This personal rule to help decipher the meaning of a Bible text is too lengthy for a single post. As it is so crucial to my outlook I shall have to break it into two parts.
Now we come to Rule four. This “rule” is, for me, of preeminent importance.
Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4: Any Biblical interpretation must accord with those Scriptures which reveal the correspondence between what God says and what God does. This is especially true when one is given a correspondence between what God says to Himself and what He then does. The wording of the Biblical Covenants are prime examples of this rule. Thus, no interpretation can be admitted which opposes these covenants.
a. How Readest Thou?
In almost every hermeneutical manual one will find approaches to the interpretation of the biblical text which do not originate from the pages of the Bible itself. Dispensationalists like Charles Ryrie and Roy Zuck rightly place stress upon the “grammatical” or “plain-sense” or “normative” interpretation of the Scriptures. I myself like to speak of a “plain-sense” interpretation. All that is meant by this is that the Bible ought not to be treated any differently than other books. When one opens up any book it is usually taken for granted that, although the discussion might get technical and demanding, still the author’s meaning can only be gathered from what he or she has put on the page.
Some writers are far better at getting their meaning across than others. Some are turgid and some are as clear as a bell. Some fools try deliberately to be obscure, while others understand the grace and beauty of plain speaking. C. S. Lewis famously said that no one really understands something until they can explain it in straightforward language. I’m not sure that is entirely true, since the muse apparently failed to descend upon some of my favorite authors. I am referring to John Owen and John Howe of England; some of the theologians of the South like Thornwell and Dabney; the mega-apologist Cornelius Van Til and the philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. Come to think of it, you could lump just about every Dutch theologian (barring L. Berkhof and H. Witsius) into the circle of the recondite. Commentators can be afflicted with the ague of abstrusity too. J. P. Lange had his moments, as did Markus Barth. Karl Barth, of course, wanders from the unfathomable into soaring clarity within the space of a couple of pages.
Ironically, some scholars whose life has been devoted to the study of hermeneutics; especially of the philosophical bent, seem to have a hard time saying what they mean in words most folks understand.
But what about God? Does the Almighty trade in the obscure?
b. God’s Speech and God’s Actions:
Well, I confess, I sometimes wish Paul didn’t say things the way he said them, and Solomon’s Song is a challenge (and no, I do not agree with the crass view that it is a sex poem). But overall, I do not think the Bible is a difficult Book to read. There are a few boring bits – yes there are! But those parts (like the genealogy in 1 Chronicles) are easy to read – if not to keep reading.
In my reading and thinking about the Bible, and in my reflecting on the Biblical Worldview over the years, it has dawned on me that the profoundest things are usually found in the clearest things. Let me illustrate what I mean.
When reading the opening chapter of Genesis I have noticed that when the Lord says something (e.g. “Let there be light”), He proceeds to do exactly what He says (“and there was light”). One sees this pattern repeated over and over in the Creation narrative. I like Day 3:
God’s Speech: v.11 Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that
yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind,
whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so.
God’s Action: v.12 And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed
according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in
itself according to its kind.
God’s Response: And God saw that it was good.
Now, before you groan or let out a sarcastic “Wow!”, just pause to meditate on this a minute. At the very beginning of His Book there is a direct correspondence between what God says and what He then goes on and does. In normal parlance that is what is called a literal correspondence between God’s thoughts and deeds. God interprets Himself literally! Try this again with the creation of man and woman and the mandate which God gives them in verses 26-30. And please note that the first communication between “persons” is in v. 26:
God’s Speech: Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to
Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over
the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over
every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
God here is speaking with Himself, among the members of the Trinity. He is not speaking to a council of the angels. Angels are not made in God’s image, as Psalm 8 ought to settle.
God’s Actions: 27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He
created him; male and female He created them.
28 Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and
multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of
the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that
moves on the earth.”
Again look at the close correspondence between God’s thoughts and His actions. Although I’m not going to go into it now, that is how God operates. A good NT example is seen in John 21:21-24. Thus:
v.21 Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this
God’s Speech: v.22 Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is
that to you? You follow Me.”
Man’s Misinterpretation: v.23 Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die.
God’s Interpretation: Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die,
but, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?”
To put it more bluntly, Jesus meant what he said. The misinterpretation came about because some did not pay close enough attention to what He said.
v.24 This is the disciple who testifies of these things, and wrote
these things; and we know that his testimony is true.
In what sense is the testimony “true”? Spiritually? Analogically? Allegorically? Typologically? How about “Literally”?
c. Do We Establish Doctrines Non-Literally?
This brings me to another comment, which I shall have to make briefly. As far as I am aware, all of the major fundamental doctrines of Christianity; the Inspiration of Scripture; the Trinity; the Virgin Birth and Incarnation; the Death and Resurrection; Justification by Grace through Faith; the Second Coming. All of them rely on the principle that God’s words correspond to His actions. I do not know of one exception.
But before someone start’s pointing out types and such like let me say that unless there is a “literal” passage to found the type on it is impossible to point to a biblical type. I might also say that there are plenty of “doctrines” which people hold to which again are unsupported by clear scriptural statements of the type we have been considering. These “doctrines” should always be analyzed to see what sort of hermeneutical underbelly they have (or don’t have, as the case may well be!). A “doctrine” which cannot make appeal to any plain passage of Scripture without the aid of a boat load of theological inference should be held in grave suspicion as to its right to be called by the name.
d. The First Covenant:
But let us get back to the Bible’s foundational Book. Let’s take a look at Noah and the Flood.
There is no need for me to reproduce all the passages. I simply ask that you read the pertinent chapters (Gen. 6 – 9) and take note of these facts:
1. God was fed up of the sins of men and decided to destroy the earth. A great “uncreation.”
2. He told Noah about it and told him to build a special vessel to put himself, his family and the animals in.
3. God brought the animals to Noah and they went in “two by two” because God had said they would go in “two by two.”
4. God brought a global deluge to destroy “the world that was.”
5. After Noah got off the Ark he sacrificed to God and God said to himself that He would not bring another such flood upon the earth.
6. God made the first covenant in the Bible (contra both covenant theologians and some dispensational theologians) in which He promised the same thing to Noah that He had said to Himself.
7. God has not and will not bring a flood like Noah’s flood upon the earth upon pain of self-contradiction and of being a covenant-breaker!
I do not know of any Christian who thinks that God will renege on the Noahic Covenant (cf. Isa. 54:9-10). As far as this covenant at least is concerned, no spiritualizing, no symbolic hermeneutics, no typologizing or allegorizing is allowed to derail the literal meaning of God’s covenant promise. What God says is what God means!
Methinks I’m starting to see the emergence of a hermeneutics from within the Bible. That does not surprise me because I hold to a rounded Biblical Worldview. It would be odd indeed if the means of apprehending the Biblical Worldview depended upon a form of interpretation which did not originate from within the Bible itself!
More on this next time…