16 February 2007

These Words [2 of 2]

by Frank Turk

So my point in posting so far is to say that God gives us His word for a reason, and that reason is clear to us when we read His word. I’m sure that rubs a lot of people the wrong way (they are probably not regular readers of TeamPyro, but they are out there). But they would teder up this question: “How do you know your interpretation is a good one, cent? What’s the basis for making sure you got it right?”

Because, as many of you know, Roman Catholicism doesn’t agree with Presbyterianism about John 6 – and the Baptists think both of these groups are off their rocker. How do you figure it out?

I know one guy who says, essentially, that you don’t figure it out. If you’re a layman under a Presbyterian (for example), you might ask questions about the Presbyterian way, but you honor the authority you are under by not leaving Presbyterianism if you discover that baptism is only for the believer or the eucharist is only a remembrance or whatever, and you don't insist you're the one who's right. In fact, in many ways the idea that you should exercise your own brain for the sake of being or doing something – especially in the context of the Gospel – is (he says) radical autonomy, and idolatrous.

Mind you, this is also a guy who writes a lot – reams and reams of stuff – so what he’s doing when he’s writing is anybody’s guess, but suffice it to say that clearly, it cannot be autonomous and idolatrous. Maybe the key lies in whether he is using his own brain at all … I dunno.

Anyway, that said, can the Bible be figured out? If Deu 6 is one explanation of what Scripture is and does, how does it turn out that so many people disagree about what Scripture says, and how do I make sure that I don’t fumble the football?

I’m going to use myself as an example of how you figure it out – not because I’m such a bright guy, but because my testimony is that, as an atheist, I could read the Gospel of John and “get it” enough to know that my trust has to be in a savior that saves. When my wife asked me years later, while we were dating, what would happen to me when I died, I told her: “if it’s up to what I've done, I’ll probably go to hell, but Jesus says He is the way -- I'm trusting him.” You can see that [a] that's not bad for a guy who only read the Gospel of John once, and [b] I've come a long way in 15 years.

So my leaping-off place with this is that you don’t need a complex hermeneutic to “get it” from Scripture. What you need is to read Scripture as it is presented. Trying to “get” the Gospel of John by starting in John 2 and then jumping to John 6 and then jumping to John 14 doesn’t give you John: it gives you a fallible version of John – one edited by man.

But here’s the other half of that, in which I am also the example. As my wife (at that time, my girlfriend) acted as the Holy Spirit to me (a role God clearly made her for), we began attending church together, and we started reading Scripture together. And somehow, the topic of Jonah came up.

Yes, that Jonah.

And whilst we were talking about it, I blurted out what I thought was a fairly-intelligent comment about the book of the minor prophet: “Well, it’s allegory anyway.”

Now, my wife is a born Baptist. Her grandfather was a Baptist preacher – a pretty good one as I hear it. And when I said that, the conversation made a screeching stop.

“What?” She said, apparently calm. “What makes you say that?”

And, having the resources of a Jesuit education, I informed her that there was no way that Jonah was a historical story because of the big fish – the whale, if you will. Nobody gets swallowed by a whale, nobody lives through getting swallowed by a whale, and that just makes Jonah into a fancy story. It has truth in it, but it’s not true – not like me typing into my laptop true.

However, being a good Baptist (as opposed to a “pheh!” Baptist), she opened up the Bible to Matthew 12, and read from the NKJV:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”

But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.
She looked at me and said, “If Jesus believed that Jonah spent 3 days and 3 nights in the belly of the great fish, I do, too.”

And in retrospect, I think it’s a lot more brutally-clear than that. Jesus believed Jonah was real; Jesus believed the great fish was real; Jesus believed the Ninevites were real; Jesus believed their repentance was real. And Jesus believed that all of it together was enough to condemn the Pharisees for overlooking the Messiah, who, by the way, was real.

So the story of Jonah is true and it is verified by the way in which Jesus uses it to chastise the Pharisees.

And what that means, getting back to my point actually, is that we have to use Scripture the way Christ used Scripture. We have to use it the way John the Baptist used it. We have to use it the way Paul and Peter used it – and Stephen, and James, and John and Matthew and Mark and Luke.

