the love of the Saints, I continually keep you in my memory, and make daily mention of you in my prayers, begging that the work of God may bee perfected in you, and your faith confirmed: Therefore unless you think the motion of the Spirit in mee, who pray for you, bee in vain, you ought to have your faith strengthened.

Notice how Dickson works: He numbers the arguments, and attaches each one to a specific bit of the text: that Paul has heard of their faith is one argument; that he thanks God for them is another; that he mentions them in prayer is a third. And, to make sure you don’t miss it, he concludes each argument by explicitly connecting it to the proposition: “Therefore you ought to bee strengthened.” This constant re-statement of the proposition is a major commitment of space, considering how condensed Dickson’s arguments are (though he will begin abbreviated the conclusion once he’s sure you’ve got the idea). Finally, Dickson is paying close attention to the smallest things. These first three arguments are just from Paul’s framing remarks, before he even gets to the main content of his prayer. “Now hee comes to set down the summe of his prayers which hee put up for them, wherein are contained the other Arguments for the confirmation of their faith.” Here are the next four arguments:

[Give unto you] Arg. 4. In praying that God would give them the Spirit of Wisdome and Revelation, hee intimates that they have more and greater causes (viz. in the Scripture, which is the fountain of Wisdome, and the summe of saving Revelation) for the confirmation of their faith, than they did yet understand. You have such and so many Arguments in Scripture for your confirmation in faith, that I cannot wish any thing more to the strengthening of faith, than a larger measure of the working of the Spirit of God, that having more wisdome given you, and the mysteries of the word being more clearly disclosed to you, you may know what is the mind of God and Christ towards you: Therefore even from this my evidence and prayer for you, you ought to bee confirmed in the faith.

[The God of our Lord] Arg. 5. Drawn from the description of God, of whom this gift is craved. God who bestows the Spirit of faith, or of wisdome on the Saints, is the glorious God and Father of our Lord, and of all us the servants of Christ, who both out of Covenant, as hee is our God, and out of fatherly affection, as hee is our Father, will give the Spirit of faith to you, upon our request for it: Therefore even from those relations which pass between God, Christ, and you, you should bee strengthened in faith.

Vers. 18. The eyes of your understanding being inlightned; that yee may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the Saints.

Argum. 6. It is not possible that I should express with tongue, what and how great those good things, which God by calling you to Christ hath commanded you to hope for, or how glorious the riches of that inheritance are, which is prepared for you in the sanctuary of heaven, I only beg, that your eyes may bee inlightned, that yee may apprehend them: Therefore, &c.

Vers. 19. And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward; who beleeve, according to the working of his mighty power.

Argum. 7. That power of God is unspeakable, which hee hath put forth into act in the converting you to, and in thus long upholding you in the faith, and which hee hath in a manner bound himself that hee will put forth, that so by the infinite power and efficacy of his strength, beleevers may bee carried on to salvation, I onely pray for the illumination of your eyes, that yee may know it: Therefore, &c.

Now Argument 7 is especially important. The appeal to divine power looms much larger in this passage of Ephesians than things like, for instance, the fact that Paul is thankful. They may all be arguments supporting the same proposition, but they’re hardly proportional. To show that he is aware of this, Dickson could break apart the reference to power into multiple Arguments; he obviously has the dexterity to multiply points in this manner. But instead, he sub-divides Argument 7 by showing that Paul carries out “a threefold comparison” in its support: (1) comparing God’s power with that of enemies (super-excellent); (2) comparing God’s exertion of power with the divine omnipotence itself; and (3) comparing God’s power in them with God’s power in Christ (same power). He even attaches three more sub-sub-points to that very important last point. You feel the levels of the analytic outline ordering themselves in your mind.

And then he’s off again with the remaining arguments:

Vers. 20. Which hee wrought in Christ when hee raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in heavenly places,
Argum. 8. Taken from the raising up of Christ our Head. Christ our Head who was killed in our stead, God raised from the dead, in our stead, and for our good, unto eternal life: Therefore you who are his members, even in the midst of afflictions, and in death it self, should bee stedfast in Faith touching your deliverance.

And set him] Argum. 9. From Christs ascension and sitting at the right hand of the Father. Christ our Redeemer is ascended into Heaven, and reigns with the Father, being partner in that great authority, that hee might take us into fellowship in that happiness, and make us partners of that condition in which hee is: Therefore you ought to bee confirmed in the Faith and hope of your future glorification in Heaven, unless you imagine Christs dominion is to no purpose.

Vers. 21. Far above all Principality and Power, and Might, and Dominion, and every name that is named, not onely in this world, but also in that which is to come.
Argum. 10. Christ even in his flesh is exalted far above all, both Angels and Men, so that nothing should bee so high, so powerful, so excellent, either in the earth, this present world, or in Heaven, the world to come, as that Christ should not bee infinitely higher even as hee is man; and therefore there is not any thing wanting in him to the perfecting, nor can any thing oppose him to hinder him from perfecting our salvation: Therefore you should bee strengthened in the Faith of the Gospel.

