Taking God At His Word?

When some one says that they want you to take them at their word, what exactly do you think they mean?  I think your answer would be that they want you to trust what they are saying.  But what is it about what they are saying that you are supposed to trust?

The Collins English Dictionary defines it as:

to assume that someone means, or will do, what he or she says   ⇒ when he told her to go, she took him at his word and left

The Cambridge Dictionary has,

to believe that what someone says is true: He said he’d give me a job and I just took him at his word. If he says there’s $500 in the envelope, then I’ll take his word for it.

The Oxford Dictionaries have,

take someone at their word
Interpret a person’s words literally or exactly, especially by believing them or doing as they suggest.

These online dictionaries agree that to take someone at their word is to believe that the person means what they say.  If you want (or require) proof that this is how the average Joe takes it, just ask them what it means to take someone at their word.
Okay, I have in front of me a new book by Kevin DeYoung entitled Taking God At His Word.  I have interacted with DeYoung’s excellent post on homosexuality here, and about much the same thing As I want to talk about today.
The question I want to ask is this: What does DeYoung mean by this?  Does he mean that God means what He says?  If that is what he says he means then my follow up question would be, “And how much of the time [in the Bible] does God mean what He says?”  Or to borrow from the above dictionary definitions, “How much of the time does DeYoung think we are to interpret God’s words ‘literally or exactly?'”
The answer to these queries given by many evangelical writers will hardly be encouraging.
Now DeYoung asks in one post, “Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel or the sacramental language of John 6 or the psalmist’s insistence that he is righteous or blameless?”
Skipping the “sacramental language of John 6 (There is none.  See Jn. 6:64-65), and the case of the psalmist (the contexts always make it clear he isn’t claiming to be sinless), I shall say something about understanding Ezekiel’s eschatology.
Does systematic theology help us know what to do with Ezekiel’s eschatology?   Well, if your systematic theology turns Ezekiel’s clear eschatological predictions for Israel into types of Christ and the Church we have a real problem.  That would certainly mean that we cannot take God at His word where the prophecies of Ezekiel are concerned!  One would either be forced to jettison the claim to be taking God at His word or else change a theology which stopped you taking God at His word.
But it doesn’t stop there because, as anyone knows who reads amillennialists like DeYoung, Beale and the rest, they allow their theology and their reason to dictate new meanings to very many OT prophecies in e.g., Genesis, Psalms, and both Major and Minor Prophets.  That’s a whole lot of God’s Book where, apparently, we cannot take God at His word (in the authoritative senses given above).
In another post on the identity of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 (& 14) we see his ingenuity hard at work in an attempt to not take God at His word.  I shall not enter into a close examination of his reasoning except to say it is very poor and question-begging.  In his fourth (of five) reason for thinking the “144,000 of all the tribes of the the children of Israel” (Rev.7:4) are not who God says they are, he writes,
The 144,000 is a symbolic number of redeemed drawn from all peoples, not simply the Jews. Besides, if the number is not symbolic then what do we do with Revelation 14:4 which describes the 144,000 as those “who have not defiled themselves with women”? Are we to think that the 144,000 refers to a chosen group of celibate Jewish men? It makes more sense to realize that 144,000 is a symbolic number that is described as celibate men to highlight the group’s moral purity and set-apartness for spiritual battle.
It seems that if we take God at His word in the Book of Revelation we will be misled.  What we must do is rather reason in the way that “makes more sense to [us]”.  If that means making Revelation symbolic, so be it.  And he adds to this (his fifth reason) that,
 The number itself is stylized. It’s not to be taken literally. It’s 12 x 12 x 1000—12 being the number of completion for God’s people (representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb) and 1000 being a generic number suggesting a great multitude. So 144,000 is a way of saying all of God’s people under the old and new covenant.
So one thing you must not do here (and very many other places according to this form of interpretation) is believe God literally means 144,000 male virgins representing the tribes of Israel as listed in Revelation 7:4-8!  You must not take God at His word.  Remember the definitions above!  Putting it this way tends to bring the jolly-sounding soundtrack to a screeching halt doesn’t it?
