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Thoughts on why the Holy Bible is worth reading…

“‘The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World’ – centers in the truth of the basic assumption of Biblical Christianity that the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, is what throughout it claims to be, the record of an unfolding revelation of God.” – E. M. Blacklock[1]

I was given my first Bible when I was 19 years old. At the time I was transitioning from years as a student and competitive swimmer, to a typical life of a young adult leaving a life of strict discipline. I struck up an unlikely friendship with a young Christian man who spent many months trying to convert me to Christianity. He didn’t quite convince me, but sometime in our friendship he gave me a Bible. It became my most treasured possession. Many years later when I became a believer my Bible became essential as I navigated this radical way of living called Christianity.

Currently, a third of the world’s population identify as Christian[2]. Those 2.2 billion people recognise the Bible as the source of the doctrines of their Christian faith. Yet, despite its popularity, no book in history has been so viciously maligned, intensely scrutinised, misused (unfortunately sometimes for atrocities) and misrepresented.

In April 2018, GQ Magazine published an article: ‘21 Classic Books You Don’t Have To Read By The Time You’re Thirty.’ On the list at number 12 was the Bible. Part of it’s blurb read:

The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned… 

Many Christians rushed to online forums to express their outrage. Yet the comments were nothing new, being reflective of the Bible’s standing in our western secular culture. But was the author correct in his descriptions of the Bible?

While it is true many Christians in the West do neglect personal Bible reading, many of us do read it daily. There are also many Christians who risk their lives to own a Bible in countries where it is dangerous to be a Christian.

The Bible is not a single book with one author. It is an extraordinary collection of 66 individual books and letters. 39 books make up the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Scriptures), and the other 27 make up the New Testament. These books were put together in a Biblical Canon – books that meet the standard and criteria of authoritative inspirational writings[3].

The books of the Bible were written by around 40 authors over a timespan of around 1600 years on three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe, and in three different languages – Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. The authors came from different cultures, education and socio-economic backgrounds, and included: Kings, prophets, battle hardened military leaders, sea battered fishermen, a tax collector, a physician, and even a zealous Pharisee!

Miraculously, despite such diversity, there is a clear meta-narrative – a Golden Thread[4] – weaved throughout the books of the Bible, revealing the story of a creative, relational God and the Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration of humanity. The Bible is beautifully unique in both its complexity and unusual unity.

Is the Bible repetitious?

Repetition is often used in the Bible, giving readers varied perspectives and a more thorough view of events. It also emphasises ideas and themes of importance such as the laws of the Old Testament, or God’s repeated patience with His rebellious people.  The Bible also contains many ‘undesigned coincidences’ where small details in one account of a story add further detail or meaning to accounts by other authors. These are more easily found in repeated narratives such as the Gospels[5].

An example of repetition often put forth by Bible detractors is the question of why there needs to be four Gospels. In the Gospels we are given four very different eyewitness accounts of Jesus. Matthew writes a theological biography of Jesus; Mark from a literal, discipleship perspective; Luke from an historian’s perspective; while John writes from the perspective of an evangelist, prophet and pastor seeking to strengthen the faith of Christians[6]. These four independent perspectives add depth and meaning to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Is the Bible self-contradictory?

As the Bible is a collection of ancient near eastern texts they should not be read through the filter of our western perspective. Many so-called contradictions are not contradictions at all, they are differences, misunderstanding of the text or textual variants. Most English Bibles add textual variants in footnotes. An example of a biblical contradiction is Mark 15:25 where Jesus is crucified on the third hour, whereas John 19: 14-15 has Jesus still standing before Pilot in the sixth hour.  Mark is using Jewish time reckoning – dawn to sundown – placing the crucifixion at around 9am. John if using Roman time reckoning – midnight to midday – places Jesus before Pilot at 6am. John appears to use Roman time reckoning throughout his gospel. 

Is the Bible sententious?

The Bible is full of moral sayings, proverbs and parables. There are lessons to be learned and warnings given, but always with the aim of improving the lives of communities and individuals to whom they were given. Biblical narratives, whether historical or proverbial, give examples of the need for moral laws by sharing the real traits of Biblical characters. Raw emotions, actions, reactions and over reactions are laid bare in both Old and New Testaments. Sins, faults and shameful behaviour and their consequences are exposed rather than hidden. .

