14 February 2007

These words [1 of 23]

by Frank Turk

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I enjoyed Dan’s post yesterday in that it shows us the power of God’s word to reform sinful men—and they don’t come any more sinful than Dan and I, so let’s not get too puffed up here. But there’s an issue underneath Dan’s post which is sort of running around the blogosophere right now and, since Wednesday is my day, I thought I’d drop in a few words on the subject here at TeamPyro.

What’s at issue is the matter of whether the word of God means something in particular or not. By that I mean, the Bible is an object in the world—a literary object—and we encounter it as people in the space-time continuum, right? On my desk right now is a Coke, a coffee mug, my Palm Tungsten E, a $19.99 1 GB USB stick I picked up at WMT, a Bible, and a pen. It would be somewhat absurd to pick up my Coke and try to discern what saith the Lord—and it would be equally absurd to pick up my Bible and try to get a swallow of sugary, caffeinated heaven from it.

So just on that superficial level, the Bible’s not very good to get a snack from. It’s also probably not a great handbook for fixing my beater Nissan. So whatever is in that book, there are some things it does tell us, and some things that it doesn’t tell us. But here’s the kicker: how will we ever know what it is actually good for?


Maybe we rub it on our foreheads?

I don’t know if this is my college egjookayshun showing here or what, but it seems to me that we have to read the Bible to figure this out. You know: like you’re reading this blog right now.

Now, the complaint will inevitably come back, “cent, you disasterous Baptist, how do we read the Bible? By what means? With what method? Doesn’t your somewhat-stoopid affirmation here overlook the problem of the text?”

Actually, I think it turns out that this particular criticism is startlingly self-ignorant. Do I have to rehearse why right here—that someone writing has the audacity to assuming that someone reading what they have written doesn't know how to read?

That said, “by what means” is also a very fair question when we realize that reading is not just like connecting H/O scale train cars. The phrase:

METHOUGHT I saw my late espousèd Saint
Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
Whom Joves great Son to her glad Husband gave,
Rescu'd from death by force though pale and faint
is not as transparent, for example, as the phrase
When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out." The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
You shouldn’t read the first one the way you’d read the second, and vice versa.

But how do you know? Seriously—how do you know whether it’s poetry or historical narrative or something else?

Well, let me ask you: how do you know how to read the newspaper vs. how to listen to the lyrics of a song? That’s question is not as simple as it seems—because most of us, I imagine, know to read the newspaper with a certain degree of skepticism, and to listen to song lyrics with some other kind of detachment, but we still derive some enjoyment from that. This is something everyone does every day, btw, and it doesn't cause chaos in the streets.

But we know, don’t we? The first time you heard the insipid “Jesus take the Wheel”, you knew it wasn’t a news report, right? And when you read Dan’s post yesterday, you knew it was a historical report of sorts as well—in spite of the fact that he referenced God’s action in eternity past?

So what’s the clue? What’s the high sign? Is there just one?

Here are some suggestions:

[1] The author tells you in some way. With the patch of Milton, above, Milton is writing in a recognizable verse form, and we know to read poetry. In Dan’s post yesterday, he said, “this is my testimony”. Now, you can call Milton a hack and Dan a liar if you are inclined, but doing that before you try to read what they have written is a little less than engaging.

[2] The text itself tips you off. This is another way the author tells you something, but sometimes they are telling you something they don’t intend. For example, when you read the newspaper, it gets tired when the same reporter/columnist makes the same factual error for the 10th time this quarter. When someone is being dishonest, or disingenuous, or biased, or on the positive side transparent, or exhuberant, or is simply enjoying himself, it’s in the text. The words, the phrasing, the pace, the diction, the technique simply gives itself away.

[3] You’re not the only one who “gets it”. This can cut both ways sometimes, but more often than not, in any text, when you are coming up with a unique or paradigm-shattering understanding of some text, you’re probably out past the safety bouys.

And these are things you didn’t need me to tell you. You’re doing it right now.

But think about this, please: the Bible, above all other pieces of literature, needs to be read with the same degree of honesty you would use to read any other text. There is a great reason for this, and you can find that reason in Deu 6:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you--with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant--and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you, for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God, lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.
See: God gives us this word, He charges them with it (Paul says He “entrusted” this word to Israel), in order for us to use it for the purpose of not forgetting who and what God is.

God gave us His word for the purpose of telling us who He is in order that we would never forget. Implicit in that is the notion that somehow the words are the foundation of that “memory”.

