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Thursday, October 29, 2015

"Yes, but Charles Spurgeon didn't agree with that!"

(This is the fifth article in a series addressing various enemies of sound interpretation.  You can find the previous four articles here:  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4)
So far in this series, we’ve addressed three enemies of sound biblical interpretation – using personal experience as a hermeneutical tool, using overriding presuppositions to rule out obvious interpretations, and isolating a text from the larger context of the Bible.  Now, let’s consider an enemy of sound interpretation to which the vast majority of us are susceptible: following a particular interpreter rather than the Bible.
There are some well-known pastor/theologians that many of us at Providence respect, men like John MacArthur, John Piper, Tim Keller, D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, etc.  We can add to that list the names of great theologians from history like Augustine, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.  These are godly men who have devoted a lifetime to the study of the Bible and we are wise to consult their writings and teaching when considering a passage of Scripture.  I personally believe that it is foolish to arrive at a final interpretation of a passage of Scripture without seeking the counsel of seasoned interpreters in the form of commentaries, articles, and other resources. 
When we study God’s Word, we should start with the Word.  We should do all the hard work of pulling the passage apart and formulating a preliminary interpretation.  Then we should consult the thoughts of other interpreters to see if their work has turned up anything we missed.  If I consult four or five commentators on a given passage and none of them interpreted the passage the way I did, what are the odds that they are all wrong and I’m right?  At the very least, I need to go back and do more digging in the Bible, looking for where I might have gone wrong.  Good commentaries have saved me from wrong conclusions many times.
So godly commentators are essential partners as we study the Bible.  However, we should be careful not to follow any one commentator/pastor/theologian so closely that his interpretation on any given text is the final word for us.  There is no one on the planet who is an infallible interpreter of Scripture.  We all make mistakes.  We all have certain biases that find their way into our thought processes. 
For that reason, I should never rule out a certain interpretation simply because my favorite theologian doesn’t concur with it.  If I am willing to follow without deviation all the interpretations of a particular man, not only am I going to be prone to holding mistaken positions, but I may be guilty of making that man my final authority rather than holding the Word as my final authority.
I had a professor (with whom I disagreed on occasion!) who once quipped, “There are a lot of people out there who refuse to think a thought unless it has been authorized by D. A. Carson.”  His point was that we should follow the Bible wherever it goes, not any one interpreter wherever he goes.  It’s not sinful to disagree with D. A. Carson or John MacArthur or whoever. 
If I find myself discounting an interpretation for the simple reason that Tim Keller disagrees, I’m in dangerous territory.  Likewise, if I approach a passage thinking, "whatever John Piper thinks about this is good enough for me," I must recognize that I have just stepped over the line between following a man and following the Bible.  (Now, if all the interpreters I respect disagree with a given interpretation, that should give me pause.  Again, what are the odds that I’m right and all of these more seasoned and learned students of the Bible are wrong?)
On Wednesday night, we watched a video of a conversation of bright, godly pastors/scholars regarding the different millennial positions.  I was tremendously encouraged to hear one of these men admit that he holds a different position on the millennium than his favorite historical theologian.  For him, the Bible is the final authority, even though this historical theologian was a huge influence in his life.
We too must strive to keep things in balance.  We must value and consider the thoughts and counsel of wise interpreters of the Bible without following them blindly.  Let’s be thankful for the insights of Bible interpreters who faithfully and skillfully handle the Word, while maintaining the Word itself as our final authority.  This balance is essential to sound biblical interpretation.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

How can I interpret one passage without contradicting others?

(This is the fourth article in a series.  You can find the previous three articles here: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3)
Thus far in this series we have tackled a couple of enemies of sound interpretation – (1) using personal experience as a hermeneutical tool and (2) using overriding presuppositions to rule out obvious interpretations.  Today, I’d like to discuss a third enemy – isolating a text from the larger context of the Bible.
You’ve heard it a million times: context is king.  Most of us are aware of the near context when studying the Bible.  We know that we are supposed to consider a text in light of the book around it.  We’ve done this habitually as we’ve studied Matthew together on Sunday mornings for the last several years. 
