1. General Revelation
General revelation refers to that revelation that comes from the universe around and from history (see Psalm 19:1-6, Romans 1:19-20, Psalm 8:13, Isaiah 40:12-14, 26, Acts 14:15-17, 17:24- 28) It reveals such matters as the wisdom, power, and glory of God (Romans 1:20)
2. Special Revelation
Special revelation comes by means of miracles, direct communication, the incarnation, and finally, through scripture. Scripture is the principle way by which God currently reveals himself to human beings, and it is the final judge and arbiter, the final authority of all such communication, general or special.
3. Limitations of General Revelation
The author of Ecclesiastes attempts to arrive at an understanding of God and at an understanding of the purpose of human existence, apart from God's self-disclosure in the Bible. He fails, arriving at futility and despair: bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. There is nothing for us but to be terrified at a capricious God and universe. 4. Limits of Special Revelation
It is sufficient, not complete or exhaustive. It does not tell us everything there is to know about God or the universe. General revelation has its role to play, just as special revelation does.
F. Studying the Bible
When we think about studying God, the first place we usually look is the Bible. What are some things we need to understand about this book that we all own? We think we know all about the Bible, don't we? It has been a part of western civilization for nearly two thousand years, and most of us have been exposed to it all our lives. We therefore assume we understand it.
But do we?
What Thorkild Jacobsen had to say about Sumerian religion should give us pause as we consider the Bible:
Considering first the absolute distance in time from the end of ancient Mesopotamian civilization shortly before the beginning of our era to the present, it may be noted that it is not only a distance but a clean break. No living cultural tradition connects us with our subject, spans the gap between the ancients and us. We are almost entirely dependent on such archaeological and inscrip-tional data as have been recovered and upon our own contemporary attempts at interpreting them. These data are, unfortunately, incomplete and somewhat haphazard as sources for the total culture to which they testify; and the languages of the inscriptional materials are still far from being fully understood. The concepts denoted by their words and the interrelations of these concepts, moreover, are not infrequently incongruent with, or accented differently from, anything in our present day culture and outlook, so that misunderstanding and even failure to comprehend altogether are constant stumbling blocks.
Formidable as our difficulties are, they are no cause for dismay or for ceasing our efforts to understand. If they were, then earlier generations should have been the ones to give up, for they had far greater difficulties and far less help than we have. Actually, the very realization that difficulties exist often goes a long way toward overcoming them by forcing upon us the necessity of other ways of thinking and evaluating than those to which we are accustomed. We may become alert to the dangers of too easy generalization, may doubt accepted translations and search for more adequate meanings of a word.
While the Bible is certainly familiar, it is also alien. It was written thousands of years ago by people living thousands of miles away from us, speaking a language unknown to most of us, and still imperfectly understood by those who have devoted themselves to its study. The culture of the Bible is radically different from twentieth century America. A person diving into the Bible experiences many of the same problems facing an American who travels to another country. Alvin Toffler writes:
Culture shock is the effect that immersion in a strange culture has on the unprepared visitor. Peace Corps volunteers suffer from it in Borneo or Brazil. Marco Polo probably suffered from it in Cathay. Culture shock is what happens when a traveler suddenly finds himself in a place where yes may mean no, where a "fixed price" is negotiable, where to be kept waiting in an outer office is no cause for insult, where laughter may signify anger. It is what happens when the familiar psychological cues that help an individual to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced by new ones that are strange or incomprehensible.
The culture shock phenomenon accounts for much of the bewilderment, frustration, and disorientation that plagues Americans in their dealings with other societies. It causes a breakdown in communication, a misreading of reality, an inability to cope.
So it is with the Bible. It is an alien land, and many people hop into it unprepared, expecting it to be populated with Americans. They read American cultural values, composition techniques, and democratic ideals into the ancient text. Those things that they find in the Bible which don't fit twentieth century norms are either ignored, misinterpreted, or explained away.