Vers. 22. And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to bee the Head over all things to the Church.
Argum. 11. All our enemies, the Devil, the wicked in the world, Persecutors, Hereticks and Impostors, the power of sin in us, prisons, banishments, all kinds of death are put under Christs feet, that hee may order them and dispose of them to our good, and put them under our feet: Therefore, &c.

The Head] Argum. 12. Christ is appointed Head over all things in the Church, that is, the Father hath committed the full power and administration of all things unto him, that hee onely should bee the most near Head of the Catholick Church, for the illumination of the Church and all its members, for the vivification, exciting to all spiritual duties, and preservation of spiritual life in them, by the immediate presence and operation of his Spirit in the whole Church, and its several members: Therefore unless you will doubt of your Heads Wisdome, Power, and Faithfulness in his office, you should bee strengthened in Faith.

Vers. 23. Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
Argum. 13. The Church is the mystical body of Christ, and all beleevers are his members: Therefore you should not doubt but hee will look to, and have a care of your salvation, unless you will deny that Beleevers are his members.

The fulness] Argum. 14. The Church is the fulness of Christ, so far as hee is its mystical Head, so that hee doth not judge himself to bee perfected, and completed, till all and every of the Elect bee gathered into one, united to him, have attained that full encrease suitable to, and appointed for every member, and till at last they enjoy with him a plenary happiness: Therefore you should bee as sure of the perfecting of your salvation, as you are that Christ will not suffer himself to bee incompleat, imperfect and maimed.

Filleth] Argum. 15. Christ filleth all in all, that is, according to every Creatures capacity, as hee is the God of Nature, hee works all things, as hee is the Head of the Church hee perfects all things which belong to the Spiritual Life, Sanctification and Salvation of Beleevers, filling all his members by degrees: Therefore it is not to bee questioned, but hee will accomplish the begun work of Faith, Sanctification and Salvation in you. This, that hee filleth all in all, is adjoyned by way of correction or exposition to the former phrase of the fulness of Christ, by the Church, lest wee should conceive that Christs or our perfection depends upon any besides himself, who of his own free love hath brought this necessity upon himself, of communicating himself to us unworthy wretches, who stirred up this desire of us in himself; who himself hath the power to satisfie this his own desire, and who by degrees fulfills his desire of sanctifying us, and induing us with Faith, and will proceed to fulfil it, till hee hath performed all things necessary to the perfecting of salvation, and that in all the faithful, the greatest and least: To him bee the glory of his Grace, his power, and his constancy for ever and ever. Amen.

That fifteenth argument once again stretches out a bit, to cover the range of the idea of “filling all things.” Dickson takes a moment to point out what errors are excluded by the apostle (“lest wee should conceive,” etc.). And he also reaches for a rhetorical high point, appropriately wrapping up the exposition with “for ever and ever. Amen.”

It’s very good exposition, and there’s plenty more of it in the rest of the book, as well as in Dickson’s other exegetical writings (his Psalms commentary is looser, but is recognizably a similar approach).

Dickson’s method has its unattractive aspect, of course. The way it brandishes propositions and arguments, it looks very much like it is reducing Scripture’s literary flow to a mere table of topics. It is probably significant that Dickson gravitated to epistles rather than Gospels. Stories might strain more under this kind of analysis. But although Dickson announces the Proposition-with-Arguments structure up front, he in fact follows the unfolding of the passage itself quite sensitively. His arguments all serve the main idea of the text, with considerable flexibility in how they do so.

Rather than using his analytic tools to dissect the discourse, Dickson’s method promotes a kind of holism. He actually brings out a textual unity and coherence by promoting a single proposition to the status of governing everything in the passage. While Dickson conceals the inductive work that must have been required in identifying that central idea. But his task is not to teach (even by example) a method of Bible reading. HIs task is to teach what Scripture teaches. This is a particular form of doctrinal exegesis. For other forms, you could compare Dickson’s method to the Doctrine-and-Use method of Paul Baynes (1573-1617), or the locus method of James Ferguson (1621-1667); they all wrote on Ephesians (Baynes and Ferguson at greater length). Baynes and Ferguson are also admirable in their own ways.

Every good commentator needs to do justice to the way the text runs, and to the big ideas that it contains (the two components of “Biblical Reasoning,” in John Webster’s phrase). Modern exegetical commentaries lean strongly toward the former, sometimes scrambling for strategies to manage the latter: one such strategy is the excursus, which etymologically speaking “runs out” from the normal flow of commentating. Earlier generations of Bible commentators were perhaps stronger at the big ideas, the burden of the doctrinal and ethical teaching of the text. Dickson’s Arguments-for-Proposition method should be considered as one way of having it all.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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