“Sez who?” and “So’s your old man!” It would be difficult for children to argue without these classic rejoinders.
No one wants to lose an argument and few are satisfied with a tie. It is like kissing your sister (with apologies to Roberta, who never liked to kiss me either). We seek to settle our disputes with a final decision, a consummate verdict, an ambiguous judgment—in our favor. We want a final court of appeals where the last word is heard and we can reply to the “sez who?” with “___ says, that’s who,” and the debate is over.
For all men, the supreme Authority is God himself. If “God says,” further debate is as foolish as it is futile. Job learned the hard way that debating with God is more difficult than stopping tanks with stones or Muhammad Ali with Don Knotts. Your old man might be able to beat my old man and your big brother might be able to whip my cousin, but your whole family does not have a prayer against God. One word from the Almighty is enough to slay the combined forces of hell.
For the church, the issue of authority comes down to “sez who?” The battle of the Reformation turned on this question. Luther said popes and councils can err and there is only one normative source for “God says”: the Bible. Rome countered with agreement at one point, that indeed the Bible is “God says,” but added that “God also says” in the decisions of the church.
The battle of the Bible is a two-front war. The western front fights the battle of where the “God says” is found. Is it in the Bible? In the church? In the theological opinions of scholars? In the cataclysmic events of world revolution? All is not quiet on the western front as these issues continue with fierce debate in our own day.
If the western front were conquered and every skirmish squelched, and if all men agreed without reservation that the Bible is the written Word of God, the sole inerrant authority for the church, the war would still not be over. There would yet remain the raging conflict on the eastern front. There the fight is not over where the Word of God may be found, but over what the Word of God says.
As soon as we hear that God says, we ask, “What did he say and what did he mean by what he said?” If God speaks, he must use words to do so. Words express thoughts, commands, descriptions, and the like. The problem is that words and sentences (like all matters of speech) must be interpreted if they are to be understood. It is far more than a matter of translation, for while translation gets at what God says, we are still left with the question of what God means. Without translation the meaning remains hidden, but even with accurate translation we are not guaranteed accurate understanding of the translation.
For example, if all Bible translators agree that the Greek of Mark 14:22 should be translated, “This is my body,” we still face the question of what Jesus meant by those words—a question that divides large segements of Christendom. The conflict over the Lord’s Supper hangs on the question of interpreting the Bible.
The role of the church in interpreting the Bible was crucial to the Protestant Reformation. Rome affirmed an infallible Bible with the church playing the role of the infallible interpreter of the infallible Bible. Luther affirmed the infallibility of the Bible but denied the infallibility of the church. This position is reflected widely in other Protestant creeds and confessions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Though Roman Catholics and Protestants disagreed on this matter, both sides faced a common dilemma. Even if the church were infallible, the infallible interpretation rendered by it would still have to be interpreted and understood by individuals who remain fallible. Rome claims two infallible guides while Protestants have but one. Neither side, however, has found a way to render the individual recipients of the Word of God infallible. The scheme looks like this:
Roman Catholic—Infallible Bible
Infallible Interpreter (Church)
Fallible individual recipient
Fallible Interpreter (Church)
Fallible individual interpreter
In terms of infallibility, Protestantism has eliminated the middle level of infallibility, the church. (And don’t forget the western front where many scholars, Protestant and Catholic alike, have questioned the Bible itself, dispensing with infallibility altogether.)
The reformation spawned a cardinal principle among Protestants, a principle that is as precious as it is dangerous—the right of private interpretation of Scripture. This principle was never intended, however, to mean that the individual shall interpret the Bible in isolation from the wisdom of the church. Privacy is one thing, and isolation is another. This principle of private interpretation declares the right of every Christian to interpret the Bible for himself. The individual conscience of the believer is not bound by the interpretations of the church. Since Luther expounded this principle it has been subjected to dreadful abuse. The Reformers were careful to point out that the right of private interpretation carries with it the responsibility of correct interpretation. No man or church ever has the “right” to distort the meaning of Scripture.