The people of the Bible, its authors and original readers, did not think the same way as twentieth century Americans. The Old Testament was not written by someone who lived his life in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. To take a modern example of the difficulties we might face in understanding the Bible, think about the Australians. The Australians speak English, they live in a modern industrialized society, watch TV and do many of the same things Americans do. "Walzing Matilda" is a song known to just about every Australian, and Americans have heard the tune and may know a few of the words:
Once a jolly swag man camped by a billy-bong,
Under the shade of a kulibar tree,
And he sang as he sat and waited for his billy-boil,
"You'll come a-walzing, Matilda, with me."
If Americans have difficulty understanding a simple song written in their own language by people almost like themselves, is it any wonder that we moderns should have difficulty fully understanding the Bible? "Walzing Matilda" has nothing to do with dancing or girls; instead, it refers to walking with a kind of knapsack. A "swag man" is a hobo, and "billy-bong" is a brook or pond. A "kulibar" tree is a eucalyptus tree, and "billy-boil" is coffee.
Should we give way to despair then as we think about studying the Bible? Is it a book that only specialists with years of study can read? Not at all. But certain things do need to be kept in mind as we begin reading it:
1. We must not assume that idioms or idiomatic ideas in the Bible mean the same thing that they do in modern English. In other words, don't make assumptions! Study things carefully. We must be careful to notice how a word or phrase is actually being used in context, before we assume that we understand what it signifies. We must be constantly alert to unexpected meanings connected to what we thought we already understood. For instance, in English, the word "heart", when it doesn't refer to the physical organ, has the sense of the seat of the emotions. But in Hebrew and Near Eastern society in general, it instead had the idea of "mind", or the seat of the intellect. A big difference!
2. Be careful to notice how the Biblical documents are structured; notice that they don't follow the pattern we would expect of a document written in English. For instance, in the Old Testament, and even some in the New Testament, when the Jews wrote poetry they did not rhyme the sounds; instead they rhymed the ideas. In English, adjectives might be piled up one on the other, or a carefully worded description of characteristics or appearance might be given, but in Hebrew synonymous phrases are piled one on top of another. For example, Psalm 1:1:
Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers...
The author of Psalm 1 is not describing three different activities or types of people. A native English speaker would have expressed the verse differently:
Blessed is the man who does not practice wickedness as a habit of life.
Of course this bare prose statement is not as vivid or pretty as the poetry of the Psalm, but this is the meaning of Psalm 1:1.
Therefore, be open to new and different methods of expression. Be careful not to prejudge a statement. Try to understand it in its complete cultural context, as well as its textual context. Check out how words and phrases are used in the Bible - not necessarily how we use them in modern America.
3. We must approach the Bible as an exciting adventure in a foreign country, where all is not as we may assume it to be. Most importantly, we must realize this is where God reveals himself to us; to understand Him, we must understand the place he reveals himself.
B. What are Some Basic Guiding Principles for Bible Study?
Certain presuppositions - hypotheses that are accepted at the start of an argument as self-evident (like axioms in geometry) - should be stated at the outset. They can be listed as a series of eight points. The first three are basic presuppositions which underlie modern science, and these same basic presuppositions should also underlie anyone's approach to theology.
1. There is an actually existing external universe.
The universe, and everything it it, is real. That is should be necessary to state explicitly something so obvious should not be viewed as strange.
Certain eastern philosophies and religions would deny the validity of just this point, leading inevidtably to solipsism. Thus, I would assume that the Bible - God's special revelation - is real in the same way that I assume the universe - God's general revelation - is real.
2. The external universe is attainable accurately by our senses.
It is possible to gain an accurate understanding of the world and everything in it by looking, hearing, feeling, and tasting. In the same way, I would assume that we may gain an accurate account of the Bible - God's special revelation.
3. The external universe is orderly, endowed with cause and effect and it follows the laws of logic.
Likewise, the Bible - the special revelation of God - is orderly and endowed with cause and effect and follows the laws of logic. That is, we can gain a correct understanding of the Bible because the Bible will be consistent, orderly, and sensible. A consistent hermeneutic (interpretation or explanation) is possible in examining the universe, and so a consistent hermeneutic is possible in examining the Bible.
