Jesus the Word of God

 

In the previous article I made the point that one’s actions may not be judged apart from him.  We cannot know what actions mean apart from a personal context any more than we can know what words mean apart from their use in a sentence.  Just so, apart from who God is, we cannot know what God means when he speaks.  God’s most explicit word to Man is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.  As such, Christ is our beginning and ending if we are to understand what God means.  “It is Jesus himself who comes between the disciples and the law, not the law which comes between Jesus and the disciples.  They find their way to the law through the cross of Christ.”1

The Lord of the Sabbath
“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  When Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’  He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests.  Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?  I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.  But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.  For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ ” (Matt. 11:28-12:8)

This is one of many places where the place that Torah had in the life of the Jews is replaced with the person of Jesus Christ.  The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish tradition likely extending back before the time of Christ, says, “R[abbi] Nehunya b[en] Ha-Kanah said: He that takes upon himself the yoke of [Torah], from him shall be taken away the yoke of the kingdom [i.e. the troubles suffered at the hands of those in power] and the yoke of worldly care; but he that throws off the yoke of [Torah], upon him shall be laid the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care.”2 Instead of inviting people to the yoke of Torah Jesus invites them to take up his yoke.  I do not think it is necessary to say that Jesus stands above the Torah.  What would that mean?  How does one stand above his own word?  We must not see him as above Torah but we must see Torah in relation to him. The Torah had been ripped away from God and placed into the uncareful hands of Man.  By inviting the people to take his yoke upon them he forces them to see that Torah does not exist apart from the God who gave it.  If we do not see Torah as the word of God then we do not see it at all.  Torah is only the word of God insofar as it is the Word of God.  If we interpret it to express anything other than the will of Jesus then we have not understood it.  Like any action, any speech, it is only intelligible when understood in relation to the person.  God in Jesus defines what is meant by Torah.  If Torah is rent from Jesus it means something that he never meant.  It becomes a burden instead of a delight (cf. Isa. 58:13).

As Jesus traveled his disciples became hungry and began to eat.  The Pharisees then take what Torah had said and separate it from what God meant.  They thereby accuse his disciples of doing what is unlawful.  They took the sabbath to mean something which would be a burden to Man, when in fact the sabbath is supposed to be a delight.  In Mark’s parallel account he reminds them that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  The sabbath is not the Lord of Man but his servant.  Any other way of seeing sabbath is to misunderstand what God means by sabbath.  So Jesus points to another scripture which they no doubt knew, though they did not know what it meant, as Jesus again makes clear.  “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Mat. 12:7).  They knew what scripture said, but they did not know what it meant.  And they did not know what it meant because they had separated the word from the speaker.  Had they really known God they would have known that whatever God meant by “Remember the sabbath and keep it holy” he did not mean “You must starve.”  And so Jesus reminds them that Torah does not exist on its own.  It is an expression of the will of a person.  There is no Torah without its Lord and “the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath” (12:8).  We may not separate one from the other.

Be Perfect as Your Heavenly Father is Perfect
Just as Moses went up the mountain to receive the word of the Lord so Jesus ascends a mountain to deliver the word of God.  After blessing all of those who had joined themselves to him he affirms his union with Torah.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 5:17-19).  While he calls his disciples to obedience, he does not leave open the option of obeying the Law apart from him.  We saw above what sort of righteousness the Pharisees produced when they wrested the law of sabbath from the hands of Jesus.  And so he calls us all to a righteousness which “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).  The righteousness which exceeds is precisely the righteousness of Christ.  It is the Law of Christ, for there is no Law apart from him.

Six times Jesus points to the Law and six times he joins it to himself.  “You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …”  We may not separate Jesus’ word–for that is what Torah is–from Jesus.  When we separate the word from the Word we get an inferior righteousness and “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (5:19).  Jesus insists that the word is the word of God.  It is therefore an expression of himself.  We may not read the word of God without remembering the God who spoke it, the God who “makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (5:44).  And so we realize that God’s word is no word if it is severed from himself.  It is what it is only insofar as it seen as an expression of Christ who is himself an expression of the will of God.  So the word of God and the Word of God call us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

Listen to Him
The disciples would need to learn this lesson again and again.  The words of Moses and Elijah are no words at all unless they are seen as the very words of Christ.  “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.  Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”  When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.  But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.’  And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.’ ” (17:1-8).  It is not that Moses and Elijah and Jesus present different voices.  They all speak the word of God, but only Jesus is the Word of God.  This lesson they had to learn.  They had to learn that to read Moses was to read the word’s of the Beloved Son.  They had to learn that to hear Elijah was to hear Jesus.  Whenever they listen to Moses and Elijah they are to listen to Jesus.  “Listen to him” said the voice from the cloud.  And the disciples “saw no one except Jesus.”  There is no other to see.  All words are to be seen as the Word.  There is no one else.

Jesus the Word of God
If we want to know the word of God we are not permitted to listen to any other voice than Jesus.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).  Whatever God said, Jesus is always what he meant.  “He is the self-expression of the Father–what the Father has to say.  And there never was a time when He was not saying it.”3

Walk to Emmaus
After the incarnation we may not read the Old Testament in any way other than Christologically.  Jesus made this clear to two disciples on a walk they shared to Emmaus.  After they expressed their disappointment at Jesus’ crucifixion he said to them, “‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).  This is not to say that Jesus picked out a bit of scripture from Moses here and a bit from the prophets there and said, “Yes, these are prophecies of me.”  Rather, he shows that it is all about him, from beginning to end.  How could it be otherwise?  He is the Word of God.  There is no word without Jesus in it.  We may not separate the scriptures from Jesus else we fall under his condemnation.  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (John 5:39a).  No!  There is no life at all in the scripture unless we see that they are connected to him who has life in himself (cf. 5:26).  “And it is they that testify of me”, he says.  “Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (5:39b-40).  It is in Jesus that we find life.  And so, scripture apart from Jesus is no life at all.  If we separate the word of God from the Word of God we make it a dead letter.  It can only kill.  But if in the word of God we see Jesus and listen to him we find that we have life, and that which is life indeed.

All Things In Him, Through Him, and For Him
The incarnation did not only transform the way we see and hear the Old Testament.  It must by necessity transform the way that we see and hear the world.  Just as we do not know what the Old Testament means apart from Jesus so we do not know what the world means apart from him.  Because as the incarnate Word he is the mediator between God and Man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5), he is also the mediator between Man and the world.  “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together … For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:15-20).  We no longer have immediate access to the world.  To have such immediate access is to abuse it, to see it askew.  To attempt to grasp the world apart from Christ is violence and deception.  The world must be shaped by him and reinterpreted through him.  There is no world apart from him.

“We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life.  But this barrier is no surly contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. By virtue of his incarnation he has come between man and his natural life.  There can be no turning back, for Christ bars the way.  By calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of the world.  He wants to be the center, through him alone all things shall come to pass.  He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things.  He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality.  Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1.3; 1 Cor. 8.6; Heb. 1.2), he is the sole Mediator in the world.  Since his coming man has no immediate relationship of his own any more to anything, neither to God nor to the world; Christ wants to be the mediator … There can only be a complete breach with the immediacies of life: the call of Christ brings us as individuals face to face with the Mediator … For the Christian the only God-given realities are those he receives from Christ.  What is not given us through the incarnate Son is not given us by God.”4

We may no longer see the poor, we must see Christ. We may no longer see our enemies, we can only see Jesus. We cannot see our rights but only God’s gifts. We do not see our families, instead we see the Church, which is Christ’s body. We may not see the world unless in it we see the glory of Christ and his handiwork, otherwise we are blind and there is no health in us. We must all be able to say, “I believe in [Christ] as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see [him], but because by [him] I see everything else.”5

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 123.
2. Herbert Danby, Trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.5, p.450. Another occasion where Jesus places himself in the place of the Torah is Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them” vis a vis Mishnah, Aboth, 3.6, “R. Halafta b. Dosa of Kefar Hanania said: If ten men sit togehter and occupy themselves in [Torah], the Divine Presence [The Shekinah] rests among them, for it is written God standeth in the congregation of God … And whence [do you learn this] even of two [people]? Because it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard.”
3. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 173-174.
4. Bonhoeffer, 95-97.
5. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, “Is Theology Poetry?”, (New York: Harper Colloins, 2001), 140.

Learning to Say “God”: Reflections on Ten Years of Preaching

 

 

At the end of this year I will have been preaching for 10 years. One might wonder why I did not wait until I had fulfilled my years to reflect on them. Ideally that’s what I would do, but as I have come to learn, life is never ideal. I am presently experiencing a shift in how I preach the Bible and I thought it expedient to describe the process while it is happening rather than to try and do it retrospectively after the angst and uncertainty has worn off.

Impossible Prayers
I have not forgotten that this is an article about preaching, but good preaching begins with good prayers, though in my case it began with bad ones. My early Christian life was characterized by almost no prayer at all and when I did pray I believed they were impossible. I believed “God” was unchangeable and that made prayer impossible. I could ask, but he could not change, so it’s easy to see why I rarely bothered asking. Whatever I meant by “God” it was not someone who changed.
It was certainly not someone who changed for me.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
I do not pretend to know what Pascal meant when he wrote the memorial he carried in the lining of his coat, nor do I remember how it came to me, but I do know what it meant to me when I heard it. “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned.” I realized that my idea of God had been shaped by the philosophers and not by scripture. Somewhere along the way I had heard, and accepted without question, that God was immutable, unchangeable, that whatever he purposed was done and there was no turning to the right or the left. So of course, when I had learned to say “God” from the philosophers, and not from the word of God, I cannot be expected to pray the prayers which only scripture makes intelligible. The “God” of my speech made prayer impossible. But when I went to scripture I saw Abraham pray to God and barter for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah. I saw Moses pray for the lives of the rebellious Israelites. I read the burning passion of the psalms. All of these prayed as if they expected God to change … and he did.

I cannot explain how God changes. When I reason about him, or when I accept the reason of the philosophers, I find that I invent a God that cannot answer prayer. But when I read scripture I find a God who moves heaven and earth to answer the prayers of his children. The crucified Christ is the resurrected Christ who shakes heaven and earth so that only that which is eternal remains, and all that in answer to the petition of little children praying, “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” When I read scripture I find a God that I could not have guessed.

Inventing “God”
After graduating preaching school I was enamored with apologetics. It was my great dream to be an apologist and debater. In the apologetics I had learned, you cannot assume God. You cannot assume the thing to be proved. So, you begin with the “facts”, the things that are given. You begin with creation or with Man and ascend step by step until you have arrived at God. This sort of polemic “move” characterized by apologetics as well as my preaching. I would begin with the “neutral facts” and arrive at God.

Recently I have recognized a problem in this order. If God is God then there is no such thing as neutral facts.  The “fact” is that all that exists is created, Man is a creature, and to call Man a creature–which is to tell the truth about him–is not neutral.  If we begin with Man then Man becomes determinative, not God. We allow Man to define God instead of allowing God to define Man. Further, if we begin with Man, without reference to God, then we do not begin with Man at all but only a false idea of Man. There is no “Man” without God. To begin with a “neutral Man”, a Man without reference to God, is to begin with Man misunderstood. And when your premises are false your conclusions cannot help but be false also. To begin with Man or creation, apart from God, is to begin with false premises.

The God I Could Not Have Guessed
Whatever “God” we invent as a result of such faulty premises–such as “Man” apart from God–cannot be the God who is Trinity, the God revealed in the crucified Christ. Indeed, if the God we invent as a result of such natural theology is the true God then he is exactly the God we have guessed. Once again, as I did with my prayers, I had invented a “God” according to the philosophers, one who made the God of the Bible unintelligible. The witness of scripture is that the God revealed in Christ is the God we could never have guessed. The cadence of the Gospel According to Mark is measured by the chorus “They were all amazed.” While the “God” we invent is amazing, the amazement is not at “God” but at the ingenuity of Man. Who could be amazed at a “God” who fits inside the heads of men? One begins to wonder whether the men are greater than the “God.” This cannot be the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Learning to Say “God”
So I find that my preaching has all been a discipline in learning to say “God.”1 The god of the philosophers produced impossible prayers. The god of my natural theology produced a god at which I could not stand in the awe appropriate to Jesus, and it produced a Man which was more awful. Bit by bit I am learning to say “God.” Little by little I am learning that to say “God” at all, if I am to tell the truth, is to mean the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To say “God” is to name a God I could never have guessed.  He defines reality.  I must begin with him, and so must my preaching.  I have learned that if I am to tell the truth, and preaching must be true, I cannot know in order to believe. I can only believe in order to know. Credo ut intelligam.2


1. I have intentionally borrowed the phrase “learning to say ‘God'” from Stanley Hauerwas who increasingly influences the way that I think about God and the task of preaching. The phrase comes from his book, Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).
2. “I believe in order to understand.” This comes from St. Anselm’s “Proslogium.” St. Anselm, Basic Writings, (La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing, 1992), 53.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 3)

 

The purpose of this series has been to say something about hermeneutics.  The concern is with allowing scriptures to say what they mean without inserting something into the text which the authors themselves did not intend, which is a prolix way of saying that I’m concerned with keeping scriptures within their context.1 More precisely, my concern has been with whether or not it is possible for a text to have a meaning which the human author did not intend, that is, a meaning outside of its authorial context. If it can, then that meaning is, by definition, context-less. If context-less meanings exist it would spell trouble for meaningful discourse/disagreement, as well as efforts towards unity and unanimity which depend upon intellectual agreement.

