Parameters of Meaning

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8

“Rule” 7

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 8: Never ground a teaching on disputed, ambiguous or debated texts (e.g. Matt. 10:23).  At best they may serve to support a given position.  Doctrines should come from the strongest possible connections between text and teaching.

When one is setting forth a proposition, the cogency of it and the logical extent to which it may be propounded depends much on the quality of its substantiation.  The gauge of “quality” would include things such as clarity, context, directness, and of course, relevance.

The descriptions “disputed”, “ambiguous”, and “debated” are somewhat interchangeable, and I do not want to set anything in stone, but for my purposes I have distinguished between them.  Whether you choose to follow me is of little importance to the overall point that I am trying to make.

By a “disputed” text I have in mind the disciplines of textual criticism and Bible translation.  (I want to make clear here that what is considered as spurious by liberal scholars with all of their historical critical biases will be considered authentic by an evangelical Bible believer.  Disagreements with non-biblical forms of scholarship does not concern this subject).  But, for instance, repairing to Mark 16:18 to get biblical permission to handle poisonous snakes in a worship service is wrong-headed in at least two ways.  First, there is nothing in the context about church meetings.  But second, the passage itself is considered a variant reading.  Since the middle of the 19th century the last twelve verses of Mark’s Gospel have been doubted by many good Christians as being a part of the original text of this Book.  Whether you think they ought to be retained or not (and personally I do), it would be unwise to try to settle a doctrine with a passage that many scholars and commentators are decidedly convinced shouldn’t be there.

In a related manner it would be imprudent to develop a (false) doctrine of a kenotic emptying of Christ’s divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence from the translation of Philippians 2:7 as “He emptied Himself” rather than the less literal but more advisable rendering, “He made Himself of no reputation” (see B.B. Warfield’s masterful article on the passage).

To the degree that there is some ambiguity in a selected passage it is wise to take such a text as a possible supporter of another clearer text.  So, for example, 1 John 1:1 speaks of “the Word of life”.  But is it referring to Jesus Christ or is it referring to the Gospel or the Scriptures?  The majority say that the phrase is speaking of Christ, and it may well be.  But the point here is that if one begins their doctrine of Christ with the verse, or even bases an assertion on the verse, that assertion is only as good as the argument for Christ as the subject of the verse.  Better to go elsewhere.

We are all familiar with the slogan about deriving “the right doctrine from the wrong texts”, and a more serious error still occurs when we get the wrong doctrine from any texts.  One should not start his teaching of any doctrine with a text which is disagreed upon among different Bible interpreters. Whenever setting forth what the Bible teaches (which is always loaded with the claim that this is what God says), one ought in every case to reach for the very clearest and least disputed passages.

If we wish to teach on the deity of Christ or the Trinity we should avoid the Johannine Comma (1 John 5:7).  Similarly, we should not be going to 2 Corinthians 3:14 to assert that the OT Canon was closed at the time Paul wrote his epistle, since it is very likely that the Apostle had in mind the Mosaic covenant, which he contrasts with the new covenant of which he is a minister (2 Cor. 3:6).  The issue cannot be decided by such proof-texting.

This Rule also deals with what I have called “debated texts”.  A debated text here is a scripture about which there may be disagreements about who exactly is being addressed.  The text mentioned in Rule 8 says this:

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes (Matt. 10:23)

Once we allow the idea that Jesus is speaking about His disciples in this verse, then the coming of the Son of Man in the context has to be spiritualized as a figurative coming in judgment in A.D. 70.  (This will lead to a violation of Rule 9).

In Mark 11:23-24 Jesus makes a statement that has us all running for the hills:

For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.

What on earth is going on here?  The Mount of Olives is still in the same place it was when Jesus made this announcement.  Furthermore, we do not see flying mountains (or houses or people for that matter) unless we taking powerful substances which we should stop taking.  So using the verse to teach on the limitless possibilities of confident prayer rather than using it to underscore the power behind confident prayer in line with the purposes of God would be a violation of this “rule.”

