Sunday, July 01, 2007

Biblical Interpretation: Certainty or Persuasion?

No interpretation of scripture is provable. How would anyone know that it had been proved? Who would be the judge and jury to rule that the case had been made beyond the shadow of a doubt and was now, therefore, closed? Would it then be a fact on which everyone would agree?

The reality is that we tend to think an interpretation has been proved when we are persuaded (or, more commonly, have been indoctrinated) that it is true. But that only means that we believe it. No matter how much evidence we find for our position, it will not be persuasive to everyone. Which is to say that our interpretations will never be the same as facts. Doesn't the possibility always exist that we may be wrong?

The fact that we engage in persuasive discourse regarding alternative interpretations of various biblical texts suggests that none of them are provable. Nevertheless, we reason our way to conclusions that are supportable by the evidence of scripture. Because an interpretation isn't provable doesn't mean that it is without sufficient evidence to make it persuasive. Just never persuasive to everyone.

I think that faith is a matter of persuasion rather than of certainty. The subjective rendering of Hebrews 11:1 that identifies faith with "being certain of what we do not see" would be improved by the objective rendering "the evidence of things not seen," according to the scholarly resources I've consulted. Biblical faith is not a feeling of certainty that comes from a religious experience. Instead, biblical faith is persuasion regarding one’s understanding of the biblical testimony about God's fulfillment of his promise. What God has done to fulfill his promise to Abraham (from the birth of Isaac to Sarah through the exodus of Israel from Egypt to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead), as evidenced by the eyewitness testimony preserved by the biblical writers, is the content of “the word,” which is the object of biblical faith. As Paul wrote, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of [meaning both from and about] Christ” (Rom. 10:17). (Any interpretation of Jesus that doesn't focus on the fulfillment of promise is, in my view, suspect.)

And since biblical faith is persuasion regarding (and, therefore, depends on) one’s understanding of the biblical testimony, how can one ever be certain that one has understood correctly? Or that one’s understanding can’t be improved? (And the only alternative to being persuaded by one’s own understanding is being indoctrinated—as in told what to believe—by religious authority figures and structures.)

Which is why Jesus exhorted his followers, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). The object of one’s asking and seeking and knocking is not some earthly good for which one feels the need (which seems to be the most common object of prayer); the object is the truth about God—which, when believed, creates a covenantal relationship with God—as it is revealed in and through Jesus. And the search for a true understanding of God is a lifelong process.

However certain I may FEEL about my interpretation, my feeling of certainty does not equate to absolute truth. If I think it does, I may feel entitled to "disfellowship" anyone who disagrees with me on the grounds that he or she refuses to believe “the word of God.” Feelings of certainty, which are sometimes called "convictions," can lead to behavior that is anything but "Christian."

The desire to "prove" interpretations of scripture and achieve absolute certainty may be related to a desire to determine what is essential to believe in order to be saved. The well-known restorationist slogan, "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity," assumes that someone or ones are qualified to determine what the "essentials" are. What's to be gained, however, by identifying certain beliefs as essential to salvation, other than the exclusion from “salvation” of those who disagree? (Which seems more like a loss than a gain.) And it inevitably excludes the “charity”—that is, Christian love—that is supposed to govern “all things” in which Christians engage one another.

It seems better to keep seeking and speaking the truth as one understands it, and let that common search be the ground for unity. And let the power of "the Spirit of truth" (John 16:13, a NT metaphor for the persuasive power of the biblical message) do the persuading.

Absolute certainty is, it seems to me, the prerogative of God. (Which suggests that those who pretend to absolute certainty are “playing God.”) The only human approximation would be God’s biblical agents—called “the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20)—to whom God revealed "the word,” inspiring them to reveal it to others, who preserved their message in the biblical writings. Since they are not around to tell us precisely what they meant and, therefore, what their words mean today, the rest of us must be content with reasoning our way, as the grace of God has opened the way, to persuasion regarding the truth about God.

8 Comments:

At 7/25/2007 10:13 AM, Blogger Kurt said...

Robert,

In a nutshell, "words" sans the holy spirit can never be persuasive when it comes to the matter of salvation.

 
At 7/25/2007 7:50 PM, Blogger Robert said...

Kurt,

Jesus said, "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:63).