In part one I took the position that the human authors did not unknowingly describe modern science. Rather, they sometimes couched theological statements about God (which was their illocution)2 within the Old World Science of their day. This means that there is no context-less science embedded in the OT.  In part two I took the position that many of the NT’s quotations of the OT do not indicate sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the people.3 The OT authors did not intend to prophecy about Christ. It was the NT authors who, in light of the revelation of the Christ event, “read backwards” and were able to notice certain figural patterns in the narrative of history in general and Israel’s history in particular. They then interpreted, retrospectively, the events of history (which were not prophecy per se) as foreshadowing the Christ who would come (cf. John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44). If that is true, and I believe that it is, “it would be a mistake to read the Law and the Prophets as though their authors were deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. Rather, in light of the unfolding story of Jesus we’re enabled to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story.”4 “Foreshadowing”, then, not “prophecy” is perhaps a better term to describe the sensus plenior as used in the NT.  In this way it is the Christ event which provides the context for the reinterpretation of the OT.  These sensus plenior are, therefore, not examples of context-less interpretations as some make them out to be.  On both accounts then, in regard to science in the Bible as well as the NT use of the OT, we find that neither supports the existence of context-less interpretations.

The significance of the figural interpretation of the OT by the NT is this: it makes such interpretations accessible to our reason, as it was to the writers of the NT. This is different from sensus plenior as often conceived amongst the “folk.” The folk conception of the NT use of the OT is that there were hidden meanings in the text only known to those which have a special illumination of the Holy Spirit. And this is, I think, the crux of the matter. It is at least the matter I intend to address in this final article. Either the (fuller)meaning of the text is accessible to our reason in light of the larger Story as interpreted through the Christ event, or we have no grounds to affirm supposed fuller meanings.

I mentioned in Part One about Old World Science that the term sensus plenior is not applied to the supposed pre-scientific statements (as far as I know).  I have labeled it a sort of fuller meaning, however, because they share the same character.  They both claim that there is embedded information which is not evident to the original reader and perhaps even the author.  In a similar way the sort of thing I will describe below is not sensus plenior as the term is commonly used.  Still, it shares the character of fuller meaning because it claims more meaning for certain passages than is apparent from the context or authorial intent.  The problems with such context-less interpretations will be discussed below.  But first, how does this interpretative method express itself in my tradition?

A Dangerous Assumption
Perhaps the most perilous assumption of my tradition5 is the assumption that the Bible must answer every question we raise about religious life.6 A scripture sometimes called in as evidence in this regard is 2 Peter 1:3.  “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”  This is usually considered prima facie evidence that the Bible answers all of our questions about Christian living.  But does it?  Saying that God has told us all that we need to know is different than saying that we need to know everything, and that is precisely how this verse is often treated.  Many with whom I come into contact, some of them ministers, seem to think that if they have a question about worship or ethics then the Bible must address it.  This often results in attributing more meaning to a particular text than was intended by the author.

When considering this it is important to remember that we are never allowed, with the Bible or any other book, to insist that it answer our questions.  We must allow the book to ask us its own questions.  Numerous writers recognize the importance of asking–not any question–but the right ones when reading a text.  Mortimer Adler speaks of reading in general and says, “Ask questions while you read–questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.  Any questions?  No.  The art of reading on any level above the elementary consists in the habit of asking the right questions in the right order” (emphasis original).7 Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart in specific regard to the Bible comment, “The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text” (emphasis original).8  And finally, Krister Stendahl puts it beautifully when he writes, “Even the divinely right answer is not heard aright if it is applied to the wrong question.”9 There is a sense in which the Bible has a limited number of answers and we cannot take its finite number of answers and apply them to an infinite number of questions. That would be something akin to asking a Magic 8 Ball any question, knowing that it only has 20 answers on the icosahedral die. We may ask the Bible whether this practice or that one is authorized and we get either a yes, no, or a non-committal answer, just like the 8 Ball. We get answers like, “Yes, definitely”, “Most likely,” or “Very doubtful.” Whereas the Magic 8-Ball’s answers may be useful for party games, they are not intended to be a guide for deciding who to marry, which house to buy, or which religion to follow.  It was not designed to answer those questions.  In the same way we must stop to ask which questions the Bible is intended to answer.  If we make it answer questions it was not intended to answer we find the right answers to all the wrong questions.  We’ll take as examples three questions that have been asked within my tradition and upon examining the passages ask whether or not those passages are intended to answer the questions that we put to them.

 

How Many Cups Should We Use on the Lord’s Table?
If we were certain that the Bible was intended to answer this question then finding the answer would be fairly simple.  We need only to scour the Bible and collect all scriptures which reference the Lord’s Supper and decide whether or not one cup was used or many.  Many have assumed that the Bible is intended to answer this question and have done precisely that.  They then conclude that we are only authorized to use one cup for the Lord’s Supper.10 But this comes to the text with a question in mind, like one does with an 8-Ball, and does not stop to ask whether the text is intended to answer that question. Certainly the text is trying to tell us something, but what? What to eat? What to drink? What time to eat? Where to eat? How many cups to use? How many plates? In what direction we should pass the Supper? Is Jesus suggesting a healthy diet? Is he concerned with the frequency of the Supper? We could ask any of these questions, but we would be wrong to do so unless these are the questions the Bible intends to answer.

Without entering the complex discussions about whether the Supper which Jesus shared with his apostles was a Passover meal11 it does seem clear the Passover, at the very least, supplied the imaginative background for the Supper. The Bible writers certainly draw upon Passover language and readily apply it to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Cor. 5:7, 8). Jesus, then, takes the Passover and reinterprets it around himself. Insofar as the Passover commemorated the Exodus, by drawing on the images of the Exodus Jesus identifies himself as the one who is to bring about the true Exodus, the full and final Exodus which will bring an end to exile, and death, which exile prefigures. When he institutes the Supper he says, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). That’s a radical statement. Up to this point the Passover has been in remembrance of God’s redeeming the Israelites from Egypt. Without losing that significance Jesus superimposes himself upon the memorial. It is no longer a memorial of the Egypt exodus only, it is also a memorial of the exodus which Christ himself would accomplish. The bread, Jesus says, is his body and the wine his blood.

We stop now to ask, is there anything in the text to suggest that the number of cups is at all significant? Is the single cup given some symbolic significance? Would the use of multiple cups change the imagery of the Exodus in any way? Would it affect the meaning of Jesus’ exodus? Would it in any way negate or alter the significance of Jesus’ body and blood? We must conclude that the number of containers is not a concern of any of the gospel texts. But what of others?

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul reflects upon the significance of the Jesus Meal. The Corinthians, apparently, were dividing themselves by class. “I hear that there are divisions among you … one goes hungry and another becomes drunk … do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:19-22). Paul points to the theological significance of the Supper in order to combat their division and encourage unity. Now certainly if ever there was a place for the symbolism of a single cup this would be it. In a divided church the necessity of drinking from a single cup would be an effective, not to mention beautiful, image to rally around. But such a point is conspicuously absent. In fact, it is the bread, not the “cup” which receives the interpretive attention.12 Paul writes, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:29, emp. mine). Whereas Paul could have drawn attention to the cup (he mentions both eating and drinking) he gives the symbol of unity to the bread. This no doubt draws upon his previous discussion of idolatry in which he also makes use of the Lord’s Supper tradition as an antidote to the erroneous practices of the Corinthian church. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:16, 17).  Again, even when the cup is mentioned within the immediate context, the symbolism of unity is focused upon the bread, not the enumeration of cups.

This brief inspection is not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the Eucharist. Space does not allow nor is it within the purview of this article. The point is simply to show that the concern of some is not at all the concern of Jesus, the apostles, or the early church. No text which depicts or comments upon the Lord’s Supper draws attention to the number of vessels during the Supper, even when it would have been an appropriate and effective symbol. There is nothing within the context of any passage to indicate it is concerned with the question, “How many cups ought we to have?” If that is not the question that the text intends to answer then we do wrong to force that question upon the text. The Bible is not the one on trial. We do not bring our questions to it. It poses its questions to us.

As far as the context shows there is no evidence that the writers were concerned with the number of cups used nor do they attribute any spiritual symbolism to a single cup, even when it would have been advantageous to do so.  Now, one may agree that the passage does not indicate a concern for one cup and yet still insist that such a meaning is within the passage. If this is so that would mean the one cup requirement is a context-less meaning.  Such a meaning, if it exists, is unavailable to our reason and thus becomes the kind of folk sensus plenior which I mentioned in the introduction.

How Many Elders Must a Congregation Have?
It is a long held position within my tradition that each local church is autonomous and has no higher earthly government than its own elders. Further, each church must have a plurality of elders or none at all. A single elder is, as we say, unauthorized.13 This is a similar question to the one above insofar as it has to do with number. As such, it makes a shocking inconsistency for many who require a plurality of elders think requiring one cup is silly.  But why?  If the mere mention of plural elders requires plural elders today, why does not the mention of one cup require only one cup?  Their reasons for each position are the same, as is the method by which they arrive at their conclusions.  They come with a question and then mine the Bible to find the answer.  Now, if we knew of a certainty that the Bible intended to answer the question of how many elders a church should have, then it would be that simple.  All we would need to do is search the Bible and discover how many elders were appointed at each church. But this comes to the Bible with a question already in hand, like some do with the cup in the Lord’s Supper, and like all do with the 8-Ball. We must first consider whether anything in the Bible suggests that it is concerned with the question.

There are many scriptures which mention elders, some in mere passing and others with more attention.14 Most of the time elders are accouterments of the scene and not the focus of the narrative. We’ll take a quick look at the passages which are most detailed and/or most appealed to by my tradition.

First, let’s make brief note of what is often pointed out, that every mention of a governing body in the church mentions elders in the plural. Indeed, I cannot count the number of times which ministers in my tradition, within my hearing, asserted that the mention of “bishops”, plural, in Philippians 1:1 was de facto evidence of the necessity of more than one elder. But, recall if you will our discussion of Speech Act Theory.15 Words do not merely communicate, they try to accomplish something. They inspire, inform, encourage, describe, commit, etc. We must ask ourselves whenever we read, “What is the writer trying to do?” In Philippians 1:1, is Paul trying to institute something by his reference to “bishops”? Is his intent to prescribe a practice? Nothing in the text suggests this. His goal is to identify the recipients of the letter. “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” This is his illocution, and that is where his authority lies. If that is what he meant to accomplish then that is how it must be taken by the reader. We must ask these same questions of every verse which mentions elders. We must ask, “Does the writer intend to prescribe a practice of appointing only a plurality of elders?” We will find over and over again that that is not the goal of the writer, or at least, nothing in the text indicates this.

Second, one of the most detailed passages we have about elders/bishops is 1 Timothy 3:1ff. We notice first that he speaks of each individual bishop, not of a collective body. The next thing we notice, and the most obvious, is that Paul is not concerned with the number of bishops which are to be appointed in each church. His concern is wholly with the character of the bishops. Nothing in the text indicates a concern for the enumeration of elders.

Third, Acts 14:23 says of Paul and Barnabas, “And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.” This passage is often cited to show that it was the practice of Paul and Barnabas to appointed “elders”, plural, in every church. This is taken to be definitive. A few things should be pointed out: 1. The point of Acts is not to describe church government. It’s references to early church organization are few. The book of Acts depicts for us how the first Christians believed they were to carry the Story of the world forward in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 2. The appointment of elders, much less their number, is not the focus of this section of Acts (chps. 13-14). This portion is concerned with describing Paul’s first exploits among the Gentiles and Gentile churches which will become the focus of the Acts narrative from here onward. 3. We cannot be sure that a plurality of elders was appointed in every church. Undoubtedly someone will point out that the word “elders” is presbuterous and is plural. That is not contested. But a simple insistence upon the plurality of the word does not deal with the nuance of language and so does not solve the problem.

Imagine a town building a new college. The campus is completed and they have hired their teachers. The last step is to appoint the deans of each department. Having done that the newspaper runs an article announcing the completion of this last step and the readiness of the college to open. As you read the article the reporter says, “After establishing the deans of each department the new college will open its doors for the Fall semester.” Does this require that there be multiple deans over each singular department? No. Even though the word “deans” is plural it does not require that each department has multiple deans.  We are to understand that multiple deans were appointed over multiple departments. While it is possible for a department to be presided over by multiple deans such an idea is not required by the text of the article. When we view Acts 14:23 in this way we must conclude that this text is not concerned with answering the question of the enumeration of elders and, if it were, it would not be a clear answer. The construction of the sentence leaves it ambiguous as to whether Luke describes the appointment of multiple elders over each church, or multiple elders with each one over his own church. Both interpretations are allowable.

