Thursday, December 8, 2011

How I Read the Bible

The discussion on the "hatred" of God has generated quite a bit of buzz, at least relatively so to the scope and reach of this blog. My post from a couple days ago, Does God Hate Sinners?, is already the fourth most read post at The Sometimes Preacher. My interactions with some folks have lead me to this post, which is an explanation of how I read the Bible.

We all approach the Scriptures carrying particular baggage and with a particular framework. Most of us come to the Bible knowing very little about it, and it all seems so overwhelming. How can I make sense of this? What relevance does this have to my life? I call this the Biblical Fog, but it's really biblical illiteracy, and I fear that the overwhelming majority of Christians, today, fall into this category. We simply have not been taught how to approach the Scriptures, how to interpret them and apply them for our lives today. So we wander about in a fog, never really picking up the Bible, and when we do, never grasping God's word. It doesn't have to be that way, and I can help, but that's another post for another time.

Another approach to the Scriptures is called Systematic Theology. In this approach, the Bible is a wellspring of doctrine and theology (as well as practical issues for life) ready to be categorized into an ordered system of belief. This is, generally, the approach that the scholars of the Church have taken for the past 200 years or more. "What do you believe about X?" "Well, let me go to Book A, Chapter B, Verse C and I'll tell you, after I follow up on all the cross-references." This approach has many strengths, but it is fundamentally flawed because it does not consider the manner in which the Bible was created.

I believe that the Bible is God's Redemptive History. It extends into the deep past, to the very beginning, and anticipates the end of the present age to a new beginning. In the middle is all that God has done to redeem humanity, destroy sin and evil and death, and become the true King of the Cosmos. The Bible is the story that invites us to become participants. It is not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth so much as it is a play in search of actors--the play that is, in fact, the truest reality, to which all the other stories of the world are mere shadow puppetry. The Bible is the Story that defines my life--past, present, and future--because it is the story of how God made all that exists, how it went wrong, what he has done to make it right again, and what he will do to finally consummate that process of making-all-things-right.

For this reason, I must pay the utmost respect to the manner in which God created the Bible--its authors, its times, its contexts, its audiences. God sovereignly directed the Bible to be written by dozens of authors over almost 1500 years under wildly divergent circumstances. I cannot dishonor this incredible work of the Holy Spirit by disregarding the historical nature of Scripture and still hope to fully understand the end result of the Spirit's work. That is an arrogance of the worst order.

So I pay attention to the history of Scripture. I seek to understand it within its own context before I try to apply it to my context. I believe that the Bible was the Word of God to someone else before it became the Word of God for me. As I've said elsewhere, two principles that guide me are:
  1. The Bible cannot mean what it never meant.
  2. If we don't understand the Scriptures in their historical context, we'll never understand them at all.
I try to immerse myself in the Scriptures by entering the world of it's authors and first readers. Besides prayer, this has been more profitable than anything else I have done in my studies. So that's how I read the Bible, and that's why I write the things I do on this blog, and preach the things I preach at Ember. My aim is always to honor the Scriptures for what they are, to enter the world in which they were written, and to participate in the new world they are creating.


Anonymous said...

Amen. (though watch your "it's". Very well said. (your mother...)

Jacob said...

Hi Andy,

Good discussion, though I can't resist pestering you about it. While I agree with much of the sentiment expressed here, I would suggest adding another principle to your list:

3. If my hermeneutic method or exegetical conclusions ends up either invalidating the approach or contradicting the conclusions of Jesus and the apostles then I need to revise my method and/or retry my exegesis.

The rationale for this is that since it was the Spirit of Christ inspiring the prophets and apostles, he gets first dibs at deciding what they meant and how we should go about determining that meaning. At the bare minimum, we can accept that since he is the Lord whom we trust for salvation, we can trust that his own exegetical conclusions are sound.

With that principle understood, I have to ask whether your statement in a previous post that "[David] Platt commits an exegetical fallacy by relying on the Psalms to make his theological point" stands up to scrutiny. Is it really an exegetical fallacy to rely on the Psalms for a theological point?

Some problems immediately come to mind:
The Book of Hebrews -
At its core, this book contains an extended exposition of Psalm 110, along with exposition of some other Psalms. Among some of the theological points he derives from the Psalms are:

- God has put everything in subjection to man, and Jesus is the first man to be crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8)
- Jesus is not ashamed to call those whom he saves brothers (Psalm 22)
- The fact that David said "Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts" so long after after the event indicates that Joshua did not give them complete rest and that there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Psalm 95)
- Jesus is a priest after the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110)
- The fact that the old covenant never mentioned a priest from the tribe of Judah, indicates that a change in priesthood and therefore a change in the law was necessary (Psalm 110)
- Jesus' priesthood is eternal and therefore better (Psalm 110)

Jesus -
He also seems to make theological points from the Psalms:

- The Messiah, though the son of David, is also David's Lord (Psalm 110)
- Jesus' claim to be the Son of God is not blasphemy (whatever you're interpretation of what is meant here, he grounds it in Psalm 82)

Since the New Testament derives theological points from the Psalms, is it really invalid for us to do so? Who is our hermeneutical authority, Fee & Stuart or Jesus & the apostles?


andy said...


