Friday, June 19, 2015
The Possibility and Implications of Distorting Divine Scripture
If the history of Christianity demonstrates anything it demonstrates that the phenomenon of twisting the divine revelation that has historically come to be known as Christian Scripture, is a very real possibility. For the true Christian, nothing is more important than a right understanding of the divine revelation. Yet, over the centuries, the historical evidence is irrefutable. Wrong interpretations of Scripture are possible.
Vern Poythress notes, “In the course of that long history, Christians have committed plenty of horrendous sins and made ghastly mistakes that discredit the faith. Moreover, those antagonistic to the God of the Bible have, over a period of several centuries, produced a whole marketplace of culturally fashionable stratagems for evading God. Some are incredibly sophisticated and awesomely complex. They include ways of immunizing ourselves from the Bible and its message. So we have plenty of ways to hide our spiritual nakedness.” [Poythress, God Centered Biblical Interpretation]
The use of words is intended to do something. The motive that leads to the human behavior of communicating resides within the communicator. E.D. Hirsch Jr. says, “There is no magic land of meaning outside human consciousness. Whenever meaning is connected to words, a person is making the connection, and the particular meanings he lends to them are never the only legitimate ones under the norms and conventions of his language.” [Hirsch, Jr. Validity In Interpretation] In the case of Scripture, which itself has a secondary as well as a primary author, the intended meaning is located in the human author as the secondary author and God, the Holy Spirit, who is the primary author. There is no other literary work that parallels the Christian Scriptures. For this reason, interpreting the text of Scripture is unlike other interpretive enterprises. It demands skills that no other text demands.
In Mark 7:13, Jesus accused the religious of His day of invalidating the word of God by means of their tradition. The Greek word translated invalidated is ἀκυρόω (akuroo). Louw-Nida classifies this word in the semantic domain of power, or force. It is defined as to refuse to recognize the force or power of something—‘to invalidate the authority of, to reject, to disregard.’ Jesus is accusing the religious of his day of handling Scripture in such a way as to challenge its authority, its power, and its force.
Paul writes to a young Timothy and provides explicit instruction regarding the Scriptures, saying, If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing. (1 Tim. 6:3-4a) Paul in numerous places just like this, emphatically points out the possibility of error concerning the Scriptures. Here, he warns against teaching anything that is different from what should be taught. Hence, the possibility of teaching something that should not be taught exists. I realize that to many of you, this much seems obvious. I have a purpose in stating what is plainly obvious and soon enough you will see what it is. I hope that the detractors are following the line of reasoning I am putting forth.
Peter also made this point very clearly, writing, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16) The Greek word strebloo means to distort the meaning of something in communicating to others. It belongs to the semantic domain of ‘interpret, mean, explain.’ Clearly, Peter thought that there were some who were misinterpreting Paul and not only this, they were destroying themselves because of they mishandled Paul and the rest of the Scripture.
In conclusion then, we have clear and incontrovertible evidence that it is possible to distort the sacred Scriptures. In so doing, we are not merely distorting the intended meaning of finite men, but rather, of holy men who were moved by the Holy Spirit. In essence, to distort the Scriptures is to take words out of or put words in God’s mouth that he has or has not spoken. Since God’s word has perlocutionary intent, whatever effect God intended by the speech act, we nullify. Indeed, to misinterpret Scripture is to fight against God.
We must now come to the place where we attempt to understand the implications of the possibility of distorting Scripture. Since we are warned time and again by Jesus, Paul, Peter, Jude, and John as well as other NT writers not to distort Scripture, we can infer that it is possible to rightly interpret Scripture. The only logically possible way for one not to distort Scripture is for them to interpret it correctly. Additionally, if it is possible to rightly interpret Scripture, then it is possible to ascertain the intention of the human and divine authors of Scripture. That seems rather obvious at this point. After all, imagine if we applied to our normal every day conversation, some of the standards we apply to interpreting Scripture. Communication would be impossible and so too would any hope of progress in any meaningful sense of the word progress.
What we are seeking when we interpret Scripture is the true meaning intended by the authors of Scripture. After all, only if something has a true meaning can one distort it. If proposition A has no truth-value, then it is impossible to distort proposition A. If distortion is possible, then truth-value must, by definition of distortion, exist. In other words, truth is the logical necessity for distortion. The existence of true meaning then is the necessary condition for distortion. Without truth-value, distortion could not exist. Philosophically speaking, the existence of truth and error says nothing about the possibility of knowledge. However, at this point we must point out what seems obvious to even the casual reader of Scripture and that is that Scripture assumes that knowledge is possible by the very fact that it commands that we must avoid distortion. We would say it like this: if distortion, then truth. Distortion occurs, therefore truth. No truth, therefore, no distortion. If distortion, then truth, and if truth, then knowledge. Therefore, if distortion, then knowledge. To put it in biblical terms, if Scripture can be distorted, then it must be true. And if it is true and it can be distorted, then it must be knowable. If distortion exists, then knowledge is possible. Otherwise, it would be impossible to know distortion exists if knowledge were not possible.