Is the Bible foolish?

It is doubtful a ‘foolish’ book could continue the serious worldwide influence the Bible has maintained for over a thousand years. Ironically, this often maligned book continues to sell more copies than any other book in history. People have risked their lives to ensure the Bible reaches believers in countries where it is banned. Others have dedicated their lives to making sure it is translated into indigenous languages. 

The Bible’s influence has brought more good to the world than any other book in history. A few examples are:

Martin Luther King Jnr and his call for human equality; Christian missionaries and their self-less, determined education of the poor, indigenous people and women; William Wilberforce and his tireless and often seemingly hopeless work to end the slave trade; Kate Sheppard and her leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in New Zealand, resulting in the first votes for women in the world[7]; The incredible intensity and beauty found in Classical art, literature and music.

All of the above have their roots in a Christian worldview based on the truths found in the Bible. These truths reveal  every human being as having intrinsic worth and purpose and were created by an awesome loving God. Biblical Christianity was a dominant influence in forming our democratic western culture with all the freedoms we enjoy today.

Is the Bible ill-intentioned?

By its continued existence, despite constant opposition, the Bible proves its own worth and standing. It is a book of good intention and has offered direction, hope and purpose for billions of people over thousands of years. 

The Holy Bible is worth reading. It is a rich library of books and letters containing various literary genres from poetry and prose, through to history, philosophy, and theology. This great Book acknowledges and answers the questions of life giving meaning and a salve to what C. S. Lewis describes as that ‘old ache[8].’

I opened this post with a quote from E. M. Blaiklock’s 1975 lecture and I will finish with his closing remarks:

J. G. Lockhart tells of Sir Walter Scotts last days. The great writer was incapacitated by a stroke. Lockhart writes: ‘He desired to be drawn into the library, and placed by the central window that he might look down upon the Tweed. Here he expressed a wish that I should read to him, and, when I asked from what book, he said – “Need you ask? There is but one.” ‘  True. There is still but one.

Endnotes:

[1] E. M. Blaiklock, OBE, The Authority and Relevance of the Bible in the Modern World, The 2nd Olivier Beguin Memorial Lecture. 1975. E. M. Blaiklock was Chair of Classics at Auckland University from 1947 to 1968. He was a prolific writer of Christian Apologetics. 

[2] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

[3] These are the number of books in the Protestant Canon accepted by Protestants from the time of the Reformation, although all 66 books were accepted as authoritative from the first century.  There are several other books included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon’s such as the Old & New Testament Apocrypha. I will discuss these further in my next post. See also: Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, WW, Dr., Blomberg, C. L. Dr., Hubbard, Jr, R. L. Dr. 2004, Ch. 4, The Canon and Translations.

[4] John Dickson, A Doubters Guide to the Bible. 2014.

[5] Due to space I have not added examples of undesigned coincidences in this post but will in a future post as it is an interesting topic. The concept of coincidences that are undesigned was first discussed in William Paley’s Horae Paulinae, 1869, and followed further by John James Blunt in his Undesigned Coincidences, 1869. A contemporary book has been written by Lydia McGrew – Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, 2017.

[6] The Holman Concise Bible Commentary, B & H Publishing, 2010.

[7] https://nzhistory.govt.nz/files/documents/womenandthevoteinNewZealand.pdf

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honor beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.” 

OT Audiences: Beyond the Bible (Clarity of the Bible IV)

Are there any books by the audiences of the Old Testament? Yes. As we have seen earlier on in the series, the Bible is a whole library of books, and many of the authors were each other’s audiences. Also, voices of audiences outside Scripture have also come down to us as well: translators, commentators, and authors of other books.

These voices slightly overlap with the latest Old Testament authors, but with all the authors, they shared the unique, strong Jewish heritage and the ancient pre-Christian environment. So what they say about the meaning of the Old Testament is a huge help to us.

In Greek

Starting in the third century B.C., Jews translated their Scriptures (our Old Testament) into Greek. Their translation is known as the Septuagint.

‘Wait,’ someone might say, ‘I thought this was a list of voices outside the Old Testament.’ True, translations (if they are good) say the same thing as the original. But they say it in entirely different words, chosen (in this case) by entirely different people.

