Friday, August 06, 2010

Engaging the topic of "Desert-Island Exegesis" by Phil Johnson

My Introductory Thoughts to This Topic
Let me say up front that people need to read their bibles above everything else that they read. This humble and biblical attitude is exemplified in Pastor D. L Moody statement:
"Either this book [the Bible] will keep me from sin or sin will keep me from this book [the bible]." 
The proper prioritization of the importance of Scripture in our lives is also exemplified in a conversation that D. L Moody had with a business man on a train, who asked him how he knew so much about the bible.  He stated that:
"If you read your magizines more than you read the Bible you will know more about your magizines then the Bible. " 
These quotes serve to show the correct seriousness we must take in prioritizing Bible reading, Bible hearing, Bible Study, Bible memory, Bible meditation over other activities and or books we could read contextual and contemporary way.  Christians in America today don't do enough of any of these disciplines, but especially don't memorize the Bible which to me indicates that we don't love God and his revelation enough.  We memorize what is important to us.  We have to love God and His Word more.  The Bible says that, shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lordyour God with all your heart and with all your soul.  Deuteronomy 13:3
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me. John 14:24
It is God and His Word that we can know will last forever.

The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.  (Psalm 119:160 ESV)
 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:8
I mention these verses first because I want to place Scripture in the preeminent place of authority on the stage of truth.   I also do this to preclude the objections of some who I have come across recently that  say that we don't need to read other things, or that we can interpret the Bible without reading dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, theology, or other books - The Holy Spirit is all we need and He will guide us into "all truth" without any other authoritative sources (Solo Scriptura not Sola Scriptura (there is a difference)). While people can understand much of the Bible without consulting outside sources (there is a immediate transference of general concepts and ideas from culture to culture because we are all made in the image of God and we are all sinners), to say that we shouldn't be or don't need to be referring to other sources of authority (with regard to reading, experiencing, reasoning, tradition, etc) is still a naive position that is scared of other sources of authority (which are not inspired or inerrant as Scripture is).  If we did not need any outside sources of authority, then we must conclude that Christians wouldn't (or shouldn't) listen to the preaching and teaching of Holy Spirit gifted men that God has called, empowered and gifted for that purpose in the body of Christ. The attitude (sometimes conveyed by more fundamentalist Christian brethren) comes from the belief in what I call "Naked Scripture" (Solo Scriptura).  While saving faith is simple enough for a child to understand (though children still have consulted outside sources of authority to learn language, and concepts), there are things that even the Apostle Paul said are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16)
Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures. (2 Peter 3:16) 
The problem with much of this is that the person who wants a naked Bible comes to the bible with his presuppositions, background, culture, life experience, and preunderstandings which he cannot lift himself out of.   One way you try to think differently is reading widely, and even reading different points of view.  This does not mean that you take the other sources of authority as more important or better than reading the Bible, but you humbly look for interpretative options and perspectives that your worldview (presuppositions/preunderstandings, culture, experiences) prevent you from observing.  Your observation is enhanced by doing this and your interpretative conclusions can better engage and preclude objections.  The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, was the formal principles of the Reformers.  Solo Scriptura is an incorrect understanding of authority and places the Scriptures as the only source of authority on the stage of truth.  Sola Scriptura places the Scriptures at the preeminent place (or in the first place position) on the stage of truth but doesn't deny that there are other necessary sources of authority (that are subservient to the Scriptures), and that it is still important to engage them as we study the Scripture.

I think that the first rule of bible study is observation of the Biblical text. But we must remember that the words of scripture mean nothing but what the Authors (God and the Human Author) meant. There are gaps (Linguistical, Geographical, Historical, Cultural) in our understanding that must be veted and examined before we can make any interpretations. We must always remember that "facts don't speak for themselves", they must be interpreted. That is why the Interpretation is such serious business for those who love the Lord and treasure His Word.  We must gain multi-perspectival views in order for our biases and presuppositions to be examined (to see if they are true to scripture) and not also become a preeminent source of authority that bypasses scripture on the stage of truth.  As we grow in Christ we will continue to grow in how we handle the Word of God.  The bible shows a progression of growth in the lives of believers in following instance when the apostle John writes in his epistle on the issue of loving God and God's people as opposed to the world:
[12] I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake.  [13] I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.  I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.  I write to you, children, because you know the Father.  [14] I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.  I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.  (1 John 2:12-14 ESV).  
The article below resinated with me and illustrates my position on the use of other authorities in our study all the while placing scirpture at the preeminent place on the stage of true.  The Scripture is the final court of arbitration for truth, morals, beauty, and reality.

In what ways have you struggled in accurately using other authorities in your bible study?  Can you give me an example of how you have placed the Bible at first place when it comes to authority?

The following post from yesteryear came to mind recently when someone approached me wanting to quibble about a fairly basic point of Christology. I had been teaching on the humanity of Christ and had stressed the importance of being precise in how we frame our understanding of Christ's two natures.

My interlocutor objected, saying he doesn't think doctrine is an exacting science. He told me, "I always ask, 'If an unbeliever stranded on a desert island with nothing but a Bible read this text, what would he get from it?' I think that's the best test of one's interpretation."

I replied that an unbeliever stranded on an island with nothing but a Bible is no standard by which to measure the accuracy of one's hermeneutics. In the first place, even if he had a full library and research team, an unbeliever is incapable of receiving the things of the Spirit of God: "They are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).

In the second place, the desert island exegete—even if he became a Christian—would simply not be able to decipher several common expressions of Scripture on his own. There are plenty of times when even the most devoted believer absolutely needs to rely on study aids and the scholarship and insight of godly men who have gone before.