Thanks for commenting. My reply is this: There are many things that Jesus (and the apostles/NT authors) did and said that I would not and could not do or say. They had a liberty of Scriptural interpretation that I do not have, as they were uniquely empowered by the Holy Spirit to compose the New Testament. They were free from some of the controls and constraints that I must abide by, and often took just a phrase or sentence fragment from the OT and extrapolated out swaths of theology. Their methods were unique because their task was unique. I guess this makes me a sort of cessationist, but in regards to hermeneutics instead of tongues. Rather than invalidating their hermeneutic with my own, I hope to honor and preserve it by humbly acknowledging that I do not possess the same level of apostolic authority they had, and cannot do with the text what they were free and inspired to do.

Jacob said...

Fair enough.

But is it truly humble to disregard the example they've set and take a different approach to interpreting the scriptures? Especially considering the fact that they were not make simply theological pronouncements 'ex cathedra' but were arguing their positions from the scriptures and expected their hearers/readers to see that what they were saying was true.

The apostles believed that their interpretation of the scripture was the correct one - witness Paul to Agrippa in Acts 26:19-29. I assume you agree that we should accept their exegetical conclusions (since they are inspired), but if we just accept their conclusions while not becoming disciples of their method, we end up in the awkward position of interpreting the Old Testament one way until we get to a place where the NT has spoken, at which point we must adjust and defend the NT interpretation, though we never could have arrived there on our own. Not only do we call into question the credibility of the apostles in the ears of our listeners, we run the risk failing to proclaim what is actually there (a la Jesus to the scribes, "Have you not read?").

It seems like a more humble approach would be to acknowledge that the apostles knew the story much better than we do, that their method is more in tune with the intended meaning of scripture than ours (because they learned it from the Lord Jesus - Luke 24), and that our response should be to sit respectfully at their feet and try to learn from them and imitate them, all the while recognizing that our interpretations are fallible and have authority only so far as they accurately reflect the authority of the text as intended.

With regard to the Psalms, a good start would be to not simply view it as Israel's prayer/song book, since that doesn't nearly do justice to the way it's treated in the NT.

Regardless of what you think about the above, surely you recognize that this is an area of considerable debate among evangelical scholars, with many widely held and divergent viewpoints, each represented by well-respected and sound exegetes. It might be a tad ungracious to call into question the soundness Platt's exegetical training on this basis.

Hopefully, you understand that my main concern is not your interpretive method (though obviously I think it may be flawed), but your treatment of David Platt in the earlier post.

andy said...

The message of the NT, consistently from Jesus to John, was the same: That in Jesus, the prophecies of the OT are coming true, and that the story of the OT is reaching it's climax--indeed, finding it's ending. It's not as though they prooftexted their way through the OT to develop their doctrine or come up with an apostolic systematic theology. Rather, they went back to the Scriptures and showed how Jesus was the one to whom the entire OT was pointing, and how, in him, all the promises of God were coming true. All of their exegesis was filtered through the lens of Jesus. In that respect, I suppose, I attempt to share in their interpretative methods.

The problem I have with Platt was, first of all his smug attitude, and secondly his prooftexting of the Psalms without looking at them through the lens of Jesus. Sure, he gets to the cross, but a skilled preacher can get to the cross from Yoda, so that doesn't mean much to me. It seems that Jesus and the apostles went back to the Scriptures in order to say, "Yes, God does love the world. Things are not hopeless. We are not lost. Now that Jesus is here, we are no longer in exile. God has come to us--and like the Father in the Prodigal Son Parable, he has come running to us in an embarrassing and shocking display of love." But Platt, and many others besides, seem to want to hang on to this idea that God hates sinners. This is stunning to me, because it contradicts what Jesus came to do and be and say. In that regard, I would argue that Platt does not at all use the same interpretive methods as Jesus and the apostles. So I stand behind my treatment of Platt and any who would so smugly assert that God hates sinners.

Jacob said...

I finally watched the Platt video. I understand what you're saying about the smugness. However, the content is hardly offensive. He's responding to an attack that misrepresents his views and describes him as saying that God hates sinners in the 21st century sense of the word. In his response, he takes the common polemic tactic of accepting the charge against him and redefining the terms to better represent his position. In his redefinition, the idea of hate takes on a connotation not all that different from your definition in a previous post. God hates sinners in the sense that, outside of Christ, his wrath abides on them, but God loves sinners and that's why he sent Christ to die for them. He may have an issue with smugness (though that often comes with the polemical territory), but Platt is not the enemy and he is not preaching a different gospel. Even his exegesis is not all that suspect if you understand why he's coming at it the way he is.

I think you have some ground for a legitimate critique of the approach he takes, but your valid criticisms are overshadowed by (IMO) some unfair criticisms.