But some folks allow their consideration of the context to end at the borders of a particular biblical book.  In other words, when interpreting Ephesians, they are very careful to make sure that their interpretation fits with the rest of Ephesians.  When interpreting Acts, they make sure that their interpretation makes sense in light of the rest of Acts.  Yet they do not consider whether or not their interpretation fits with the rest of Scripture.
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve gotten myself into trouble by making this mistake…well, I’d have a whole lot of nickels!  I would study a single canonical book, making sure that my interpretations and insights were faithful to that book, but then very comfortably and confidently made definitive statements about different areas of theology, unaware that those definitive statements contradicted passages in other parts of the Bible. 
For example, while studying Luke as a kid, I came across Luke 11:23: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.  I began to immediately draw a line in the sand between me and everyone else in my world.  Not longer after that, I was reading Mark and found Mark 9:40: For the one who is not against us is for us.  I knew that there are no contradictions in the Bible, so my definitive statement needed to take both passages into account.  I needed to be more careful.  I should have learned my lesson right there, but I continued to make the same mistake for years.
Because we’re studying eschatology on Wednesday nights, I have eschatology on the brain most of the time these days.  So here’s an eschatological example.  Based upon 2 Samuel 7 (cf Psa 132), I believed confidently that God’s promise to David to seat one of his sons on his throne would not be fulfilled until Jesus was literally sitting on the throne in Jerusalem during the millennial kingdom.  “God made a promise…it hasn’t been fulfilled yet…so it has to be fulfilled some time in the future…simple.”  But then while reading Acts I happened upon Peter’s words in Acts 2:30-31, where he says of David, “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ…”  The apostle Peter taught that 2 Samuel 7 was fulfilled at the resurrection.  Cross-references confirmed this, showing that Jesus reigns now from heaven (Eph 1:18ff). 
After making this kind of mistake a jillion times, I decided to get serious about being careful.  I found a number of tools that could help me not to isolate a text, but to consider other passages that deal with the same topic or doctrine so that my insights were informed not by a single passage but hopefully by the whole counsel of God.
One of these tools is the cross-reference column that can be found in most Bibles.  You know, the tiny Scripture references in that center column on every page of your Bible? (Some Bibles have them along the bottom of the page.  Others along the left or right margins.)  Those are cross-references leading you to other parts of the Bible that pertain to the same phrase or idea noted in the text.  These can be very helpful.  However, due to limited space these cross-references are far from exhaustive.
Other more substantial tools include exhaustive concordances.  These things are like relics now because there are online tools and software that will do the job of a concordance with a single mouse click.  They allow you to search for every occurrence of a particular word in the whole Bible.  Very helpful.
But since the Bible can use a number of different words for a particular concept, other tools can be even more helpful, like The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, a voluminous collection of cross-references based not just upon particular words, but upon ideas.  
But there is one tool for which there is simply no substitute.  It enables a student of the Word to make connections between multiple passages, connections that a concordance or cross-reference simply cannot make.  It is the single most reliable tool to make sure that one does not isolate a passage from the rest of Scripture.  It can’t be bought or borrowed.  It is your own human brain filled with a broad knowledge of the Scriptures via years of repetitive reading of the Bible. 
The absolute best way to become a better interpreter of the Scriptures is to read the Bible, read the Bible, read the Bible.  The longer one studies and reads the Bible, the less he or she will find it necessary to rely on printed or electronic tools.  I know there are a number of brothers and sisters at Providence who are this way.  Pastor Rick and Pastor Ken, for example, are walking concordances, walking cross-references.  They can rattle off numerous passages that speak to any given subject or doctrine, not because they memorized Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance or the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, but because they have spent years repetitively reading the Bible.
You might wonder, “what do I do in the meantime while I’m reading and re-reading the Bible?  Am I doomed to make contextual mistakes until then?”  You can and should use the tools I mentioned above.  But also, I would recommend getting a couple of good commentaries for whatever book you are studying.  Commentaries written by solid, conservative evangelicals will go a long way toward helping you to identify pertinent cross-references that many reference tools will miss.
