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Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Fallible with the Infallible

The standard Christian position on the Bible is that it is the infallible Word of God. There is, of course, a variety of dances that people will do around that from, "No, it isn't" to "Well, it contains the infallible Word of God" (which leaves you with, "Okay, so which part is and which part isn't?"). But standard Christian orthodoxy includes that original concept, the infallibility of the Word of God.

Even if you grant this, and even if you grant that the whole Bible is the infallible Word of God, you still have a problem, don't you? Well, if you don't see it, just look around. How many reliable, devout, genuine believers agree 100% on the meaning of all the texts? If I'm to be honest, I don't know two. So clearly, while we agree that the Bible is God's Word and God's Word is infallible, clearly we're dealing with fallible interpretation. "Aha!" some will conclude, "So even with your infallible Bible you can't really know anything for sure about what it means, can you?" Or something rather close to it. (These are the ones that often seem to consider certainty a sin.) But even well-meaning, sincere Christians get concerned. "If the scholars can't figure this stuff out, what makes me think I can?"

It would be nice if there was an infallible method for fallible humans to interpret the infallible Word. There isn't. But there are some hints, some things to keep in mind that can raise your confidence level.

Herman Newticks
Hermeneutics is the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, almost always in terms of the Bible. It's very important to have a valid, reliable method of interpretation. Note that this is not "What does the world around me say?" or "How do I feel about it?" (Have you ever sat in a Bible study where the method was, "What do you think it says?" Not a good approach.)

Scripture Interprets Scripture
Assuming that the premise is right -- God's Word is authoritative and infallible -- it only makes sense that God's Word would be the best interpreter of God's Word. Some people are perfectly fine with concluding that Scripture contradicts Scripture or that it was true once but isn't anymore .. at least, not entirely. But if the premise is right, Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. So if you find something that contradicts something else, don't ignore it or throw it away. Find out how it fits. If it doesn't fit, you are not accurately understanding.

Take it as it is written
Lots of people dislike immensely the ones they term "literalists". And they'll show you how stupid it is by, say, pointing out that Jesus said, "I am the door." "So," they'll challenge, "where were His hinges and doorknob? You're such a literalist!" Or something equally mindless. I'm not advocating wooden literalism. But I am suggesting that we read the Bible as it is written. Is it historical narrative? Read it that way. (As opposed to "myth" or "legend" because, after all, that seems so hard to believe.) If it's doctrinal, take it as doctrine. If it is wisdom -- you know, like proverbs -- take it as proverbial. Take Scripture as it is written, exactly as you would any other book you would read.

Context, Context, Context
There is no more important message about interpreting Scripture than "context, context, context". Someone recently (if I knew who, I'd reference them) said we should never read a Bible verse. Read before it. Read after it. Read whole chapters and whole books. (It has been my experience that those chapter breaks often come in bad places. Don't let them stop you.) What is the author saying? What is the context of the times? Who is it to? Why was it written? What is the theme? What are the principles? Take, for instance, the famous "You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female." (Lev 18:22) What is the context? Sexual sin of all varieties (Lev 18:6-24). They'll tell you, "It's not about homosexual sin", and they'll want you to believe, "It's about pagan practices" or the like. You'll need to ask yourself, "So is the rest of the context not about sexual sin either?" If you conclude it is about sexual sin, you'll want to ask, "Is it consistent with the rest of Scripture on this topic?" And you'll find a single message there, too. Context nails the meaning down.

He Will Guide You
Jesus told His disciples, "When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak." (John 16:13) Take this as a fundamental position. If Jesus was right (if you think He may not have been, classify yourself as not "Christian"), then the Spirit of truth has been in the business from the beginning of leading His own into the truth. This would mean that from the beginning His disciples have been right. That is, somewhere in the stream of biblical interpretation from the start until now there has been the truth. Like a stream in a river bed, it may have been obscured at times by trees and overgrowth, even driving underground at times. But either the Spirit has done His job from the start and the truth has always been there, or the Spirit failed. So if you cannot trace your conclusions about Scripture very far back, there is a good reason to question them. The many who have come up with novel ideas and approaches to interpreting Scripture in the last 200 years cannot explain how the Spirit failed so badly. They don't try. Don't do it. Don't buy that lie. God doesn't fail. So we have the Spirit providing perfect interpretation, and we need to listen.

You might be tempted to think that it cannot be done. You may have been told that the best you can end up with is opinion. You may believe it. "And why is your opinion any more valid than mine?" you may have been challenged. Please note: here's what Paul told Timothy.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. (2 Tim 2:15)
Think about that a moment. If it is true that the best we can get is pure opinion and no one's opinion is better than anyone else's, then Paul was telling Timothy, "Do the impossible." Because Paul believed that Timothy could accurately handle the word of truth. If Timothy could, so can you. Maybe not 100% of the time, but certainly with a reasonable amount of confidence. Because, in the final analysis, no Scripture is a matter of private interpretation; it's a matter of the Spirit's enlightenment (2 Peter 1:20-21). And surely He can get it right. Still, the problem remains. This one will say, "Well, my interpretation is just as valid as yours" and that one will say, "What makes you so arrogant as to think that yours is right and mine is wrong?" And they will be quite sure that where yours differs from theirs, yours is wrong and theirs is right and you're absolutely wrong for thinking yours is right. Loser. Nothing you can do about it. All I can say is, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth."


David said...

I like to think of myself as a literarilist. I try to read Scripture in the literary form it is written.

I've never understood the, "it's your opinion" crowd. If it is wrong to stand on what I believe, why bother believing it? If at best I can merely have an opinion about something, defending it strongly or even living my life in accordance with it would be foolish. A strong conviction is even biblical.

Stan said...

It's equally baffling why the "it's your opinion" crowd spends so much time trying to assert their opinion over mine while telling me it's just my opinion so don't push it.

Oh, and a strong conviction (read "faith") may be biblical, but that's just your opinion, right? ;)

David said...

I guess even the clearest passages can be eliminated by opinion. To paraphrase, "And the fallibility of Scripture disappeared in a puff of opinion."

David said...

That should have been "infallibility of Scripture"

Stan said...

Excellent. He works in a Hitchhiker's Guide reference to a biblical discussion.

Marshall Art said...

I don't think "What do you think it means?" is a bad starting point for a teaching to determine the understanding of a student. But it must lead to true understanding rather than to merely compile a list of differing opinions.

Stan said...

The Bible studies I've been in were asking the question as a method of gleaning meaning from the text. It was always, "What does it mean to you?" And then they'd kind of kluge together what it meant to everybody (even if some of it was contradictory or even unbiblical) and consider that "well done".