Scripture’s Doctrine And Theology’s Bible: A Bilateral Hermeneutic

Circular hermeneuticsI recently wrote a post on what I labeled, The Dangerous Evangelical Assumption. In it I asked if we are in danger of limiting the work of the Holy Spirit to good exegesis. The comments made on the post helped me give some precision, which was originally lacking, and you can read the exchanges there. One comment raised the issue of the theological convictions with which we approach Scriptures. Scientific exegesis of a biblical text will not always bring us to the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ but instead gives us the author’s intent or original meaning. Our understanding of Scripture means we interpret texts within their wider salvation context and therefore Christian exegesis asks how the author’s intent – attained through careful exegesis – fits within the message of Scripture as a whole, the gospel of our Lord. I want to repeat my response below with supplementation.

The Evangelical approach to Scripture is both presuppositional and a result of perspicuity. In other words, the Christian worldview presupposes that God is the single author behind Scripture, therefore Scripture is read with that view; and exegesis of Scripture has lead to the understanding that Scripture contains a single, unified and coherent message. Our doctrine of Scripture is founded on and flows from Scripture. How do these two characteristics of the Evangelical approach fit?

Firstly, Christians presuppose revelation is coherent because God is the author behind it. So, in our age of narratives, Scripture is viewed as a metanarrative scripted by God. During the Reformation, and in protestation to the Catholic claims of exclusive interpretive rights, the analogia fidei was introduced as a corollary to non-contingent divine revelation. We can only use the clearer parts of Scripture to interpret the murky bits because of this presupposition. Furthermore, if God is the cause of Scripture in its entirety we can ask the bigger question of authorial intent for the work as a whole.

Secondly, studied exegesis of Scripture has and does yield its perspicuous message: the gospel of grace. Though our interpretation of Scripture is based on a theological conviction, outlined above, that theological conviction is proven by exegesis. As we study Scripture we see that the parts contribute to and are enmeshed with the whole, the grand unifying theme of salvation in the gospel. I have already noted that our theology is a fruit of exegesis and I believe that careful exegesis of Scripture results in us being confronted with the summons to salvation, as well as proving the presupposition that God is the single author. Perspicuity is, as the Reformers emphasised, an objective attribute of Scripture.

9780567083777_p0_v1_s260x420If this post argues for anything then it is this: there is a dialogue in hermeneutics between theology and exegesis. And we must hold that it is a dialogue and not a monologue. The latter would have us advance no further than Anselm’s fides quarens intellectum or Augustine’s ‘believing in order to understand’. There is no denying that we work from a presuppositional doctrine of Scripture yet, as John Webster reminds us, in his essay On The Clarity Of Holy Scripture, all dogmatic confessions are “wholly subordinate to the primary work of the church’s theology, which is exegesis.”

To close I will adapt something Karl Barth wrote in the introduction to the fourth edition of his commentary on Romans. We are never compelled to choose between strictly scientific exegesis and our doctrine of Scripture, for they enjoy an established and healthy bilateral relationship. And so, like Barth, we can expend all of our energy in endeavoring “to see through and beyond history into the spirit of the Bible, which is the Eternal Spirit. What was once of grave importance, is so still.”

(PS: the title of this post is stolen from the collection of essays edited by M. Bockmuehl and A. J. Torrance, which is sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read.)

The Lost Art Of ‘Quiet Times’

Traffic captured on a time lapseLife gets busier. That is the experience few of us evade. But what do we give up when the inescapable fact of busyness presses? Though they are the hardest things to relinquish, I have learnt we are to make our selfish and indulgent activities past times. As Christians we are called to live in community, which is life long service and active love towards others, after God. Jesus’ call to discipleship involves dying to self and therefore to those things directed solely towards self-gratification. That is an arduous call. As our lives become more crowded with responsibilities, we must abandon selfish pursuits. These pursuits are the places we retreat to, zealously protect, and need to survive.