Fourth, another passage which suffers from the same sort of ambiguity is Titus 1:5. Paul says to Titus, “I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you should put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” Just as above, this could be taken to mean a plurality of elders over each town, or many elders each over his own town. Further, and more curious, Paul does not say that Titus is to appoint elders over every church, rather, over every town. One might say that there was only one church in each town and so it amounts to the same thing. But this begs the question. How do we know there was only one church in each town? Moving onward, we find that Paul immediately launches into a description of the character an elder ought to have. We find again that Paul’s concern is not the enumeration of elders but the character that they are supposed to have, just as in 1 Timothy 3. Did Paul intend to establish a particular practice by mentioning elders in the plural? It does not seem so. Nothing in the context suggests it and everything in the context suggests his concern was elsewhere. When we do not come to the text with our own questions, and when we allow the Bible to pose its questions to us, we find that very often the Bible writers’ concerns are wholly different than our own.

 

What Sort of Music Should We Have?
Acappella music is perhaps the most distinctive marker of my tradition.  Countless books and articles have been written making a case for acapella music as the only authorized form of music in the worship of the church.16 The approach to this question is the same as the others. We come with our question, “What sort of music should we have?” The answer, we think, is as simple as collecting all of the verses from the New Testament which mention music in worship and noting that they are all singing without accompaniment. Hopefully by now we can see the difficulty with this. If we knew of a certainty that the New Testament was intended to answer that question then it would be a fair way of settling the question. The difficulty is that we have not allowed the Bible to tell us whether or not it is interested in the question. We have assumed that it must answer the question and we have gone in search of the answer. But what if we backed up? What if we gathered together the relevant passages and then asked, “Is the concern of these passages to limit worship music to singing only?” What if we found that the writers’ interests were different than our own? What would that mean for worship? Let’s take a look at three relevant passages.

James 5:13 is the minor key when it comes to passages called in support of acapella only. The passage reads, “Above all, my beloved, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:12-14). In regard to oaths James is concerned that people may use oaths as a form of manipulation. While they might “promise on a stack of Bibles” in order to coerce someone into agreeing to something that they might not otherwise agree to, James encourages the church to be people whose outward actions always accord with their inward character. They should not be a people whose inward character makes others hesitant to enter into agreement with them. They should not have to take an oath in order to convince others that “this time” they really mean it. Rather, they are to let their “Yes” be yes, and their “No” be no. They should not be deceptive or hypocritical people. Their outward actions are always commensurate with their inner attitudes. It is a short step from here to the next section where James tells the people that their outward actions should always reflect their inner condition, and those actions should bring their inner condition before God. If they are suffering, they should pray. No need to hide our suffering from God Almighty. Instead, we bring our suffering into his presence. If they are joyful, there is no reason to hold that in either. They should express it appropriately, and bring that expression of joy into the presence of God through singing. Are they sick? Well, have the elders pray for them. This is to bring sickness into the presence of God by bringing it to the Christian community by which God’s presence is mediated to us. Having the big picture of the flow of the text we are now in a position to ask, “Is James concerned with prescribing a particular sort of music for the church?” Not at all. His concern is that Christians be genuine and live in the presence of God no matter what the circumstance. Are we really to take singing as the only appropriate response to joy? Could we not shout? Or feast? If not, why not? And if we make singing the only appropriate response, will we then make prayer the only appropriate response to suffering? What about weeping? Or fasting? Is calling the elders to anoint with oil (a thing which we rarely do) the only appropriate response to sickness? What about taking medicine? Or going to the doctor? These are not restrictive commands but representative ones. James is describing the sort of behavior which ought to characterize the Christian, not a particular act. A Christian ought always to express himself appropriately and always in the presence of God, which shows our dependence upon him. If a restriction for acappella is here it is not indicated by the context and must by definition be context-less. If it is context-less then such a meaning is not available to our reason and it shares the character of the folk conception of sensus plenior.

We now move to the central scriptures in defense of acappella only, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. We will not insist that these scriptures answer the questions that we would pose to it. Rather, we want to come to the letters and allow them to speak to us. What is Paul’s concern when he commands singing? Is he trying to restrict the form of worship to acappella? Only an examination of the letter can tell and we cannot assume a particular question going in.

One of the most peculiar things about both texts is that neither actually contains the command to sing. The words which describe the action, “teaching”, “admonishing”, “speaking”, “making melody”, “giving thanks”, and “singing” are all verbals. None are commands. A verbal is a verb which functions as an adjective, adverb, or a noun. If police were to approach a man in a park where people were engaged in all sorts of activities, eating, exercising, kissing, singing, throwing frisbee, and ask that man, “Have you seen Mr. James Smith?” He might respond, “Yeah, he’s right over there.” “Which one?” the police ask. The man then says, “The singing man.” “Singing” here functions as an adjective describing the man. So while it is a verb in form it is an adjective in function. Verbals may also be adverbs. Whereas an adjective describes a noun an adverb describes a verb. For example, I might say, “I’ve been cleaning the house all day, sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming.”  The verbals “sweeping, mopping, and vacuuming” are not additions to “cleaning”, they are adverbs.  They describe the cleaning; they tell what it looks like.  That is how the verbals function in Ephesians and Colossians.

In Ephesians Paul discusses the change that ought to characterize the Christians in Ephesus. They are to “lead a life worthy of their calling” (4:1). They are to “put away their former life” their “old self”, “be renewed in the spirit of their minds”, and “clothe themselves with their new self, created according to the likeness of God” (4:22-24). This contrast between former sinful behavior and present holiness continues into chapter 5 where Paul writes, “So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:17-20). Paul points to activities which characterized their former life, as he has since chapter 4, things like foolishness and drunkenness, and commands them to forfeit those practices in lieu of holy ones. Instead of being filled with wine he commands them to “be filled with the Spirit.” This is the command of the verse.  What follows are verbals which describe that command.  “Speaking to one another”, “singing and making melody”, and “giving thanks to God the Father” all describe what it looks like to “be filled with the Spirit.” This can be taken either to mean that these are the practices which invite the filling of the Spirit, or they can describe the results of being filled with the Spirit. Either way, there is an intimate connection between these practices and a Spirit-led life. We now ask, is Paul concerned with the sort of music in the church? Does he here intend to prescribe acappella music as the only approved sort? If that is a concern, it is not evident. Paul’s illocution, what he is trying to do by writing this, is to encourage the Ephesians to forfeit the “unfruitful works of darkness” (5:11), like drunkenness, and to “live as children of light” (5:7) by being filled with the Spirit. If that is Paul’s intent, can we conscientiously make him say something else?

Paul’s message to the Colossians is much the same. He calls the church to “put to death whatever is earthly” and to be “clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (3:5, 10). “Above all”, he writes, “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything int he name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:14-17). The similarities to the Ephesian passage are striking, even down to the lack of focus upon the sort of music we are to have in the worship of the church. Paul’s concern is a changed life. He expects them to put to death those things which are “earthly” and to live a life filled with the word of Christ which subsequently produces singing and thanksgiving. Does he intend by writing this to limit the worship of the Colossian church to acappella singing? If he does, nothing in the context suggests it. If that meaning is latent then it is context-less and is unavailable to our reason. If any of these passages intend to prescribe a particular sort of music it is not obvious. If we insist that these verses require acappella singing we are assigning the passages a sort of fuller meaning which does not originate from the context of the passage.

Series Summary
We have come a long way. We began by discussing supposed pre-scientific statements. We determined that it was never the intention of the Bible writers to reveal modern science. And since it was not their intention then if such science exists it is context-less, it is hidden, and so shares the character of sensus plenior.

We then discussed the NT use of the OT. We found that even when the NT writers point to the life of Jesus as the fulfillment of an OT passage, they do not mean that it was the intention of that OT passage to prophecy about Christ. Rather, the NT writers “read backwards” and retrospectively perceive events which foreshadow the life of Christ. These figural analogies are then termed fulfillments by the NT writers. The significant thing about this definition of fuller meaning is that it makes the sensus plenior accessible to our reason.  It is not the case that NT writers were “allowed to use scripture out of context because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit”, as a friend once told me.  They did not play fast and loose with scripture.  There is a context to these figural readings, as there is to every appropriate interpretation of fuller meaning, and it is the Christ event which provides that context.

Finally, in this article we have shown that the way many approach the above topics (and others) share the character of a folk understanding of sensus plenior.  They attribute to the passage a meaning which is not apparent from the context, either immediately or in light of the Christ event.

Conclusion
So what?  Why is this a big deal?  The problems presented by such an interpretive method are these.

First, if there is meaning in the text which has no origin in the context then how do we get it?  Some who disagree with my assessment of the NT use of the OT will say that the writers did not “read backwards” and that their use of the Hebrew Bible was not available to their reason.  They will insist that the Hebrews scriptures cited were not foreshadowing but direct prophecy.  They will further insist that the Christian writers were able to discern these fuller meanings only by inspiration of the Holy Spirit.17 If that were the case then it would seem that in order to affirm a fuller meaning in the texts above, or any others, would require a similar claim to inspiration. If the fuller meaning is not available to our reason, and we insist that there is one, how do we know? If the NT writers only knew by inspiration, is this how we know? Would inspiration not be required for us as it was for them? I doubt anyone is willing to claim that sort of inspiration.

Second, I do not want to insist that the above option is the only one and so appear to create a Straw-Man argument. I admit to knowing no one who claims inspiration from the Spirit of the kind we read about in the NT, even though that would seem to be required if they insist upon a meaning not evident in the context. Still, there is another problem with claiming such a fuller meaning which has no origin in the immediate context or through the context of the Christ event, as all valid sensus plenior must. If the fuller meaning under question has no context, then how are we to verify it? Further, how are we to disagree with it? When we insist upon a meaning which is by definition context-less we have forfeit all controls upon interpretation. The moment we affirm such context-less meanings we open wide the gates for  interpretations whose only “context” is the whimsy of the interpreter. This is a danger we can all agree must be defended against. Without context, without boundaries placed upon the number of meanings which can be derived from a text, we become unable to speak of Truth, for truth is “this and not that.” Boundaries are precisely that which divides “this” from “that” and without them we have no definable Way, only a boundless sea, a quagmire of interpretation. Without boundaries we lose all possibility for intelligible discourse or disagreement.

I offer these considerations as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about hermeneutics within churches of Christ. I hope this series has benefited you as much as it has me, whether it has garnered your agreement or vehement disagreement. In all cases I appreciate all who endeavor to draw nearer to God by immersing him/herself in God’s living word. Grace be with you all.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. I do not mean to imply that others are not concerned with keeping scriptures in their context. I would not judge their motives in that way. I only mean that I differ with some on what criteria constitute something being “in context.” It has been the concern of these articles to discuss and model what sorts of things I consider proper and improper modes of interpretation, i.e. which things are, in fact, “in context” and which are “out of context” despite the best intentions of some.
2. See part 1 here for an explanation of illocution within Speech-Act-Theory and its relevance to biblical hermeneutics.
3. I confessed in part 2 that while I initially set out to “debunk” sensus plenior I found that I the more I wrote the more I established it. I maintain, however, that my comments are still valid in one regard. The sensus plenior that I have described is different than that sort which is tossed about by many lay people.  I speak here as a local minister and not as a scholar.  As a result my comments are aimed at the way that I frequently hear lay persons appeal to the text.  Whereas it seems the consensus among scholars that the Bible writers did not intend the fuller meaning, and that that fuller meaning is only understood retrospectively as an event analogous to contemporary ones, the idea amongst many Christians is that the writers knowingly intended two different things: 1. The message for their immediate context as well as 2. A prophecy for future generations. This I hold to be a misuse of the idea of sensus plenior.
4. This quote comes from a lecture by Richard Hays entitled, “Did Moses Write about Jesus? The Challenges of Figural Reading.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RlRqu0anrF8&t=690s ; Accessed 14 April, 2017. This lecture masterfully illustrates the hermeneutic I suggested in part 2. At the time I was unaware of Hays’ lecture and so I claimed the view as unique to me, while admitting the possibility that others held it unbeknownst to me. My use of “reading backwards” comes from the title of Hays’ book, which I have yet to read, and my use of the term “figural” is also indebted to Hays.
5. I belong to the churches of Christ, a Protestant tradition which arose during the era often labeled “The Restoration Movement.”
6. By calling it an assumption I acknowledge that many who do this may not realize that they do it and, therefore, may even deny that they do. Still, the conclusions they wrest from the text prove otherwise.
7. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 46.
8. Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2003), 26.
9. Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1976), 6.
10. One such example can be viewed here: https://www.newtestamentchurch.org/html/Cup.html ; Accessed 21 April 2017.
11. While Luke seems clear that it was, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (22:15), John’s account offers a different perspective which may suggest that Jesus’ supper anticipated the Passover (13:1; 19:14).
12. Gordon D. Fee, “The First Epistle to the Corinthians”, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 551.
13. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: The Brownlow Corporation, 2002). I was gifted this classic of my tradition shortly after my conversion. I still own that copy in which the sweet sister inscribed Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.” This book continues to be influential in my tradition. In answer to the question posed by the title, it contains a chapter entitled, “[I am a member of the Church of Christ] Because It Is Scriptural in Organization” (chapter 6, 38-44). This chapter discusses Christ as head of the church, the local congregation as autonomous, the congregation as the largest and smallest of all governing bodies within the church, and the necessity of a plurality of elders.
14. In the book of acts alone we find the following: Elders: Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; Overseers: Acts 20:28. Outside of Acts there are the following: Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2ff; 5:17ff; Titus 1:5ff. (Also 1 Peter 5:1ff, though it is disputed whether the referent is the office of elders, or elderly men, or both).
15. You can view the article in which I discuss it here.
16. E.g. Leroy Brownlow, Why I Am a Member of the Church of Christ, (Fort Worth: Brownlow Corporation, 2002), chp. 24. M.C. Kurfees, Instrumental Music in the Worship, (Indianapolis: Faith and Facts Press). Everett Ferguson, A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, (Abilene: Desert Willow Publishing, 2013). David Miller, Piloting the Strait, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2006), chp. 20. David Miller, Richland Hills & Instrumental Music: A Plea to Reconsider, (Pulaski, TN: Sain Publications, 2007). Rubel Shelly, Sing His Praise! A Case for A Cappella Music as Worship Today, (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1987). Shelly, however, has changed his stance since the publication of this work.
17. Whereas I certainly agree that the NT writers wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I do not believe, as some do, that this excludes the use of the writers’ own reason. You can read a brief explanation of how I believe this works in Part Two, which can be accessed here, under the section labeled “Inspiration.”