So reading the words ought to be more meaningful to us than having a good well which we didn’t dig for ourselves; it ought to be better than a vineyard we didn’t plant but that we come into possession of; it ought to be better than a safe wall which protects us even though we didn’t build it. Listen: that's a lot more transparent than what Paul says to Timothy about what Scripture is good for. Paul sounds downright seeker-friendly in comparison to what God has told Moses here.

That criticism—we don’t know how to receive the Bible, or that we have this lavish liberty to receive it a variety of ways—is more than a little disconnected from what the Bible says about itself. And I have a testimony about that, but this is already 3 pages single-spaced, so we’ll have to come back to that another time.


DJP said...

What’s at issue is the matter of whether the word of God means something in particular or not


I am so glad you singled this out, and are focusing on it. You go, bro. We'll get a pincer movement going on it.

4given said...

it would be equally absurd to pick up my Bible and try to get a swallow of sugary, caffeinated heaven from it.

How dare you talk about Joel Osteen like that. :-/

I find my time in God's precious holy Word is far more fruitful if I begin in prayer pleading before my Lord that I dare not read into it what is not there or twist it to tickle my ears. These words are precious. THey are holy and they are inspired by God. But they are NOT "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" if we open the pages flippantly just to meet a reading schedule. God was not flippant when he inspired the Bible. He is not a God of chaos but order. His words are purposeful and perfectly thought out.

LeeC said...

Sneaky sneaky sneaky.
Tryin ta slip in edjumukashiunal stuff like this in....
Next you'll be trying to teach us about a bunch of 50c words like "hermeneutics" or something...

Maybe not.

Thanks Cent, very well written for an allegory....*ducks*

Seth McBee said...

I have heard MacArthur say that in Bible study, when there are differing opinions on the interpretation of a verse:

I can be right and you can be wrong or vise versa, we can both be wrong, but we both cannot be right.

There is one correct interpretation of God's Word not many.

centuri0n said...

Can I nuance that, Seth?

I think it is true as far as it goes. But, for example, what is the one correct interpretation of the Prodigal Son? Is it a story about a boy who learns his father loves him? Is it a story about how a father loves both his sons? Is it an allegory about how God loves both Jews and Gentiles? is it an allegory about the matter of repentance? Is it all of the above? Some? None?

It seems to me that many people -- many people -- want Scripture to be a completely flat surface which tilts very subtly from the "In the Beginning" side to the "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!" side, and if you place your eyeball at any point it will just roll inexorably from beginning to end with no bumps and no curves.


Scripture says what it says, and sometimes it says something which is mind-bogglingly complex. But let's not mistake that with it saying only "one thing" in any given place. That's a phony understanding of how any text works, and we should steer clear of it.

I dunno if you meant that, but i think it needed to be said. No offense. :-)

Seth McBee said...


No offense taken...

With the prodigal son story though is there not many applications but only one intent of Christ speaking about the Prodigal Son. All those you mention can be applied but either Christ was speakiing of the Jews and Gentiles through the story or not? Agreed? Cannot be taken as both ways as truth?

I believe that there can be a different application for myself now that I am a father than it would have been for me before that, but that doesn't change the actual interpretation.

Hope I am making sense and not rambling...

Seth McBee said...

I do understand what you were getting at (and agree), I just wanted to clarify what we were both saying...

Mx5 said...

**applauding here in MN** As a "stoopid" midwesterner here, it's good to see someone finally stand up and say most of us have the wherewithall to figure out how to read the most important book ever made.

Go ahead and share your egjookayshun, Cent. Loved this post.

C.T. Lillies said...

Whoa. You mean I can just READ the Bible? All by myself?


"...the word of God is not bound."
--2 Timothy 2:9

centuri0n said...

Let's be careful abot the extent of our sarcasm until we see part 2 ...

janelle said...

Great post! It reminds me of when Martin Luther translated the Bible so that the common people could read it. I wonder what went through their minds the first time they got a copy? Joy? Apprehension? Can I, myself, actually read this? It definitely puts things in perspective for when we read scripture!

Lee Shelton said...

centuri0n: "But let's not mistake that with it saying only "one thing" in any given place. That's a phony understanding of how any text works, and we should steer clear of it."

I agree with Frank. We must be careful not to read only one interpretation into scripture - as in passages like John 14:6, for example. ;)

Kevin Rhyne said...

Great post, Frank. I'm looking forward to part 2.