The next Rule picks up where this one leaves off.

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The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7

After a ridiculously long delay, I have started to finish off my series on the Parameters of Meaning beginning with this one on Typology.  I believe these guidelines will help Bible students avoid many pitfalls in interpretation by setting limits on what constitutes legitimate hermeneutics.  For those of you interested here are the previous installments:

Parameters of Meaning – Introduction

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2 

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4a

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4b

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7: Never draw theological conclusions that are based upon typology.  Types are too uncertain and debatable for doctrines to be formulated with them.

The Bible is given, in large part for Theology.  2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us all that

All Scripture is God-breathed [out] and is profitable for doctrine (didaskalia), for reproof, the correction, for instruction in righteousness…

The Greek word didaskalia means “teaching” and is often, as in the above example, translated as “doctrine.”  This word, “doctrine”, signifies the body of biblical teaching cast in the form of propositional truths and life principles.  For doctrines, and, therefore, Theology to be really biblical, they must be clearly traceable to the text of Scripture, interpreted within its proper context.  Our doctrinal formulations should be derived from clear statements of the truth which are accessible to all people.

As we have tried to show with the Rules of Affinity, every major doctrine of the Christian Faith can be ascertained either from direct statements taken from Bible passages (this is usual), or from inferences drawn from direct statements which lead to one inevitable conclusion.  Hence, God has given mankind the essentials of Christianity on the surface, as it were, of His Word.  This being so, it is scarcely necessary to dive into the murky waters of symbolism to uncover theological truth in Scripture.

The Tricky Business of Identification

But leaving that aside, we must ask what is needed for a type to even gain credence as a type.  To begin with, nearly all the best writers on the subject say that typology is intra-testamental. This means that the type is in the Old Testament while the antitype, the fulfillment of the type, is in the New Testament.  So too Leonard Goppelt, in his Typos (ch.1), saw it as his task to examine how the use of typology by NT authors and the church guided the interpretation of the OT.

A 1997 article, “Typology: A Summary of Present Evangelical Discussion,” by W. Edward Glenny (JETS 40.4), provides three competing evangelical views, while commending a fourth; that of Richard M. Davidson, as a way forward.  Davidson himself surveys a host of contrasting theories of typology from both mainstream and evangelical sources, and concludes that they all fall short because “a solid semasiological and exegetical foundation for understanding the nature of typology is never laid.” – Typology in Scripture, 73.  (“Semasiological” refers to the actual meaning of a word as it is used).

Recently, men like RWL Moberly have proposed a typology within the OT itself independent of the NT (at least for Jewish readers).  However, Christian use of this approach will not permit fixity of types unless the NT is ushered in through the back door.  In point of fact the soil out of which much typology has been built is the view that the NT reinterprets the OT.

Hence,

as more revelation was given over time…we discover more of God’s plan and where that plan is going.  It is for this reason that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament becomes definitive in helping us understand the details of the Old Testament…In other words, we must carefully allow the New Testament to show us how the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ. – Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 85-86 

But it does not follow that later revelation will always work in this way.  One thinks of the Creation account for instance, or the Fall.  And before it can be asserted that the NT has definitive interpretative clout over the OT we must ascertain whether or not the NT is addressing the particular subject the OT text is addressing.  But this brings to light the major problem, which is whether our interpretation(s) of the NT are infused with dogma.  We find such a problem in the above quotation where the authors assume without proof that “the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ”, by which they mean, the first coming of Christ.  Such a massive presupposition will inevitable color their understanding of typology, since they will be searching for types of first advent “fulfillment.”  This will unavoidably lead them into collision with the many OT texts which place the fulfillments at the second advent.  In fact, the very existence of the collision calls forth their typology to handle it!