Here’s why this is great. Language naturally has fuzzy bits, but different languages have different fuzzy bits. If I say to you and your friend, ‘How are you?’ I might be asking about you alone or about both of you. The English you is fuzzy in this way. However, Chinese does not have this particular fuzz. Ni means you (one person) and nimen means you (two or more). Is Chinese the more specific language? Only in some ways. It has its own fuzzy bits that are not in English! So if you have the same message in two languages, each one of them clears up things that the other leaves fuzzy.

This is what happens with the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Old Testament. Because the Greek version comes from ancient Jews, who had special insight into the original Hebrew, it is the same message in a different language. Lots of fuzzy verses in the Hebrew Old Testament are clear in the Septuagint, because Greek has different fuzzy bits. Examples are pointed out in the footnotes of many English Bibles. (Often they refer to the Septuagint by the abbreviation LXX.)

In Aramaic

After the Exile (6th century B.C.), Jews more and more wanted translation and commentary in the Aramaic language on their Scriptures. The first were oral. This is probably what the Book of Nehemiah refers to in 8:8: ‘They gave an oral translation of God’s Law and explained it so that the people could understand it.’1 Written editions survive from the first few centuries after Christ, but the oral material is linked with the growth of synagogues long before Christ.2

This Aramaic material includes the Talmud, which comments on how to apply the Books of Moses. In the Talmud, ‘a whole people has deposited its feelings, its beliefs, its soul’,3 and these feelings, beliefs, and soul centre around Scripture.

The other major part of the Aramaic material is the Targums: translations/paraphrases of not only the Books of Moses but almost the whole Old Testament. Both as translations and sort-of commentaries, the Targums are ‘an important witness to the text of the Old Testament, comparable in value with the Septuagint’4 (italics mine). Like in a courtroom, the more witnesses to what was said, the better.

Hebrew grammarian Heinrich Prinz drew on the Old Testament and Targums together to study the teaching of the Trinity. Contrary to the common Muslim claim (since the 7th century A.D.) that the prophets had always been anti-Trinitarian like them, Prinz showed that many pre-Christian Jews (including the writers of Scripture) recognised the Word/Angel/Son of God and Spirit of God, laying the groundwork for the clear teaching of the Trinity.5

Other Books

In the centuries leading up to Christ, Jewish literature produced several books outside the Old Testament set. (There are traditions of publishing them along with the Bible under headings like Apocrypha.) We will look at two examples: Ecclesiasticus, a set of proverbs similar to the Biblical Book of Proverbs, and Tobit, a fanciful tale of the fortunes of Tobit the righteous Jew. Both books show respect for the Old Testament set.

Some in atheist/sceptical circles claim to see little or no real morals in the Old Testament, only selfish Israelite patriotism and priestly elitism. (This criticism perhaps says more about our own age, which is cynical about both patriotism and priesthood.) The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus and the righteousness in Tobit certainly affirm patriotism and accept priesthood, while also putting them together with some of the values that people do like nowadays, like compassion. The Old Testament itself does this, but Ecclesiasticus and Tobit help by further confirming that early audiences took it that way. They do this as independent voices, not just copying the statements of Scripture.

So…

Septuagint, Talmud, Targums, Apocrypha: It’s not just a list of words for a spelling bee; it’s a diverse set of witnesses that show us how the books of the Old Testament came across to early audiences.

References

1F. F. Bruce. (1950). The Books and the Parchments (3rd ed., p. 53). London: Pickering and Inglis.

2Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

3Darmesteter, A. (1897). The Talmud. Jewish Publication Society of America.

4Payne. D. F. (1996). Targums. In I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

5Prinz, H. (1863). The great mystery: How can three be one? London: William Macintosh.

Stand to Reason (logo)

Challenge Response: A Real God Would Have Protected the Original Gospel Manuscripts

Welcome back people of the internet.

On Wednesday, we heard this challenge from our comrades at STR:

Christians claim that God directly inspired the authors of the gospel books, even to the point of dictating each word, so as to make the text inerrant. But if God was so concerned about getting the historical record of Jesus’s ministry correct, why would he have allowed those original, and supposedly inerrant manuscripts to be lost for the generations of Christians to come? Why would he not have protected these documents to ensure there would be no ambiguity as to the ultimate truths he was trying to convey. The loss of the original manuscripts is entirely consistent with a human-inspired product, not one overseen by an unlimited deity.