Wouldn't that mean that if the words are his, meaning that they accurately convey his gospel of the kingdom and grace of God, that they would also convey the holy breath? (Breath being the literal translation of the NT Greek word, pneuma, the typical translation of which, "spirit", is derived from the Latin word for breath, spiritus.) Words sans the holy spirit would then be words that do not accurately convey the biblical message of Jesus' gospel of the kingdom and grace of God, right?

Robert

 
At 7/26/2007 12:42 AM, Blogger Kurt said...

Robert,

What Jesus meant there was that the holy spirit brings us to understanding when we hear the words. This is evident within the context of chapter 6 and other words of Christ. His words are only "spirit and life" to those who are drawn by the Father (John 6:44, 65) by the influence of the holy spirit (John 16:13). Some disciples heard Jesus' "spirit and life" words and still did not believe them. It wasn't that His words did "not accurately convey the biblical message of Jesus' gospel of the kingdom and grace of God," it is that some disciples did not believe because they were simply not drawn by the Father to Christ.

 
At 7/26/2007 11:53 AM, Blogger Robert said...

Kurt,

You are presenting the traditional Calvinist view that anyone who believes "the word" only does so because of a divine intervention ("the Spirit") that enables faith. This raises the question of why a loving God would intervene with some who hear "the word" and not with others, who as a result of God's lack of intervention are unable to believe "the word" and be saved.

Doesn't God intervene whenever someone hears "the word" through "the word" itself? (See John 1:1, "the word was God.") Why separate God's intervention through "the word" itself ("the word" being about God's intervention through Jesus) from God's intervention through "the Spirit"?

After all, Jesus didn't say, as you did, that "His words are only 'spirit and life' to those who are drawn by the Father." You made that qualification as a matter of interpretation. Jesus identified "the words" he spoke with "spirit and life."

What if the Father draws all who hear the message, which is, after all, "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17), but gives them the freedom to choose whether to believe or not? Might this not be why some heard Jesus' words of "spirit and life" and still did not believe them?

Why do you believe that God's drawing power must be irresistible (other than because you may presuppose the Calvinistic doctrine of irresistible grace)? Rather than believing that God's drawing power is coercive (which it is if it is irresistible), why not that God's drawing power is persuasive (persuasion always giving the hearer the option to disbelieve)? Doesn't this seem more consistent with the clear biblical revelation that "God is love" (1 John 4:8)?

The major flaw in Calvinistic theology, in my view, is that it has an authoritarian (and, therefore, anti-love) concept of God's sovereignty. What if God's sovereign will is that human beings be free to accept or reject "the word" when they hear it? Wouldn't that make God's sovereignty, then, compatible and consistent with God's love? And, in so doing, eliminate the problem of why a God of love would predestine so many to perish by deciding not to intervene when they hear "the word"?

The fact is that both of our views are matters of interpretation about which neither of us can be certain. The question is which interpretation is more persuasive in light of the biblical data. Right?

 
At 7/26/2007 6:24 PM, Blogger Kurt said...

"This raises the question of why a loving God would intervene with some who hear "the word" and not with others, who as a result of God's lack of intervention are unable to believe "the word" and be saved."

Robert, this is a good question which Paul answers for us in Romans 9, especially in verses 13-21, if you choose to believe it. :>)

"Rather than believing that God's drawing power is coercive (which it is if it is irresistible), why not that God's drawing power is persuasive (persuasion always giving the hearer the option to disbelieve)?...."

Because man's sinful nature is what is "coercive" and thereby will not be persuaded by God (most of Biblical history attests to that!) So, He lets man do what he wants (Rom 1). The heart (mind) is desperately wicked (not, just some minds) and no one seeks after God, not one. Jer 17:9 Rom 3:10-12. But, God chooses some to be transformed out of their own wrong choice of sin. That's why He's God and we're not (Creator/Creature distinctive)

"...What if God's sovereign will is that human beings be free to accept or reject "the word" when they hear it?.."

It's only logical that men made in the image of God and given access to the power through the holy spirit could not reject "the word." When minds, warped by sin, are transformed by the spirit of God they do have free will, no longer enslaved to sin, with the only viable option for a man made in God's image to accept "the word" of his Creator. A piglet can only act like a pig and a puppy can only act like a dog. Men are the sons of God, made in his image, and will "hear the voice of the Shepherd" once the image of God has been "righted" in a man through being transformed by the holy spirit.

 
At 7/29/2007 1:11 PM, Blogger Robert said...

