Wednesday, July 15, 2009
As I type these words I am sitting at a table at Starbucks sipping on an iced double shot hazelnut latte. I'm here with a few books and my manuscript for my K. C. Moser book. Let me share some thoughts ... unrefined as they are:
I grew up singing lyrics penned by John Fawcett, "How precious is the Book divine, By inspiration given! Bright as a lamp its precepts shine, To guide my soul to heaven." In singing these words we intended to affirm our commitment to the Bible as the written word of God and its essential importance in the life of the Church. We were, and are, a "people of the book." We, the faith progeny of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell, have rhetorically "amened" Chillingworth as he quipped "The Bible, the Bible alone, the religion of Protestants." Thus in our rhetoric we affirmed two basic core tenets of our identity: 1) the sufficiency of scripture and 2) the perspicuity or clarity of scripture. These notions so ingrained into our collective Stone-Campbell DNA are often heard as "all I need is the Bible." "We don't interpret the Bible, we just obey it," "It means what it says and says what it means." Or some other such slogan ... and we have all used them at one point or another.
Though we have, at times, vociferously attacked any notion that we "interpret" the Bible and that a disciple needs any sort of spiritual help outside of the Bible ... I want to pose the question "Is that a polemical mask? a Ploy?" Do we hide a secret within our church closet the truth that we do in fact not only believe we MUST interpret the Bible but that it must be interpreted in a SPECIFIC and PARTICULAR way to arrive at already believed propositions (i.e. doctrinal statements)? I believe the only answer to this question is in the affirmative. Our most conservative scholars have taught us that simply reading and believing the Bible is not enough rather the run of the mill disciple must be educated to a certain way of interpretation for her soul depends upon it.
I draw upon Thomas B. Warren's "When is an 'Example' Binding? as a classic example. Warren was a great and classic polemicist in the last half of the 20th century. He challenged atheists like Anthony Flew as well as those within his own circle of fellowship. "When is an 'Example' Binding?" was first published in 1975 and remains a critical textbook among many today. My first encounter with the book was in a class called "Establishing Biblical Authority" with Kippy Myers, now a professor at Freed Hardeman University. "When is an 'Example'" is a difficult book to read at best but if we get beyond Warren's writing style it is fascinating in its claims.
For Warren a reader of the Bible begins with a philosophy of some sort. He critiques three (Empiricism, Romanticism, and Idealism, pp 11-13). "Philosophy leads theology around by the nose" he states (p. 10). It is "logic," however, that is lens through which we are to read the scriptures. The kind of logic we can use for biblical interpretation is found in, among other places, Logic, An Introduction by Lionel Ruby (a book I was required to read in school). "The Bible is the most logical book which has ever been written" (p. 9).
Warren exerts tremendous mental energy through a series of exercises that make scriptural interpretation as methodical and (seemingly) precise as a Calculus textbook does with mathematics. The underlying cause for this is that hermeneutics is, when all is said and done, actually a salvation issue. This is stated explicitly (and I did not catch this for many years).
"The importance of this problem is seen in the following facts: 1) Only God's truth (the Bible) can free men from sin (John 8:32), 2) one must learn not only what the Bible SAYS but also what it MEANS."
There are a number of critical problems here that call out for attention. For starters the Scriptures do not teach that the "Bible" sets humans free from sin and the citation of John 8.32 does not support such a claim. The "truth" that sets us free in the Gospel of John is the Messiah himself not the Bible and certainly not the Bible as Protestants understand the term. "Truth" is a Person "I AM ... THE Truth" (John 14.6). But for our purposes note that Warren makes it crystal clear that the MEANING of the Scripture is NOT self-evident but must be interpreted according to his understanding of logic. This becomes even clearer as we read ...
"It is important for each person to learn as much of what the Bible SAYS as he possibly can, but it is conceivable that one might MEMORIZE the entire Bible itself and NOT understand what it MEANS. One must learn not only what the Bible SAYS but ALSO how the various statements ... relate to one another" (pp. 7-8)
We all agree with Warren we need to have a "big picture" view of Scripture. Yet for our purposes here we need to see that interpretation is declared essential. The laser becomes more focused ...
"Even if one gained knowledge of that God is and that the Bible is His word, he still COULD NOT BE SAVED [my emphasis] by such knowledge if he did not know how to properly INTERPRET the Bible" (pp. 8-9). (For similar statements on the necessity of interpretation to get the real meaning of Scripture see pp. 20, 121, etc) This is far removed from "it means what it says and says what it means!"