The interesting thing about this challenge, is that it has assumptions about what God would do in a given situation, when those assumptions may be better explained as what the challenger would do in that situation. Additionally, the objection assumes a theory of inspiration which is held by hardly anyone today. Many objections to the truth of Christian Theism begin in this way, failing even before they are finished.

Let’s take a look at how Alan responds to this question.

How do you think Alan did in responding to the challenge? Are there any other things he could have said?

If you liked this video, have a look at www.str.org, and also STR’s YouTube channel.

Stand to Reason (logo)

Challenge: A Real God Would Have Protected the Original Gospel Manuscripts

From our colleagues at Stand To Reason comes this challenge:

Christians claim that God directly inspired the authors of the gospel books, even to the point of dictating each word, so as to make the text inerrant. But if God was so concerned about getting the historical record of Jesus’s ministry correct, why would he have allowed those original, and supposedly inerrant manuscripts to be lost for the generations of Christians to come? Why would he not have protected these documents to ensure there would be no ambiguity as to the ultimate truths he was trying to convey. The loss of the original manuscripts is entirely consistent with a human-inspired product, not one overseen by an unlimited deity.

Is this really the case? Could God have a reason for not wanting us to have the original manuscripts today?

Answer the challenge in the comments below and check back in on Friday to see Alan’s response.

Does the Bible contain Errors? Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson Discuss

bible

Recently, Steve Chalke has argued that the Evangelical community needs to face up to hard questions about the Bible. In a paper called ‘Restoring Confidence in the Bible’, Chalke suggests we need to rethink how we understand scripture and  move away from approaching it as ‘inerrant’ or ‘infallible’ and instead view it as a progressive ‘conversation’ with God that continues today.

He sat down with Andrew Wilson to discuss this and other issues in a series of debates hosted by Justin Brierley.

Watch the first discussion here.

First Issue of Credo Magazine Now Online

The October issue of Credo is out and contains plenty of good reading.

This issue is focused on the authority of Scripture and includes interviews, articles, and reviews by Thomas Schreiner, Gregg Allison, John Frame, Timothy George, Fred Zaspel, Michael A.G. Haykin, Tim Challies, Matthew Barrett, Tony Merida, Owen Strachan, J. V. Fesko, Robert Saucy, and many others.

Read the magazine online or download it as a pdf.

R.C. Sproul Interviews D.A. Carson on Biblical Exegesis

In this video, two scholars sit down for a short discussion about hermeneutics, problem Bible passages, and exegetical fallacies.

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The Bible and Neuroscience on Sexual Promiscuity

A good post by J.P. Moreland on how new research about the health dangers of sexual promiscuity confirms the truth of the Bible’s teachings.

Creatio ex Nihilo

It is popular today to think that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) cannot be found in scripture, with particular emphasis in the first chapter and verse of Genesis. Paul Copan does not leave this unchallenged, adequately answering this counter-prespective. Contra Prof. Gerhard May, who asserts (1) that creatio ex nihilo is not a biblical concept, (2) that the Genesis narrative speaks of God creating order out of chaos rather than out of nothing, and that (3) the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not theologically necessary, Copan (among other things) looks at Genesis 1, then moves goes on to look at other Biblical references, when soundly interpreted, affirm the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and theological doctrines that connect to this one.

Paul Copan, “Is Creatio Ex Nihilo A Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination Of Gerhard May’s Proposal” Trinity Journal 17.1 (Spring 1996): 87–89

. . . While he [Gerhard May] makes passing reference to certain biblical passages that seem to hint at the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, he does not seriously interact with them. He focuses on patristic study (as his subtitle indicates) rather than on biblical exegesis. This turns out to be a weakness for May because, if properly done, sound biblical exegesis refutes the notion that creation out of nothing is a mere theological invention. . . . I believe that examining the relevant biblical passages more extensively will adequately show that the traditional teaching of creatio ex nihilo has strong biblical grounds. . . . Claus Westermann agrees: Gen 1:1 does not refer to “the beginning of something, but simply The Beginning. Everything began with God.”[52]