Irving M. Copi of the University of Hawaii and author of Introduction to Logic, argues that there are three fundamental laws of thought necessary and sufficient for thinking to be "correct". Traditionally, these are called:
a.The Principle of Identity
b.The Principle of Noncontradiction
c.The Principle of the Excluded Middle
a. The Principle of Identity
Simply stated, the first of the fundamental laws is a tautology. If any statement is true, then it is true. Some have criticized this first principle on the basis that things change. For instance, in 1790 one could make the statement: "The United States of America is made up of thirteen States." But obviously such a statement is not true today. However, the fact of change in human affairs does not negate this principle of logic. Statements which change over time are said to be elliptical, or incomplete statements. Thus, the statement "The United States of America is made up of thirteen States" is a partial formulation of the statement, "The United States of America was made up of thirteen states in 1790." Such a statement is as true today as it was in 1790. Thus, as Copi said, "When we confine our attention to complete or non-elliptical formulations, the Principle of Identity is perfectly true and unobjectionable."
b. The Principle of Noncontradiction
Simply proposed, this asserts that "No statement can be both true and false." Or to take it a step further, "A given thing cannot be and not be in the same way and to the same extent at the same time." This is a vital principle, without which reasoned thinking is not possible. While it may seem obvious that a given object cannot be both an apple and a peach, this principle is often ignored or twisted out of shape by both secularists and theologians.
The word "paradox" is used sometimes to describe contradictions - contradictions that, some would say, must be accepted.
For instance, famous experiments with light indicate that under certain experimental conditions, light acts as if it is made of particles, while under other experimental conditions, light seems to be made of waves. A contradiction! In some circles it has been suggested that light is both and neither and we must live with the contradiction.
Occam would shout "Poppycock!" to that conclusion. He was a famous fourteenth century schoolman and philosopher, born at Ockham in Surrey, England. A Franciscan, his fundamental principle was that "entities must not be unnecessarily multiplied." That is, in arriving at a theory for any situation, the simplest explanation that adequately handles all the data, is more likely to be correct than a competing explanation which is more complicated. One might call this the K.I.S.S. principle: keep it simple, stupid. It more commonly is known as Occam's razor.
Therefore, in the question of the nature of light, the simpler explanation, by making use of Occam's razor, is to say that the experiments have settled nothing, and that further study is needed. We can't just throw up our hands and say, "Oh well, it's both; let's say light is made of 'wavicles'." What the heck is a 'wavicle'? The same thing arises in theology in attempts to explain the Trinity, the relationship of free will to divine sovereignty, or how a good, all powerful God could permit sin. Too often, theologians are satisfied with the paradox - "the apparent contradiction" - and leave it at that. Again, Occam's razor would simply slice through the gobbledygook and tell the theologians that they have more work to do. Frank Wilczek and Betsy Devine, writing about nature (the general revelation of God), made a very perceptive point, which has definite implications for understanding the Bible (the special revelation of God):
Nature poses many riddles but contains no contradictions. By solving one of her puzzles, therefore, we are guaranteed to learn something - and the weirder, the more impossible the paradox seems at first, the more mind-expanding will be its ultimate resolution.
What all this means then, is that contradictions cannot be real. Such a conclusion is a very hopeful and useful tool, and has been of immense impetus to scientific research, because this principle of noncontradiction assures the researcher, in whatever field, that there is, indeed, an answer to any conundrum. And if there is an answer, then it is possible to find it.
On a personal level, this principle of noncontradiction has some serious implications. Every day, we discover people who, within their lives, are not living up to the principle. George Orwell described the problem as "doublethink". An older word for this sort of person is simply "hypocrite". The Bible calls such a person a "double-minded man":
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (James 1:5-8)
Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:8)
Notice the sheer idiocy and irrationality of the hypocrisy: a person goes to God to request something that He has promised to give, but then doesn't believe God will give it. Such an attitude irrationally contradicts the truthfulness and goodness of God, not to mention explicit biblical statements that God does not lie.