Hermeneutics is a salvation issue! One does not simply learn about God through the Bible. Indeed we may learn all that and still could not be saved. Salvation hinges on interpretation. Thus the importance, and urgency, of the matter for Warren. The issue of MEANING is important for two reasons as we work our way through Warren's thoughts:
1) the Bible can, and does, mean MORE than what it actually says for a person living today
2) the Bible can, and does, mean LESS (and even the OPPOSITE) of what it actually says
I'm using my own words here but that is the "basic thesis of the book" a phrase that pops up repeatedly in the book. One must accept this "basic thesis" or be in danger of missing the true meaning of scripture and endangering the soul. Through the lens of logic we can reduce the the biblical materials to a series of Propositions and arrive at the actual "word of God" which may be, btw, MORE than the Bible claims or LESS depending on issue and circumstance.
Through the proper use of logic, according to Warren, faithful Christians can actually construct a reading that directly and explicitly contradicts the actual words of the text. In fact to DO what the text says is "sin" and to do the opposite is to "obey" God's revealed will. First Corinthians 14.39-40 is one of Warren's examples. It reads,
"Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; yet everything should be done in a fitting fashion."
A proper understanding of the meaning of this text is a matter of salvation for Warren. I want to point out two important (to me) points about the meaning of this text as Warren understands it. First that the conclusion which he arrives at will be agreed with, he says, IF we recognize "the truthfulness of and (b) by acting in harmony with the basic thesis of this book" (p. 54f). So unless one agrees and endorses Warren's approach to LOGIC one will never actually understand the MEANING of the text for you and me. Second, when the cards are down it is not logic that determines the meaning of this text for us but rather rejection theologically unacceptable conclusions. "If one rejects the basic thesis of this book, THEN HE HAS NO WAY OF SHOWING THAT THE COMMANDS IN VERSE 39 ARE NOT BINDING ..." (p.55, my emphasis). Warren has to show that v.39 is not binding because if he doesn't he cannot tell folks not to speak in tongues! Or to not to want to prophesy! His logic is driven by polemics and not by either the immediate context or the remote context (his lingo).
A faithful Christian, indeed possibly a Christian period, must forbid speaking in tongues and cannot be eager to prophesy. So by accepting the logic of Warren we learn that we must disobey what the apostle actually said and in so doing we will save our souls. The text MEANS nothing like what it appears to mean:
"[R]ather than being under obligation not to forbid men to 'speak in tongues' ... Christians living today ARE under obligation to teach others it is wrong either to attempt to or to claim to be able to 'speak in tongues.' This is the case because the total evidence of the Bible warrants this deduction." (p. 55).
I wonder what Warren would say if some one used the same "logic" for the passage just a few verses away in 14.34? Would not Thomas' allies say such a person did not believe in the "authority of the Bible?"
First Corinthians 14 is not the only place where it is clear that the fear of an "unacceptable" conclusion drives the Warren's hermeneutic and not the biblical text or even logic. Later he soundly rejects the notion that only explicit commands are binding on humans because "if this doctrine were true, it follows that no one could rightly say, 'You must not use instrumental music in the worship of God; it is sinful to do so" (p. 100). Warren has already at that conclusion (just as he did regarding 1 C 14.39) and any approach that calls the CONCLUSION into question is to be rejected out of hand. Rather we "must" accept the basic premise of the book and THEN the conclusions will follow ... the ONLY acceptable conclusions. Conclusions already believed. Alister McGrath opined "It is important to appreciate that Protestant readings of the Bible are often shaped by past controversies" (Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution, p.204). The same can be said here. Warren has positions that are arrived at not by biblical exegesis but were hammered out in a polemical arena. Within the construct of Thomas B Warren correct biblical interpretation is simply another rung on the ladder we erect to heaven. It is, in my view, works salvation. If we misinterpret 1 C 14.39 it will cost us our salvation. This approach, it seems to me, breeds arrogance. It breeds self reliance. It all but denies the role of sin in our human apprehension of truth. It multiplies division and schism exponentially. This is serious stuff.
I believe in the Bible and ALL of the Bible. I believe the Bible is "logical" but certainly it is not a book of logic. It has a rhyme, it has a reason, it has a flow, it has an organic unity and it has a Story. I believe Scripture must be wrestled with and digested and prayed over and consumed for the life of the disciple and the Gathered People of God.
I do not believe the Bible is the Savior. The Crucified and Risen Messiah is. People had faith in him and lived in fellowship with him and each other long before there was something like our present Protestant Bibles. I believe God has given us Scripture to nourish us as we walk with him ... so I sing "give me the Bible" and laud the excellencies of the written Word as it points me to the Living Word who dwells with his people to this very day. I hope to offer another post that may have some helpful pointers to a more theologically healthy hermeneutic.
My comments on Brother Warren's book should not in ANY way be understood as an attack on him. I value his efforts to serve the Lord and thank God for his courage and faithfulness. His approach to the issue of hermeneutics is where I demur from him.
I am sorry for the long absence in my blogging. I promise to be more faithful with it in the future.