Another OT scholar, R. K. Harrison, asserts that while creatio ex nihilo was “too abstract for the [Hebrew] mind to entertain” and is not stated explicitly in Genesis 1, “it is certainly implicit in the narrative.”[53] The reader is meant to understand that “the worlds were not fashioned from any pre-existing material, but out of nothing”; “prior” to God’s creative activity, “there was thus no other kind of phenomenological existence.”[54]

In contrast to ancient cosmogonies, Genesis posits an absolute beginning. Elohim was not limited by chaos when creating (as in the Babylonian cosmogony) but is sovereign over the elements. Genesis 1 stands as an independent assertion, claiming that God created the entire cosmos. In fact, the very structure of Gen 1:1 argues for creation out of nothing. Grammatically and contextually, a very good case can be made for seeing Gen 1:1 as referring to absolute creation.[55] Consequently, Gen 1:1 should not be translated, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland …,” as the NAB does. (This would mean that Ian Barbour’s assertion that Genesis argues for “the creation of order from chaos” rather than from nothing[56] is misguided.)

He concludes;

“…the doctrine of creation out of nothing was not simply created ex nihilo by post-biblical theologians of the second century to counteract gnostic ideas. We have good reason to believe that the doctrine of creation out of nothing is rooted in biblical passages indicating that God is the ontological Originator of all that exists.”

Footnotes

52. C. Westermann, Genesis: A Practical Commentary

(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 7.
53. Harrison, Creation, in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (5 vols.; ed. M. C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975) 1.1023.
54. Ibid.
55. See J. Sailhamer’s discussion in “Genesis” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 2 (ed. F. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990) 21-23n. See also U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis Part 1 (reprint; Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992) 20. Cassuto argues that beginning with v. 2, the focus changes from the cosmos to creations relationship to humanity, stressing the themes of “land” and “blessing,” which prevail throughout the Pentateuch.
56. I. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (The Gifford Lectures 1989-1991, vol. 1; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990) 130.

Video from the Bradley v Flannagan Debate

The video footage of the Bradley & Flannagan Debate entitled “Is God the Source of Morality? Is it rational to ground right and wrong in commands issued by God?” is now available for viewing on Youtube. Held at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, on 2 August, 2010, many people have been eagerly anticipating watching this entertaining and important debate between atheist philosopher, Raymond Bradley and Christian philosopher and blogger, Matt Flannagan. (over 100 people have viewed Part 01/12 before the Part 12/12 is loaded and anyone pointing out it was there.)

Apologies to those to whom the wait has been unbearable.

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 01/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 02/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 03/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 04/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 05/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 06/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 07/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 08/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 09/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 10/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 11/12

Flannagan vs Bradley Debate “Is God the Source of Morality” Part 12/12

This debate was brought to you by the Evangelical Union and the Reason and Science Society with the support of Thinking Matters. Written forms of the opening statements and first replies can be found at MandM.

Genesis, Myth and History

Wright makes some good points here. The Genesis 1-3 debate is stalked by generalizations and false antitheses. There is always a real danger in distorting and domesticating the Bible via the preoccupations of our own modern situation. As much as possible, we should start with Scripture and the priorities and structures within the text itself, instead of those of our own context. We should always seek to faithfully and accurately embed the text in its own literary, historical, and canonical context.

Understanding the genre is crucial. Just as, today, different literary genres have different means of making rhetorical effects and of taking about reality, so do the varied Biblical genres. And this diversity of literary forms means we must sensitive to the fact that the Bible contains more (though not less) than propositional truth. This isn’t to say that all literary genres convey truth plus something else but that some genres shape their purposes and priorities differently. Wright is correct to point out that if we reduce a passage (say, a narrative passage) to a number of propositions or single notes we miss the way the (narrative) genre can speak through themes, character development, plot, etc.

Furthermore, the ancient literary categories do not neatly overlap with ours and that is why we must be careful when we talk about biblical genres (I think this cuts against the the current definition of “myth” invented by modern anthropologists as much as it does against a scientific reading). Whatever category we do use for the opening chapters, a fair amount of nuance is necessary.