So use those tools…but read the Bible over and over.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What ideas should I bring with me into my study of the Bible?

This is the third article in a series dealing with enemies of sound biblical interpretation.  You can find the first two articles here and here. 
Today I’d like to address overriding presuppositions.  Sometimes people come to the study of the Bible bringing with them presuppositions that preclude certain interpretations of a given passage.  (A presupposition is something that we believe without it being proven.)  They begin with a conviction that a certain belief is true so that any interpretation that would call that conviction into question is ruled out.
One huge area of overriding presuppositions pertains to the character of God.  I have been guilty of approaching Scripture presupposing what God would and wouldn’t do.  "A God of love wouldn’t do this or that."  I was right to believe that God is loving – the Bible says so.  I was wrong to bring presuppositions about what that looks like into my study of the Bible. 
The first time I remember doing this was in my study of the doctrines of grace.  For many years, I rejected them because they seemed incompatible with my preconceived notions of a “God of love.”  I was convinced that a God of love would not choose certain people to be saved and not others.  A God of love would try to save everyone.  This caused me to massage certain passages of Scripture so that they allowed for unnatural interpretations.
For example, I interpreted Romans 8:29 in a way that is foreign to the text and both the near and larger context.  This verse reads, For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  I presupposed that God would not predestine certain people for salvation and not others, so I ruled out the possibility that foreknowledge and predestination in this verse could refer to God establishing a relationship with a particular person.  Having ruled out this natural reading (which is validated by a myriad of OT and NT texts), I had to find an alternative.  So I read into the text that this foreknowledge referred to God foreseeing faith in particular people.  In other words, I believed that God foresaw those who would choose Him.  (Mind you, this is not in the text nor is it in any way implied.)  God then took that group of people and predestined them not to salvation, but to sanctification.  So in my mind this passage in no way referred to election, but to God foreseeing who would be saved of their own volition and predestining that those who made that choice would eventually be like Jesus.  All of this resulted from a preconceived idea of what a God of love would and would not do.
I’m so thankful that the most important thing my parents taught me is that the Bible is true.  Eventually, that conviction, in conjunction with the text of Romans 9-11 and John 6, would show me that I had a wrong presupposition regarding the love of God.  I then began to allow the Scriptures to dictate to me what God’s love looks like rather than me dictating to the Scriptures what His love looks like. 
The appropriate presupposition with which to approach study of the Bible is that the Bible is true.  That and that alone should be our starting point.  The Bible should mold our other foundational beliefs, including our beliefs about the character of God.  There is a relatively small body of truth about God that can be gleaned from general revelation, that is, from the world around us.  Certain attributes, namely His eternal power and divine nature, are evident through the things that have been made (Rom 1:20), but all other truths about Him must come from the Bible. 
Beyond presuppositions about the character of God, we can bring into Bible study presuppositions regarding a host of other things, including social and political issues like divorce and remarriage, homosexuality and gender issues, abortion, the supposed heavenly endorsement of capitalism and democracy, etc.  It never ceases to amaze me how powerful our presuppositions can be.  They can cause us to completely disregard the natural reading of a given text.  They can cause us to read things into Scripture that simply are not there. They can even cause us to hold that a given text means the exact opposite of what it says!
So how can we spot these overriding presuppositions?  A telltale sign is when we find ourselves trying to argue that a text does not mean what it says.  Let's go back to one of the examples from the last two articles.  1 Tim 2:12 clearly reads, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”  The context supports the natural reading of this verse.  Yet often, people approach this text presupposing that there are not different but complimentary roles for the different genders.  Those who hold this presupposition are forced to find a way for this passage to not mean what it so clearly says.  When we find ourselves doing this, it is likely that an overriding presupposition is at work and we need to identify what it is and allow the Scriptures to override it. 
