Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The “Perfections” of Scripture and Their Implications in Hermeneutics

In the history of Bible interpretation, it was the Protestant Reformers who championed four perfections or attributes of the Scripture as they defended themselves against the accusations of Roman Catholic authorities and as they declared the teachings of the Holy Scripture over and against the excesses of Rome and some of the Protestant sects. These perfections also serve as important guides for us modern interpreters in understanding the message of the Holy Scripture.

The first perfection of Scripture is its authority. By this we mean to say that the Holy Scripture is the supreme and ultimate authority in matters of faith and conduct. While we recognize other authorities and standards such as the church council or assembly, creeds and confessions of the church, church leaders, and others, these are subordinate to the Scripture’s authority. Ultimately our recognition of the authority of Scripture is founded on the Lordship of Christ, who attests to the authority of the Scripture (Matt. 5:17-19), and the authority of God, who is the divine author of the Holy Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). This tells us that the faithful interpreter of the Bible must submit himself to the Lord as he interprets God’s Word.

Consequently, we interpret Scripture with great care and humility, submitting to its commands and precepts, believing its claims and promises, utterly depending on the Holy Spirit’s illumination and enabling in understanding and applying everything that it says. We have no right therefore to twist, modify or undermine its teachings and instructions in order to suit our own personal, cultural, theological or denominational preferences and convictions which are not Scriptural. Nor do we have the freedom to interpret (or reinterpret) Scripture in such a way as to justify our unscriptural beliefs and wrongdoings or minimize our culpability. That is not only an irresponsible handling of the text of Scripture but that is also an irreverent way of interpreting the Bible.

For example, since Scripture clearly teaches that God will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know [Him] and on those who do not obey the gospel of Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:8), we as Bible interpreters and teachers do not have the right to diminish the truth of eternal punishment in order to make the gospel appealing to the unbelieving ears. In interpreting any Biblical passage, the authority of Scripture must guide us in seeing and learning what it really says, not what we want to see and hear from the text.

The second perfection of Scripture pertains to its necessity. The necessity of Scripture “refers to its indispensable service as the God-ordained instrument for the communication of the knowledge of God and of ourselves. Only by means of the Scriptures do we come to know clearly and fully those things which are necessary for us to know in this life, to God’s glory and for our salvation” (From a handout in Theological Foundations class at Mid-America Reformed Seminary; cf. Belgic Confession, Article II). There are things of and about God and about ourselves which could not have been known to us if the Bible was not written.

In acknowledging the necessity of the Scripture we are saying that without God’s divine act of revealing Himself more clearly and more fully through the written Word, our knowledge of Him and of ourselves is limited, even defective because of our sin (Rom. 1:18-23). Though “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), God deemed it necessary to make Himself known to man through the writings of the prophets, like Moses (Ex. 17:14; 34:1, 27) or Jeremiah (Jer. 30:2), the apostles, like John (John 20:31; 1 John 1:4), and other men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19-21).

This then tells us that in reading and studying the Scripture, by faith and through the enabling of the Spirit, we are engaging ourselves in the pursuit of gaining a better and more reliable knowledge of God, of Jesus Christ, of ourselves and the way we should live as God’s people (Jos. 1:8; Psa. 19:7-14; Ps. 119; Luke 24:27; John 5:39; 2 Tim. 3:15). The necessity of Scripture then gives us the motive and the goal in interpreting the Bible, to know and gratefully thank and worship God for revealing Himself in such a special way. Only the Scripture gives us godly wisdom, which is closely connected to the idea of the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Ps. 119:33-34). Thus in interpreting Scripture we have to bear in mind that the whole written Word has its own overall purpose, while recognizing the unique individual purpose of each writer and the times and audiences they were writing (e.g. Luke 1:1-4; John 20:31).

Third, it is also said that the Scripture is plain and clear for anyone who earnestly seek to know God, His gift of salvation in and through Christ, and His will for us. This perfection is called the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. Louis Berkhof contends that

“In opposition to Rome, [the Reformers] further defended the clearness of the Bible. They did not deny that it contains mysteries too deep for human understanding, but simply contended that the knowledge necessary unto salvation, though not equally clear on every page of the Bible, is yet conveyed in a manner so simple that anyone earnestly seeking salvation can easily gather this knowledge for himself, and need not depend on the interpretation of the Church or the priesthood” (Summary of Christian Doctrine, p. 20).

As Bible interpreters we must then be careful not to complicate simple commands as “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” or “Honor your father and your mother.” These commandments are simple and need not be allegorized. The same thing applies to the narrative and the truth it portrays.

However, we also recognize that there are different literary genres in the Bible and therefore different literary approaches are required to make sense of the different Scriptural texts (like narrative, prophetic, apocalyptic, parable, etc.). Likewise there are difficult passages in the Scripture that are not easy to understand and this is where the principle that says “Scripture interprets Scripture” or that idea that states “the clearer parts of the Scripture must shed light to the difficult part” applies. The unity of Scripture is also important here. We should not forget that there is one God the Holy Spirit who is behind all the 66 books of the Bible. Literary and historical contexts are also important in this regard. A faithful Bible interpreter cannot afford to disregard the literary structure as well as the environment or background of the author and his audience in trying to understand the meaning of the text.

Responsible Bible interpretation then acknowledges the simplicity of the message of the Scripture, particularly on God’s work of salvation in Christ, while recognizing that there are things that God did not reveal to us (Deut. 29:29). This should move us then to be diligent in studying and understanding the word of God, not giving up when we seem to face dead end.

The sufficiency of Scripture is its fourth perfection. By this “we mean to refer to its adequacy and completeness to regulate, found and confirm the church’s faith and practice. The Bible alone is sufficient to equip the man of God for every good work. It does not require the addition of extra-Scriptural tradition or revelation to provide for the need of God’s people” (From a handout in Theological Foundations Class at Mid-America Reformed Seminary). Again the Reformers vigorously “defended the sufficiency of Scripture, and thereby denied the need of the tradition of the Roman Catholics and of the inner light of the Anabaptists” (Louis Berkhof, Summary of Christian Doctrine, p.20).

Similar to its clarity or perspicuity, the sufficiency of Scripture gives us the assurance that Scripture is our sure foundation and guide in knowing the truth and walking according to the truth. Guided by and dependent upon the Holy Spirit, the faithful Bible interpreters need not look anywhere to find certainty and security in the faith other than what the Spirit has already revealed in the written Word of God. Everything that we need to make us wise unto salvation has been provided by God in the pages of the Sacred Writings.

Thus in keeping with the Scripture’s sufficiency, our hermeneutical approach should be characterized by confidence, not doubting whether or not the Scripture misleads us or confuses us on matters of faith and doctrine. When confronted by two seemingly opposing or contradicting ideas, the interpreter should be convinced that the Scripture contains within itself a way to clarify ambiguity.

These perfections give us reason all the more to love the written Word, to guard its message and to rejoice in the fact that when we are confused we can turn to the Scripture and there find God speaking to us and assuring us that His Word “is a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path” (Psalm 119:105) and can keep our way pure (Psalm 119:9). Thus Paul can confidently say to Timothy,

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14-16).

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