09 October 2007

The role of experience in exegesis

by Dan Phillips

I have an office in our garage, an asset my wife lovingly engineered for me. Recently, I went out in the darkness, taking a meal with me. I had my drink in one hand, my plate of food in another. To free my hand for my keys, I set the plate down on a flat surface, in the dark. I unlocked the door, then distractedly looked for the glass — which I was holding in my hand. The plate was in front of me, but I couldn't see it. I was looking for something else.

Why didn't I see the plate? It was right there, smack-dab in front of me. My eyes even registered its shape in the dark. The plate didn't move. It was just as there when I didn't see it as it was a moment later, when I realized what I should be looking for, and looked at the exact same spot again.

I didn't see it because I wasn't looking for it. No problem in the external evidence, no problem with the organs of perception. The problem was in my mind, my orientation, my focus.

In interpreting Scripture, we rightly stress objective exegesis: the rules, procedures, and standards by which we bring out the meaning of the text. Also, we rightly eschew the "Well, what it means to me is..." school of slushy interpretation. I've responded to that sloppy line with what was quoted to me (apocryphally?) as John MacArthur's response: "Okay, so what would it mean if you were dead?"

Scripture itself is given, fixed, and perfectly fulfills God's grand intent for it (Psalm 19:7-11; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Revelation was an unfolding process that has reached its goal (Hebrews 1:1-2; 2:1-4). It is not itself in need of any improvement, but is God's appointed means of our improvement in holiness (John 17:17). Everything we need is there. But are we seeing what is there?

Is there a role for experience in interpretation? Is it possible that Calvin, Luther, Knox, Edwards, Spurgeon — with gifts and/or education vastly superior to ours — might have actually missed something that really is there, was there, right in the text? A truth, or an aspect of truth that was looking them square in the face, but which they simply did not see because they were not looking for it?

As a doctrinal matter, I would expect that the contents of the Bible, coming as they do from the vast mind of the infinite-personal God of Scripture, would not ever be exhausted, even under the examination of a thousand generations of careful scholarship. No believer should have a moment's hesitation praying, with utmost sincerity, "Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law" (Psalm 119:18). The wonders are there, to be sure. They've been there all along. But am I seeing them?

Beyond that, we've all experienced it, if we've grown even slightly as Christians. The text does not change, but we do, and so do our observations. I recall vividly reading a passage in the Old Testament one morning, then later that very day going to a Bible conference where the speaker opened up that same passage. I'd just read it, but his exposition made me feel as if I'd never read it at all.

Shouldn't we expect that successive generations of believing Bible readers would legitimately see some aspects of Scripture in new lights? Shouldn't we expect growth in doctrinal understanding, as the church matures (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16), and as the specific challenges we face change?

Let me give an example. After a great deal of careful exegesis, and reading (and trying to make sense) of competing interpretations, I've come to the position that the most natural reading of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 is what is today the minority position: that to teleion ("that which is perfect") is the completed product of the process of revelation. Now, there are some pretty good arguments against the position, and some very good arguments for — neither of which is my point at the moment. Here's the point.

One of the criticisms of this position is that it was not held by earlier interpreters. If it was there, surely they would have seen it, and it would have gained ascendancy by Calvin's time.

John Calvin had a pretty full plate. He was at the vanguard of Biblical response to Rome's oppressive stranglehold, and his focus was on matters of theology, soteriology and ecclesiology. I doubt that any one of us agrees with absolutely every conclusion Calvin reached. Every one of his modern students makes allowances that even such a prodigious man was finite, had his limitations.

(Any "Calvinist" who denies that simple assertion, while using "TULIP" [which Calvin did not], or explaining limited atonement with depth and specificity [which Calvin did not], is self-refuting.)

But do some of those limitations grow out of the false teachings to which we are called to respond in our day, which had no prevalence in theirs? When it comes to Gospel issues and Rome's damning errors, we today have the unique luxury of sitting on the shoulders of Calvin himself and a host of other worthies. We can regard some issues as objectively "closed," as Calvin could not.

But is not the converse also true? Is a fresh look at Scripture warranted in some areas?

I specifically have in mind the uniquely modern practice of acting as if the Canon had not been completed, as if revelatory or attestational gifts still were needed. The purported production of fresh revelation has not been mainstream Christian claim since the apostolic age. There were heretics and oddballs here and there, now and then; but as a rule they were exposed and rejected as "enthusiasts," fanatics, and/or heretics. They were not the mainstream distractions from the Word that they are today.