God’s Word is true and it should shape our thinking on every issue of life.  We should never do the opposite – allow our thinking on any issue of life to shape our view of God’s Word.  If we do, we’ll often find ourselves at odds with sound interpretation.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Should I use personal experience to interpret the Bible? Part 2

In last week’s article, I began a short series on enemies of sound interpretation.  We considered whether or not personal experience is a valid hermeneutical tool.  Before I move on to the next “enemy,” I’d like to go back to one of the examples I used in the last article.
One theological issue on which people tend to use personal experience to trump sound interpretation is the issue of women teaching and/or exercising authority over men.  It would seem that Paul clearly rules out women teaching men, yet some people object that many men have been blessed by the teaching of women.  Some have even come to know the Lord through the teaching of women.  How could it be the case that God is against women teaching men if He seems to be blessing it?
I explained why we shouldn’t use personal experience to overrule a given interpretation, but now I’d like to actually give an answer to this specific objection.  To begin, let’s look at the text itself:
11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim 2:11-14)
First, let’s bolster the correct interpretation by noting that this is not a cultural command, that is, Paul is not communicating something that was unique to his culture that is not appropriate for our modern culture.  Notice that he does not ground this command in the culture, but in both the order of creation and the Fall.  Adam was created first.  This is true no matter what culture you live in.  Eve was deceived first.  This is true no matter what culture you live in.  So this is a timeless, non-cultural command.
Second, to deal with the original objection, let’s consider that God often uses the disobedience of humans to accomplish His ends.  This happens all over the Old and New Testaments.  The golden example is God using the evil of Joseph’s brother's sin to save the descendants of Abraham (Gen 50:15-21).  There are many other examples, and on the basis of those alone we should not be surprised that the Lord would lead people to salvation through the disobedience of others.
But there is another example in the NT that is very closely related to the issue at hand.  In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul informed the recipients that his imprisonment had led to the advancement of the gospel in a number of ways.  All of the imperial guards knew that his imprisonment was for the gospel.  Also, many believers became much more bold to speak the word without fear because of his imprisonment.  And then he added this:
 15 ¶ Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
(Phil 1:15-18)
This is huge.  Paul rejoiced that the gospel was being preached even though some that were preaching it were doing so with sinful motives.  Paul rejoiced not because of the sinful motive, but because the gospel was being advanced in spite of those motives.  Did the fact that the gospel was being advanced negate the sinful motives?  Did the spread of the gospel through the selfishly ambitious validate their actions?  By no means.  It was sinful for them to preach the gospel for ungodly reasons.  It was sinful for them to want to afflict Paul in his imprisonment.  Envy and rivalry are not virtues.  According to 1 Cor 3:10-15 and 4:5 indicate that those people will suffer loss on the day of judgment rather than receiving commendation.  Here we have an example of God using the sinful actions of some to achieve His ends.  (We have a sermon on our website about why motive matters.  You can find it here.)
We should regard women teaching men in the same way.  The Scriptures do not allow women to teach men or to exercise authority over men.  It is sinful.  1Tim 2:11-14 is as clear as it can be.  That God uses such teaching to bless men or to lead them to salvation should not be seen as a validation of women teaching men but rather as an example of God using sinful acts to accomplish His own ends.  Those who violate this command should not expect to receive a commendation on the day of judgment, but rather to suffer loss. 
Once again, we must interpret Scripture with Scripture.  We must also interpret our personal experience with Scripture.  We must never interpret Scripture by our personal experience. 
Next time we’ll consider another enemy of sound interpretation: conflicting pressupositions.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Should I use personal experience to interpret the Bible?

In our Wednesday night eschatology study, we spent a couple of weeks talking about hermeneutics, or the principles of biblical interpretation.  It’s critical that we understand which tools or principles are valid aids to interpretation and which ones are not.  There are a number of “tools” that can actually end up sabotaging sound interpretation.  I’d like to do a short series of articles exposing some of these enemies of sound interpretation.

One tool that is very common and very difficult to identify in our own thinking is the tool of personal experience.  Frequently, students of the Bible rule-out or rule-in interpretations of a given text based upon whether or not their personal experience validates that interpretation.  Let me give a few examples.