Even if we do understand the purpose of Genesis 1-3 as primarily theological/mythical, we haven’t escaped the question of whether it belongs to a matrix of thought that implies or is undergirded by historical events and characters (the “primal pair” that Wright affirms). Just because the message is theological, this does not mean that it is not also historical (or that it can be disentangled from the historical). Take some examples in the New Testament (some borrowed from D. A. Carson), where, although the writer is making a theological point, in each case the argument is grounded in and inseparable from a historical claim:

– In Galatians 3, Paul’s theological argument is made via appeal to the order of events in redemptive history. He argues that the law is relativised by the fact that both the giving of the promises to Abraham and his justification by faith preceded the giving of the law.

– In Romans 4, Paul makes an argument about the relation between faith and circumcision that again depends on the historical sequence of which came first.

– In Hebrews 3:7-4:13, the author argues that entering God’s rest must mean something more than merely entering the Promised Land because of the fact that Psalm 95 (which is still calling for God’s people to enter into God’s rest) is written after they were already in the land.

– Again in Hebrews, the theological point of chapter 7 is that because Psalm 110 promises a further priesthood and is written after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is therefore obsolete.

-Paul’s argument about the reality of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:12-19.

Wright is correct to say that we must read Genesis for all its worth. And to do this, sooner or later we are going to need to ask what the ancient readers (and other Biblical writers) themselves thought about the correspondence between the Biblical account of creation and what actually happened. It won’t fly to say that the ancient Biblical writers weren’t concerned with history or couldn’t distinguish between fable and reality (observe how much Judges 9 stands out from the rest of that passage). The early chapters of Genesis are certainly not a scientific treatise, but even if we understand that the point of these chapters is explain that all of creation is God’s tabernacle and that creation itself is finite and not divine, are we completely off the hook? We need to ask if the writer is telling us true things about God, and about real people and events that took place in history.

Don Carson on Learning How to Interpret the Bible

Modern Reformation have made available a good article by Don Carson, research professor of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, on the discipline of interpreting the Bible:

“Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation; biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of interpreting the Bible. At the time of the Reformation, debates over interpretation played an enormously important role. These were debates over interpretation, not just over interpretations. In other words, the Reformers disagreed with their opponents not only over what this or that passage meant, but over the nature of interpretation, the locus of authority in interpretation, the role of the church and of the Spirit in interpretation, and much more.

During the last half-century, so many developments have taken place in the realm of hermeneutics that it would take a very long article even to sketch them in lightly. Sad to say, nowadays many scholars are more interested in the challenges of the discipline of hermeneutics itself, than in the Bible that hermeneutics should help us handle more responsibly. Ironically, there are still some people who think that there is something slightly sleazy about interpretation. Without being crass enough to say so, they secretly harbor the opinion that what others offer are interpretations, but what they offer is just what the Bible says.

Carl F. H. Henry is fond of saying that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. We might adapt his analysis to our topic: There are two kinds of practitioners of hermeneutics: those who admit it and those who don’t.

The fact of the matter is that every time we find something in the Bible (whether it is there or not!), we have interpreted the Bible. There are good interpretations and there are bad interpretations, but there is no escape from interpretation.”

Carson offers some guidelines for resolving difficult interpretive issues:

(1) As conscientiously as possible, seek the balance of Scripture, and avoid succumbing to historical and theological disjunctions.

(2) Recognize that the antithetical nature of certain parts of the Bible, not least some of Jesus’ preaching, is a rhetorical device, not an absolute. The context must decide where this is the case.

(3) Be cautious about absolutizing what is said or commanded only once.

(4) Carefully examine the biblical rationale for any saying or command.

(5) Carefully observe that the formal universality of proverbs and of proverbial sayings is only rarely an absolute universality. If proverbs are treated as statutes or case law, major interpretive and pastoral errors will inevitably ensue.

(6) The application of some themes and subjects must be handled with special care, not only because of their intrinsic complexity, but also because of essential shifts in social structures between Biblical times and our own day.

Read the whole thing here. You will need to become a subscriber to read back issues of the magazine, and this article by Carson will no longer be viewable after the close of the month. For further work by Carson on Biblical exegesis, check out his excellent Exegetical Fallacies. It is a must-have for serious students of the Bible.

(HT: Jonny King)