So is it possible that our forefathers, though our betters in many ways, did not see some aspects of Scripture that were, in fact, there? Is it conceivable that they were not seeing these aspects, because they were looking at them but not for them?

Don't we experience this on an individual basis as we grow? The Bible has not changed since we were 10, 20, 30, 40... but do we not see more in it than we did at that time? And if not, is that not a cause for alarm rather than pride?

And if it is so for us as individuals, should it not be so for the church as a whole?

Concluding caveats: I will not stand with anyone who says that that a Biblical construct can't be true unless Calvin, Knox, Owen, Edwards, the Westminster Divines or the other greats saw it first. These folks stand in danger of not finding what God has put in His living Word. They almost might as well not bother with the Bible, and go straight to their heroes to find out what the Bible says.

But I equally will not stand with anyone who does not boast he's hit on something that every last one of them missed, unless he trembles when he says it — and stands ready to make a deucedly good Biblical case for it. This spirit of arrogance is often warned against in Proverbs, and the disasters threatened there loom as real and imminent today (cf. Proverbs 11:2; 12:1, 15; 13:10; 16:18; 18:12; 21:4, 24). The hope of discovery must be coupled with appropriate humility before one's elders and betters.

Otherwise, one stands in danger of "finding" something that had never been found before, simply because it was never there.

Dan Phillips's signature


donsands said...

Good words about the Word.

"Otherwise, one stands in danger of "finding" something that had never been found before, simply because it was never there."

Made me think of Greg Boyd, and his Open Theism doctrine, which many seem to think is enlightening and was hidden from the Church, but now this man has made a good case for.

spud tooley said...
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DJP said...

"Open Theism" is a perfect example of "finding" something that is not there.

Mark B. Hanson said...

Excellent post. Chances are if one finds something "new" in Scripture, someone, somewhere has seen it before, and had it shot at. But it's possible that we see things because of our culture that were not visible to those in other times.

Likewise, certain scriptures may take on additional weight because of new movements in religion. "If we or an angel from heaven preach to you any other gospel..." almost seems targeted at the Mormons, for instance.

The Bible is way ahead of its time - any time.

FX Turk said...


"The Bible is way ahead of its time" -- dude, that's exactly right. That's the definition of prophecy.

DJP said...

That's right, Mark (and Cent).

A practical effect on me: I'll read something in the Hebrew text of (say) Proverbs, and it will "clearly" say something to me. Then I go and find that no version translates it that way. Uh-oh. Then I'll check grammars and commentaries.

If nobody takes it as I'm initially inclined to take it, the speedometer needle goes down, down, down. It's not an instant "no way," but it is an instant "Slow down — 'WAY down — Turbo."

Even So... said...

Then I go and find that no version translates it that way. Uh-oh. Then I'll check grammars and commentaries.

If nobody takes it as I'm initially inclined to take it, the speedometer needle goes down, down, down. It's not an instant "no way," but it is an instant "Slow down — 'WAY down — Turbo."

That is my process as well, and still I agree with the article Dan...just because the canon is closed doesn't mean our study of it is...a wise man once said that on his blog when discussing the realtive newnesss of dispensationalism...


Even So... said...

Note to gallery,

This is not a call to discuss which of your pet theologies are "new but true"...

Stay on topic here, I challenge you...

Even So... said...

I hope I am understanding your authorial intent correctly, hey Dan?

DJP said...

I think your intent is to get me in trouble.


Kay said...

Now Dan, who would do that? ;-)

DJP said...

Now that you mention it, I can think of TWO people who would.

Even So... said...

he he he...

Even So... said...

Too bad I am going to be out most of the day...have fun DJP!

DJP said...

How conVEEEEEEEENient.

Kay said...

Ah, now you see my intent might be nefarious, but God intends it for good. :-D

Al said...

Good post Dan�

�The problem was in my mind, my orientation, my focus.�

The Church continues to grow and mature (in fits and starts at times) and we are moving forward in grace and knowledge. The battles of today are not the battles of the 16th Century (though they may still apply) the PoMo�s are a different breed than the Papists. So, while we fight for the sufficiency of Scripture, using the same texts to defeat the idolatry of the Pope and the silliness of the Emergent Church, we come to the same Bible with all its fullness.

This post also reminds me that we need new hearts in order to see the Salvation of our Lord in the Bible. We are hopeless without the regeneration of grace.

al sends

The Interface said...

Another good post. A principle of hermeneutics often not taught, but which would help prevent unfounded "new" theologies, is the one that says, after you've worked hard to determine what a Scripture says, work just as hard to determine what is does NOT say.