What has always surprised me, observing my own approach in dealing with busyness, is my readiness to abandon prayer and reading the Scriptures, what we might call ‘quiet times’. I can even justify it: ‘I am busy serving the church, loving my neighbour, and glorifying God in my life.’ Action is—after all—greater than contemplation, isn’t it? In fact, I could argue that contemplation is quite selfish; our devotion should seek to actively bless others. Maybe it is these lines of thought which have brought so many Christians to a place that leaves no room for meditation amidst the hum drum of life.

Man on a bench reading his Bible

However, Christians through the centuries have emphasised the vitally important and vitality imbibing discipline of meditating on God’s Word. They saw it as the one activity we should zealously guard, retaining it at any cost. Indeed, Christians have always insisted on practising daily Scripture reading, meditation and prayer. The obvious danger with any spiritual discipline is legalism, but that risk does not justify the failure to spend time in the Scriptures, serious contemplation, and sincere prayer; nor does busyness. Below are a few challenging quotes I have come across in my reading recently.

In one of Samuel Rutherford’s letters he offers some directions for Christian living, a “Christian directory” (this can be found in Letters Of Samuel Rutherford, p70). And in the place of prominence, first on the list, he writes: “That hours of your day, less or more time, for the Word and prayer, be given to God”. For Rutherford, this discipline was not even in question. Only in the second direction does he mention the tangle of “worldly employments”; and that amidst them we should give some thought to sin, judgment, death and eternity, along with a word or two of prayer to God, on top of daily reading. It seems unrealistic or overly pious. But as I read through his letters I was struck by the richness of his relationship with God and how that deep communion overflowed into godly concern and invaluable counsel for the church.

Banner of Truth's Collected Works of John OwenIn his irreplaceable work on mortification, John Owen warns Christians against growing “sermon-proof” (p52, volume 6 of Owen’s collected works, Banner Of Truth). The cause of this, the ability to have our souls and sin addressed through the preaching of God’s Word while remaining unconcerned and hardened, is rooted in the ease with which we “pass over duties, praying, hearing, reading”. Complacency starts at home and extends to the pulpit where are hard hearts are visibly unaffected and sin becomes lighter. Owen continues: “Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season.” Our faith involves being good listeners to God’s Word, not merely faithful church-goers. The heart that is not nourished and continually challenged by meditating on the Scriptures in private, is already becoming hardened to it in public.

I will close with some striking words from the 1547 Book Of Homilies. The collection was deftly edited by Thomas Cranmer. While it is widely accepted he contributed just three homilies – on salvation, faith and good works – Ronald Bond thinks the style and theology of the sermon on Scripture is clearly the work of Cranmer’s pen. So Cranmer writes: ‘What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day before Christ, that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than his most Holy Gospel? And will find no time to do that which chiefly above all things we should do; and will rather read other things? Let us, therefore, apply ourselves, as far forth as we can have time and leisure, to know God’s Word by diligent hearing and reading thereof, as many profess God and have faith and trust in him.’

Doodle: The Dangerous Evangelical Assumption

Preaching committed to exegesis of the Bible

It was as a teenager that I first encountered exegetical preaching. And it is significant, though not paramount, that I was converted under that model of preaching, as the Holy Spirit helped me to understand the gospel of free grace in Christ Jesus. Within a year I was teaching the youth myself, but relying heavily on commentaries and sermons preached by others. But that too would change as I received training in bible handing. I was endowed with tools to exegete biblical texts (these can be studied in painful simplicity in Dig Deeper, or the classic How To Read The Bible For All Its Worth). I was taught the methods for ascertaining what the authors meant when they wrote a particular piece of literature (Schreiner, p7 in Interpreting The Pauline Epistles). I am inexplicably and immensely grateful for the people who practiced and modeled proper exegesis for it was their efforts of interpretation – illuminated by the Spirit – that caused me to faithfully repent. But my path has undoubtedly led me to a dangerous assumption regarding biblical exegesis, made by Evangelicals.