The second passage in James 4:8 goes even further, equating hypocrisy with sin, or better yet, portrays the sinner as being a hypocrite by definition. After all, a Christian claims to be filled with the Holy Spirit, cleansed by the sacrifice of Christ, a new creature, and yet he sins. Contradiction. Of all things a nonbeliever delights in most, it is to point out the inconsistency of believers. I give two examples:
Catholic theology teaches that the Pope and Church are infallible. The doctrines and traditions handed down from the fathers are as much the words of God as the Bible. Yet, thousands who claim to be Catholic, feel perfectly justified ignoring the Catholic Church's teaching on birth control, abortion, or women in the Church. How can this be?
Doublethink; hypocrisy; inconsistency. To be a consistent Catholic, to obey the concept of noncontradiction, the follower of Rome must accept what the Catholic Church says in all things.
Otherwise, that one becomes by definition, no longer Catholic - but Protestant.
By contrast, Baptists claim (in the Protestant tradition) that the Bible alone is authoritative, that the individual Christian is free to interpret the Bible for himself, and that all believers are priests, equal before God. Yet in practice, the standard, traditional interpretation of the Bible is the true authority, and to dissent from that interpretation (particularly if you act upon it) will often result in church discipline, censure, and possible expulsion, as the pastor alone is really in charge of things. Where then is biblical authority? Where then is soul liberty? Where then is the priesthood of all believers? They are swallowed in doublethink.
What is in our heads rarely matches our practice, and often contradicts other ideas in our heads. Humans are strange that way. Listen to George Orwell:
The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated. And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed - if all records told the same tale - then the lie passed into history and became truth. "Who controls the past," ran the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered. Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting. It was quite simple. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. "Reality control," they called it; in Newspeak, "doublethink."
"Stand easy!" barked the instructress, a little more genially. Winston sank his arms to his sides and slowly refilled his lungs with air. His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself - that was the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word "doublethink" involved the use of doublethink.
c. The Principle of the Excluded Middle
The principle of the excluded middle asserts that "any statement is either true or false". Some have objected that if this principle is accepted one is forced into a "two-valued orientation" which implies that everything is "either-or", with no middle ground possible. Such an objection results from a misunderstanding of the principle. If you have something that is gray, for instance, the statements "this is black" or "this is white" are both false. When faced with a situation where one is given such statements, "this is white" or "this is black", while both statements cannot be true, they very easily might both be false.
When one restricts oneself to statements that are unambiguous and precise, then the principle of excluded middle is perfectly valid. In other words, what this principle asserts is that real contradiction is not possible, only apparent contradiction, the result of limited language or data. By the principle of excluded middle, when faced with the question of whether light is made of waves or particles, since the experiments contradict each other, it is best to assume that light is neither wave nor particle, but something else: GRAY.
4.The Bible is unique.
The Bible should not be viewed as equivalent to a work of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was brilliant, but his writings are a purely human creation. The Bible, on the other hand, is not a purely human creation: it is the very Word of God - God's special revelation of himself to the human race.
Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)
5.Stand in humility before the text of scripture.
When something in the Bible seems contradictory, or when something does not appear to make sense, the reader should assume that he or she is failing to understand something. One should question his or her own reasoning abilities and knowledge, since our reason and knowledge are in a finite, corrupted, and fallen state. Do not question the reliability of the Bible.
Trust in Yahweh with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)
Yahweh said to Job:
"Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!"
Then Job answered Yahweh:
"I am unworthy - how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but have no answer-
twice, but I will say no more."
Then Yahweh spoke to Job out of the storm:
"Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you will answer me.
Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm like God's,
and can your voice thunder like His?
Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at every proud man and bring him low,
look at every proud man and humble him,
crush the wicked where they stand.
Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.
Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you." (Job 40:1-14)
6. The reader must always ask "Where is it written?"
Just because a good Christian says it or writes it, just because the pastor says it, or just because "that's what I've always believed", does not necessarily make it true. What does the Bible really say?
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11)
7. Do not be afraid of the Bible.
The ultimate source of authority for Christians is the Bible, not our theological preconceptions, not our cultural preferences or fears. If what the Bible says does not square with one of our theological ideas, then we must change our theological idea! We must not go through strange contortions to get the text to support our preferred viewpoint.
Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path....
8. Conform to the Bible.
The reader must be careful to make his or her life conform to Scripture, not Scripture to his or her life. Be aware of one's own cultural biases. Do not read into the text what is not there.
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?"
He replied "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
'These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.'
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
And he said to them: "You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, 'Honor your father and mother,' and 'Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.' But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: 'Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is "Corban" (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that." (Mark 7:5-13)
C. What is the Value of Tradition?
What is tradition, and what value does it have? These are two questions that need to be asked now, as we think about how to approach the text of scripture. We all come to the Bible with preconceived notions about the proper interpretation of given passages. How much weight should be allowed for that which "has always been taught"?
1. Definition of Tradition:
The dictionary defines "tradition" as "the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction." It can also be defined as "an inherited pattern of thought or action (as religious practice or social custom)" or it involves "cultural continuity in social attitudes and institutions." Tradition has been described as opinion which has the force of habit behind it. That is, the difference between opinion and tradition is that an opinion belongs to an individual, while tradition belongs to a group.
2. The Value of Tradition:
James Barr has some interesting thoughts on tradition in his book, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism:
In spite of what has been said about the positive importance of tradition, and the way in which scripture emerged from tradition, we do not suggest that Protestantism was wrong in claiming scripture as its authority and in denying that tradition (after scripture) could be placed on the same level as scripture or that tradition should be allowed to decide what was the right exegesis of scripture. In all this Protestantism was in many ways right. But Protestantism is not proof against the vices which it itself set out to reform. It is perfectly possible today to reiterate the positions of the older Protestant orthodoxy, to regard its judgments as virtually final and to resist the possibility that they might be substantially modified as a result of more modern research into scripture. What then happens is that the traditional "Catholic" and "Protestant" roles come to be reversed: the facts of scripture are once again obscured through the imposition of a tradition, but this time it is not a medieval Catholic tradition, it is a Protestant tradition, built upon the insights of the seventeenth century and anxious to maintain these insights against the evidence of the text of scripture or at least against the fact that quite different interpretations of the text are possible. When one looks at the various "conservative", "orthodox", or "evan-gelical" schemes of doctrine which are so influential today, and all of which energetically proclaim the authority of scripture as their first principle, it requires no great insight to see that in many cases it is "conservatism" or "Calvinism", or "evangelicalism" that is the actual authority, which is the real dominant power. The Bible is fully authoritative, but it does not have authority to question the accepted doctrinal tradition. This is analogous to the late medieval position against which the Reformers protested.
Biblical authority on Protestant terms (on Catholic or Orthodox terms it may be otherwise) exists only where one is free, on the ground of scripture, to question, to adjust, and if necessary to abandon the prevailing doctrinal traditions. Where this freedom does not exist, however much the Bible is celebrated, its authority is in fact submitted to the power of doctrine and interpretation....If the Bible says a certain thing, but says it only when understood through an existentialist interpretation, or through a Calvinist interpretation, then it becomes very doubtful whether the Protestant appeal to scripture can be maintained at all....
What does the Bible have to say about the value of tradition? Without exception it is viewed as a corrupting influence.
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8)
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)
Notice also Mark 7:1-13, and the parallel passage, Matthew 15:1-9. It is a great challenge to find anything positive about tradition in the Bible: there simply isn't anything. It must be noticed that Christ's condemnation of traditions involved the interpretations of the Bible which had become traditional. When asked to explain the why of an interpretation, the worst imaginable answers are "That is what I was told", or "That is what the Church has always believed."
