Saturday, June 14, 2008

Roundup Time

All right, where do we stand in our discussion of Biblical hermeneutics? We have seen that, when seeking the meaning of the text, we must assume:
  1. God is the author of Scripture (inspiration), so what we seek is the meaning He intends to convey.
  2. God's revelation has such a total unity that it never contradicts itself, so any interpretation must agree with the total teaching of Scripture (analogy of faith).
  3. Rather than isolated statements drifting in a vacuum, God's Word consists of meaningful narratives and coherent arguments, so a proper understanding of any passage will take its context into account.
  4. Some Bible passages communicate more clearly and directly than others, so we use the passages that establish a doctrine (sedes doctrinae) to interpret other passages relating to the same doctrine.
  5. Scripture is totally reliable and authoritative, so any other document, tradition, or revelation must be judged according to its faithfulness to the preceding principles (sola scriptura).
Wow. We've picked up 5 powerful tools for exploring the Bible in only 4 short essays. The first principle isn't so much a hermeneutic as the assumption with which any inquiry into the meaning of God's Word must start. The fifth principle, as we saw last time, sneaked aboard like a stowaway in the baggage of Principle 1. From here on it gets steadily harder to confine our discussion to one principle at a time, because they seem to rush onto the scene as a body, unstoppable and inseparable.

At the end of the last installment, we touched on the theme of the efficacy and power of God's Word. This belongs more to a discussion of the doctrine of God's Word than to the principles of its interpretation. It isn't the only doctrine regarding Scripture that adds nothing, directly, to these principles. Another such article of faith is the "sufficiency of Scripture," to which Paul testified in 2 Timothy 3:15. If anyone insinuates that you need a revelation beyond the Bible to learn all God has in mind for you, kick him off your doorstep and barricade the door. You don't want to be standing beside him when God fulfills His promise in Revelation 22:18. But that's already pretty well covered by Principle 5.

On the other hand, the efficacy and sufficiency of God's Word have important implications when considered in light of Principles 1-5. The Word is efficacious because God the Father "watches over it to perform it" (Jeremiah 1:12); because it is filled and empowered by God the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:5); because in God the Son it partakes of the very essence of God (John 1:1; 1 John 1:1); because through His Word, this God in Three Persons lives in us (John 14:15-23); and because, as God Himself in action, the Word lives (Hebrews 4:12; 1 Peter 1:23) and gives life (Psalm 119:50; John 5:24; 6:63; Philippians 2:16). The Word is sufficient because it conveys all the information a Christian needs to begin in faith and persevere in hope (John 8:31-32).

Implication #1: Correct interpretation of the Bible, according to Principles 1-5, cannot be separated from a living faith in Christ. This blade cuts two ways.

First, the main thrust of it is that the Holy Spirit's indwelling is required for true insight into the meaning of Scripture. It's a bit of a paradox. No one can believe without receiving the Word in some form (Romans 10:17; more on this later). But without faith created by the Holy Spirit, no one can accept the Word (1 Corinthians 2:14). So it isn't a before-after thing, but a both-and thing. The Holy Spirit comes through the Word to create faith in your heart and, simultaneously, disposes your heart by faith to perceive the meaning of God's Word. Apart from faith in Christ, its meaning is veiled (2 Corinthians 3:12 ff; John 8:42-47; John 5:19 ff).

But the same blade also slashes. If right faith is necessary for right interpretation of Scripture, the reverse is also true: the right doctrine is necessary both for spreading the faith (1 Timothy 4:16; Titus 1:9) and for growing in the faith (1 Peter 2:2). The church today is filled with the stench of an evil rumor that says the time we spend struggling to keep our doctrine pure is time taken away from spreading the gospel. On the contrary: our doctrine is the gospel. If we do not "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), then we will find ourselves teaching something other than the gospel. The Holy Spirit leads faithful Christians to recognize the true interpretation of Scripture, i.e. correct Christian doctrine; and as they faithfully confess and teach this gospel, the Holy Spirit uses their witness to bring others to faith.

So, only by faith in Christ is the Bible properly understood; and only by faithfully proclaiming what the Bible teaches does this faith in Christ grow and spread (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20). I hesitate to call this a Hermeneutical Principle, since in light of John 6:44 ("No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him") it would be ridiculous to tell someone: "To grasp the meaning of Scripture, you must become a believer." Nevertheless, like Principle 1, it is a footing on which true Bible interpretation must be built. Only the Holy Spirit can reveal the meaning He intended, and only by His presence in your heart (faith) can you perceive that meaning. To know Scripture is to believe in Christ; to seek meaning in Scripture without belief is futile. It sometimes happens that in seeking that meaning you find it together with the Holy Spirit and faith. I know at least one man it happened to - a pastor, even!

This, in turn, leads to Implication #2: Christ is in the crosshairs. The reason the Scriptures were "veiled" to those who did not trust Christ - or more precisely, the reason their hearts were veiled (2 Corinthians 3:14-16) from understanding God's Word - is that Christ is the central message of both Old Testament and New. To bring any biblical teaching into clear focus, you must recognize that it is all about Jesus. Before Jesus opened the apostles' minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45), He explained how all of the Scriptures were written about Him and fulfilled by Him (24:44). And after complimenting the Jews on looking to the Scriptures for eternal life, Jesus reproaches them: "It is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life" (John 5:39-40). So an important step in interpreting the Bible is to recognize its purpose: to reveal Jesus as the sinless God-Man who has achieved the world's redemption by sacrificing Himself on the cross.

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