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 2)

 

In the previous article we looked at supposed pre-scientific statements which in fact turned out to be Old World Science.  I offered an approach, based upon Speech-Act Theory, that frees us from the necessity of finding modern science in an ancient book.  I have called the supposed existence of pre-scientific statements a kind of sensus plenior.  But what of sensus plenior as it is commonly used?  I now take on this hardest of the the three tasks I’ve set for myself in this series.  It is hardest because it is unique to myself.  By that I mean that I have never read another who explains it in the way that I will.  I am indebted to certain authors, as you will see, but they put their information to different use than I will here.  Further, though I have never read another who explains it in exactly the way that I will, I do not deny that such writers exist.  I have simply not yet found them (though I would be much comforted if I did).

Inspiration
My ultimate goal in this series is to say something about hermeneutics.  This discussion, however, cannot avoid overlapping with concerns about inspiration.  As a result, I feel it necessary to say a few things about it before I move on to hermeneutics.

It is immensely important that we rid ourselves of certain deistic tendencies in our thinking.  Though I have not met a Christian who puts it exactly this way I have met many whose comments assume the following system: If it can be explained without reference to God, God did not do it.  That is, if Man did it then God did not.  Conversely, if God did it then Man did not. This way of thinking keeps creature and Creator completely separate which is, I believe, a mistake.  Though I will not make the opposite mistake of conflating creature and Creator and falling into a sort of Pantheism, I do affirm that God often works from within creation.  For example, when Paul and his company were in Macedonia they became terribly troubled.  They suffered “disputes without and fears within” (2 Cor. 7:5).  Of this trouble Paul writes, “God … consoled us” (7:6).  If that were all that we read we might assume that God had miraculously offered them a sense of mystical comfort.  We might imagine an unexplainable warmth growing inside of Paul and his companions.  Perhaps we picture Paul and his company standing up straighter instilled with an indescribable confidence.  If this is how we imagine it then it is possible we are working out of the deism I mentioned, the sort which assumes that if God did it then Man did not.  If we continue reading, however, we find the means by which God offered comfort.  The Bible says, “But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more” (7:6, 7).  God worked from within his creation.  The very fact that Titus comforted Paul did not diminish in the slightest the fact that God had comforted Paul.  There is no reason to suppose that such human action is any less divine, especially when we have the witness of scripture that describes it so.

Another example to illustrate the point: when Hezekiah was sick Isaiah came to him by the word of the LORD and said, “Thus says the LORD: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover” (Isa. 38:1).  Hezekiah then begged God to extend his life and he received a promise that the LORD would do so for fifteen more years (38:5).  Now, if this were all the information that we were given we are likely to picture Hezekiah as being miraculously healed entirely apart from material means.  The truth, however, is that Isaiah instructed Hezekiah’s servants to “take a lump of figs, and apply it to the boil, so that he may recover” (38:21).  The fact that a poultice was applied does not diminish Hezekiah’s divine healing.  It is only the deistic conception which insists on separating God’s work from his creation.  The biblical conception of God’s work is able to hold them together quite comfortably.  This should be no less true for our conception of inspiration.

The word “inspiration” means quite different things to different people.  Some emphasize the divine side of inspiration to the detriment of the human side.  Maybe they imagine inspiration like Rembrandt’s portrait of St. Matthew, with an angel whispering the words of the Bible into his ear.1  Others emphasize the human side to the detriment of the divine.2 And despite involving us in inextricable mysteries, I believe that our concept of inspiration should have just the same combination of the divine and the human as the above examples, not because I think it “makes sense” (though it does), but because it is how the Bible pictures it.

First, consider the introduction to Luke’s gospel. “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4).  I know no other way to understand this than to think that Luke used sources in the composition of his gospel.  This would seem quite unnecessary if the Holy Spirit was whispering in his ear.  How then do we explain it?  I will not pretend to understand it all, but I affirm by faith that somehow Luke’s own thoughts and mental effort were involved in writing his gospel.  He had to gather sources, sift through the accounts, and conceive a unity to the story before he put it on parchment.  This affirmation of the human side of the process does not deny the divine side.  Somehow God was involved in the very human action of Luke, directing it and monitoring it, to ensure that no errors were made.  We cannot, however, allow that truth to overshadow the human struggle and mental exertion necessary to Luke’s work.

Second, other places indicate that the writing of scripture was in some sense dependent upon the mental efforts of its human writers.  When Luke records Festus’ visit to Jerusalem and his subsequent return to Caesarea he writes, “After he had stayed among them not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea” (Acts 25:6).  If the Holy Spirit were whispering in his ear it seems an odd thing for the Holy Spirit to say.  It seems more like Luke is dependent upon sources which informed him of a stay of eight days, or perhaps ten.  Or maybe even the source had given him the exact time but Luke had trouble recalling it.  Whatever the explanation, this is a very human thing to write.  I weary myself with saying this, but I feel it necessary to repeat that affirming the humanness of inspiration does not deny the divine at work, any more than affirming Paul’s comfort by Titus denies Paul’s comfort by God.

I offer one final example.  Third, when Paul writes to the Corinthians he laments that certain Corinthians were dividing themselves over who their favorite leader was, perhaps even who baptized them.  Paul responds by saying, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.  (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else)” (1 Cor. 1:14-16).  Again, this seems a strange thing for Paul to write unless he is somehow dependent upon his own mental effort.

To sum up, we do not deny that it is possible for God to grant men information that they could not have known on their own.  Certainly God could have reminded Paul exactly which people he had baptized; he could have told Luke exactly how many days Festus stayed in Jerusalem; and he could have removed the need for any of Luke’s sources.  But he didn’t.  I do not question what God is able to do, only what God has, in fact, done.  And it appears as if God quite often allows the words of the Bible to well up from the existing knowledge of the Bible writers.  I have no doubt that he superintended over the process so as to protect his word, but we cannot allow our affirmation of divinity to diminish its humanity.  Like Christ was able to become fully human without ceasing to be fully divine, so the word of God is able to comfortably combine both without confusion or mixture.  Just as we affirm that Jesus is “truly God and truly man”3, so we affirm that the Bible is truly human and truly divine.

“Fulfillment”
Now we are able to move into a discussion about sensus plenior.  Often these “hidden” or “fuller meanings” are preceded by a fulfillment formula, i.e. “This was done so that it might be fulfilled …”  Whenever we read these statements we might immediately assume that the Bible writer is referring to a prophecy of the Old Testament.  Prophecy, we think, is the counterpart to “fulfillment.”  And there are certainly instances which have to do with prophecy (cf. Isa. 7:14; Mat. 1:22-23).  But one of the first things we will notice when we start looking at the sensus plenior in the New Testament is that very few of them are “fulfillments” of prophecy.  Hosea 11:1, fulfilled in Jesus descent/ascent from Egypt (Mat. 2:15), cannot be a prophecy as we commonly conceive it because it does not look forward at all.  It looks backward to an event, to the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.  The command not to break the bones of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:46), fulfilled in Jesus’ crucifixion (Jn. 19:36), is also an event, not a promise or prophecy.4 Further, Rachel weeping for her children, which is fulfilled in the murder of the innocents by Herod (Mat. 2:17, 18), is not a prophecy.  It is an imaginative description of an event.  It is a story which gives pathos, depth, and meaning to the tragedy of the Israelite exile by Assyria and Babylon (Jer. 31:15).  This being the case, it seems we have to broaden our idea of “fulfillment.”  It seems that fulfillment is not only the counterpart of prophecy but it can also be the counterpart of events and imaginative descriptions of events.  Previous events can be pictured, or repictured, or–better still–reenacted and thus named “fulfillment.”  The important thing to note here is that recognizing an analog between the events is not dependent upon receiving special knowledge from beyond.  One is able upon reflection to recognize recurrent patterns and themes in events and stories.  It does not require that one be “clued in” on some fuller meaning by the Holy Spirit.  It requires astute hermeneutic skill or, more importantly, a disciplined imagination.

Myth-Become-Fact
J.R.R. Tolkien is supposed to have said, “We tell stories because God is a story teller … We tell our stories with words; he tells his story with history.”5 G.K. Chesterton before him wrote, “I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.”6 This idea of history as the story God is telling is the reason that C.S. Lewis is able to speak of a “grammar of the universe.”7 God is a story teller and insofar as Christ is the Logos, the “Message” of God, he is what God has been trying to say.

The miracles of Jesus make this clear. Lewis writes,

“There is an activity of God displayed throughout creation, a wholesale activity let us say which men refuse to recognize. The miracles done by God incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, perform the very same things as this wholesale activity, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale. One of their chief purposes is that men, having seen a thing done by personal power on the small scale, may recognize, when they see the same thing done on the large scale, that the power behind it is also personal–is indeed the very same person who lived among us two thousand years ago. The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”8

As a specific example he chooses Christ at Cana to show him doing small what God often does large.

“God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah’s time till ours, God turns water into wine. That, men fail to see. Either like Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus: or else, like moderns, they attribute the real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it. But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off. The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana.”9

Jesus reenacts the Story that God has been telling from the beginning of time. The drama of Cana is a miniature of the Drama of Nature.

Notice also that Lewis mentions Man’s habit of telling stories about nature. Wherever men have drunk wine they have told stories of Bacchus. If we see God as a story teller, and Man as “making by the law in which we’re made”, it makes wonderful sense not only of the act of story-telling, but also of the sorts of stories that we tell.

The stories we tell are based upon what we see in nature and history, which are the things God uses to tell his story. In this way our smaller local stories are reflections of God’s much larger and universal one. Therefore, it should not surprise us in the least to find similarities between the two. Our stories tell of the weak being saved by the strong, of the lower being dependent upon the descent and ascent of the higher, of the dying and rising gods like Balder and the Corn-Kings. “The similarity is not in the least unreal or accidental. For the Corn-King is derived (through human imagination) from the facts of Nature, and the facts of Nature from her Creator; the Death and Rebirth pattern is in her because it was first in Him.”10 So we find in Christ the reality of which all our myths were just shadows.

“It is He who sends rain into the furrows till the valleys stand so thick with corn that they laugh and sing. The trees of the wood rejoice before Him and His voice causes the wild deer to bring forth their young. He is the God of wheat and wine and oil. In that respect He is constantly doing all the things that Nature-Gods do: He is Bacchus, Venus, Ceres all rolled into one.”11

We could say, as Lewis does, that Jesus is Myth-Become-Fact.

“The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.”12

Now comes the important bridge. Remember, we pointed out earlier that “fulfillment” may be applied to events and descriptions of events (stories) as well as prophecy. It is appropriate, then, to speak of Christ as the “fulfillment” of nature as well as our stories about nature, our myths. Chesterton, making the same point as above, writes, “[T]he life of Jesus … was a fulfillment of the myths.”13 In regard to the incarnation he writes, “[T]he event had fulfilled not merely the mysticism but the materialism of mythology. Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation.”14 Note the language of “fulfillment” in Chesterton. Tolkien uses the same language. “The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories … But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment [sic] of Creation.”15

The Christ event is in terse miniscule the very message which Nature has been telling in her long prolix uncial.  Therefore, if we did not spread his message abroad “even these stones would cry out” (cf. Luke 19:40).  And they do.  With every season and every sunrise Nature’s voice goes through all the earth, and her words to the end of the world (cf. Ps. 19:4).

If this is true about the Story of the World, and our stories about the world (which are often full of error), should we not expect it to be just as true about the Story of Israel?  Strikingly so.  For the Story of Israel is the Story of the World.  Only eleven chapters intervene between the story of creation and the story of Abraham.  This should indicate to us all that the fate of creation rests upon our distant father and his descendants.  The history of Israel is the hinge upon which the whole world turns.