In a Sunday School lesson regarding a passage in Isaiah several students disagreed with the teacher's interpretation of the text. Unfortunately, the arguments brought against the teacher's interpretation were based not on the Bible, but on tradition.
One student expressed the fear that if we were to question all the traditions, we would then have nothing to believe in. Another wondered whether a small Sunday School class shouldn't be hesitant to postulate something different from the generally accepted view. "Who are we to go against tradition?"
I was reminded of the criticisms voiced against Martin Luther and his radical insistence on "Only Scripture" and "salvation by faith", that such beliefs were contrary to the established traditions of the church. Several students reacted by saying, "Well, that's different. Luther was right and those traditions of the Catholic Church were obviously wrong." Ah, how easy to see the speck in the eye of another!
Attacking tradition results in the same criticism faced by Copernicus as he demonstrated that the Sun was the center of the Solar System, and not the Earth. It is the same criticism faced by Martin Luther King, Jr. as he tried to get a nation to accept Blacks as human beings, deserving of equal respect and treatment.
Tradition dies hard, and it complains a lot.
D.A. Carson, in his book Exegetical Fallacies, writes:
Careful handling of the Bible will enable us to "hear" it a little better. It is all too easy to read the traditional interpretations and invest them with a false, even idolatrous, degree of certainty. Because traditions are reshaped as they are passed on, after a while we may drift far from God's Word while still insisting all our theological opinions are "biblical" and therefore true. If when we are in such a state we study the Bible uncritically, more than likely it will simply reinforce our errors. If the Bible is to accomplish its work of continual reformation - reformation in our lives and our doctrine - we must do all we can to listen to it afresh, and utilize the best resources at our disposal.
To appeal to tradition, to argue that because such and such an idea has always been accepted, is to fall prey to the logical fallacy of simplistic appeals to authority. Again D.A. Carson:
Such appeals can be to distinguished scholars, revered pastors, cherished authors, the majority, or various others. The fallacy lies in thinking that appeals to authority constitute reasons for interpreting texts a certain way; but in fact, unless that authority's reasons are given, the only thing that such appeals establish is that the writer is under the influence of the relevant authority! The most such an appeal can contribute to an argument is to lend the authority's general reputation to its support; but that is not so much a reasoned defense or explanation as a kind of academic character reference.
The reader might also want to look at Psalm 118:8-9 and Jeremiah 17:5-8 at this point:
It is better to take refuge in Yahweh
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in Yahweh
than to trust in princes.
This is what Yahweh says:
"Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who depends on flesh for his strength
and whose heart turns away from Yahweh.
He will be like a bush in the wastelands;
he will not see prosperity when it comes.
He will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
in a salt land where no one lives.
"But blessed is the man who trusts in Yahweh,
whose confidence is in him.
He will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
and never fails to bear fruit."
D. Theological Method
At the outset of Bible study, three questions need to be asked, and they need to be kept firmly distinguished from each other. Confusing these three questions has resulted in many errors:
1. What does the Bible really say?
First off, we must determine what the text is actually reporting. What, precisely, is written on the page? The second question is related, but it is the second step, and must be kept separate from this first question.
2. What does the Bible mean?
Too often people skip the first question and dive headfirst into the second, not realizing the difference. It's no wonder they get into trouble. Only after we have clearly articulated what the Bible says, can we go on and ask about the meaning - the interpretation - of a given passage.
3. How does the Bible apply to me?
Finally, and only after the first two steps have been taken, can the final, third step be made to personal application, where the text takes on relevance to an individual in a particular place and time. A common fallacy in modern Christianity, and a source of considerable confusion, derives from the tendency to skip the first two steps, leap on the third, and then trumpet the application as the eternal and universal truth, ignoring fully the actual context and meaning of the text - and sometimes even denying that it matters.
Of course, the contrary mistake can be made, of ignoring this third step altogether, resulting in Bible reading that is as dead and useless as perusing the yellow pages for entertainment.