Gospel preached by Paul at AthenThis year I have been placed in a few primary schools where I have the opportunity to preach at break times. Our church is part of a larger schools work which means I have been forced to rub shoulders with brothers and sisters of a more charismatic persuasion. These fellow servants may have never had the privilege of sitting under preaching that makes the main point of the text the main message for hearers today; they have probably never sat through classes where exegetical tools are explained and honed for working on passages; I do not think any of them have even heard of Dig Deeper, let alone the discipline known as hermeneutics. But for all that, these men and women give hours of their day to proclaim the gospel, the free grace of our Lord. And I have been shown my arrogance as a proud Evangelical. More than that, the Evangelical assumption that I inherited as a young Christian is being uprooted.

Glasses on open BibleWhat is this “assumption”, you ask, having patiently waded through two reflective paragraphs? It is this: if we work hard at our exegesis and get the passage right, the Spirit will work. I fear that this makes the Spirit a slave to our abilities of exegesis. He ceases to be the sovereign God who acts freely and despite us; and becomes bound to work as we do. Does that sound right? It doesn’t to me. Our experiences of preaching attests to the fact that God works as he pleases. The best sermons fall on deaf ears while the worst sometimes give new life and produce spiritual fruit. Praise God. Our task as preachers is first and foremost to proclaim the God’s grace, on offer in the gospel. Too many Evangelicals assume that faithfully exegeting texts will enable the work of the Spirit. Our task is to faithfully preach the gospel, praying that the Spirit will do his work of regeneration and conviction in the lives of our hearers. He does, after all, enable us to understand the Scriptures. As Evangelicals we need to relinquish our (erroneously assumed) control over the Spirit’s work, for he is not tied to our abilities and exegesis.

Ignoratio Elenchi (Latin title: probably irrelevant article)

For a few months I have been considering writing something brief on a remarkably popular line of reasoning that is often employed and yet, utterly fallacious. I began thinking about writing this after proofreading an essay for someone at college who made this mistake. I began actually typing stuff out after John MacArthur did it.

It often seems to happen when the topic of creation comes up, this is perhaps because creation is one of the most contentious issues amongst evangelicals. It is called “Ignoratio Elenchi” which is Latin and therefore must mean something important (see what I did there?). The source of all knowledge: wikipedia, explains those foreign words as, “irrelevant conclusion, missing the point – an argument that may in itself be valid, but does not address the issue in question”.

The example that pops up again and again seems to be something to the effect of

Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 2:16)–inspired truth from God. “[Scripture] never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Jesus summed the point up perfectly when He said, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17, KJV).
The Bible is supreme truth, and therefore I am right!

By the way, I stole everything except the bold bit from Johnny Mac’s blog entitled “Genesis 1: Fact or Framework?”.

Now in general I don’t really like bashing chaps publically (like this). When you write a blog and get a million readers though, I feel like you need criticism (and I’ll email this to him as well – I get an absolute ton of readers so even if he doesn’t get my email, it’ll surely get to him simply by word of mouth). Here’s my criticism though Dr. MacArthur: The fact that the Bible is supreme truth would not be disputed by Meredith G. Kline. Why are you arguing for it? The answer is: because it makes your position appear to be the biblical one. Your argument, while valid, does not address the question. It’s really not helpful to say it, all it does is portrays those who don’t hold your position as people who reject the Bible. I believe that the Bible is inerrant, not people who interpret it.

Now you should know that you’ve got a bit of slippery slope fallacy sneaking in there as well, “Why could not the resurrection itself be dismissed as a mere allegory?” But I’m not really interested in that stuff, I just wanted you to know that I know a bunch of people who actually believe framework hypothesis and the Bible… For that reason, it’s really not a helpful to present a case for inerrancy or infallibility: if we are ever going to figure this stuff out, we need to start taking each others’ arguments seriously. As a starting point, let me suggest you imagine a person who holds to the framework hypothesis and rejects theories of an old earth and evolution and the rest, who believes the earth is young and who loves Jesus with all his/her heart – what is your argument now? Stop with the slippery slope stuff, stop with the ignoratio elenchi stuff and sit down and let us reason together.

