Rethink Everything: Why so many Interpretations?
How we view human language is one of the most important factors in our discipleship. That is true because we either believe God has communicated to us in the Bible in a way that we can generally understand or He hasn't. Since we were created in the image of God, it stands to reason that we are fit conversational partners with the God who created us. But, this is no longer assumed. Residing in a post, post-modern world, in which deconstruction is an essential virtue, we are, more than ever, squeamish about absolutes. Today it appears that uncertainty has become a synonym for humility. If someone states with confidence,"the Bible says" it is assumed they are driven by naiveté or worse, arrogance. Re-thinking everything is the new fruit of the spirit. Re-thinking everything is the trendy trademark of followers of Jesus. Should it be, though? Or is this simply a repackaging of the first question included in the Scriptures, "Did God actually say...?" I want to argue in this post (and the next) for the clarity of Scripture. I will make the case that the Bible is understandable and plain. I believe that the Scriptures' clarity is under attack.
"Residing in a post, post-modern world, in which deconstruction is an essential virtue, we are, more than ever, squeamish about absolutes. Today it appears that uncertainty has become a synonym for humility."
The doctrine of the clarity of the Scriptures is often referred to as the Scriptures perspicuity. (Ironically, that big word means "to be clear; or to see through.") Below is a a definition for the perspicuity of the Bible, some popular denials to the clearness of Scripture and some pressing dangers.
Evangelicals have a high view of the Scriptures. That lofty perspective of the Word of God has often been outlined by the acronym S.C.A.N.
Sufficiency: The Bible gives us all we need for salvation and godly living.
Clarity: The Scriptures are clear and understandable.
Authority: The Bible is the final word on any subject.
Necessity: The Scriptures are necessary for salvation and sanctification.
Each of these important beliefs about the Holy Bible have been and will be under attack. Presently, however, the clarity of the Scriptures seem to be the focus of the assault.
Towards a Definition of the Clarity of the Scriptures
I'm a Baptist. So, consider with me the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 as it defines the clarity of the Scriptures. (For my Presbyterian friends, this is also the exact wording as the Westminster Confession of Faith.)
"All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them." (CHAPTER 1; OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, Paragraph 7)
Notice what it says. And notice what it doesn't say. First, the confession doesn't say that every passage of Scripture is equally plain and understandable. To say that would contradict the Apostle Peter's famous quibble with the writings of Paul. (II Peter 3:15-18) Nor does it say that there are no opaque or ambiguous passages that require more work to understand. There certainly are. And the confession doesn't imply that we shouldn't listen to pastor-teachers, who are gifts to the church, to help us understand the Word in its grammar, history, context and imagined applications. We certainly should.
The confession does say, however, that the things that are necessary for salvation and the Christian life are "clearly propounded....so that not only the learned, but the unlearned...may attain sufficient understanding." Said another way, in the Bible, "the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things."
Moses taught the clarity of Scriptures as he wrote the first five books of the Bible to former slaves. (Deuteronomy 30:9b-14) "...this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off....but the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it."
The Apostles appealed to the Old Testament's perspicuity by the way they repeatedly quoted and referenced it. (Acts 2:25-29; 30-31;Romans 1:16;9-11;II Timothy 3:16-17)
Jesus repeatedly quoted the Old Testament in such a way that evidenced a presumption of the Scriptures clarity. (Luke 23:28; Hosea 10:8) Jesus also evidently quoted the Scriptures with an assumption that they would be, and should be, understood. (John 5:36-37)
Here's a definition:
The clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture is the belief that in the Scriptures God has spoken in such a way as to be understood. The Bible is understandable.
There are some popular denials to the Scriptures clarity:
Don't Put God in a Box: This argument goes like this. God is infinite, we are finite. Therefore, it is impossible to define God in words, propositions, doctrinal statements, or confessions. At best, those would be mystical guesses because God is cloaked in mystery. In fact, this denial to the clarity of Scripture goes as far as to say that any dogmatic declaration of "the Bible says" is a vain effort to contain God in manmade, theological boxes. This denial of the Bible's clearness claims that the only absolute truth is that all things about God are absolutely mysterious. You can't truthfully say you "know a lot of things" about God. You can only say "I think a lot of things" about God.