A number of years ago I had a discussion with someone regarding the famous “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” passage in Romans 7.  He was adamant that the passage described the normative extreme difficulty that Christians have living a godly life.  That is, it is normal for Christians to want to do good but to be unable to do so.  I asked him what made him so certain of this interpretation, especially when it seems diametrically opposed to the context.  He said, “That’s just always been my experience.”  I’ve heard similar comments regarding this passage at least a couple of other times.  People gravitate toward that interpretation because it resonates with their own personal experience.  For them, personal experience is an overriding consideration in their interpretation.
Another example involves a common objection to the postmillennial view of eschatology.  Postmillennialism holds that the gospel will increasingly succeed in converting the world so that eventually Christianity will permeate every government and social institution.  In a sense, the world will be Christianized.  A common objection is “that just does not look like what is happening in the world.  It looks like things are getting worse, not better.”  Because it seems like the vast majority of the world is unbelieving and there seems to be no movement of the world toward Christ, many people reject this view of eschatology, which otherwise is quite faithful to the Scriptures.  That is, their personal experience determines whether the interpretation is valid.
Another example pertains to women teaching and/or exercising authority over men in the church.  1 Tim 2:11-13 is quite clear that it is unbiblical for a woman to teach men or to exercise authority over men.  Yet, a common objection is that many men have been blessed by the teaching of women, have been saved through the teaching of women, etc.  So some deduce that it can’t be the case that God would object to women teaching men, otherwise He wouldn’t use their teaching to bless men.  Thus, personal experience is used to rule out a seemingly obvious interpretation.
We must keep in mind, however, that experience is not a valid hermeneutical tool.  We must never interpret Scripture by our experiences.  Rather we must interpret our experiences by Scripture.  
There are at least a couple of reasons to remove personal experience from our hermeneutical tool box.  The first is that experience is an inherently subjective thing.  Isn’t it obvious that we all approach the Scriptures with different experiences?  What if my experience contradicts the Scriptures, but yours affirms it?  Whose experience is “right”?  Experience is a wholly subjective thing and therefore unreliable as a tool for interpreting Scripture.
Second, it seems that the apostles held Scripture above experience, not vice versa.  Consider the apostle Peter.  He had certain experiences that would seem to trump anything that we could appeal to.  He spent three years with Jesus.  Even among the twelve disciples, he was in the inner circle of three.  He saw the risen Christ with his own eyes.  He even draws our attention to one of his more amazing experiences, the Transfiguration of Christ, in 2 Peter 1:17-18: For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
We might expect Peter to then appeal to this experience to say, “Look, people, you can trust me when I tell you about Jesus Christ – I saw his transfiguration with my own eyes and heard the voice of the Father with my own ears.  Pay close attention to my experience!”  But he does no such thing.  Instead he shows that Scripture is a surer conduit of truth than his experience.  Immediately following the above two verses, he writes, “And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…”  The word is more fully confirmed than what?  Peter’s experience, according to the context.  If Peter didn’t rely upon his own experience, nor did he call others to rely upon his experience, why should we rely upon our own? 
There are many truths in Scripture that my limited life experience has not validated, but that does not make them any less true.  When we are considering a passage, we must remember that the original author infused his words with a particular meaning. The historical, grammatical, and cultural context can help me find what that particular meaning is.  My 21st century life experience can be found nowhere in that context and should not be considered when seeking the author’s meaning. 
Often my experience will affirm the truth of the Scriptures.  I know from experience that God is gracious, wise, and generous.  I know from experience that my sin will find me out.  Yet, my experience is not what makes those things true.  My experience is not necessary to confirm that they are true.  And if my experience contradicts what Scripture teaches, it is not the Scriptures that must be reinterpreted, but my experiences should be reinterpreted.  If my experience tells me that God is not gracious, that He is unwise, and that He is miserly, I’m not interpreting my experience rightly.  The Bible is unfallibly true, not my interpretation of my experience.
If I put experience in my hermeneutical toolbox, I can be assured that it will lead me astray.  It’s best to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture and allow Scripture to interpret my experience, but not the other way around.