The True Story of the World
Man has written many myths, but only one did he write with the aid of the original Myth-Maker.  More than that, Man not only recorded the Story but he found himself to be a central character.  This is truer of no people than it is of the people of Israel.

Ever since the Fall men have felt themselves as part of a story that was going somewhere.  Laboring under the curse, the birth of Noah brought hope to his parents.  They said of him, “This one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands” (Gen. 5:29).  All of creation groans and waits for its redemption (cf. Rom. 8:18-25).  Abraham is the one chosen to bring about that redemption.  God says to him, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).  It is this long Story which Christ is seen to fulfill.  Not an odd bit here or there, as if Jesus woke each morning with a list of prophecies and said, “Well, I’d better check that one off the list today.”  All of scripture finds its fulfillment in him.  The mysterious Story of Israel, and with her the whole Story of the world, finds its “Yes” in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 1:19-20).

This is the sense in which so many of the “fulfillments” are indeed fulfilled.  It is not that the Israelites descent/ascent from Egypt was a prophecy, at least not in the sense we usually imagine.  Neither the Passover nor the Exile of the Israelites.  Rather, there is a particular “style” to the way God tells his story, a “grammar of the universe.”  “All His acts are different, but they all rhyme or echo to one another.”16 Just as one fluent in Latin will note the Latin-icity of other languages17, so one who is steeped in the Story of God will notice the imprint of the divine upon his several works. So it is not that Isaiah prophesied of the Christ at the same time he prophesied of Mahershalalhashbaz. Rather, it is that Matthew, living and breathing the Story of Israel, is able to look back through the lens of the Christ event and see in Isaiah’s prophecy the shadow of which Christ is the substance. It is in this sense, the same sense in which Christ is the fulfillment of nature and of myth, that Christ is the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 and all the Story of Israel.  The Exodus, the giving of the Law, the wilderness wandering, the temple along with its priests and sacrifices, the king, and the exile are all fulfilled in Jesus.

Because there are no prophecies, indeed no history, without the word of God there can be none without Christ who is the Word of God. All are contained in him, and he in them. He is the Eternal Word. He is what God has been saying, and there was never a time when he was not saying it. All of Man’s triumphs as well as his sorrows find their “Yes” in him. The history of Israel, indeed the whole history of Man which rode on her back, is summed up in the Son of Man. This is why the psalmist may say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and we are not surprised to find those words on the lips of our Lord. Not because they are “prophecy”, but because they are a part of Man and Christ is all that we are. Or, rather, he bears all that we are on the back of what were supposed to be, and carries that to the cross. Everything is bound up in him. “In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16, 17).

Building Again What I Have Torn Down
Weeks ago when I set out to write this series I had in mind to tear down sensus plenior.  Even as I began writing this article I still intended to undo the idea.  In the midst of writing, however, I find that I have built again what I have torn down.  I have established sensus plenior rather than debunking it.  But I have not established it in the way that I often hear it used.  That use, which I consider a misuse, is something to which I still object.  In order to make my objections clear it will help to distinguish between the two.

First, the fuller meaning I have given here is universal whereas the misuse to which I object is particular.  The explanation I have offered gives more meaning to quite literally everything, not just odd bits of scripture here and there.  It sees meaning in the entire Story of scripture, not to mention nature itself.  I quote C.S. Lewis once more.

“It is not an accident that simple-minded people, however spiritual, should blend the ideas of God and Heaven and the blue sky. It is a fact, not a fiction, that light and life-giving heat do come down from the sky to the Earth. The analogy of the sky’s role to begetting and of the Earth’s role to bearing is sound as far as it goes. The huge dome of the sky is of all things sensuously perceived the most like infinity. And when God made space and worlds that move in space, and clothed our world with air, and gave us such eyes and such imaginations as those we have, He knew what the sky would mean to us. And since nothing in His work is accidental, if He knew, He intended. We cannot be certain that this was not indeed one of the chief purposes for which Nature was created.”18

This kind of sensus plenior infuses the whole world with meaning.  Every rock and tree and creature is part of God’s grammar.  It is his way of saying something about the way that the world is and the way that we are to relate to it and to him.  This is different from the use I consider misuse.  That sort of fuller meaning is not so full.  It only claims a fuller meaning for certain passages of scripture.  It is not a synthesis of the entire Story.  And because it cannot show itself to be within the “style” of the whole it often appears as an intruder.  The fuller meaning appears strange and out of place.  It exists as a curiosity.  It answers one question while it may raise others which it cannot satisfy.  That is quite different from the sort I have a described, a sort which always feels at home within the whole.

Second, the fuller meaning I have shared here is accessible by Man’s reason, whereas the misuse of sensus plenior requires a special revelation of the Holy Spirit.  This makes it appear as if the NT writers misused the OT by yanking scriptures out of context.  We are then required to make special allowances for these writers which we would never make for any one else.  As a friend once said to me, “They were allowed to use scripture out of context because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

The fuller meaning I have suggested provides a context wherein the NT use of the OT makes sense.  It has a suitability to it, an appropriateness.  The misuse of sensus plenior puts the NT writers in a place where they offer a context-less interpretation of a passage.  It appears as an interpretation wholly unsuitable to the context of the OT passage.

Rotting Limb or Golden Bough?
I have gone out on a limb to express a view unique to myself.19  Paradoxically, this limb seems to me more likely to break with its sole occupant than it would if it bore up a great cloud of witnesses.  I cannot help but feel, however, that the golden bough which sustains me is Truth. But let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the branch which I have made my home is not only rotten, but worse, is all together non-existent.  What solid limb will knot my head as I tumble towards more solid ground?  It is a view which is admittedly simpler, though not without its difficulties.

Perhaps it is not the case that the Bible writers, through prayerful struggle and meditation, as well as inspiration, saw Christ as the fulfillment of all scripture.  Perhaps it was not that Christ fulfilled the whole Story of Israel and with it the long Story of the World.  Maybe the Bible writers had no unified cosmic-historical vision.  Let us suppose, rather, that I am wrong and that Matthew (and others) did often use the OT “out of context.”  And let us suppose that they did so with divine permission.  Finally, let us suppose that no Bible writer could have concluded what they did on their own but needed to be “clued in” on the sensus plenior, the fuller meaning, by the Holy Spirit. What does that say about our hermeneutics?

I can only repeat here what was stated in the previous article. If another meaning exists which is not accessible to us by our reason, then it is by definition context-less and therefore only accessible by a special gift from the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion
It seems that there are only two available options left open to us.  If we believe there is a fuller meaning to a text we must be able to demonstrate its appropriateness within the Story of the World as revealed in scripture.  It must fit with God’s “grammar”, with his “style.”  There must be a suitability about it, as there is in the miracles of Jesus Christ and in his reenactment of the history of Israel.  It must “fit.”  Consider it like this:

“Let us suppose we possess parts of a novel or a symphony.  Someone now brings us a newly discovered piece of a manuscript and says, ‘This is the missing part of the work.  This is the chapter on which the whole plot of the novel really turned.  This is the main theme of the symphony.’  Our business would be to see whether the new passage, if admitted to the central place which the discoverer claimed for it, did actually illuminate all the parts we had already seen and ‘pull them together.’  Nor should we be likely to go very far wrong.  The new passage, if spurious, however attractive it looked at first glance, would become harder and harder to reconcile with the rest of the work the longer we considered the matter.  But if it were genuine then at every fresh hearing of the music or every fresh reading of the book, we should find it settling down, making itself more at home and eliciting significance from all sorts of details in the whole work which we had hitherto neglected.”20

If the meaning we assign to the text, its primary meaning or its fuller one, does not have this appropriateness we must reject it. If it is not suitable then we may only maintain our proposed fuller meaning by claiming some special revelation of the Spirit. Insofar as I know of no one claiming such a revelation, we are left with only one way. The Story must make sense as a whole and whatever interpretations we claim for it must do the same.21 These are the controls which are placed upon our use of the Bible. If we do not respect these limits we risk abusing the text as well as using the text to abuse others. Only by such strict adherence to the Bible do we find the way forward, through the fog, by the lamp which God has granted us. Only his word is “a lamp unto our feet and light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).

 

©M. Benfield 2017

 


1. You can see the painting here: http://www.artbible.info/art/large/739.html ; Accessed 29 March 2017.
2. A charge which my detractors will no doubt level against me.
3. This phrase comes from the Creed of Chalcedon, available here: http://www.theopedia.com/chalcedonian-creed ; Accessed 30 March 2017.
4. Some have suggested that John’s reference is to Ps. 34:20 instead of the Passover. This would seem odd. The promise in Psalms is deliverance from death. The reference to Passover, a description of death, is more fitting. Still, if the reference is to Psalms it supports the point that the “fulfillment” is not a fulfillment of an evident prophecy. It is a recapitulation of a promise.
5. I say “supposed to have said” because this quote comes from a recreation of a conversation between Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The recreation, however, is based upon evidence from Tolkien and Lewis themselves and ought to be considered fairly reliable. If he did not say these exact words he certainly said something like it for he has said similar things in other places. E.g. when discussing Man’s habit of telling stories and making myths he writes, “We still make by the law in which we’re made” (from his poem Philomythus to Misomythus or Mythopoeia). If our making stories is according to “the law in which we’re made” it necessarily follows that our lives and all of history is a kind of divine story making or, to use Tolkien’s own word, mytho-poeia.
6. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 93.
7. C.S. Lewis, “Miracles”, God in the Dock, in The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2004), 315.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid, 316.
10. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 186.
11. Ibid, 184.
12. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact”, God in the Dock, 343.
13. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 207.
14. Ibid, 176.
15. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”, in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, (London: HarperCollins 2006), 155-156.
16. Lewis, “Miracles”, God in the Dock, 316, 321.
17. Lewis, Miracles, 103.
18. Lewis, Miracles, 258.
19. It would be dishonest if I did not here mention N.T. Wright’s book Scripture and the Authority of God, (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). His approach was always in the back of my mind while writing and his approach has influenced me a great deal. He seems to have done with the Story of Israel what Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis did with myth. He finds Jesus, rightly I believe, reenacting the Story of Israel as Lewis and the rest saw Jesus reenacting great myths. It is right to wonder whether Wright is also indebted to these men. I think it likely insofar as he regularly admits the influence of C.S. Lewis. If our approaches are so similar, why call it unique to myself? First, Wright has, to my knowledge, never made his case in quite the same way I have. As a result I cannot be absolutely certain that he would agree. Second, because I cannot be sure he would agree, or put it quite the way I have, I have left off associating him with a view which he might oppose. Regardless, I wish to give credit where it is due and acknowledge his influence as well as certain similarities between what I affirm and what he has written.
20. Lewis, Miracles, 175-176.
21. Wright models this for us in the two case studies which conclude Scripture and the Authority of God. Even with practices which many think are quite clear cut, like Sabbath and Monogamy (his two case-studies), Wright shows that it is not enough to simply quote a verse. We can only trust that our interpretation of a verse is correct if it shares the style of the True Story of the World.

Sensus Plenior, Old World Science, and Other Hermeneutic Questions (Part 1)

 

The phrase sensus plenior is Latin for “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning.”  It is often used in biblical exegesis to refer to a “deeper” or “hidden” meaning of the text intended by God but not intended by its human author.  Classic examples of sensus plenior are 2 Samuel 7:12 which is supposed to contain a prophecy about Solomon as well as a prophecy about David’s “Greater Son”, Jesus the Christ, and Isaiah 7:14 which is thought to prophecy both the birth of Mahershalahashbaz by a “maiden” as well as the birth of Jesus by a “virgin” (the ambiguous Hebrew almah being later translated by the stricter Greek parthenos).

Though sensus plenior is not used to describe pre-scientific statements (as far as I know) the ideas are similar.  Just as sensus plenior says that there is another meaning latent in the text of which the human author is unaware, so Scientific Concordists believe that modern science is embedded in the text unbeknownst to the writers.  An example of this is Isaiah 40:22 where God is pictured as sitting upon the “circle” of the earth.  According to the Concordist, the Israelites may have considered this “circle” to be a disc (not a sphere) like the surrounding nations of the ancient world, but Isaiah was in fact indicating the earth’s spherical shape.  Another example is the psalmist’s mention of “the paths of the sea” in Psalm 8:8.  This was supposed to have revealed the existence of ocean currents.  Examples could be multiplied to include the Israelites establishment of quarantine, healthy diets, as well as the invention of a crude anti-bacterial soap, but these examples are sufficient enough to illustrate the idea.

Both sensus plenior and pre-scientific statements are by definition “context-less” because nothing in the context indicates the presence of the hidden meaning, or else it would not be considered hidden.  Is this a legitimate form of exegesis?  Certain “obvious” examples, like Isaiah 7:14, would seem to say so.  But is there another way to view supposed sensus plenior?  This article begins a series which will examine sensus plenior, “Old World Science”, and some other modern hermeneutical practices which share their context-less nature.

One important thing needs to be said before we launch into a discussion of inspiration and exegesis.  I do not question what God is able to do.  I only intend to raise questions about what God, in fact, has done.  God is able to fill my office with elves and fairies but he is not at present doing so (that I can tell).  It is important to keep these two questions separate and I only intend to address the one: what has God revealed in scripture?