As far as I can ascertain DeYoung is (along with many of the Gospel Coalition), an old-earth proponent.  This post and its list of recommended books, leaves me with that impression.  But does Genesis 1, to say nothing of Exodus 20:11, give the impression that the six days of creation are also symbolical? Or that they are millions, perhaps billions of years long?  Would taking God at His word in Genesis 1 and Exodus 20 lead one to such a conclusion?  I’m not asking whether or not “it makes more sense to [you]” to believe the earth is billions of years old; I’m asking whether taking Genesis 1 or Exodus 20:11 at its word would lead a person to that belief.
If we take a quick look at the book Taking God At His Word we will see, especially in chapters 3 and 4 about the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, that the focus isn’t really about the entire Word of God, but only about what is necessary for salvation and Christian living.
That is always the way Reformed writers have explained these terms because of their penchant for displacing Israel with the Church and turning all the eschatology of the OT into types and shadows of Christ’s first coming and the Church in Him.  Thus, literally hundreds of verses and chapters in both Testaments are made symbolic and typological just as long as they are not about salvation and ethics.  Consider this,
The resurrection, some liberals argue, is not to be taken literally as a bodily resurrection, but as a powerful symbol that God can give us new spiritual life and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.” – Kevin DeYoung, Taking God At His Word, 31.  My emphasis.
Okay, now pay attention to this quotation from Iain Duguid’s Commentary on Ezekiel.  The passage in question is Ezekiel’s Temple vision, particularly chapter 43:10-12.
Verses 10-12 sum up the rationale for the temple vision: Ezekiel is being shown these things so he can relay them to his own generation.  They must consider the design and “be ashamed of their [former] sins.”  The temple vision is not a building plan or a prediction of the future but rather a powerful symbol that addresses the people of Ezekiel’s day…They must consider in particular its “plan” (43:10), its “arrangement,” its “exits and entrances,” along with its “regulations and laws” (43:11).  In other words, the temple vision is a pedagogical tool…” 490. My emphasis.
See the trouble?  Of course, it was worthless as a pedagogical tool for Ezekiel’s contemporaries if it didn’t actually refer to a temple and priests but to Jesus of Nazareth.  Taking God at His word in Ezekiel 40-48, according to Duguid, would be a wrong move.
A little earlier on Duguid gives this interpretation:
[T]he goal of Ezekiel’s temple finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.” (481).
To me, there isn’t much to choose between the liberal view of the resurrection as symbolic and the commonly received evangelical view of Ezekiel and much Bible covenant prophecy as symbolic.  The only difference is that the liberals disbelieve things like the resurrection, while they believe the Bible teaches things like God created in six literal days, that it teaches a global flood, that angelic beings cohabited with human females, that OT Israelites really believed Ezekiel’s temple would be built one day, and that the NT writers altered the meaning of OT prophecies because they thought that they wouldn’t come true literally.
Of course, liberals don’t believe these will happen any more than they believe the resurrection happened, but they do say the biblical writers believed such things!
Many evangelicals will want to fight for literal interpretation of salvation and ethical passages, but will teach that God didn’t create in six literal days, there was no global flood, that angelic beings didn’t cohabit with women, and that even though OT Israelites may well have expected Ezekiel’s temple to be built in a future day, these expectations (plus a whole host of others) were “transformed” and “expanded” and took a very different shape in the NT than the scores of covenants and prophecies led them to believe.
A last illustration: DeYoung says “Some people don’t like written texts and propositions because they imply a stable, fixed meaning, and people don’t want truth to be fixed.” (36).
I want to say, “Yeah, and you don’t want stable, fixed meanings for vast stretches of the Bible.”  I have had cause here many times to show how men like Beale, Goldsworthy, Riddlebarger, Dumbrell, Gentry & Wellum and others state plainly that promises believed by OT saints were not fulfilled as they were led to expect, but underwent transformations and reinterpretations later on.  Whence stable, fixed meaning if such a thing is held?
It all appears to come down to which bits of the Bible you are going to take at its word and which ones you are going to turn into metaphors by rhetorical spin.  Liberals interpret literal facts and descriptions metaphorically when Jesus’ life is the subject; some evangelicals interpret literal facts and descriptions metaphorically when covenanted prophecy is the subject.  How about this as an accurate paraphrase of DeYoung’s criticism of liberals but pointed back at him?
The Bible is not to be taken literally (save for Jesus work & ethics), but rather as a powerful symbol that God can give us new spiritual life and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. 
Kevin DeYoung writes some good stuff and I appreciate him, but that does not mean I’m going to get fobbed off with a book called Taking God At His Word written by someone who does not believe in taking God at His word more than about half of the time.