Ask Your Clergy: This could also be called the Roman Catholic Church denial of the perspicuity of Scripture. Championing the clarity of Scripture was a big part of the Protestant Reformation. According to the Roman Catholic Church, then and now, the laity can not be trusted to understand and interpret the Bible properly. All interpretations of the Scripture were to come from the official leaders of the church. William Tyndale worked to translate the Bible into English in the late 15th and early 16th century. He believed firmly in the clarity of the Scriptures and that they were to be read in their plain sense (not embellished with allegories and the like). He said, near his death: "I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than the priest."
Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism: "If the Scriptures are so clear, why are there so many interpretations?" This is the most popular objection to the clarity of the Bible. In his problematic book The Bible Made Impossible, Christian Smith raises this issue to impossible levels. He calls it pervasive interpretive pluralism. He cites by way of example, how many different views there are about the woman at the well in John 4, as well as the up-teen different perspectives on "the baptism for the dead" in I Corinthians 15. The strength of this objection has to be acknowledged. There are a lot of different interpretations. But why?
I plan to answer this objection of "so many interpretations" in my next post. But, I want to finish this blog post with marking some dangers in believing "the Bible is made impossible" because of "pervasive interpretive pluralism." (so many interpretations)
It's a Smorgasbord: Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism (how can the Bible be clear because there are so many interpretations) can lead dangerously to the impression that Christian belief is up for grabs. I think there are over 30 of those theological viewpoints books. I have over a dozen of them in my library. You know the ones I'm talking about? Five Viewpoints on Baptism, Three Viewpoints on Predestination, Six Viewpoints on Foot Washing, etc. If we are not careful, such a plethora of viewpoint books sends the message that all of Scripture is equally "up for grabs" to the most convincing "viewpoint." Interpreting the Bible becomes like dining at one of our famous Lancaster County Smorgasbords-choose whatever items you want, and leave the items you don't want. (probably veggies)
Jamming and DDoSing the Bible: I recently had a lengthy conversation with one of our young adults who majored in cyber security at Penn State. It was a fascinating conversation. (for me anyway!) I asked him if there was a similar "jamming," like a cell-phone jammer, that could be used to assault a website, or computer network. Of course, cell phone jammers (illegal by-the-way) overpower a cell phone signal by transmitting a signal on the same frequency, powerful enough that the two signals collide and cancel each other out. He said that there was a similar attack called DDoS. (Distributed denial of service) Essentially the attack involves multiple online devices which are used to overwhelm a website with fake traffic. Unlike other cyberattacks DDoSing doesn't attempt to break through your security but rather makes your website and servers unusable to users. Pervasive interpretive pluralism is doing that with Bible users. With so many interpretations and viewpoints the reader finds the Bible unusable and impossible to understand. Do we unwittingly, as Bible teachers, do this to our listeners? Do we communicate such uncertainty about everything, that we end-up communing nothing? Are we jamming and DDoSing the minds of disciples? This is an important consideration for all of us who are privileged to preach and teach the Word.
An Infinite Open-Mind: The other pressing danger of "pervasive interpretive pluralism" is that it leads to an infinite open mind. The mind never latches on to truth with any sense of conviction. G.K. Chesterton wisely observed, "An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut, they were made to open only in order to shut." Deconstruction is not the unpardonable sin. However, much of the current faith deconstruction participates almost exclusively in demolition and not reconstruction or renovation. In other words, once it is demolished, it never rises again. Beware of the "infinite open mind" that never sees God's truth as clear and plain, to be embraced through faith.
Next time: But, why are there so many interpretations? And, how can we be confident in the plain things and at the same time humble as we approach the things unequally plain?