Interpreting the bible
Nitpickerus: I accept that church, conscience and prophecy must be tested against the Bible. But isn't the real issue that people simply disagree about what Scripture really says? Isn't the real problem one of interpreting the Bible correctly?
Dionysius: I agree it's possible to misinterpret the Bible. The Jews did. They studied it diligently and missed the whole point.
Nitpickerus: But those Jews were not believers Dionysius. They rejected Christ. They didn't have the Holy Spirit. I'm talking about when believers disagree, and they do disagree about a whole host of things: baptism, charismata, eschatology, worship styles, predestination, church structure, the role of women....not to mention issues of medical ethics. How is this possible?
Dionysius: Well for a start, as we've already discussed, many Christians give lip-service to the authority of Scripture, but in practice give more credence to church teaching, conscience or contemporary prophecy.
Nitpickerus: So why don't they recognise conflicts between the Bible and these other sources?
Dionysius: They simply don't know their Bibles well enough to see a problem. You have to know a real £10 note intimately to pick a close counterfeit. Likewise, you need to know what Scripture says on an issue to see that someone is taking a contrary position. The time most Christians set aside for earnest Bible study speaks for itself. Many are unable to prove the most elementary of Christian doctrines from Scripture.
Nitpickerus: So on what grounds do they believe them?
Dionysius: On the basis of hearsay. Many people who hold strong opinions on the issues I've mentioned above have simply adopted the consensus view of their church or peer group. Then the beliefs are reinforced by mixing only with those who share a common view. Those convictions that are false are then never seriously challenged. If you do challenge them they are often quite unable to defend their beliefs from the Bible itself.
Nitpickerus: That's all very cynical Dionysius.
Dionysius: How else can you explain the diversity of views held throughout the church? Mutually contradictory beliefs can't be equally true.
Nitpickerus: But don't most Christians pick up their beliefs on various issues from teaching within their own church? And doesn't this teaching come from people who do know their Scriptures well and respect their authority? Don't even Christian leaders disagree?
Dionysius: They do, and they have since the first century: Paul and Peter, Calvin and Luther, Stott and Lloyd-Jones. This is why teachers have such an awesome responsibility.
Nitpickerus: So what hope is there for the rest of us?
Dionysius: Plenty. There are principles that can help us to see who is speaking the truth on a matter.
Nitpickerus: Such as?
As originally given
Dionysius: A first principle is that Scripture is authoritative as originally given, in the original language. Translations which distort the original meaning don't carry authority.
Nitpickerus: But most of us can't read Hebrew and Greek? Does this mean that we therefore can't hear God speak?
Dionysius: Not at all. A good translation will preserve the original meaning almost exactly. But we should do everything we can to ensure that we are using one.
Nitpickerus: But even those who can read Hebrew and Greek don't have 'Scripture as originally given'. The original manuscripts no longer exist.
Dionysius: Perhaps, but we do have early copies of the originals; and by comparing texts it's virtually always possible to determine what the originals said, even if copying errors have occurred.
Nitpickerus: So there is a place for textual criticism, trying to work out what the originals said?
In all that it affirms
Dionysius: Absolutely. A second principle is that Scripture is authoritaive in all that it affirms. There are things the Bible records as fact but doesn't affirm. We don't emulate every thought, word and act of biblical characters (not even 'righteous' characters) just because they are reported as happening once.
Nitpickerus: I should hope not. But isn't that obvious?
Dionysius: Not at all. People have used biblical narrative to justify everything from laying fleeces to telling lies.
Nitpickerus: But didn't Jesus himself use narrative to justify his disciples' behaviour, as in David's eating of bread on the sabbath?
Dionysius: He did, but he didn't similarly appeal to David's census-taking and adultery as a precedent.These actions were not affirmed.
Sufficient but not exhaustive
A third principle is that Scriptural truth is sufficient but not exhaustive. It's sufficient to make us 'thoroughly equipped for every good work'. But that doesn't mean it will satisfy every idle curiosity we may have. It doesn't answer the question about life on other planets for example. That's simply not relevant to our salvation history. God tells us things on a need-to-know basis.
Nitpickerus: Sure! There are secret and revealed things. The challenge is having the wisdom to know the difference.
Dionysius: God's word is there to give us that wisdom; and to train us to distiguish good from evil. We may not have all the answers; but the Scriptures will certainly make us 'wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus'. Then one day we will know fully.