Theological Pre-commitment 

To illustrate this idea of frontloaded conclusions again, consider this by covenant theologian Mark L. Karlberg:

The dissolution of the temporal, earthly theocracy coincided with the new covenant’s reign of God in the hearts of his people through the Spirit. In the eschatological age of the Spirit the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality unencumbered by the shadowy, earthly forms (types) characteristic of the ancient theocracy. In the period between the advents of Christ the presence of the kingdom is in anticipation of the realization of the land-promise in the consummation. – ‘The Significance of Israel in Biblical Typology’, JETS 31:3 (September 1988), 268

But it ought to be obvious that such a typological approach can only be sanctioned if the NT is given interpretive priority over the New, which is actually only to say that the interpreter’s own theologically determined conclusions about the NT are read back into the OT!  Typology trumps contextual exegesis whenever a theological commitment predisposes the reader to employ it.  The present writer has tried to show that the new covenant insures the literal fulfillment of OT predictions, not hands them over to be “typologized”. (more…)

When Literal Interpretation Leads to Wholesale Spiritualization

This is a response to comments left for me in the combox at this post about Sam Storms’s views on eschatology.  I appreciate the brother bringing them to my attention.  I am responding mainly to this:

Thanks for the post. I am not sure the last section really represents Sam’s view. He would say that Paul and Peter leave no room for a milennium since Paul has the last enemy death defeated at the parousia in 1Cor 15:24ff, 50 therefore death will not exist after Jesus returns and Peter has Jesus returning and then begins the renovation of heaven and earth by fire without a milennium. Since the thrones in Revelation are always in heaven and when they are setup for those who reign on them it could be that their reign is in heaven. He does admit difficulty with anastasis so he defaults to the fact that Paul and Peter are clearer than Revelation therefore he is inclined to be amillennial. This is Storms’ view summarized.

Comment by Rick Tatina | July 7, 2013 | 

Just in case, the passage concerning Peter was from 2 Peter 3:9-12.

Here’s a brief response.

Let me address these texts 1 Cor. 15:20-28 first:

“But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.”
Okay, let’s examine this, beginning in v.23:

This passage is dealing with physical resurrection (anastasis).  Christ is raised first, in expectation of more to come.  V.24 then speaks of “the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to the Father.”  Is that it?  No.  V.25 says “He must reign until He has put all enemies under his feet.”  So the question is, “Is Christ reigning now?”  “Yes” says Storms.  Does the Bible say He is?  No!  Not unless He reigns over the “principalities and powers” of Eph. 6:10ff.  Not unless He is reigning over the countless tragedies and acts of wickedness which continue day in day out since He rose again.  If so, He would be the worse ruler imaginable.  The buck would stop at Him.

In Matt. 19:28 Jesus looks forward to sitting “on the throne of his glory” at “the regeneration” (palingenesia).  This coincides with the “times of refreshing” and “times of restoration” of Acts 3:19 & 21, which Acts 3:20 tells us occur when Jesus returns.  In Lk. 19:12-15 Jesus makes it clear that He (the nobleman) would go away and only reign once He returned.  In Rev. 3:21 we’re told that Jesus sat down on His Father’s throne.  1 Cor. 15:20ff. could support amillennialism, but only if we are prepared to spiritualize a whole bunch of other verses.

Here I should like to quote from my “Parameters of Meaning” series (which I have neglected):

“Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal”. There will always be another literal meaning available which preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.”