You know: the hermeneutic of the men who delivered the word of God to people as prophets and apostles is not actually a very complicated hermeneutic. It is a rigorous hermeneutic, to be sure. And it is hardly an “objective” hermeneutic in the sense that it calls for the reader to be sort of a flavorless paste. And it requires something from us, to be sure. The position these men all put Scripture in was one which is above human reasoning in such a way as to guide and form human reasoning.

But the problem with people today is that we prefer a more-complicated hermeneutic. We have things we like just the way they are, and sometimes we want to find a way to justify that. We can do extraordinary linguistic studies to find out if God saved anyone eternally in the Old Testament in order to justify our truncating of the New Testament expression of salvation; we can do the same thing to make a sin out of wine-drinking, and out of married love, and to tone down the problem of excessive riches because we live in an excessively-rich society. We can use Scripture to buttress our beliefs in the church to make it more than it ought to be, and also less than it ought to be.

And the reason I started this off with the example of me in the first place is to say this: what we ought to do with Scripture is come to it in complete poverty and desperation, knowing that it is the wisdom of God which makes the wisdom of men look like foolishness. Our hermeneutic ought to be one where we frame ourselves not as peers to the writer but as abject beggars before the writer. Our hermeneutic ought to be the sinner who will die without God’s intervention.

That’s what Deu 6 says, isn’t it? The word God has commanded is there for us to remember who God is when we think we have enough that we can live without Him. The word of God ought to be taking us down a notch from satisfied to grateful, from safe to seeking refuge, from comfortable to poor in spirit. You can know your conclusion about the word of God is sound when what you have brought out of the text something you could have never put in there. When you are a student of the text, drawn there by God’s wisdom in the face of your own foolishness, you will be getting it right.

I am sure that doesn’t satisfy anybody, but there you go. Be in the Lord’s house with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s day this week, and ask yourself – seriously – am I learning anything from this book we are reading, or am I trying hard to show how smart I am?


Frank Martens said...

Here's another thought...

If God thought that I would never "get" what he wrote in scripture. He would have never written it in a language that we could understand.

And I'm done.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, I think you may have left out (or forgotten) a key component regarding your Jesuit education in understanding Matthew with repsect to Jonah. There is a possibility that verse 40 "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." was not actually spoken by Christ, but added by the author of Matthew. There is evidence to support this, but I don't want to get into a debate. I just wanted to point out that there is some scholarship behind why you were taught the allegorical interpretation.

Jmv7000 said...

"what we ought to do with Scripture is come to it in complete poverty and desperation, knowing that it is the wisdom of God which makes the wisdom of men look like foolishness"

Stewart Scott said in an article, "Beggars Beg."

Great post

FX Turk said...

Glenn --

Even if Matthew and not Jesus said it, it is the interpretation that Scripture gives to Scripture.

Either way, the idea that affirmation defeats the allegorical view of Jonah.

Jesuits and Franciscans notwithstanding. :-)

HOOKM14 said...

I never lack for amazement each and every time I read God's word because of it's timeless application to my own my life. As I recently re-read the story of Samson and his systematic destruction of the Philistines I was in awe and encouraged to see how God will use even my own sinful human weakness to accomplish His will and bring glory to His name.

God’s word I believe is not just about answers but about His personality as I seek to know Him more intimately. The fact is, our God is un-definable and to that I suggest we can never know all the answers and must be very careful to not try and define who God is with our feeble humanity because in doing so we create a “golden calf” of a god that is very limited and very small. And so as we seek Him on our knees our Yahweh does not even recognize the god to whom we pray because he sees nothing of Himself in the image we have sought to define.

The Slawsons said...

I'm curious to know what "brand" of Presbyterianism your friend is. I've never encountered what is spoken of in your posts.


FX Turk said...


I think he'd be offended to be called my "friend". He's a guy I know, and I am well aware that he's not half as presbyterian as he thinks he is.

Kaffinator said...

Hi Cent,

I am utterly fascinated by the idea of conforming our hermeneutic to that which we as scripture interprets itself. But I have to be honest and say that I haven't always found NT exegesis of the OT to be as straightforward as you would suggest.