There's simply no real virtue in the sort of desert island approach that says we should never look at commentaries or study helps in our quest to understand and interpret Scripture. We can't always get the full meaning of a verse from a simple face-value interpretation.

So here's a post where we dealt with that same issue a few years ago:

Sola Scriptura and the role of teachers in our spiritual growth

Do commentaries and study aids violate the principle of 1 John 2:27?
(First posted 19 January 2007.)
A less-than-admiring reader writes:

Your identity as a "Baptist"; your endless quotations from Charles Spurgeon; your faithful devotion to John MacArthur; and especially your willingness to call yourself a "Calvinist" are all huge red flags that tell me something is seriously wrong with your theology. Why do you teach a system of doctrine that is named after a mere man? Why are you following human teachers instead of going to the Bible alone? After all, 1 John 2:27 says, "The anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you."

We ought to go to Scripture alone to establish our doctrine! The truth is in God's Holy word, not in any theological system or theology textbook developed by mere men.

Isn't that principle what the Reformation was originally about?Sola Scriptura?Didn't even Calvin himself go to Scripture for the truth instead of reading other men? I believe that if Calvin himself wrote for this blog, he would point people to the truth in God's Holy word, not to a theology developed by some other man.
My reply:

ou have seriously misunderstood sola Sriptura if you really imagine that it rules out human teachers or eliminates systematic theology. The Reformers (including Calvin) often cited the works of Augustine, Tertullian, Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, and others—ranging from the early church fathers through Aquinas. They didn't follow any of them slavishly, of course, but they certainly took them seriously. Not one of the major Reformers would have tolerated the claim that because the Church Fathers were mere men they were therefore irrelevant or incapable of shedding any helpful light on tough theological questions.

Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is the final court of appeal in all matters of faith and practice. It is an affirmation that "the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture" and that "nothing at any time is to be added [to the Bible], whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." It recognizes that there is ultimately no higher spiritual authority than God's Word, so "the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture . . . it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly."

But none of that means we're obliged to discard the wisdom of godly men from ages past and require each man to try to discern truth from scratch by reading nothing but Scripture by himself.

As for Calvin, he certainly did "point people to the truth in God's Holy Word"—but one thing he did not do was steer people away from the important theologians of the past. In fact, Calvin's works are filled with references to the Church Fathers—Augustine in particular. Calvin knew it was important to demonstrate that he was proposing nothing wholly novel and that his theology was in the doctrinal lineage of the greatest theologians of the church. He regarded himself as Augustinian, in precisely the same way many today think of themselves as "Calvinists."

If Calvin wrote for this blog and someone responded to one of his posts by refusing to read what Augustine wrote, Calvin would probably write that person off as arrogant and unteachable.

Incidentally, 1 John 2:20,27 is the apostle John's response to an early outbreak of gnostic-flavored spiritual elitism. He was refuting some false teachers (he called them "antichrists") who insisted that real truth is a deep secret, different from the apostolic message, into which people must be initiated by some anointed swami. The Holy Spirit indwells and anoints each believer, and He is the One who truly enlightens and enables us to understand truth. But He also gifts certain people with a particular ability to teach others (Romans 12:6-7; Ephesians 4:11). So while John was condemning the notion of enlightened masters in the style of Freemasonry and gnosticism, he was not making a blanket condemnation of teachers. He himself was a teacher.


A follow-up message asks me if I am suggesting it's wrong for someone to abandon all books and human teachers and rely only on what he can glean from the Bible for himself. Answer: yes, I think that's wrong because it's arrogant and reflects a sinful kind of unteachability. This is my whole point: sola Scriptura doesn't rule out the valid role of teaching in the church.

Furthermore, it is simply not the case that any common, unskilled, unschooled individual, sitting down with his Bible and no other tools, can expect to come to a full and mature understanding of Scripture without any help from godly teachers who understand some things better than he will ever get it on his own. Here's Bernard Ramm's famous response to the arrogance reflected in such a perversion of sola Scriptura:

It is often asserted by devout people that they can know the Bible completely without helps. They preface their interpretations with a remark like this: "Dear friends, I have read no man's book. I have consulted no man-made commentaries. I have gone right to the Bible to see what it had to say for itself." This sounds very spiritual, and usually is seconded with amens from the audience.
But is this the pathway of wisdom? Does any man have either the right or the learning to by-pass all the godly learning of the church? We think not.
First, although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual it is a veiled egotism. It is a subtle affirmation that a man can adequately know the Bible apart from the untiring, godly, consecrated scholarship of men like [Athanasius,] Calvin, Bengel, Alford, Lange, Ellicott, or Moule. . . .
Secondly, such a claim is the old confusion of the inspiration of the Spirit with the illumination of the Spirit. The function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture. Suppose we select a list of words from Isaiah and ask a man who claims he can by-pass the godly learning of Christian scholarship if he can out of his own soul or prayer give their meaning or significance: Tyre, Zidon, Chittim, Sihor, Moab, Mahershalalhashbas, Calno, Carchemish, Hamath, Aiath, Migron, Michmash, Geba, Anathoth, Laish, Nob, and Gallim. He will find the only light he can get on these words is from a commentary or a Bible dictionary.
[from Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 17-18 (emphasis in original).]

So it is no test of the soundness of an interpretation to ask what a novice with access to nothing but Scripture itself would make of a particular verse. It would be safer to assume that the desert island guy's interpretation will probably fall short of the mark.

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