Well, is Christ subduing all things now?  Look around.  Of course not.  Does the Bible say He is?  No.  Romans 8:19-23 places this at the time of our resurrection (“the redemption of our body”).  When will that happen?  1 John 3:2 & Phil 3:20-21 answer, at the Second Coming.  So at Christ’s second advent this world will be “regenerated” or “delivered” or “refreshed” or “subdued” and not before.  Christ shall reign (Lk. 1:31-33; cf. Rev. 20:4 & 6) just as the Prophets said He would.  He will rule with a rod of iron after the second coming as Rev. 19:15 makes quite clear (see also Rev. 2:27; 12:3 which make it future).  Psalm 2:6-9 refer to this subduing when Christ reigns.  See also this: https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/christ-at-the-center-pt-6a/
I really don’t know what Storms is thinking with 1 Cor. 15:50.  But it seems He is just equating the kingdom of God with heaven.  And, as I said above, this thinking of New Heavens and Earth after the coming of Christ is a big problem for amillennialism, because it discards THIS earth as useless after the Second Advent.  No dominion for the second Adam on this earth in successful completion of Adam’s failed dominion!  It is easy to fit the literal Millennium in 1 Cor. 15 without having to revise our reading of all the plain verses which speak of an actual reign of Christ on this earth after the second advent. (more…)

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 6

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6: Beware of basing an interpretation on the shifting sands of a supposed “genre”; especially “apocalyptic.”  Make sure the interpretive decision is well grounded.

Rule 5 is here.

Over the last generation or so there has been a great stir in scholarly circles about “genre.”  Genres are literary types or kinds.  They can be broken down from larger kinds like, for instance, “narrative” into smaller branches.   There are a lot of these smaller genre-types.  A good selection will include historical narrative, poetic narrative, travel story, poetry, proverb, drama, wisdom literature, law, encomium, prophecy, apocalyptic, gospel, parable, type, epistle, etc.  There can scarcely be any complaints about the identification of these genres in the Bible, nor that there are certain conventions related to genres.

a. The Problem

A problem enters in when we are told of all the various hermeneutical stratagems demanded of the reader because of the presence these genres.  So, for example, it is said that one must understand that the first chapter of Genesis should not be interpreted “literally”, but is carefully structured so as to show a correlation between the first three days and the last three days (e.g. old-earth creationist Meredith Kline; theistic evolutionist Bruce Waltke).  Alternatively, of late the principle of analogy has been invoked wherein man’s workweek and sabbath rest is analogous with God’s work of creation and resting on the seventh day (e.g. progressive creationist Vern Poythress; theistic evolutionist Jack Collins); even extending this notion and positing that Jesus entered into a sabbath rest at His ascension (G. K. Beale).  Amid all this display of analogous hypothesizing it may seem  too simplistic to read any intention to set out a chronology of a six day creation.  The assertion is made that such a view must be discarded as naive; that there is a failure to recognize the ancient genre involved.  Often ANE parallels are shuffled in to make the case more persuasive.

The bottom line is that to accurately determine what these texts mean one must take the particular  genre-hermeneutic into account.  In much the same way a covenant promise which happens to be written in meter might need to be disassociated from very similar promises written in prose – since the genres are different.  Each genre is supposed to have its own hermeneutical rules.  Although these rules do not isolate one genre from another, they nonetheless are often appealed to so as to avoid an unwelcome theological result.

b. Creationism and Genre

This maneuver is most often pulled on two topics: creationism and predictive prophecy.  As to the first, many old-earthers will agree that what we have in Genesis 1 is narrative.  However, they tell us it is not historical narrative.  It does not tell us that God created in six 24 hour days!  How do they know?  Because the “high prose” must be taken account of, and the analogies with other passages are not properly considered.

Neither of these excuses really cut the mustard, but that is how the argument goes.  “If you young-earthers only understood the genre” it is said; well, we wouldn’t be such an embarrassment to these brethren.  Hence genre is being used to slip outside “scientific” conclusions into the exegesis.  Nothing now bars the way for an all out embrace of theistic evolutionism.  And so Genesis can be made to say exactly the opposite of what it actually says by the expedient of diverting attention onto the supposed genre.