Is it correct to say that a given passage has one meaning, but maybe many different applications? Is it correct to say that as our understanding of more direct passages increases, the more difficult ones become more clear?

For example, a deeper understanding of the various uses of "justification" helps us to discern the differences of focus by Paul (Romans) and James (his epistle) and addresses what some with a more superficial understanding would find a contradiction.

My concern is this: if we say that a passage can have more than one interpretation/meaning, some would use that to equivocate that the Bible is too hard to understand because (a) fallen minds cannot understand divine revelation and/or (b) we need an infallible group of old men to tell us what it means for the sake of certainty...

I think you plan to address this by your conclusion:

"That criticism—we don’t know how to receive the Bible, or that we have this lavish liberty to receive it a variety of ways—is more than a little disconnected from what the Bible says about itself."

That criticism has particular application with Roman Catholics...

jimbo said...

This is so important, Cent. I've seen too many people drift into heresy because they view Scripture as a sort of Rorschach blot, devoid of inherent meaning ('What this passage means TO ME is...'). This is, at best, intellectually lazy. Nobody is saying that correct interpretation is always easy, always clear, but let us at least take as our starting point the idea that the writer, under Divine inspiration, meant to convey SOMETHING and that proper understanding lies in uncovering that SOMETHING.

centuri0n said...

I'm actually waiting for someone to say "univocal meaning" so I can completely lose it.

Of course, now that I have said that, someone will just blurt it out ...

Phil Johnson said...

Cent: "I'm actually waiting for someone to say 'univocal meaning' so I can completely lose it."

How about I quote the 1689 BCoF, which says it succinctly this way: "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture it self: And therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold but one) it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly."

When we're dealing with types, symbols, double entendre, and some prophetic fulfillments in Scripture, we might need some careful nuancing to reconcile our interpretation with the expression "not manifold but one," but generally speaking and setting a few extraordinary exceptions to the rule aside, there is a true and important sense in which we would insist that Scripture speaks one consistent message with one consistent voice.

If that's what I meant by "univocal," why would that tempt you to "lose it"?

Answer carefully, now. :-)

centuri0n said...

Oh Johnson, you have stuck your finger in it now ...

I'm going to break my answer into two parts, one from Robert Reymond's Systematic Theology, and the other from my own damaged brain. Here's the Reymond part:

Christians should be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this simple truth that they take so much for granted – that the eternal God has deigned to share with us some of the truths which are on his mind. He condescends to elevate us poor undeserving sinners by actually sharing with us a portion of what he knows. Accordingly, since the Scriptures require that saving faith be grounded in true knowledge (see Rom 10:13-14), the church must vigorously oppose any linguistic or revelational theory, _however_well-intended_, that would take away from men and women the only ground of their knowledge of God and, accordingly, their only hope of salvation. Against the theory of human knowledge that would deny the possibility of univocal correspondence at any point with God’s mind as to content, it is vitally important that we come down on the side of Christian reason and work with a Christian theory of knowledge that insists upon the possibility of at least some identity between the content of God’s knowledge and the content of man’s knowledge.

(Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 1998, Thomas Nelson, 102)(Italics from Reymond, underlined emphasis added)

Morris Brooks said...

Gee, the same God who created the very words of each language would mean what He says and say what He means because He wants us to know what He means by what He says. If that is the case then wouldn't we be accountable? And if we are accountable then we can't just do what we want with impunity.

If people don't know what God means by what He says, and He uses the ordinary everyday language He created for us to use, then how can they know what anyone means when they speak?

centuri0n said...

With Dr. Reymond's excellent affirmation in hand, the question is not "does Scripture only testify to one thing?" The orthodox answer -- the only orthodox answer -- is "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men." (LBCF I.6)

The question is if a passage of Scripture may have layers of confluent meaning. The matter of a scripture being "univocal" is whether or not it uses language the way language is used.

For example, because I used this example last week, I have it handy:

Psalm 3

1Lord, how are they increased that trouble me! many are they that rise up against me.

2Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God. Selah.

3But thou, O LORD, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.

4I cried unto the LORD with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.

5I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the LORD sustained me.

6I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.

7Arise, O LORD; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly.

8Salvation belongeth unto the LORD: thy blessing is upon thy people. Selah.

Listen: the words here say that God has struck (with something -- a hand, a weapon, some object which can do the smiting) enemies on the "cheek bone", and that blow has "broken the teeth of the ungodly". So as we read this, it says God is landing blows on the faces of people who are His enemies.