 

Scientific Concordism
Regarding the “sensus plenior” of Old World Science, it is taken for granted that the Bible is not a science text book.  This means that its purpose is not to give us a science education.  Its purpose is to tell the Story of God’s mission to rescue creation from the mess that we’ve made.  Scripture is not for an education in physics but for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

The very definition of sensus plenior, however, is that God embedded a meaning which the human author did not intend and was possibly (probably?) unaware of.  A commitment to this idea, which is, unfortunately often bound to the inerrancy of scripture, has caused some to say that although the Bible is not a science text book it is always accurate whenever it remarks upon scientific matters.1 This view is called Scientific Concordism and is the default position of many (most?) evangelical Christians.

The view is often explained using the “Two Books” metaphor.  It is said that God wrote “two books”: one is written upon Nature in the precise language of math and science, the other is written upon the pages of the Bible in the more common, but also more ambiguous, language of men.   The metaphor itself is very old.  Galileo Galilei used this metaphor in his famous Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany (A.D. 1615), but even then he was quoting Tertullian’s much earlier work Adversus Marcionem (circa A.D. 208).  He writes,

“Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words: ‘We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.’  From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy scripture.  On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.”2

The common belief that modern science completely accords with scripture has resulted in two different approaches. One, believing science to be the clearer revelation, interprets scripture in light of modern science. This has resulted in ideas like the Day-Age Theory, the Gap Theory, and so on. The other, believing that scripture is the more reliable (albeit less precise) revelation, either accepts or rejects science depending on whether or not it agrees with their interpretation of scripture. This has resulted in some rejecting Evolution, Global Warming, Heliocentrism, even the very existence of Dinosaurs. The root of these approaches is exactly the same. They both share the common belief that modern science must agree with scripture. The only difference is that one interprets scripture in light of science and the other interprets science in light of scripture.3

But is it possible that the Concordist approach is inherently flawed? Does our belief in scripture really depend upon its scientific accuracy, or vice versa?  Is it possible that there is a third way?  I believe that there is.  Before offering a third way, however, let’s first consider some of the difficulties inherent in Scientific Concordism.4

 

Difficulties with Scientific Concordism
One way of defending Scientific Concordism is to suggest that the scientific language of the Bible is sometimes intentionally ambiguous. This gets God out of the supposed dilemma of saying something false while at the same time allows him to accommodate the false beliefs of the original readers. 5 This raises the question: if the language of the Bible could be used by ancients to “prove” their science as well as by moderns, does it prove either one?  We must answer, no.  To be fair, this approach does not claim to end the discussion, only to keep it open.

Another bolder approach is to say that the scientific language of the Bible is not ambiguous at all, but quite specific.  It requires that each scripture which supposedly comments upon some scientific fact be precisely accurate.  The problem I find here is that science is constantly changing.  At every stage Christians have thought that the Bible supported the best science of their day.6  And each time science proved otherwise Christians were forced into a corner.  We had three decisions, and individuals have taken all three at different times: 1. Give up the Bible all together  2. Give up that particular interpretation of the Bible.  3. Question the science.

It seems to me that this constant battle with science is never ending.  Regardless of where you begin, either with science or scripture, there is only one way to settle the matter and that is to have all matters settled.  Christians will have to arrive unanimously at an immovable hermeneutic position and say, “This is precisely what the text means.”  So long as we are able to change our interpretations of scripture then science will never be able to “pin us down.”  Each time experts find science to contradict scripture we will either deny the science or change our interpretation.  Just the same, if Christians claim science as their support what will they do when the science changes?  Only when science has settled all matters which it is suited to settle, and only when the interpretation of scripture is finally concluded can we compare the “two books” and say whether they agree or not.

Whether we choose the former softer route, which can prove everything and therefore prove nothing, or the latter harder route, which constantly changes its answers so as to preclude any objective comparison, it seems that we cannot expect science to be an ally in proving the inerrancy of the Bible.

I want to suggest, however, that even though it is not an ally (at least not in the way that Concordists suppose) neither is it an enemy.  It is not an enemy because science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  As we said before, the Bible is not a science text book.  Therefore, we ought not judge the Bible by its scientific in/accuracy.  Immediately someone (perhaps you, the reader) will ask, “Does that mean that there are errors in the Bible?”  Well, yes.  And no.  It depends on how we judge errors.  A quick glimpse at Speech-Act Theory will help explain what I mean.7

 

Speech-Act Theory
Speech-Act Theory is a way of explaining what we do when we communicate with others.  It’s important to note, first of all, that much language involves accommodation.  We must assess where our audience is in their understanding and then choose the appropriate words to communicate with them, even if those words are imprecise and not the words we would normally use (consider how we often explain difficult concepts to children).  Speech-Act Theory helps us to understand this sort of accommodation.  The most important idea behind the theory is that when we speak we are not merely communicating but we are actually trying to accomplish something (hence, Speech-Act), for example, to promise, to bless, to instruct, to pacify, to apologize, to encourage, and so on.  Consequently, we also expect a particular sort of reaction from those with whom we communicate.  We expect them to obey, to understand, to accept a gift/blessing, to forgive, etc.

When we speak we use words, idioms, and tone (if spoken) or genre (if written).  This part of the communication, the first part, is called locution.  One of the most important things to grasp is that genre can be neither true nor false.  Insofar as it bears similarity to the tone of a spoken voice we might ask, can a person’s tone be true or false?  No, of course not.  It simply is.  It is an adornment of the locution, a characteristic of the words which are the vehicle of meaning.  It will change how we receive the message of the speaker/writer but it is not inherently true or false.8 This is also where accommodation happens. Accommodation, then, becomes a part of the genre and, therefore, cannot be true or false.

The next part of the Speech-Act is illocution, what we are trying to do through speech.  Are we trying to encourage, promise, describe, or instruct? Or perhaps something else?  And if we are trying to teach, what are we trying to teach?  If we are trying to describe, what are we trying to describe?  Consider one of Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor (XXIII):

 

“The fire for light, a rancorous moon for bread, the jasmine smearing around its bruised secrets: then from a terrifying love, soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses.”9

 

If you were to ask Neruda if this were true I have no doubt that he would say, “Yes.”  We understand that we are not to imagine Matilde, his wife, pouring a bucket of sunshine.  Yet, it does communicate something true.  It is not a scientific truth, not a physical truth.  Rather, it is a romantic or a metaphysical truth.  The phrase “soft white hands poured peace into my eyes and sun into my senses” is the locution intended to describe (the illocution) an evening shared by him and his wife.  The locution, the words and genre he used, are not verifiable or falsifiable. It is the uniquely suited vehicle chosen to describe and praise (the illocution) his and his wife’s shared reality. It is the illocution that we must judge to be either true or false.  (That is assuming the illocution is verifiable.  A command, for example, can be neither true nor false, it merely is).  Only if Neruda and Matilde had hated one another and never spent a single amicable evening together could we would say the poem is false.  Notice, however, that we would not say it is false simply because it used fanciful language.  That is part of the genre (locution) and is therefore neither true nor false.  We would only say it is false if what it affirmed (the love for his wife) were shown to be false.  Authority is not vested in the locution (speech) independent of the illocution (act).

We are now in a position where we can deal with some of the “scientific” statements of the Bible.

 

Old World Science in the Bible
In Genesis 1 the sky is described as a “firmament” (1:6-8).  The “firmament” is the Hebrew word raqiya later translated by the Greek stereoma.  Though some have suggested that raqiya simply means “expanse”, instead of “beaten metal”, stereoma refers to anything firm or solid.  We have already noted that Augustine, Luther, and Calvin all believed in a solid dome (cf. footnote 6).  It was none the less true of the Ancients in Israel’s day.  Mesopotamians and Egyptians both believed that the sky was a solid dome which held back the waters above and allowed precipitation through gates in the firmament.10 There is no reason to believe that the Israelites believed anything different, especially considering that this was the common believe even as recently as John Calvin.

Does this mean that God made a mistake?  No.  Remember, the Bible is not a scientific text book.  That means it is not intended to relate scientific facts, that is not its illocution.  Rather, it is intended to talk about God’s mission in the world.  This means that he may (and has) used accommodative language (locution) in order to meet the Israelites where they are and communicate some truth about himself.  The story of Genesis 1 is not about material origins.  It is about God constructing a cosmic temple in which he intends to dwell with mankind.

Elsewhere God is pictured as sitting upon “the circle of the earth” (Isa. 40:22).  Again, Egypt and Mesopotamia appear to have believed that the earth was a flat disk.11  It makes sense for God to communicate to his people using their common language to make a further point.  The point of the passage is that the LORD is greater than idol gods, not to say something about the shape of the earth.

This sort of linguistic accommodation is to be expected.

“Why would we think that the human communicator would use the science of our day? In fact, that would be foolishness because a century from now we will undoubtedly have adopted some new scientific conclusions that differ from what we believe today. Science is always changing, and it is expected that continuous progress will be made. God chose human communicators associated with a particular time, language and culture and communicated through them into that world.”12

Over and over again examples of biblical “Old World Science” could be given.  This need not bother us, however, if we remember that the Bible is not intended to communicate such scientific truths.  Science and the Bible are saying two very different things.  Consequently, science can be neither biblical or non-biblical because the Bible does not take scientific positions, nor can the Bible be scientific or unscientific because it is not concerned with scientific questions.  The Bible and science are different instruments revealing different sorts of truths.  This allows the Bible writers to say what they want to say to us without trying to make them into proto-scientists.  This also allows science to be judged on its own merits.  If the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa it is not so because “the Bible says,” it is so because the science says so.  Further, if the earth is ten thousand years old or ten billion years old it will be found to be so because science says so, not because the Bible says so.  The Bible is not intended to answer such questions and it is a mistake, I believe, to require it to do so.

Conclusion
We have come a long way.  While some may think the chief importance of the above information has to do with whether or not the Bible is inspired, it extends further than that.  This way of understanding the Bible becomes very important to our hermeneutic approach in other places.

First, we have demonstrated briefly that nothing in the context of supposed scientific statements indicates that the purpose of those passages is to communicate scientific information.  The context always indicates that the writer had another goal in mind (his illocution).

Second, this means that if scientific information was intended to be transferred by God, unbeknownst to the human writer, then it is by definition context-less, because the context has indicated otherwise.

“If God had other meanings beyond what he gave through the human biblical communicator, we have no reliable way to get to them except through later authority figures.  We dare not imagine ourselves in that capacity lest the authority of the text end up residing in each individual reader.”13

Which leads to our next point.  Third, if we affirm that such information is embedded in the text we affirm the existence of a context-less message and thereby remove all possible controls upon interpretation.  It now becomes senseless to speak of something being taken “out of context.”  All a person needs to do is appeal to other context-less interpretations to legitimate his idea.  This is, I think, the greatest danger.  It allows the Bible to be abused as a witness to the whimsy of men and women who would support this policy or that, this war effort or that one, trendy diets, particular clothing styles, or invented household rules.  (Anyone who who has fallen prey to such interpretations will know that none of these examples is far fetched).  The possible existence of context-less interpretation not only abuses the Bible but is too often used to abuse people.  The only hope we have at saving others from such manipulation is the serious and prayerful struggle to understand scripture within its ancient context as it would have been understood by its original readers.  These are the controls, the limits, set upon us as students of the Bible which safeguard others from our own pride and selfishness.  God have mercy on us all as we dive deeper into the world of the Bible and the mission of God.

 

 


1. For example, Dr. Hugh Ross, writer for Reasons to Believe, says, “If the Bible is indeed God’s message to humanity, would He not inspire the human authors in such a manner that their writings would communicate truth, and nothing but truth, to all generations?” Internet; Available at: http://www.reasons.org/articles/defending-concordism-response-to-the-lost-world-of-genesis-one ; Also, Mike Willis for Truth Magazine writes, “Yet, the claim that the Bible is verbally inspired cannot be sustained if the passing comments which it makes regarding the universe are in conflict with the facts of science. Hence, in order for the Bible to be inspired of God, it must be a book which harmonizes with the known facts of science.”  Internet; Avaialble at: http://www.truthmagazine.com/archives/volume21/TM021270.html ; Accessed 17 March, 2017.
2. Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, lines 275-286. Internet; Available at: http://www4.ncsu.edu/~kimler/hi322/Galileo-Letter.pdf ; Accessed 11 March 2017.
3. John Soden PhD., “What is Concordism in Bible-Science Discussion?” Internet; Available at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/03/07/concordism-bible-science-discussion/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
4. This is not intended to respond to every shade of Concordism. That would be a task much too large for this short article. I intend only to offer some general objections to common Concordist approaches.
5. James Patrick Holding, a writer for Answers in Genesis, takes this position in his response to Paul H. Seely. “Is the Raqiya’ (Firmament) a Solid Dome? Equivocal Language in the Cosmology of Genesis 1 and the Old Testament: a Response to Paul H. Seely.” Internet; Available at: https://answersingenesis.org/astronomy/cosmology/is-the-raqiya-firmament-a-solid-dome/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
6. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all believed scripture supported the science they had but which we now know to be outdated. Internet; Available at: http://www.thegospelandevolution.com/is-scientific-concordism-really-a-feature-of-the-bible/ ; Accessed 17 March 2017.
7. In what follows I am almost entirely dependent upon John Walton and Brent Sandy’s book The Lost World of Scripture, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
8. Something like this idea may be behind the famous conversation where C.S. Lewis said to J.R.R. Tolkien, “But myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver. They are just beautiful lies. You can’t actually believe in fairy stories.” To which Tolkien responded, “Why not? I can. In fact, I do.” Are we then to believe that Tolkien believed in Zeus, Mars, or the Ragnorak? Of course not. He was a faithful Catholic. But he understood that the truth or falsity of myth was not in its genre but in what it attempted to do, and it attempted to speak truth. The conversation continues, “But this is preposterous. How can you seriously believe a lie?” said Lewis. Tolkien then explains, “Myths are not lies. In fact they are the opposite of a lie. They convey the essential truth, the primal reality, of life itself.” This dialogue is recreated from notes in their letters and from Tolkien’s poem which resulted from this conversation variously titled “Polymythus to Misomythus” or more simply “Mythopoeia.” A live action recreation of the conversation is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzBT39gx-TE ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017. “Mythopoeia” is available here: http://home.agh.edu.pl/~evermind/jrrtolkien/mythopoeia.htm ; Internet; Accessed 18 March 2017.
9. Pablo Neruda, Cien Sonetos de Amor, Trans. Stephen Tapscott (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 51.
10. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 168-170.
11. Ibid, 171-172.
12. Walton, Lost World of Scripture, 52.
13. Ibid, 53.