Prophecy and Genre

It is, however, with the subject of prophecy that things really get into swing.  Here there are lots of things to which one may appeal: poetry, motif, apocalyptic language, dreams and visions, uncreation, Eden and Exodus motifs.  If one wishes to avoid coming to certain conclusions, modern scholarship has provided many avenues to duck down.  Again, it is clear that while these things may be present, their presence is not for the purpose of subverting what is actually said. (more…)

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 5

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5: Do not contrast the plain-sense with a supposedly deeper “spiritual” sense. This implies God doesn’t mean what He says and is thus equivocal in His very nature; which in turn incurs heavy penalties philosophically.

If a person is going to claim that the revealing God intended to pass on a meaning to men which lies somewhere beneath the surface of the words He chose to communicate with, that person must understand that they are not just saying something about certain passages of Scripture.  They are saying something about the Giver of Scripture.

Once this belief is held, all of a sudden there is an imposing esotericism to the Bible.  “Truth”: that which God is imparting, now becomes, not something which is on the surface of the text, but something which must be discovered at another level of communication.

Such an admission proposes that God employs words which might easily be misunderstood.  Words normally refer to whatever can be rightly said to be conveyed by their surface meaning (viz. what is the surface meaning of “whoever believes in me has everlasting life” if it is not what the words themselves state?).  But this admission implies that if one is not very careful, one begins predicating something about God which would be unnerving: the fact that God leads people to believe one thing (a “surface meaning”) when He is really intending another (some deeper or higher “spiritual meaning”).  This makes God less than transparent in His communications, and leads to the questioning of everything that God has spoken so as to try to insure that we ourselves have not been led astray by the “surface meaning.”  I do not see any safety in this process.  Faith cannot rest in any other sense than the plain sense, and if that is abandoned there is no solid ground to build our theology upon.

I have already provided some examples of the shakiness and uncertainty created when this position is taken (e.g. link, link).  Here is another from Iain Duguid’s Commentary on Ezekiel (NIVAC).  He is speaking about the Temple vision in chapter 43:

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.

Such is the detail supplied by the prophet that Duguid reproduces a Plan of Ezekiel’s Temple (473), and goes on to admit that “a competent architect could construct a building from Ezekiel’s description” if he were given more information regarding vertical dimensions and materials, and, of course, with the understanding that “the present temple site in Jerusalem would need to have its topography radically revised.” (479).

Duguid’s insistence that the temple vision, with all its particulars, “is not a building plan or a prediction of the future” means that he will have to look for a “deeper” meaning than the blueprint which Israel is to take care to comprehend.  But let us remind ourselves of the wording of the passage in question:

10  Son of man, describe the temple to the house of Israel, that
they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure the
pattern.
 11 “And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, make
known to them the design of the temple and its arrangement, its
exits and its entrances, its entire design and all its ordinances, all
its forms and all its laws. Write it down in their sight, so that they
may keep its whole design and all its ordinances, and perform them.
 12 “This is the law of the temple: The whole area surrounding the
mountaintop is most holy. Behold, this is the law of the temple.

The elaborate build up to this text, which according to Duguid provides “the rationale for the temple vision,” is marked by the most strict instruction to the prophet to “fix in your mind everything I will show you” and pay attention to detail (40:4).  This detail involves the return of the shekinah-glory of the LORD to the temple (43:1-7).  What is striking is that this glory had left a literal temple by the east gate in chapter 10; the prophet making a direct reference to that vision in 43:3!  I don’t think Duguid believes the glory of the Lord came into the second temple, so perhaps we are to think eschatologically here?  The chapters surrounding chapters 40-43 can, and should be seen as eschatological (i.e. chs. 34, 36-39), as are those after (i.e. chs. 47-48), so how Duguid can dogmatically declare that the vision was for “his own generation” is hard to understand.  The perplexity grows when one considers that Ezekiel’s generation were in captivity and so were hardly in any position to start planning such a structure.

Ah but, Duguid is ready with the interpretive key: “we should do what it seems to me the New Testament does [N.B. his interpretation of the NT drives his interpretation of Ezekiel] and see how the goal of Ezekiel’s temple finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.” (481).  Again, after a devotional foray; “Christ is the meaning for which Ezekiel’s vision exists.” (483).