Kurt,

Romans 9:13-21 is not about whom God chooses to save and not to save. It is about whom God chose to use in the fulfillment of his promise to make of Abraham a great nation, specifically, Jacob and Pharaoh.

"Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" is a Hebraic figure of speech, a metaphorical way of saying that God chose Jacob rather than Esau, NOT to be saved but, instead, to be in the line of promise. It doesn't reveal God's attitude toward either of them. (Like Jesus' saying, "No one can serve two masters, for . . . he will hate the one and love the other . . . You cannot serve God and money," doesn't mean that his disciples must literally "hate" money but that they must CHOOSE God over money. Also, Jesus' saying that his disciples must "hate" family obviously didn't mean "hate" literally but that they much CHOOSE to follow him even if it meant being rejected by family.) Whether or not Jacob or Esau were saved depended on whether or not they believed God's promise, not which one of them God chose to be in the line of promise.

Likewise, God chose Pharaoh to display his power in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, in fulfillment of his promise to make of Abraham a great nation. God chose Pharaoh "that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth," not to damn Pharoah's soul. (That he did to himself.) Again, God's purpose in choosing Pharaoh was the fulfillment of his promise to make of Abraham a great nation (via Israel's exodus from Egypt), through which God would eventually bless all nations, through his "name [being] proclaimed in all the earth."

All of which is to say that Calvinism is based on the misuse of Romans 9 to support the unbiblical notion that God chooses to save some and to damn others based on some hidden agenda he has not revealed. Biblically, God chooses to save all who, through their own free choice, believe "the word."

According to the NT writers, "the word" itself (the NT gospel) is the spiritual power of God to open sinful hearts. But unlike Calvinism, which insists that God forces some hearts open and leaves others closed (according to his hidden agenda), the NT writers reveal a God "who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4) but who leaves it up to them as to whether or not they will accept his gracious offer extended through the NT gospel.

Calvinism, due to its misconceived view of God's sovereignty as being opposed to human freedom, portrays the speaking and hearing and believing of "the word" as a charade in which people act according to a script that was written by God before they were ever born. In effect, they benefit or suffer from the consequences of HIS choice rather than their own.

Is it true that God "desires all people to be saved" or not? And if his desire corresponds to his sovereign will, why don't all people "come to the knowledge of the truth"?

 
At 8/01/2007 6:45 PM, Blogger Kurt said...

"You are presenting the traditional Calvinist view that anyone who believes "the word" only does so because of a divine intervention ("the Spirit") that enables faith. This raises the question of why a loving God would intervene with some who hear "the word" and not with others, who as a result of God's lack of intervention are unable to believe "the word" and be saved.

That's a specific question that God choses not to answer in His Word to us. Read Job. Through this book, God teaches Job (and us) that sometimes it will have to be enough for us to know that God is God and we are not.

What if the Father draws all who hear the message, which is, after all, "the sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17), but gives them the freedom to choose whether to believe or not? Might this not be why some heard Jesus' words of "spirit and life" and still did not believe them?

But this logically doesn't make sense. Who, in their right mind, would not believe?

And if they are, "not in their right mind," and they reject the message, isn't that God's fault, and thus they don't have a true free choice, then anyway?

"Why do you believe that God's drawing power must be irresistible (other than because you may presuppose the Calvinistic doctrine of irresistible grace)? Rather than believing that God's drawing power is coercive (which it is if it is irresistible), why not that God's drawing power is persuasive (persuasion always giving the hearer the option to disbelieve)?

God's drawing power is only "irresistible" because we are made in his image, like a son to a father. Why would we not believe him?

"Is it true that God "desires all people to be saved" or not? And if his desire corresponds to his sovereign will, why don't all people "come to the knowledge of the truth"?

Good questions that are addressed above.

 
At 8/11/2007 8:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kert says: "Is it true that God "desires all people to be saved" or not? And if his desire corresponds to his sovereign will, why don't all people "come to the knowledge of the truth"?

The main point here is whether God's desire that all people be saved corresponds to His sovereign will. I don't see anywhere in scripture where that is true. And speaking as one person, I may desire something to happen, but unless I bring my will into the mix it probably won't happen. If it were God's Sorvereign will that all people be saved then by all means He would cause that to happen but in dong so there would be no exercise of free-will on the part of the people He willed to be saved. They would be acting like animated characters in a cartoon having to do whatever the creator of the cartoon wanted the characters to do.

Bruce

 

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