James Scott Bell said...

Dan, I agree with your view of 1 Cor. 13! Ain't that a kick in the head?

DJP said...


marie said...

I wish I had read today's post a month ago -- I debated a Pentecostal sister to a stand-still over 1 Cor. 13 and could have used your insights.

Many in the charismatic and "emergent church" movements wouldn't know how to spell hermeneutics. The isogesis some leading evangelists apply to some passages is unreal. Macarthur is right, and has an excellent sermon series on how to read and interpret Scripture with sound exegetical principles.

It's true that we can never exhause the depths of Scripture, as long as our eyes and hearts are wide open.

DJP said...

Glad if it's helpful, Marie. We've actually done quite a bit on that whole issue. Check this post, which is first of a series. (The others are linked.)

marie said...

Just finished the first 2 parts of your drubbing with Adrian.....and wish I had read this a YEAR ago. I would have walked away from charismania six months earlier!

You're clearly brilliant, as well as a Spurgeon fan, so I added this link to my blog. Thanks for the great read!

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donsands said...

"jesus came to save us from our sins, not to save us from hell."

"And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."

"If your eye offends pluck it out ... if your hand offends, cut it off .. for it's better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, or one hand, than having both and to be cast into hell fire".

The Father saved us from hell, and certainly from our sin, and He saved us for His glory, and so that we may partake with Him for all eternity.
Jesus took the wrath that His elect children deserve.

He paid our debt, and the debt was being cast into hell, and forever seperated from God.

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Brent said...

What is worse? The action that caused the punishment or the punishment for the action?
Matthew 1:21
"And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins."

Luke 2:10-12
"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

A Saviour from what? "Sins".

One of the benefits from being 'saved from your sins' is that the punishment of hell is not carry out. But it is sins first we have been saved from.

Just like Jesus didn't die on the cross for us to 'get' heaven. He died for our sins.
Too many are selling Jesus for people to get something like heaven instead of FORGIVENESS for our SINS.

Mike Riccardi said...

That's a good distinction to make, Brent. But we need to take it even a step further. Saving us from the condemning power of sin wasn't the end of the work; the end was that we might get God, in whose presence we may not be unless our sins are paid for.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; -- 1Pet 3:18

God is the Gospel.

donsands said...

A Saviour from what? "Sins".

And from hell. Actually Jesus saved us from God's wrath, which is in the end hell.

Surely He saved us from our sins as well.

And He saved us for Himself. Which is beyond belief.

"Too many are selling Jesus for people to get something like heaven instead of FORGIVENESS for our SINS."


We could tell people they are going to hell, unless they repent and believe the Gospel, for the forgiveness of sins.

I would say the greatest affection for our salvation should be that Christ saved us for Himself. And for forgiveing us our sins, and from hell.

Perhaps this rabbit trail is simply a subjective one.

The Scriptures claim all three I think.
Our salvation is from 1. God's wrath, 2. because our sins are forgiven, and 3. unto eternal life.

Sorry about the rabbit path.

Mike Riccardi said...


Any chance we can get a peek at that exegesis of 1Co 13?

Related to that, although perhaps having the potential to throw us off topic, do you think that interpreting "the perfect coming" as not meaning the closing of the canon does damage to the cessationist position? That is, is there evidence for cessationism if "the perfect" is the renewal of all things?

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DJP said...

Sure, Mike. There's some in part three of my responses to Adrian.

But no; you'll read all the many articles I have written on the issue, and I never lean heavily on that passage EXCEPT to point out that GOD expressly says that the gifts are temporary. No, I think the case is a whole-Scripture case.

Which is to say that my fall-back position is, "It is theoretically possible that the gifts did not cease with the close of the Canon — they just disappeared."

This is why leaky-canoneers have such a desperate need to Clinton down the meaning of the gifts, so that modern fakery looks more like the real thing.

DJP said...

Mike Ruckeras was explained to you, it isn't easy to get banned here, but you achieved it in short order. You are banned. It doesn't matter anymore what you post. Do not post. Your posts will be deleted. More posting will not get you un-banned. That's what happens when you're banned. Breaking your ban won't undo it. That's why we post the rules: to discourage people from getting themselves banned.

Like you did.

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Solameanie said...

Dan, perhaps you should swap your avatar photo out for one of you in Western garb. Dan Phillips, the fastest zap in the West (Joel chortles up his sleeve).