With this in view let us return to our “Rule 5”: (more…)

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 4b

At the close of the last post I wrote:

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!

As I continue with this fourth personal rule I want to build on that crucial detail.  And I want to start out by asking a simple question:

Why Did God Make Covenants?

If I were more “liberally” inclined, and I had spent most of my time with scholars who treated the Bible as just another ANE document of varied worth, I might well answer my question by pronouncing knowingly that the writers used the covenant forms they were familiar with, and epitomized their laws as of Divine origin by representing YHWH as a covenant God.  I would allege that the covenant forms were in no way part of the Divine character, except as that character evolved in response to cultural and agrarian needs through time.

If I attended one of our less than fully conservative seminaries, and therefore was fed a steady diet of the same sort of books as above, I might say that the answer to the question was that YHWH is depicted as availing Himself of the contractual norms of the day to encourage Israel in their monotheistic religious cult.

In either case, I would be claiming that the covenant forms of the OT were more anthropocentric than theocentric: that they were devised by humans within their religious environment for the purpose of fidelity toward Israel’s God.  Neither of these answers actually addresses the question, except to redirect it by asserting that God Himself didn’t make covenants, but is only shown as making them.  This kind of answer is of no use to anyone who believes that God Himself entered into these covenants.  It also ignores the advice of C. H. H. Scobie that scholars should derive their understanding of the Bible’s covenants from the Bible itself and not so much from the surrounding cultures. See The Ways of Our God, 474-475.

On the other hand, say I attended a very conservative Reformed seminary which adhered to covenant theology (I actually did for a while).  In that case I would be told that the covenants which God entered into in time were expressions of the covenant He entered into before time – the “covenant of redemption” – which was revealed in time as the fabled “covenant of grace.”  I would henceforth hear lots of talk about “THE covenant,” and it would be understood that God made this covenant with all of the elect from Adam to the Second Coming.

One of the problems with this explanation is that it seems to flatten out the testimony of the biblical covenants while giving pride of place to a “covenant” that is not to be found in the Bible, but is rather a crucial requirement of a particular version of theology.  Thus, the answer to the question in this kind of setting would be something along the lines of, “God made the covenant of grace with all the elect, while the rest of humanity is under the covenant of works, of which they are transgressors.”

This means that covenants in the Reformed understanding are interesting more for their association with “the Gospel” (placed in quotation marks because their view that Paul’s Gospel was basically the same one which was preached in OT times).  From this understanding the theological demands of the “covenant of grace” in particular forge (one might say “force”) a strange unity between the Testaments for the sake of having one people of God.

Finally, I might ask a dispensationalist why God made covenants.  Sadly many dispensationalists talk more about covenants than actually employ them in their theology.  However, someone well read in J. D. Pentecost for example will answer in terms of God’s faithful promise to do what He says He will do – therefore covenants were made by God to elicit faith.  This, I believe, is certainly spot on.  But it isn’t a complete answer.

Faith In What?

Think again about the first covenant; the covenant with Noah.  Was this covenant made to elicit faith?  Indubitably.  But faith in what?  The answer to that question is as self-evident as it is eye-opening.  God made covenants so that men would believe what He said in those covenants! (more…)

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 4a

The Parameters of Meaning: Introduction

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 1

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 2

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 3

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
man?”
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.  (more…)

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 3

The Parameters of Meaning: Introduction

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 1

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 2

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3: Avoid importing foreign hermeneutical grids which dictate beforehand how one is going to interpret a passage.  This distorts exegesis.