My affirmation would be that God has never punched anyone in the mouth, but that this passage does not say that God punches people in the mouth. This pasage says that God will punish the ungodly, and in that, God will punish those with sinful mouths with an appropriate and just punishment. The image is confluent -- it runs together -- with the heart and mind of the psalmist, who is pleading to God for Justice, not a rumble.

Now, how can I say that and be an inerrantist? How can I here stand up for the "not manifold but one" meaning of Scripture? It is because language is not a gear box; it's not a mechanical engine of transmission. It works, for lack of a better term, through a great deal of rightly-divined intuition.

And in the poem in Psalm 3, the image is of God striking a blow to the face of the ungodly, but the message or meaning is not "God is the Ultimate Street Fighter" but "God will punish sin". That message is 100% inside the "not manifold but one" meaning of Scripture.

The "not manifold but one" clause of the LBCF is not saying that there is only one sentence repeated in 1,000,000 ways in the Bible. It is saying that all Scripture stands in agreement -- and in that, we cannot adopt an "Ultimate Fighting Jesus" theology through Psalm 3 when the rest of Scripture tells us unequivocally that this is not who Jesus is.

The idea of "univocal" meaning is that a text only means "one thing". Any decent poem destroys this idea. But that doesn't mean that any text can mean anything. It means that all the layers or meaning work together to produce a final product which the honest and alert reader can recover.

Did I get what you were bafter there, Phil, or have I wrought havok on this blog?

centuri0n said...

BTW, part 2 of the series deals with the issue of Scripture being very well-written and how one guy figured it out in spite of his decades of education.

Rick Potter said...

Just wondering what you mean by this:

"....when the rest of Scripture tells us unequivocally that this is not who Jesus is."

1. Univocal
2. Equivocal
3. Analogous

Maybe I'm making too much of the semantics, but if I am I'm doing so in order to learn...this isn't an attack.

Why wouldn't you say "....when the rest of Scripture tells us univocally that this is not who Jesus is."

If, by using "unequivocally", you mean unambiguous.

And also, where does the analogous use of language fit. Is it somewhere between the two (Univocal, Equivocal)?

Are there any recommendations of a book that I could understand these issues clearly?

centuri0n said...

Rick --

That's a great question.

My hives regarding the term "univocal" come from writing my Master's thesis on Wallace Stevens. Because the major work done on Stevens by 1990 was all by guys who were deeply into Derrida and de Man, I had to get familiar with deconstruction theory. Back then, I was an atheist, so I bought that trash hook, line and sinker.

What's at stake there is whether the text has "univocal" meaning -- that is, does it only say "one thing", and is that "one thing" the same "one thing" for both writer and reader. And in one sense, those people have a good point: there are no texts in the universe which have only one plain meaning.

But the backside of that is that they take this fact and try to leverage it into a theory where the text really has no fixed range of meaning at all. They are trying to liberate the text from the idea of objective truth. And that falls way flat -- especially when we apply their theory to what they have written. The approach seems somewhat ridiculous when you consider that if you apply their theory to their writing, you can force their writing to actually be an allegory for 20th century epistemological agnosticism and call it satire, nullifying the whole project.

Anyway, the difference between saying that some text is "univocal" and saying it is "unequivocal" in my book is the difference between saying, (for example) "this text can only be about Jesus talking to a woman at a well" and saying "this text also includes insight into the intention and power of the Gospel to overcome racial/social barriers". The former may be "true" in the sense that this is what the words say, but the latter takes into account all kinds of factors external to John 4, like John 3 and John 5 and Romans 1, and the audience John is writing to.

In this case, the latter doesn't negate the former -- which, I guess in one sense, is "univocal" -- but the latter says far more than the former, and accounts for far more of the substance of Scripture. It doesn't leave any doubts, so I say "unequivocal" to mean "the nuances are clarifying rather than obscuring the meaning".

The place to start, if you can stand it, is Dissemination by Jaques Derrida (which is ironically in English translation -- think about that for an hour). If it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger.

The matter of analogy, btw, is an interesting one and I highly recommend Robert Reymond's treatment of it in his Systematic theology. The bibliography of that work suggests that his brief treatment there comes from other works, and you could use that bibliography to make a short reading list for yourself.

Jim Crigler said...

Re: de Man

Wasn't that who Dewey Finn (masquerading as Ned Schneebly) was trying to get a room full of kids to rebel against?

John Tiniakos said...
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