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 2)

Part 1 made the case that truth is not simple.  This article explains why acknowledging complexity is important.

First, it needs to be said that understanding complexity is different from acknowledging that it exists.  Whereas I think acknowledging complexity is important for everyone, understanding it is not.  If we recall, C.S. Lewis admits this as well.  “A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple.  And if you are content to stop there, well and good.”1  Many people are content to stop “there”, i.e. at simplicity.  And I admit that in most cases that is all that is necessary.  For example, a person does not need to understand alternative numbering systems or why we have settled upon Base-10 in order to learn basic arithmetic.  They may be content to be told, “We use 10 digits and here they are.”  And for the general population that is all they need to know to balance their check book, to invent a budget, or figure sales tax.  But.  There are some people who must acknowledge and understand the complexity latent in numbering systems.  A person cannot get far in certain technology fields without understanding binary notation which is a Base-2 numbering system.  If a person refused to admit that there were alternative ways of counting and insisted upon Base-10 as “the right way” or perhaps “the simple way,” and if he refused to use binary because it was “too complicated”, I imagine he would be looking for another job.

Again, I readily admit that most people do not need to know that different planets spin on their axis at different rates and that the rate of their  rotation stands in a different relationship to their orbits around the sun than does the earth.  Most people are content to know that there are 24 hours in an (earth) day and that there are 365 days in an (earth) year.2 There are, however, some for whom the former is not only interesting but necessary. Those who are responsible for landing probes on Mars will need to know that Mars moves differently than the Earth. If a calculator at NASA refused to acknowledge that “years” are not always 365(.25) days and that “days” are not always 24 hours, because it was “too complicated” and it made his head spin, then he would not be of much use to NASA.

The same can be said when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular.  What a person “has to know”3 in order to be a faithful Christian appears simple, and it will remain simple for most people. But inevitably there will arise circumstances for certain individuals and for certain congregations that step outside of the norm. On these occasions “simple” just will not do. I offer one example here but anyone with an “inside” view of Churches of Christ will know that these examples could be multiplied. I feel confident in saying that the most common musical experience an outsider would have when worshipping with a Church of Christ would be a cappella singing lead by an individual man. Supposing an outsider asked why we do it this way, and precluding the opportunity for a more in depth answer4, we might say, “We sing a capella because instruments were not used by churches in the New Testament. A man leads because women are not to usurp authority over men.” A single sentence answer for each of the two curiosities inherent in male lead a capella worship. Now, a person might hear that and be satisfied. Maybe. But this simplicity only hides the latent complexity which will arise in different circumstances.

I have had the grand opportunity of doing extensive mission work in Brazil. On one occasion I even had the privilege of living with a Brazilian family for 2 months. While our worship services were much the same they sometimes differed on this point. In a smaller gathering it was still most common to see worship lead just like it is here, one man leading the church in a capella singing. A larger church, however, often did things differently. They had two men leading worship. When I first saw this I was a little startled. It was certainly different. But I thought very little of it. An even bigger group saw three men leading together. A still bigger group saw six men all standing in front of the congregation leading us in song. When I inquired as to why they did it this way they responded that often younger boys feel too timid to stand alone in front of the church. Being surrounded by their family and friends helps them to over come that fear. It turned out that this was their way of discipling worship leaders, and an effective one at that. Upon return home I continued to reflect upon the practice. I heard so much about the sin of “Praise Teams.” They were simply “unauthorized.” I began to wonder, “What was the difference in that group of men leading worship in Brazil and a Praise Team in Mississippi?” More questions began to arise. “What constitutes a ‘team’? Were they a ‘team’ when they were two? Or did it take as many as six to make them a ‘team’?” I further questioned, “Which one of them was leading? Were they all leading? Is it possible to have more than one leader? If everyone lead does it mean anything to call them leaders? Can a leader be a leader if he has no followers? Then what about certain devotionals where no one stands in front but any one is free to lead at any time? Is there really a leader? Are there really followers?” My questioning didn’t stop. “What if there is a mixed group of men and women up front but they were all subordinate to a leader? Does that mean that the women are usurping authority over the men in the pews even though they are subordinate to the man leading the praise team? What is different when these women are seated in the pews in contrast to when they stand behind a man on stage?” These questions were overwhelming. Then I landed at this one, “Where in the New Testament do we find an example of even one man standing in front of the congregation to lead the church? Where did I get the idea of song leaders in the first place?” If a person is satisfied with a simple answer then they need not worry about these problems. But what happens when a young man, recently baptized, wants to lead songs but is too shy to do it without his father? Are they both allowed to stand in front to lead the church? And if two may lead then why not three? And if three then why not six? And if we can have a team, why can we not have women?  I am not here advocating Praise Teams or women worship leaders. All of this is merely illustration to prove a point. Our simple answers “work” most of the time. But our simple answers are not suitable for every circumstance. Exceptional circumstances are unavoidable. In such cases we need leaders who are willing to grapple with the complicated realities that so evidently describe our lives. One who refuses to accept the complexity of truth is not willing to do that. And that is problem #1. For most Christians simple answers satisfy. Others, specifically leaders, will have to be prepared for that which is not simple. The leader who is not willing to entertain complex answers to irregular situations is not prepared for the irregularities of ministry.

Second, another problem with believing that truth is simple is that it changes what I think of other people. It leaves only two opinions about those who disagree with me.  They are either bad or brainless.  They can be wicked or they can be wacky.  But they cannot be genuine and genius at the same time.

I have recently begun to substitute at the local schools. Every class is a mixed bag. I have some children who are special ed and some who are just special. If I were to teach a basic mathematics class and a young man insisted that 2+2 was 11 I could react a number of different ways. If I refused to admit the possibility of alternate numbering systems and insisted upon Base-10 being “the right way”, then I could only think two things about this fellow. One possibility is that something has gone wrong with his education. He has not learned to count, and that is a sad situation indeed. But it is, at least, a situation with a remedy. I need only sit the young man down and return to the number line. The other possibility, however, is much more distressing. It is possible that the young man is being intentionally obstinate and disruptive. In this case he is intelligent enough to see that 2+2 is 4 but he chooses not to admit it for his own twisted amusement. If I were to meet this sort of thing in an adult I might wonder if he had some other motive. Perhaps insisting that 2+2=11 is an odd sort of wish fulfillment. Maybe he wishes to work two two-hour days and get paid for 11 hours of labor. Whatever his motive is it is surely a bad one. The problem is not the man’s head, it is his heart. And if that is the problem then no amount of education will save him. I should not waste my time trying to teach him. I should spend my time praying for his soul.

But. What if I was willing to admit that even the simplest of equations has a number of correct answers? This admits a new possibility. It is not that my student is dorky or deficient. Perhaps he is neither puerile or pernicious … he is quite possibly precocious. Maybe he sees some disability or clumsiness in our Base-10 numbering system that I am unable to see. Yes, he’s well aware that 2+2=4 the way that I reckon it. But maybe he has a reason for preferring to reckon it otherwise. If I were to crush his spirit I could be crushing another Einstein. If I decided to prove my authority by inspiring fear I could be inspiring another Sandy Hook. All because I insisted upon a much “simpler” and “traditional” way of reckoning numbers.

The same could be said for the length of days and years. If a young lady insisted that days were longer than years I could think that she was intellectually puny or that she was morally pugnacious. But, if I’m willing to entertain the possibility of complexity, I may entertain the possibility of a Perelandrian.5 And I would regret it if I forfeit the opportunity to introduce myself to a visitor from Venus.

These same responses fit matters of doctrine. Most often our initial response to those with whom we disagree is to assume that something has gone wrong with their education. We try to school them in elementary principles and bring them up to speed. If disagreement persists we do not assume that the trouble is with the topic. We do not assume that an educated fellow could genuinely disagree with us. Instead we assume that he must not want to know the truth. Documentation of these phenomena would be necessary if they weren’t so frequent. A duck inside a mainstream Church of Christ, a short listen to an online sermon, or a quick perusal of the many Facebook groups headed by members of the Church of Christ will be evidence enough. We are quick to say things like, “They decided to follow Man instead of the Bible.” “Some people just want their ears tickled.” “That man is a liar and a false prophet.” “He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” “I remember the days when the simple gospel was enough for people. Now days all they’re interested in are fancy auditoriums and youth groups.” Still, overlooking the unlikelihood of an insider being unacquainted with such remarks, I share a personal experience where this attitude is evident.

While I was in school I once had an instructor who proudly confessed that he would be willing to volunteer any of our graduates to debate the students of any university, regardless of their erudition. Dartmouth, Yale, Harvard, no matter. We would defeat their liberalism with plain simple truth. If they disagreed with us they were either less intelligent or less sincere.  Either way they are “less.”  This assured him of our victory.  At the time I contributed my “Amen” to the chorus of the class. Now I feel fairly confident that we would be whipped in debate. What’s worse, we would be whipped and walk away thinking we had won.

This should not be surprising. If truth is really as simple as we insist then what option do we have? Either they are too ignorant to see what is plain or they are too stubborn to submit to God’s power. What other explanation is there for an intelligent man to disagree with us? He must not want to agree with us. The only thing that allows me to view my dissenters as good and intelligent is the belief that the thing about which we disagree is difficult to agree upon. If we are wrestling with a complex problem I should expect well meaning and gifted men to disagree with me. But if we are arguing about the color of the carpet he is either carnal or color blind (or maybe I am).

This is an important lesson for everyone to learn, not just the religious. Those who have taken it upon themselves to comment on politics would also do well to admit the complexity of the problems they debate. If determining the goodness of our president is as easy as comparing photos of the inauguration then there is only one explanation as to why people should think Trump a better choice than Obama. They are either bad or brainless. But if a president’s quality is more complex than paralleling polaroids then I might have to do the hard work of listening to those who think differently than I do.

If my presidential choices are defined by whether or not I support “killing babies” then there is only one way to explain why my neighbor would vote for Hillary. She is either wicked or wacky. But if electing our leader isn’t reducible to one issue then I may have to swallow my pride and have a conversation with my neighbor.

If my policy on refugees is as simple as defending against terrorism then there are only two reasons not to support my president’s temporary immigration ban: either I don’t understand terrorism, or I am a terrorist. But if immigration and harboring refugees is about more than terrorism then I might want safety for my friends and safety for the strangers.

The way that I view Truth and the way that I view Man are connected. If I am to leave room for love I must leave room for mystery. Being zealous for simplicity may mean being over zealous for prejudice. But when I make room in my head for the Sphinx, I make room in my heart for the foe.

Conclusion
It is not at all necessary for a person to understand all of the nuances of truth in order to be a good person or to be a faithful Christian.  When a child asks why Mommy’s belly is so big an acceptable answer would be, “Mommy is growing another baby in her tummy.”  It tells the truth but not all the truth.  In order to fully explain it we would have to say something about love, intimacy, marriage, sex, and embryology.  Of course, most of it would be meaningless to the little one and therefore unnecessary.  But when it comes to our own daughters having babies, we certainly want them to understand something about love, intimacy, marriage, and sex.  We may even want her to know a bit about embryology.  When it comes to the OBGYN we certainly want him/her to know something about it.