Nitpickerus: So we shouldn't have zeal without knowledge. There are dangers in being 'over-righteous' and 'over-wise'. We should know our limits and live up to what we have attained.
Objective not subjective trust
Dionysius: A fourth principle is that Scriptural authority is objective not subjective. It doesn't mean different things for different Christians. We can't say that this text means one thing for me, and quite another for you. That's relativism, the Devil's lie. The Bible's author, not its reader, determines the meaning.
Nitpickerus: I'm a bit skeptical about this business of authoreal intent. If you look at the way the apostles used Scripture, they saw meanings which cannot possibly have been in the minds of the authors. What about Paul's use of 'Do not muzzle the ox', or Matthew's adaptation of the 'Immanuel' prophecy. The original authors clearly didn't have these intentions.
Dionysius: I agree. But the meanings were there in the mind of God. Caiaphas didn't intend to prophesy about Jesus' sacrificial death either, but he most certainly did. God is the real author of Scripture, and he's full of surprises.
Nitpickerus: But surely the Bible can't be applied today in a blanket fashion.There are commands in Scripture which apply only in certain times for certain people. For example, we're not expected to make animal sacrifices or eat kosher food as Christians are we? But Old Testament believers were. We don't leave our beards untrimmed or greet all the brothers with a holy kiss either.
In its historical context
Dionysius: We don't, and that brings us on to a fifth principle; Scripture needs to be understood in its historical context. Some commands in Scripture apply only to certain individuals and groups.
Nitpickerus: But we take much of Psalms and the Epistles personally; even though they weren't written specifically to us. How do we decide?
Dionysius: Sometimes it can be difficult; but it's usually clear from the context. A text without a context can be a pretext.
Nitpickerus: So we can safely ignore the Old Testament, for example?
Faith and law, love and obedience
Dionysius: Not at all. Christ didn't come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; but to fulfil them. The animal sacrifices were a forerunner to Christ's sacrifice; as the food laws were a pointer to his holiness. The law was to lead us to Christ.
Nitpickerus: That's my point. Now that Christ has come shouldn't we disregard it?
Dionysius: As a means of earning God's approval, yes; we are under a new covenant where right standing before God comes through faith. But as instruction in right living, no; the law is still of great benefit. We can't do what we like. When Paul said that 'all Scripture' was 'useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training' he was referring primarily to the Old Testament.
Nitpickerus: So which parts are still binding on us?
Dionysius: It's the wrong question Nitpickerus. The Bible doesn't divide the law into moral and ceremonial parts (and say the former but not the latter is still binding). Neither does it say that all law not specifically abrogated in the New Testament still holds, nor that all that isn't reaffirmed there is obsolete.
Nitpickerus: So what does it say?
Dionysius: It says that we are not under the law, but rather under Christ's law. We are to love one another as he has loved us, to bear one another's burdens. We must walk as he walked, in the path of the cross. 'Faith expressing itself through love' is the only thing that counts.
Isn't this just situation ethics
Nitpickerus: But can't anything be justified in the name of love. Aren't we just opening the door to situation ethics?
Dionysius: Some have taken that route; that's why we need the law to instruct and correct us. Jesus would never have attempted to justify murder, adultery, theft or lying in extenuating circumstances; and neither should we. Love and obedience are inextricably linked in the mind of God.
Nitpickerus: These principles are all very helpful Dionysius, but they don't really resolve the initial problem. How is it that Spirit-led Christian teachers who respect the Bible's authority, and even agree with your principles, still come to different conclusions on some matters? As you've said mutually exclusive opinions can't be equally correct.
Dionysius: They can't.
Nitpickerus: So how can we know who is right? The problem as I see it is that we're all fallible. Even if we accept that Scripture is infallible, how can fallible people possibly interpret it correctly?
Dionysius: By the Spirit. He's there to guide us into all truth.
Nitpickerus: But if the Spirit is the key to understanding, then why do we need the Scriptures at all?
Word and spirit
Dionysius: Because the Holy Spirit needs raw material to work on; rather like a modem needs a message. Word and Spirit work together. This is why Jesus studied the Scriptures diligently and was filled with Holy Spirit.
Nitpickerus: But how can two Christians be led by the same Spirit to interpret the infallible word differently?
Dionysius: They can't. The fact that we have God's Spirit does not mean that we are then automatically led by him in all we think, say and do.
Nitpickerus: So who decides who is right?
Dionysius: I think that's a question for the next issue of Nucleus.