What’s more haven’t you ever noticed that strawberries are red. Red is the color of incorrect things. If you like strawberries, you know what that means… That’s just a joke and considering the title of this post includes Latin, you couldn’t possibly have expected anything beneath it to actually be funny.

Lying Jews (and the art of biblical narrative)

I like logic because it makes sense. It has to. A is not not A. In other words if you tell me “A is not A”, you’re lying. The problem is, deceit actually can make sense but still be wrong. “A is B” could be true or false depending on what A and B are. But I’ll stop boring you with the alphabet an get into the complicated stuff.

Story #1: And then Dave said something fabulous, “Genesis sounds like a fable to me.”
Story #2: And then Dave said, “Genesis is merely mimetic myth”
Story #3: And Dave was an ocean of ideas saying, “Genesis is a metaphor”.

Now, Dave has never said any of those things to me exactly. However, I do believe that he believes them and I don’t think it would deceitful to put those words into his mouth. My thinking at this point is that we need to keep this in mind as we read Hebrew narrative (because obviously that’s what I’m blogging about, not logical stuff as the introduction may have implied). While in our context it seems dodgy to put words into someone’s mouth in a direct speech kind of way, we would certainly be willing to do it in reported speech: “Dave told me that didn’t believe Genesis was literal” could summarise an enormous conversation (Paul probably didn’t do a 2 minute sermon in Acts 17). Hebrew authors, it seems, have a propensity towards the prodigious use of direct speech but rarely reported speech and it seems clear that they were willing to summarise conversations into little speech bubble type reports which they recorded in direct speech.

In my stories I made Dave say stuff according to the rest of my story “fabulous” and “fable”, “merely mimetic myth” and the metaphor thing. I used what was true and wrote it into my story and I don’t think I was being deceitful.

The example that came to mind (beacuse I’ve been working on Jesus & the Gospels for the last week) was the centurion’s confession on seeing Jesus die. This is my conclusion:

When Luke has the centurion saying, “surely this was a Righteous man” it is for a reason. When Mark has the centurion saying, “surely this was the Son of God” it is for a reason.

Neither are deceitful and neither are wrong. Both authors are using what was said to do something artistic – something evangelicals know nothing about.

Update [Sept 3rd 2012]:  I recently read this article on patheos which talks about Thucydides writing about having to make up speech that fits the flow of history as he perceives it. It’s an interesting read down a similar sort of line.

Looking back and looking forward from 2011

This year marks the four hundredth aniversary of one of the biggest game changers in Christendom’s history. Perhaps you’re looking forward to the new NIV of 2011 which harvested the digital linguistic analysis techniques used by Collins dictionary. Or rather, you may be happy with your Crossway ESV which you can now read offline for free on your iPhone or Android phone with the apps that Crossway have provided. Today, technology takes our Bible translation beyond the reaches it has ever had yet, four hundred years ago, a far more remarkable thing happened that still influences Bible translations today. King James commissioned the “Authorized Version” (also known as the “King James Version”).

The King James Version was by no means the first English translation. Wycliffe and Tyndale both beat the authorized version there (that attributed to Wycliffe’s appearing as early as 1382) however, this was the most significant. Unlike the translations either of Wycliffe or of Tyndale the King James Version was not to be the subject of persecution; it was commissioned by the king himself. The King James Version influenced grammar, idioms and even brought about new words to express complex theological concepts. More importantly, however, it was read and understood by the masses.

Today we have myriads of English translations and yet none penetrate the hearts of millions of English speakers because they are never proclaimed. Let us pray for the opportunity to present the Scriptures to those around us and the privilege of witnessing again the world shaken by their power.

This video will, I hope rekindle an unquenchable passion for God’s Word deep within you.