Let's look at how these steps can be put to use with a silly example. We are presented with the following text: "This dog is white." That is all it says, no more, no less. Any step beyond this bare statement, any questions we ask about it, begin the process of interpretation. Does the text mean that all dogs are white? Does the text tell us that this dog is all white, without a spot of other color on him? How white is white? What kind of dog is it? Are there any types of dogs we can exclude because of this statement? Does this statement about a white dog mean the dog is an albino? Where is the dog from? Is it a live dog or a dead dog? Such questions are endless, and at this point, random. To help organize our search for meaning, we may categorize the sorts of questions that must be asked:
1. What is the definition/connotation of the words?
2. Are these words universal or specific in their application?
3. What is the context?
4. The newspaper questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How?
Practically speaking, in thinking about the Bible, we can say without hesitation that the Bible is the absolute, inerrant word of God, and that anything it says is absolutely correct. The Bible describes reality for us: not simply A reality, but the reality.
But, and this is vital: WE MUST BE CAREFUL NOT TO CONFUSE OUR INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE WITH THE ACTUAL STATEMENTS OF THE BIBLE. The distinction must be kept clearly in mind. Our interpretation may accurately reflect the true meaning of the Bible. Our interpretation may indeed be what the Bible "says". But again, our interpretation may not be what the Bible "says."
We must work at knowing what the Bible says. We must explicitly label - at least in our own minds - that which is stated, and that which is left unsaid.
So how does this three step approach work with an actual passage of scripture? Let's look at Genesis 3:21:
Yahweh God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
What does Genesis 3:21 say? It says that God made clothes for Adam and Eve. No more and no less is indicated by the words of this sentence.
But what is the popular interpretation of these words in Genesis? That here is a sacrifice by God for the sin of Adam and Eve. To make skins, an animal had to be killed; therefore its blood was shed, and thereby atonement was made for their sins. This was the example God made, so that Adam and Eve would know how to sacrifice.
Question: is this what the text actually says?
Of course not.
The popular interpretation may be valid; however, there is no textual support for it. No other passage in the Bible refers to this incident or gives it the popular interpretation of "sacrifice". It would be best to take Genesis 3:21 at face value and leave it at that; it is more consistent with the grammatico-historical method of interpretation. The popular interpretation is subjective, and appears to represent a more allegorical approach to biblical interpretation.
Uh-oh, I just used a big hyphenated word in the last paragraph: "grammatico-historical" interpretation. What in the world does that mean? Walter E. Kaiser, Jr. wrote:
The grand object of grammatical and historical interpretation is to ascertain...the specific usage of words as employed by an individual writer and/or as prevalent in a particular age. And the most fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have only one signification in one and the same connection.
In studying the Bible, the attempt is made to figure out the explicit meaning of a given text, to understand it fully in its historical and cultural context, and to fully understand the idiom of the author. This is sometimes called the "literal" approach; this does not mean a failure to recognize idioms, though. For instance, if a given passage says "the king was sitting on his right hand", unless the text gives us a particular reason to think so, the clear meaning of the text is that the king was sitting to the right of the other individual; it is very unlikely to mean that the king had his butt on the other guy's palm - or his own palm. That would be an abnormal understanding of the language. Still, all possibilities, however bizarre, should be explored as hypotheses in attempting to arrive at the true meaning of a given passage.
One other thing should be noted: what we derive from the text of scripture alone may not be enough to properly understand what is going on. In the Baptist Bulletin, the official organ of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, an article was published in April 1986, in which Gerardus D. Bouw argued that Copernicus was wrong. Instead, Bouw insisted that the sun, and everything else, goes around the Earth, which is stationary at the center of the universe. He bases his contention on such statements as Joshua 10:12-14 which states:
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
Bouw argues that there are hundreds - even thousands - of verses which support his contention that the sun goes around the Earth and not the other way around. We have all been hoodwinked. The Bible speaks about the "sun setting" and the "sun rising", and he insists that such statements must be accepted literally. To speak of phenomenological language is to miss the point, he argues.
From a strictly literal perspective, Bouw is right about what the Bible states. But what does the Bible mean?