Kidding aside, a great post. I have to wonder at the boredom some people seem to have with Scripture. As you so well illustrate, you could mine it for a lifetime and not exhaust the motherlode. You can read a verse 100 times, and then one day something about it will leap out at you. A "wow, I could have had a V-8" moment.

But today, we'd rather study the latest release from Zondervan in Sunday school, or the latest video series which is largely some man's ideas with a few Scriptures thrown in here and there.

I've pretty much made up my mind. I will no longer attend any Sunday school class where Scripture isn't the main resource being taught. I want to study the Bible, not Philip Yancey.

FX Turk said...

But Sola -- what about the Jesus you never knew?

Drew said...

Good post. I dare believe that there is hope for conversation between you and Emergents, as I really could imagine hearing the same thing coming from McLaren, with only a slightly different emphasis.

And here's what I believe the slightly different emphasis may be.

While scripture doesn't change, and God doesn't change, our context always changes. And although in some ways it is the same as it was in Calvin's day, in other ways it is really different.

And as we understand anew what scripture meant for its original audience (which should be an early step in any interpretation), which is, as you pointed out, unlikely to yield anything new, even though it might, we discover new ways for said principles to be lived out in our unique context.

Thus the work of interpretation is never done, not only because the Bible has infinite depth, but also because we constantly (or at least, often) find ourselves somewhere we have never been before!

FX Turk said...

waitaminit -- did a thread of DaGifts break out? Did I miss it?

Brent said...

Amen Don and Mike, the whole package is the Good News.

God period, He is everything! We get Him by His grace!

Stefan Ewing said...

Donsands, Brent, Mike Riccardi: Great series of comments there, but Mike's especially for tying it all together:

"The end was that we might get God, in whose presence we may not be unless our sins are paid for."


I found something new and unexpected in my then-just-passed-away grandmother's Jerusalem Bible* (for a religious studies class she took): dried leaves! (Elm, birch, oak, and/or maple.) It was a nice memento of her life.

* Jerusalem Bible: Yeah, yeah, I know.

Solameanie said...


Grrrrr. That title has so many ironies, and just begs for so many sardonic remarks. I'd best be silent on that one for now. It's amazing what one can accomplish by being silent. Isn't "silence" the rage at the moment, or haute couture theology?

Stefan Ewing said...

My main Bible at the time was the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). You can imagine that kind of "insights" I was getting from that tome.

Solameanie said...


I just received a "review copy" of the new Apologetics Study Bible released by Broadman & Holman. Lots of contributors from different persuasions. I haven't even begun reading it yet, and I am already geared up for a good argument with myself.

FX Turk said...

Sola --

I'm waiting for mine. I think they are trying to swamp the market by giving one to anyone likely to buy it.

Maybe it sounded better in the marketing meeting ...

FX Turk said...

I promised Dan i'd mind the shop for him this afternoon, but I just got called awy from my desk for the day. Thread is closed until Dan can come back.

DJP said...

Open, at least for awhile.

Stefan Ewing said...

Sola, Cent: I checked the Apologetics Study Bible out on its website...it looks pretty interesting! The "twisted scripture" highlights are a good idea.

Solameanie said...

I like the idea too, but given the difference in apologetics approaches out there -- not to mention among the contributors -- I'll be interested to see how it all gels together. Done correctly, it could be a very useful tool.

Now, I just need a free weekend to sit and read.

Dave Crater said...

Dan: Great post. Piggy-backing off Mike Riccardi's question, though, I don't think any genuinely believing continuationist would deny that the gifts will cease with the renewal of all things. Thus I don't think using I Cor. 13 to prove gifts are temporary gets us anywhere. You are right - the case is a whole Bible case, where without exception it is the nature of the miraculous to be non-continuous.

DJP said...

Oh well, I quite disagree with you about 1 Corinthians 13. I've had to counter Charismatics several times who say flat-out and categorically that there is NO Biblical evidence that the gifts will ever cease. Because of that passage — and my view of vv. 8-10 aside — I must come back with a very forceful counter. The Bible indeed does say IN SO MANY WORDS that revelatory gifts will cease. The only question is "when?"

Dave Crater said...

Dan: You are without question right the Bible says in so many words the gifts will cease. Perhaps I am simply giving too much credit to charismatics as generally acknowledging this even as they believe it will not happen until the end. Have you heard or seen reasonable continuationists like Piper, Grudem, and Mahaney address this question? Like, they recognize, do they not, that even if (for example) tongues have not ceased yet, they will certainly cease when the curse of Babel is permanently reversed?