Some Christians are “new borns” or “children” in the faith.  Whether that is because they are recently converted or because they have failed to grow, “children” is an apt description.  In such cases they cannot stomach the food of the mature Christian (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1, 2; Heb. 5:11-14).  They need a simple presentation of complex truth.  It would be silly of me to deny this.  But it would be just as silly to think that my simple explanation has exhausted all there is to say.  If I fail to recognize this I dishonor the truth.  In addition, if I do not acknowledge the mysteries of the truth then it is only natural for me to think less of those who do not see what I see.  I do not have to see it all, but I must admit that there is more to be seen.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40.
2. Even this is a little too simplified. There are in fact 365.25 days in a year. This is the reason for Leap Year. Every four years we must add an extra day to the year in order to stay on track.
3. Even this, by the way, cannot be agreed upon amongst my brethren. Why then do we insist that it’s continue to insist that it’s simple?
4. The very fact that a more “in depth” study would be desirable should indicate again that this is not a simple issue.
5. “Perelandra” is the native name of the planet Venus in C.S. Lewis’ science fiction novel by the same title.

Truth is NOT Simple (Part 1)

 

For months I have had the idea to write an article about the problem with simple Christianity.  I put it off for a time but now feel I ought to wait no longer.  I recently found this remark online:

“If your doctrine takes forever to explain, question whether it’s true.  Truth is almost always easily explained & easily understood.”

This is not an isolated statement, but a representative one.1 Brother Lee Snow is merely stating what is widely believed in our common tradition.2 I myself was convinced of this for years and taught it just as vehemently. I have since come to believe, however, that there is hardly anything with which I could disagree more.

My first doubt arose when I realized how difficult it seemed to explain things that I once held to be obviously true. As is common in my tradition I believed and taught that a cappella singing was the only authorized sort of music in worship. Yet, it was the most curious and difficult part of my tradition for others to understand. They responded, “But they worshipped with instruments all the time?” To which I would respond, “Yes. They did. In the Old Testament.” This, however, did not help my case. Admitting that they worshipped with instruments in the Old Testament seemed to be as good a reason as any to worship with them today. The response from my questioner was usually raised eyebrows, shrugged shoulders, and raised hands, perhaps even an audible, “So?” I was then required to set out on the adventure of explaining to them why the Old Testament is not an accurate guide for today’s worship practices. After a long journey through Acts, Hebrews, and certain key passages in Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians I ended with my confident rhetorical flourish, “So you see, because we are no longer under the Old Testament then we ought not to use instruments in worship.” If complexity had already been built atop the assumed simplicity of my doctrine it was only the foundation for further complexity. The inevitable response from my interlocutor would be, “So … you don’t believe in the Old Testament? But Jesus and the Apostles quoted from the Old Testament all of the time.” I was then compelled to explain to them the hermeneutical system by which Jesus and the Apostles (obviously) determined exactly which things from the Old Testament were “binding” and which things weren’t. But after much struggle I learned that it’s just easier to say, “If it is repeated in the New Testament then it’s binding.”

 

The most difficult problem, however, was a problem of my own making. Frustrated at my brethren’s inability to understand the proper use of the Old Testament3 I set out to write an article which would explain it clearly and definitively once and for all.4 As I wrote, I found my own (mis)understanding challenged. I began with an illustration which had helped me in the past. An instructor of mine once asked, “How many of the 10 commandments do we keep today?” To which the class rightly (or so we thought) responded, “Nine.” My instructor with a sly grin responded, “None.” “You see,” he continued, “we do not keep the other 9 ‘because the Old Testament said so.’ We keep them because they are repeated in the New Testament.” Then he offered the illustration that continued to be helpful for so long. “For example, the United States of America used to be under British rule. Under their law it was forbidden to rape, murder, and steal. It would be incorrect, however, to say that we still obey the British Law which tells us not to rape, murder, and steal. We do not. We obey the American Law. Now, they happen to have these things in common for they both forbid raping, murdering, and thievery. But we do not obey them because the Queen said so but because the President said so.” This made incredible sense. There were a great number of places in which the commandments found in the New Testament overlapped with those in the Old Testament but that was no reason to say that I obeyed the Old Testament. I did not. I obeyed the New Testament and it just so happens that they often said the same things. As I set about to demonstrate this for all the world I hit upon this curious truth: it wasn’t true. Over and over again the apostles appealed to the “Old Law” (as we are accustomed to calling the Law of Moses) not as an illustration or principle, but as an authoritative command. For example, Paul writes, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder, You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:9, 10). To which I ought to respond, “Why should I care to fulfill the Law? The Law of Moses was nailed to the cross.” Yet, Paul strangely quotes the Law and expects his hearers to have a desire to obey it. I met the same strange thing in Peter. Peter insists, “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.'” To which I ought to respond, “Good riddance with ‘it is written’! I’m no longer under that Law.” To me this was just as good as saying that I ought not to steal a man’s car because it would bring dishonor to the crown. Hang the crown! My concern is for the stars and stripes. Paul and Peter could just as easily (and more simply) have said, “God has granted us authority to make rules in his name and we judge that you ought to be holy and not to commit adultery, to murder, to steal, or covet.” But they didn’t. Instead they appealed to the authority of a Law that I believed had been stripped of its authority. The truth was stranger and more complex than I had ever imagined. How, if I struggled to understand the truth at all, was I supposed to make this simple? For I certainly believed that we ought not to offer bulls and goats on an altar in Jerusalem, yet now I was forced to believe that somehow I ought to obey Moses without dishonoring Jesus. At this point I was not ready to forfeit my insistence upon a cappella. That came much later. But I conceded this at least: the truth, as I saw it, was not simple at all. It was stranger than I could imagine and more complex than I thought fair.

I was helped later by an unlikely source. C.S. Lewis was one of the first men I ever read outside of my tradition and after I had finished his book I concluded that this was his only fault. In Book II, chapter 2 of Mere Christianity he wrote these words which I have never forgotten:

“It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of–all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain–and, of course, you find that what we call ‘seeing a table’ lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of. A child saying a child’s prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not–and the modern world usually is not–if you want to go on and ask what is really happening–then you must be prepared for something difficult. If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple. Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made ‘religion’ simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your time.”5

I found myself nodding in agreement with him though it would be longer still before I began to consider the implications of what he had written. I was encouraged to do so, however, by another writer to which Lewis himself is indebted: G.K. Chesterton.

“The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was a duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on the one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong … Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose … to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”6

I had been confronted twice now by men admittedly greater than I saying the exact opposite of what I had long held to be axiomatic. Yet they were not opposing me through and through. Both admit that truth appears simple. This we had in common. But where they had gone right and I had gone embarrassingly wrong, is that they knew that things were not always as they seem. Truth may seem simple but it is not. This came as a flash in the dark when I finally realized that even that which I considered to be the simplest of problems was not simple at all. Now I confront you with that most simple of all problems. What, if you please, is 2+2?

This is a fine example of the deceit of simplicity for a number of reasons. My debates and, alas, frequent arguments with others over matters of doctrine would almost certainly end in the objection, “That’s your interpretation.” Being young(er) and impetuous I would respond, “There can be no interpretation about something as simple as 2+2.” And that is how I felt. Deep in my bones. There were things in the Bible that I thought took effort to misunderstand. In my mind they were so simple that I thought rejecting my conclusion was as pig-headed as rejecting that 2+2=4.

Which brings us back to the question. I assume when I asked you “What is 2+2?” you answered 4. And I’m glad that you did. Because that is just where you would be wrong. What if I told you that 2+2 equals 11? You might say that I’ve lost it. But why should you? And why should 2+2 equal 4? You see, the answer “4” assumes a Base-10 numbering system. That is a numbering system which symbolizes quantities using ten digits, namely 0-1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9. If you imagine these digits on a numbering line and then add the quantity XX (symbolized by the number 2) to the quantity XX (also 2) you get XXXX (symbolized by the number 4).

– X X – – – – – – – + -X X – – – – – – – = – X X X X – – – – –
0 1  2  3  4  5 6 7  8  9 + 0 1 2 3  4 5  6 7  8 9  =  0 1  2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

But what if you did not have ten digits? What if you only had three? What if you had to symbolize the same quantity, XXXX, with the digits 0-1-2? You could count to two without any problem. It would look exactly the same.

– X X
0  1  2

But what happens when you exceed that quantity? Well, you need a place marker. So the quantity XXX becomes one full set plus zero.

– X X X
0  1  2 10 (1 full set + 0 = 10)

Are you getting it? Finally, we have arrived at where we can symbolize the quantity XXXX with only three digits. How do we do that? You guessed it: 11.  One full set plus one.

– X X X X
0  1 2 10 11 (1 full set + 111).

In a base three numbering system the symbol “4” doesn’t even exist. If a person using that system were to ask you, “What, if you please, is 2+2?” “Four” would not only be wrong it would be nonsensical.

Now, if you’re clever you may respond to this by pointing out that changing the symbol of a quantity does not change the quantity itself. Whether you call it 4 or 11 the quantity is still XXXX, which is true, but that leads us further to ask, “Why should we use a Base-10 numbering system at all?” And the answer is that we have five-digits on each hand making 10 total. The point of this exercise, however, is to show how the simplest of all problems (2+2) can lead us into boggling complexity. We began with invented numbers and ended with created fingers. The simplest of problems turns out to be more complex than we imagined. And we could go further still. We might wonder why we settled on Base-10 instead of Base-20 as we might have done, for as much as we have 10 fingers we also have 10 toes. Our wonder would increase if we realized that having six fingers is often the dominant trait in humans and animals. How then is this dominant trait so uncommon?7 Curious indeed. What would our world have been like if we had a Base-12 numbering system instead? And regardless of how many fingers and toes we have, why should that be the basis of numbers at all? It might surprise you to know that ancient Sumerians had a sexagesimal (Base-60) numbering system, and as far as I know they didn’t have 60 fingers, nor 30 fingers and 30 toes.  So why did they choose 60?  And why should we have chosen 10?  When we realize that numbers mustn’t be reckoned according to the (recessive) number of our fingers the very fact that they are becomes exponentially more quizzical.

Other examples of deceptive simplicity could be given but by now you know that I have something up my sleeve. If I were to ask you, “Which is longer: a day or a year?” You would think a bit longer before answering, “A year.” You would expect a trick. And you would be right. The question assumes a particular planet. A different planet requires a different answer. On Venus a day is actually longer than a year. So you see, to answer the question truly and thoroughly one must discuss the rotation of a planet’s axis (a day) in comparison to that planet’s orbit around the sun (a year), which is itself an amazing assumption. It was not long ago when men were killed for saying that there was a such thing as an orbit around the sun because the sun so obviously orbits around the earth.  If you doubted it then finding proof was as simple as watching the sun rise and set.  That should settle the matter.  But of course you know that it doesn’t.

When we ask for simplicity we find complexity. And if we insist on simplicity, men lose their lives. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for refusing simplicity. The question, then, is this: am I Giordano Bruno, or am I Pope Clement VIII?

If all of this questioning seems absurd that’s because it is. My intention isn’t to fish for Red Herring but to make an all too obvious point which turns out not to be so obvious. And if this seems like the eternal childish questioning of an infant–“Why? But why? But why?”–that too is on solid ground. For,

“Children ask magnificent questions. ‘Why are people?’ ‘What makes the cat tick?’ ‘What’s the world’s first name?’ ‘Did God have a reason for creating the earth?’ Out of the mouths of babes comes, if not wisdom, at least the search for it. Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder. It certainly begins in childhood, even if for most of us it stops there, too. The child is a natural questioner. It is not the number of questions he asks but their character that distinguishes him from the adult. Adults do not lose their curiosity that seems to be a native human trait, but their curiosity deteriorates in quality. They want to know whether something is so, not why. But children’s questions are not limited to the sort that can be answered by an encyclopedia. What happens between the nursery and college to turn the flow of questions off, or, rather, to turn it into the duller channels of adult curiosity about matters of fact? A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of the best answers. It is easy enough to learn the answers. But to develop the actively inquisitive minds, alive with real questions, profound questions–that is another story.”8

Truth often appears simple, but it is not. And if physics, which is observable, testable, and measurable, is so complex, can we really expect metaphysics to be any simpler? The Bible often appears simple. But if we want the truth we must be prepared for complexity.

[Editor’s note: upon publication I extended an invitation to brother Snow to respond if he would like. I committed to publishing his response without alteration. He graciously accepted. His response can be expected soon]

©M. Benfield 2017


1. For example, one blog in my tradition carries the title “Plain Simple Faith.” Another well known anecdote comes from Tolbert Fanning, former editor of the Gospel Advocate, who gave a glowing recommendation of J.S. Lamar’s book on hermeneutics with this caveat: “It seems to imply that the Bible needs interpretation, whereas, in strictness … The Scriptures fairly translated, need no explanation.”
2. Brother Snow’s quote was originally anonymous. Because I did not intend to “call him out”, and because the sentiment is so common, I did not think it important to name the author. Upon his request the article was later edited to include his name as well as a link to his information.
3. This itself presents a problem. If my own tradition, after preaching this particular doctrine for nearly 150 years, still has difficulty understanding it, how can we call it simple? We’ve been explaining it for a century and a half and cannot seem to get to the bottom of it.
4. I now realize and confess the hubris inherent in such a thought.
5. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 40-41.
6. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009), 123-125.
7. Exactly how this can be is discussed here: http://genetics.thetech.org/ask-a-geneticist/polydactyly ; Internet; Accessed 11 February 2017.
8. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Touchstone, 1972), 270.