This author has forgotten that there are two revelations from God: the special revelation we call the Bible, and the general revelation of the universe around us. The Bible is absolutely correct in everything it states, but the problem remains that we don't always correctly understand it. Until the time of Copernicus, many people had misinterpreted both the words of the Bible, and the phenomena of nature. Recognizing that the sun is indeed the center of the solar system does not mean that we are forcing the Bible to say something it doesn't; it simply means that we gain the proper understanding of what it intended. To say that the sun goes around the Earth is as silly as insisting that two and two are five. It is not a matter open to question. There are no doubts at all about a heliocentric system. It is not a theory or a hypothesis. It is reality.
E. What Are Some Standards for Responsible Interpretation?
1. The meaning of a biblical statement is going to be the ordinary, normal meaning of the words: a meaning in keeping with the context, idiom, and purpose of the given author. Therefore, it is important for us to remember that listing a reference "does not necessarily mean that one's interpretation of it is faithful to the biblical meaning." Cults are commonly guilty of messing up at this point. Let's be careful not to be like them.
2. The meaning of the biblical statements should fit the historical and cultural setting of the writer and readers. That's why archaeology and the study of history are valuable. The frame of reference can't be ignored. We must be very careful not to interpret the Bible through our own culture.
3. The meaning of a sentence is the one that best fits the writer's context. The usage an author makes of a word is what is important. The definition of a word is contextually determined. The etymology is of hardly any importance in truly gaining an understanding of a word. The sentence is the basic unit of a writer's thought. "Then the sentence should be understood in relation to the other books in its Testament. And the two Testaments need to be related to each other."
4. The Bible doesn't contradict itself.
5. The intended meaning of the text is going to be the literal historical-grammatical one. There is not a "deeper" or "secret" meaning. Avoid allegorization and spiritualization of the Bible. Such techniques come from the Middle Ages, and are the province of such modern groups as Theosophy, Christian Science, and the New Age Movement. There is no place for such things in a truly rational approach to Scripture.
6. Scriptural passages are comprehensible as they are related to, and informed by others. For instance in 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul writes:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
A passage like this informs our understanding of passages that refer to the "works" that Christians do. Rather than imagining that "works" passages contradict the gospel, a passage like this clarifies the intent. Salvation by grace has inevitable outward manifestations. Any work we do, the effort we make, is actually God working through us. God does the work, not us.
Thus, Paul's intention in Ephesians 5:1-15 is clear:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live alife of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or course joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:
"Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you."
Be very careful, then, how you live
- not as unwise but as wise.
It is impossible for a person to take a passage like Ephesians 5:1-15 and try to make that inform our understanding or comprehension of Ephesians 2:8-10, because to do so creates a contradiction. Likewise, our understanding of the book of James is informed by our comprehension of Ephesians 2:8-10, Galatians 3:1-6, and the rest. Ephesians and Galatians inform our understanding of Peter's comment on Lot in 2 Peter 2:7-8, or how Jephthah as described in Judges 11:24-40, who sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, can still wind up listed with David and Samuel in Hebrews 11:32.
Which of a given possible interpretations is correct can be demonstrated by determining which passages inform other passages. How? Through recognizing the proper cause and effect. For instance, wringing a nose produces blood (Proverbs 30:33). However, blood does not produce the wringing of a nose.
Thus, grace produces good works, but good works do not produce grace. Besides the logical problem of imagining otherwise, Paul is explicit:
And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:21)
You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:4)
Certainly there are occasions when informing will work both ways; however, in the case of grace versus works, the concept expressed by "salvation by grace through faith" informs the concept "good works;" the reverse, in this case, simply is not possible, both by logic and by the text of Scripture.
Therefore, questions such as "is baptism necessary" are like the question Paul dealt with in his letter to the Galatians: "is cirumcision necessary?" Since salvation is not a matter of outward action, the answer must be no. Outward action is a consequence of grace.
Copyright © Quartz Hill School of Theology. All Rights Reserved.