Since the Bible has been freed from monolithic ecclesiastical control, virtually all the floodgates of iniquity that Rome feared would be opened have been opened, and the Christian world has been inundated by heterodox and bizarre distortions of the Bible. For some, the Bible has become a nose of wax, easily twisted, formed, and reshaped to fit the bias of the interpreter. Private interpretation of the individual subject has become a license for subjectivism that destroys any possibility of an authoritative word from God.
With private interpretation we must have a sound hermeneutic to fix the nose upon the face to prevent arbitrary men from transforming the Mona Lisa into Pinocchio. We need rules to follow in interpretation—objective rules that will act as restraints on our tendency to distort the Scripture according to our own bias. The establishing of objective rules of interpretation is what the science of hermeneutics is all about. The word “hermeneutics” comes from the same Greek word by which the god Hermes was named. Hermes was the Greek counterpart to the Roman Mercury of winged-feet fame, whose speed of motion makes him a fitting logo for your local FTD florist. Hermes, like Mercury, was the messenger of the gods. Hermeneutics is the science of “getting the message” accurately.
Certain principal rules were adopted by early Reformers, and these formed the axioms of classical Protestant hermeneutics. These axioms include the following:
1. Sacred Scripture is its own interpreter. This axiom maintains that the Bible is its own best and normative interpreter, ruling out the propriety of setting one part of Scripture against another. This rule is established on the foundation of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, which imply a total inner consistency in the Word of God.
2. Grammatical-historical exegesis is necessary. This axiom requires that the Bible be understood according to the original meaning of the texts, discovered by historical, linguistic, and lexicographical research. It prohibits the interpreter from changing the original message to accommodate present attitudes, viewpoints, or philosophies. It prevents the original message from being distorted by modern revisionism.
3. The Bible is to be interpreted by its literal sense. This axiom declares simply that the Bible should be interpreted according to the literary sense in which it was written. Nouns are to be treated as nouns, verbs as verbs, parables as parables, historical narrative as historical narrative, and so on. This axiom precludes any legitimacy of “reinterpreting” history as parable by doing violence to the literary structure of the text, a favorite pastime of nineteenth-century liberal scholarship. For example, if a modern scholar does not believe miracles are possible or happened, he cannot legitimately change a writer’s claim that they happened into a parable with a moral lesson. The rule seeks to preserve the intention of the author by interpreting his message according to the form in which he wrote it.
Since the classical view of the Bible’s inspiration has come under attack, modern scholars have sought to reinterpret the Bible to “save” it from utter irrelevance. Just as prior paradigms of science with their working axioms have been displaced by newer ones, in the same way many have sought to rid the church of classical models and axioms of hermeneutics. The modern seminary student is bombarded to the point of confusion by the multitude of novel and conflicting views of hermeneutics competing for acceptance. The loss of unity on the basic axioms of biblical interpretation has left the laity bewildered as they listen to conflicting interpretations of what God says. It’s like watching a tennis game with no net or boundary lines.
The chaos of hermeneutics is what prompted the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) to sponsor a major summit meeting on hermeneutics, held in Chicago in November 1982. The summit gathered 80 evangelical scholars and leaders to meet and together hammer out the major points of unity on the rules for interpreting the Bible. Surprisingly, the group was able to agree on 25 key points of affirmation and denial of principles of interpretation, a level of agreement that is extraordinary in these days of chaos (CT, Dec. 1982, pp. 47–48). It was apparent at the summit that the cardinal axioms of classical Protestant hermeneutics are nonnegotiables among leading evangelicals. Though sophisticated usage of contemporary tools of biblical scholarship were adopted and recommended at the summit, they were done within the bounds of an objective base of axioms that recognizes the full infallibility and inerrancy of God’s written Word. The church still has a “God says” that can be heard, understood, and obeyed.
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