 

 

 

 

 

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13 comments

  1. In a highly symbolic book like the Apocalypse literalism can get one into a corner on questions like this because if one reads 144,000 as referring exactly to 144,000 – no more, no less – THEN we have the problem of limiting God. God has and WILL save many many thousands and thousands and I trust millions of Jews. If we go the way of literalism on the 144 thousand we are limiting God.

    1. Brother,

      Your comment suffers from just the problems I highlight in the post. For starters, “apokalupsis” means “reveal” or “unveil” not “cover up” or “conceal”. The symbols in the Apocalypse are identified in the book!

      Why would God sealing 144,000 limit God? It is God who numbers and seals them. Your problem is you are inferring that only 144,000 are saved. The chapter does not say anything like that. In fact, it goes on to identify the “many thousands and thousands” of which you speak, as redeemed from “all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues” (7:9).

      Now, of course, because many will not take God at His word they equate this multitude with the 144,000, even though John divides them with “After these things”.

      The problem is in your mind brother. Let God say what He says, make sure you get it, and then employ your reason to put the pieces together.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

  2. Good words Dr. H! It’s so refreshing to know that I’m not nuts for thinking that the inscripturated prophecies of the past were meant to have an actual meaning to the audience who received them.

    I cannot help but laugh every time some amill brothers reject some eschatological point because it sounds “stupid”. You’re right to point out that they have any objective standard for curbing that line of reasoning when it gets to other parts of scripture that the liberals also reject.

    1. You are quite right brother. You know, another thing about this group is their lack of critical interaction with other views. Beale’s huge A Biblical Theology of the NT is a case in point. There is scarcely any involvement with contrary views.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H

  3. Definitely agree with the substance of the post. Personally, I like the term “authorial intent” better than “literal interpretation” because the word “literal” seems to carry around a lot of baggage these days. I think it’s a little bit easier to explain that the meaning of the text is what the original author intended to say. Because then you don’t have to respond to inane comments like, “Wait, you believe in literal interpretation!?!? So you mean God literally has eyes? (Prov. 15:3).” Of course God doesn’t have literal eyes because the author did not intend that meaning, hence the metaphor!

    1. Agree, and good article concerning the consistent literal hermeneutic. Often when people hear “literal” they think wooden literalism, and they then apparently enjoy mocking their own construct of “literal,” all the while failing to interact with the real meaning of the literal hermeneutic. Often I end up just saying “normal, plain language” in place of the word “literal.”

      1. CR & Lynda,

        While I see what you mean about “literal” (and I often use ‘plain sense’), it really doesn’t matter what one says, these guys will always complain. I could have quoted several places where DeYoung uses “literal” but what’s the point? Okay, here’s one from page 32:

        “The Greeks and Romans had lots of myths. They didn’t care whether the stories were literally true.”

        As I pointed out to Steve Hays some time back, when these men want to use the word “literal” lo and behold they understand that it means “taking it at face value” or in its ‘plain sense’. It’s only when the literal interpretation crosses their predetermined theology that they cry “what do you mean by literal?”

        Bottom line: they don’t take God at His word whenever they don’t like what He says.

  4. Excellent Paul. “or else change a theology” – Is “to” missing here? Thought I’d ask, just incase this ends up in PDF (hope it does!)

  5. Timely post as our men’s group has just started this book. This is good info to help the group watch out for what DeYoung means by what he says…

  6. Paul, there is a new article over at the Rosh Pina Project which is dealing with the same issue and discusses the errors of such interpretation from the perspective of messianic Jews:

    http://roshpinaproject.com/2014/06/12/reading-genesis-the-old-testament-as-a-christian-book/

    “For those who are committed to the divine inspiration of both Testaments we must allow both Testaments to speak to us as God’s Word without overwhelming the integrity of the other. Not all the details in the Tanach speak of Yeshua, and it does not need to in order for Yeshua to fulfil Messianic prophecies. It is easy to have an over-developed Christology and expect to see Yeshua in all the details of the Tanach, a Chistotelic hermeneutic sees Yeshua as what the Tanach aims at rather than the centre of the Tanach, hence Christotelic (telos=aim) rather than Christocentric.”

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