Take for example, Psalm 104:4. In the NASB it reads, "He makes the winds His messengers, Flaming fire His ministers". Verses 1-4 speak of God's greatness and power as expressed through creation, as if to say, "wind and fire are impressive, but our God makes those things to serve Him; how much more incredible is He!"

Now imagine on Sunday my pastor starts extracting technical points concerning the nature of angels from Psalm 104. Could I be blamed for wondering, "what's he talking about? This passage doesn't seem to talk about spiritual beings at all; it says God uses winds to tell of his glory. There’s nothing here about angels.”

But I would be wrong. Hebrews 1:7 quotes Psalm 104 in exactly this way as the author builds a case for seeing the excellence of Christ’s ministry above that of the angels. That’s fine, and I can accept the authority of Hebrews, but it leaves me wondering, what did I miss in the first place? If I was that wrong about Psalm 104 then who knows, maybe I’m wrong about Hebrews 1 as well?

It’s a bit unsettling, really. Any help out there?

FX Turk said...

kaffinator --

My personal opinion is that you misread the psalm. That psalm doesn't say, "he makes the wind and the fire his messengers [of glory]"; it says, "he makes his messengers the wind, and the ones who minister a flame of fire." (the Hebrew uses a participle of the verb "to minister" here). Note that in the Greek, the plurals are "messengers" and "ministers", but the singulars are "wind" and "fire". That's the LXX of Ps 104, btw.

Anyway, I think you are asking a good question: doesn't the NT demonstrate some liberty in reading the OT? My favorite example of this is 1Tim 5:18 where Paul tells Timothy that the command in Deuteronomy 25:4 applies to pastors. I'll thank you not to call my pastor an ox, if you please.

But what do we do with that? Can we make a rule out of those examples (and there are a few of them) where Scripture interprets another part of Scripture as a precept rather than as a simple, contextually-isolated text?

I think the answer is, "yes we can establish a rule" but also "which is not for beginners who are reading the Bible."

Let me admit something: what I am suggesting in this post is hardly a complete textbook on hermeneutics. But it is the first step which most people, including some who advance very complicated readings of Scripture, do not get to.

Let's take the first step in taking the word of God as a frontlet between our eyes, and as bound to our wrists, and as written on our doorposts -- and then, when we know this word that well, we can worry about whether or not we can then find precepts in the commands of God which we can take out of context and apply elsewhere.

Start with the basics. I am sure I'll have more to say about this in the future if my opinion is that important to you. :-)

Unknown said...

Glad to know he's not half as Presbyterian he thinks he is.


Kay said...

Mrs. Turk is one impressive lady. But you know that, Frank.

Catez said...

knowing that it is the wisdom of God which makes the wisdom of men look like foolishness.

Yes! Thanks for this - I appreciated it. The first scripture I read the day after I became a Christian was Psalm 30. I "got it".

donsands said...

great post. Good stuff to think about. Thanks for sharing.

"The Word of God ought to be taking us down a notch".


Kent Brandenburg said...

Isn't child-like acceptance of the Jonah story sheer fideism? Don't we need history and evidence? Since I don't find any historical or archaelogical record of a visit by a man named Jonah to the capital city of Assyria, doesn't that make this a leap in the dark? Or isn't it circular reasoning to use Scripture to validate Scripture? The Bible doesn't say there will be 66 books, or even one called Esther, so how can we be sure there are 66? God said He would preserve every one of His Words, that they would be accessible, and are perfect (Matthew 5:18; 24:35; Isaiah 59:21; Psalm 19:7; 119:140), but since there are multiple editions of the textus receptus, everyone of them different, how can I believe what God said?


FX Turk said...

Is Dan the only one who gets to punch Kent n the nose, or can I?

DJP said...

I'm saving up public grace for my next post, so, be my guest.

Must say, had no idea about that, about Kent. Startling.

Guy in B-movie: "Seems like a nice guy."

Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo: "AT FIRST!"

Kent Brandenburg said...

Frank, long time listener, few time caller, but I agreed with your article.

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