This criterion is straightforward.  Do not come to the text of Scripture with your mind already made up with a theology which every text must be fitted to.  Again, we all tend to do this, so we must be on our guard.  It is crucial in interpretation that we have self-awareness on the one hand, and text-awareness on the other.  Self-awareness is needed so that we don’t fool ourselves that we bring no prior assumptions to our reading.  Text-awareness is necessary because we should be keen “listeners” to exactly what is being communicated.  We should be attentive to what is being said, not what we think it says.  Let us look at some examples of this criterion:

a. Examples

In John 10:27-29 Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand.

This passage is all about preservation and security of Christ’s flock.  The basic ingredients are:

1. They are Christ’s sheep and they know Him

2. Christ grants His sheep eternal life.

3. This gift insures the sheep shall never perish

4. Not just the gift of life but the power of Christ against enemies is provided

5. The sheep were given to Christ by his Father.

6. The Father’s will and power provide further security for the sheep.

Despite the clarity of this promise of Jesus, there are some Arminian Christians who, because they believe other verses (especially in Hebrews) support a theology of conditional election and security (i.e. they hold that a Christian may loose eternal life).  The way they argue is by pointing out that even though no one can take the sheep from Christ and the Father, it doesn’t mean they cannot jump out themselves.

The problem with this view is that it overturns the clear message of assurance which Christ intends in the passage.  But further, it completely ignores the context and the theological message.  Contextually, Christ is “the Good Shepherd” (10:11, 14) who owns the sheep.  If He were to allow the sheep to escape He would be an incompetent shepherd, not a good one!  We may be as sure that Christ will insure all His sheep “never perish” as that He will not let them be snatched away from Him.  Thus, the passage cannot be explained away in order to preserve a theological view. (more…)

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 2

While in this article I talk about “induction,” “deduction,” and “abduction,” please understand that I use these terms quite carefully.  Although not common in the literature, these terms may help the reader of Scripture become more aware of how he is reading and interpreting the text – at least at a basic (though important) level.  I should say that these twelve “rules” are designed to identify meanings which can be confidently seen in the wording of the biblical text, while excluding those interpretations which are forced onto the text.  These posts should not be seen as a replacement for the better hermeneutics and exegesis manuals.

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2: Induction and deduction are inescapably linked (via retroduction or ‘abduction’), but induction is always prior to deduction. Never ask “But what about?” questions till you know what the text actually says!

a. “But What About…?”

When a person asks “But what about this….?”, it should indicate, in an ideal world, that they had paused long enough in their conversation with themselves to listen to what was being said to them.  Misunderstandings often occur because we fail to listen carefully to what has just been said.  Perhaps we do this because of some animus against the speaker, or against the subject he or she is talking about.  Perhaps it is because we think that the person talking ought to stop talking and listen to the sound wisdom we wish to benefit them with?  Or perhaps we believe that if they had read what we have read they wouldn’t be saying the things they are saying?

There are numerous reasons for not paying proper attention to what is being said to us, but there really is no excuse.  And when the Speaker is the Holy Spirit through the Holy Scriptures our ‘listening’ needs to be especially keen and attentive.  Any “But what about…?” questions we may have, better not arise before we have heard what God is saying to us!

When dealing with members of cults like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, one often meets up with this phenomenon.  Pointing them to Ephesians 2:8-9 and actually getting them to consent to its wording can be a long and difficult process.  Often it will involve them trying to dodge Paul’s words with the  question, “But what about James 2:14 & 17?”  It may take a concerted effort to persuade them that you will examine James 2 after you have analyzed Paul’s point in Ephesians 2.   And even if you have managed to get their finger out of James and keep it in Ephesians it will often be the case that you will feel the warmth of their recalcitrance as you ask them to explain “by grace, through faith; not of works…”

It is understandable to get the negative vibe from a JW to the biblical text.  It is more surprising to experience the same kind of resistance from true Christians.  How many times have I been teaching in a chapter of the Bible and have had to ask someone who has just asked one of these “what about…?” questions to wait until we have seen what the passage actually says!

