Monday, June 20, 2005

The one thing...

If there is one thing I would love to pass on to other Christians more than anything else it is an honest and consistent method of Bible interpretation. Our method of interpretation is called our "hermeneutic". There is a lot of confusion about interpreting Scripture these days. There are some right ideas in there, but they are often misused or perverted very dangerously. John MacArthur once said,

"...the liberals couldn't sell us their theology so they sold us their hermeneutics"

This is sadly the case more times than not. Many people I have met in evangelical circles claim to have a high view of the Scriptures and claim to want to see only what the Scriptures say, but in practice they do the opposite. One example of this is the appeal to the "broader context of Scripture" whenever confronted with a clear teaching from Scripture, a particular verse perhaps, that goes against the grain of things they have accepted as truth for so long. Rather than hear the verse our, examine the grammar, examine the immediate context, and discern if the meaning is clear or if there are potentially multiple plausible meanings, the verse is rejected from the get-go. The reason? Well, they tell me over and over, "you have to look at the WHOOOOOOLE Bible". But this assumes, if the verse is indeed as clear as I think it is, that a) they know what the Bible really says on these matters despite the clarity of this particular verse, and b) that the Bible overall will contradict this clear teaching, and perhaps many other clear teachings, to come to a convergent whole. This is unacceptable. It doesn't even make sense. If its a clear teaching, then it is part of the broader context whether we like it or not. If we don't think so, then we must alter what we consider to be the broader context of Scripture to fit this new, clear, information, but often we refuse to do this.

Is there a place for the "broader context of Scripture"? Always. One of the key pieces of Bible interpretation is called the "analogy of faith". R.C. Sproul explains it this way:

"The analogy of faith is the rule that Scripture is to interpret Scripture: Sacra Scriptura sui interpres (Sacred Scripture is its own interpreter). This means, quite simply, that no part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. For example, if a given verses is capable of two renditions or variant interpretations and one of those interpretations goes against the rest of Scripture while the other is in harmony with it, then the latter interpretation must be used."

This is common sense. It is based uponn the premise that Scripture, being inspired by God, is not contradictory since comes from God Himself -who is not confused in the slightest. Where does the problem with the analogy of faith come in? Actually, there is no problem with the analogy of faith rule at all. The problem is when people claim to be using the rule but they are in fact not.

How do we get into this problem? We arrive at a perversion of this rule of interpretation when we derive the broader context from something other than Scripture. In other words, we may say Scripture is its on interpreter, but we, either wittingly or unwittingly, substitute our own ideas and assumptions for Scripture. "The broader context of Scripture" suddenly becomes synonymous with what we currently believe the Bible teaches -which may or may not be accurate at all. As a result, it turns out that we end up categorically rejecting interpretations of Scripture that are clear, not just ambiguous ones, because they contradict our views, which we assume to be accurate without ever really testing them in light of Scripture. We are dupsed into assuming our view is accurate for many reasons: we heard it all our lives, it makes sense to us, it has never been challenged in our hearing, many people we love and repect teach the same thing, we read it in many books, it sounds right, whatever, but we made a fatal mistake here. We never truly examined Scripture on these matters apart from our assumptions. Its like we become our own popes -subjecting the Scriptures to our own system of beliefs that may or may not be derives from the Bible to begin with.

See, the flaw is that while the broader context is necessary, it must be defined through exegesis as well. The broader context is, after all, just a series of small contexts, each interpreted carefully through exegesis, and pieced together like a puzzle to give us a grand view of the whole. We cannot assume a view of the greater picture without taking into consideration all the puzzle pieces that come along. This means that when we come across a particular passage that teaches us something new, very clearly and with no real ambiguity, we need to revisit our overall picture and find a place for this piece of the puzzle. We cannot dismiss it simply because it changes how our current picture looks. Our goal should be to have an accurate picture that resembles the true picture, not to have the same picture and disregard things that would alter it. If we were building a puzzle on a table and did not have a picture of the finished product, we would have to painstakingly take and examine all of the pieces from the box, no matter how strange they seem or how strongly we feel they do not fit. If they clearly come from the box then, by default, they have a place. It is the same with Scripture.

Another perversion of the analogy of faith rule is that this implies that the way a word is used in one place defines how it is used every place. A similar error is to simply go to a concordance or lexicon to get a meaning of a word and then use that single meaning everywhere. I come across this a lot when I try to talk with people about the doctrines of grace. I can't count how many times people say "it says God loved the woooooorld -the Whooooole wooooooorld". Of course, what they mean is "this means what I say it means because the word 'world' means the same thing every time, and it means exactly what I believe it should mean in every place." An honest look at the apostle John's writings, where the Greek word kosmos (world) is used numerous times, will indicate that it does not mean the same thing in every instance. Sometimes the variation is stark. For example, in John 17 Jesus explicitly says He does "not pray for the world". That would seem odd if "world" means the same thing in every instance and the same thing that most people think it means. Obviously it is not as simple as we would like. We have to do some work to examine the context and figure out what Jesus means by "world" here.

Another example is the word "all" (Greek, pas), especially when used in conjunction with men -"all men". I have been interacting with a friend on the doctrines of grace, and she came back to me with an answer from a friend of hers who is more akin to her views. His answer was that the Greek word pas, in the lexicon, means "all". I almost had to laugh. Of course it means "all", but what does "all" mean here or there? Does it mean the same thing everywhere? Does it mean every item/person of a group that is defined in the context? Does it mean every member without exception or does it mean every member without distinction? These are real questions we must ask ourselves, and they are often only answered by the immediate context of the verse in question. That is the first place we must look. When Ananias says, in Acts 22, that Paul was sent as a witness to "all men" (v.15), does it mean that Paul was sent in a time-traveling device to the past and the future so that every single member of mankind who has ever lived and will ever live would hear his message, or does it mean that Paul was sent to not just one group of men, such as the Jews, but to all kinds of men without distinction? Common sense tells that, given the use of the word in this verse, it must be the latter use. We do this same kind of thing in English. So why do we insist that "all men" always means every single member of mankind in the past, present, and future? Because it is what we have always heard, or because it suits our theological position, or both.

If there is one thing I could pass on to another Christian, perhaps my friend I spoke of above, it would not be my view of the atonement, or election, or any number of other doctrines (though, that would be nice because I obviously believe they are true and beautiful). It would be a high view of the Scriptures coupled with an honest method of interpretation - a careful, consistent, and honest hermeneutic. All the rest really falls into place with that. The quotation from John MacArthur has stuck with me for years. I did not quite know what he meant at first, but over time I have seen a fuller meaning to it. A liberal, unScriptural method of Scripture interpretation will invariably lead to liberal theology and an unBiblical view of God, man, salvation, you name it. In other words, it will inevitably lead to the abandonment of Scriptural truth. Let us always re-evaluate what it is we believe. Let us look out for these errors and guard against them. If we will not let the Scriptures speak, how can we say we are listening to God?

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