For example, I may be in the middle of 1 Thess. 4:13-18 and inevitably I will hear “what about the pre-trib rapture?”  I may at that time tell them to wait, but add that the passage itself does not say anything about the timing of the rapture.  We need to ascertain first what it does say, and then, maybe we can fit its contribution into a wider theological argument in favor of the pre-trib position.  We must, however, be aware that this theological framework is not itself necessarily wrought out of exegesis (a matter to be addressed in another ‘Rule’).

So what is to be done?  Rule 1 is a good place to begin.  We ask, “what does it say?” not “what does it teach?”  But there will always be people who do not read it the way we read it.  We need to make a closer inspection.

b. Induction?

I remember when there was a lot of fuss over inductive Bible study (before Kay Arthur!).  In our exegesis of Bible texts we wanted to be inductive.  Induction involves moving from the particular to the general.  In exegesis it might be related to the process of determining sentence meanings and moving out to try to understand the function of the sentence or verse in the argument of the author.

Mention “induction” within earshot of most hermeneutics profs and they will likely run screaming from the room… (more…)

The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 1

This is the second in a series of articles on what I call ‘the parameters of meaning.’  The first post, which is a rundown of the Twelve “Rules”, is here

Basically, what I have in mind is that texts can only suffer certain interpretations as viable.  If a person says to me that they are a postmillennialist, I am obliged not to interpret them as meaning that they hold that Christ will return and then inaugurate his millennial reign on earthThere are interpretations which are not interpretations.  This series seeks to help define where the limits are.  Please feel free to disagree.  These are my rules.

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1: Stick to the plain sense of the words in a passage whenever possible, always observing figures of speech

a. Plain-Sense and Good Sense

Placing the matter “plain-sense” first in a list of rules of biblical interpretation is to provoke the ire of many a Christian and the disdain for “non-scholarship” which quickly follows in its wake.  It is so naive to think that one can strike out in this direction without taking under consideration the impact of texts upon readers and the ongoing effects of that impact among individuals and communities.

Still, there are few who would be willing to declare that a “plain-sense” does not, in fact, exist.  If this were so it is hard to see how any wild and ridiculous interpretations of Holy Scripture could be kept out.

But perhaps it isn’t as easy as that (it rarely is).  Perhaps it is the finding of the “plain-sense” that poses the problems?  That it is “there” somewhere is to be admitted, but how to find it, that is the question.

But one has to start somewhere, and in any form of communication between one person and another, it is unwise to ignore what appears to be the meaning based upon taking someone at face value.  Naturally, when someone is speaking to you but not employing an idiom with which they are completely comfortable, it is not unlikely that what they say and what they mean to say may be quite different.  But we are talking about the inspired Word of God.  And even if one is restricted to the use of one or two good translations, it has to be admitted that these versions convey the original very adequately for all intents and purposes.  True, detailed work must be conducted in the original languages and with the best exegetical tools.  But everyone knows that the “plain-sense” does not go away just because exegesis gets more precise.  In point of fact, the reverse is the case.  What exegetes are seeking first is what the texts are saying.  Then the task moves on to asking what the writer intended by the words he chose and the paragraphs he put together.

Take myself as an example.  I am writing about my personal rules of interpretation.  In writing I hope not to make my readers think one thing when I mean another.  Sometimes this happens.  In some instances this is because I have written sloppily and have failed to say things clearly.  More often when someone gets the wrong end of the stick it is because they have not read carefully, and have read their assumptions into my work without actually giving due heed to what I said.

This is understood, but “rights of the plain-sense” must be duly appreciated.  Every writer who taps out a hermeneutics essay on his laptop understands that his first duty is to say what he means as well as he can.  Yes, there is a great deal of the obtuse faux-profundity around.  But the best writers want to be taken at face value.  They are not, after all, trying to fool anyone into thinking they mean one thing while really intending another.  What would be the point of that?  There is a huge irony attached to any person who sets forth to teach Biblical hermeneutics and no one has the foggiest idea what he is going on about! (more…)