What exactly do we mean when we say that a particular proposition contains truth-value? When I say that meaning has been or can be distorted, I am referring to something very specific. But is the reference to some correspondence theory or truth? Do I mean the proposition does not correspond to the reality that is there? Or, do I mean that the proposition does not cohere within a particular system? Perhaps I mean that the proposition just doesn’t work. It isn’t practical to hold it as true. This points us up to the need for a Christian theory of truth. With each major theory of truth, there is almost always some element of truth-value. On the other hand, each theory in and of itself falls short of the mark. Saying that something corresponds with reality only begs the question of how reality is being defined. To say that something coheres only creates questions around the system that it coheres within. And to say that it works begs the question of what one means by “works.”
Where then is truth anchored and what is the Christian theory of truth? Truth itself is anchored in the mind of the self-contained ontological Triune God of Scripture. Truth exists in the mind of God. To distort truth is to misrepresent the very thought of God. How can we know God’s thoughts? This is an epistemological question. Hence, the epistemic claim that distortion is possible is supported by my strong modal claim that truth resides in the mind of God. From this we see that God is the necessary precondition for the possibility of distorting the Scriptures. If God were the necessary precondition for the possibility of distorting the Scriptures, then we would follow that claim with the claim that sin is the sufficient condition for distorting the Scriptures.
What does all this mean? For more than a few weeks now, I have been dealing with two men who seem to want to overthrow historic Christian orthodoxy while at the same time employing techniques that would lead one to believe that the interpretive process is so fluid that just about any understanding of the text is acceptable. I should say, for some reason, any understanding of the text that falls outside the historic one is acceptable. The gay Christian issue has been our most contentious subject, as it seems to be the burning issue for the moment.
There are numerous and sophisticated methods open for modern man in order for him to distort the meaning of Scripture. The necessary existence of truth in the mind of God and the presence of sin in the heart of man provide both the necessary and sufficient condition for such distortion. On the other hand, if distortion is possible, and the accurate interpretation of Scripture is possible, then not just any method or any interpretation will do. This means that interpreting Scripture is indeed a serious matter. If Scripture is God speaking, God revealing what is in His mind regarding a particular issue, then misrepresenting God’s communication to us is naturally a serious matter.
Finally, I should say a quick word about figurative language and how it is used in Scripture. For some reason, men like Dan Trabue think the employment of figurative language means that we cannot take those texts literally where it is employed. That understanding is patently false. One example used was the view that Gen. 6:5 is figurative language because here the human heart is described as having intents and thoughts and that these intentions and thoughts were continually evil. To claim that the use of the word heart is figurative here would be anachronistic. The Hebrew use of the word lb is not normally employed to mean the physical organ itself. Instead, the ancient Hebrew thought of the heart as the essential person, mind, will, and emotion. For our purposes, we may classify this use as somewhat figurative but not as cleanly as some would like. And it is not clear that Moses would have actually thought that he was using figurative language when he wrote of the account. Additionally, the literal meaning of the text remains unchanged. The essence of the individuals at this time continually engaged in evil. They had altogether abandoned all moral behavior.
Dan has also attempted to interpret the Scripture’s teaching on original sin as non-literal language, claiming that babies are not born sinners. According to Dan, this is figurative language. What kind of figurative language is it? Dan does not tell us. But if we use Scripture as a whole to interpret Scripture individually, we understand that we are all born into sin, with sin natures, from the very beginning captive to sin. Paul says that we are all by nature children of wrath. (Eph. 2:3) The entire NT employs the use of the term “born again” to describe what every individual must experience in order to enter the Kingdom of God. The reason that we must be born from above is because our birth from below is into sin. Hence, that children are born sinners, that they do not become sinners along the way is clear. Dan’s views on this front are the views of the heresy known as ancient Pelagianism: A heresy that Augustine identified and debunked 1600 years ago.
In summary, I claim that because truth necessarily exists in the mind of God that distortion of Scripture is a real possibility. And because distortion is a real possibility, accurately handling the Word of Truth is also a real possibility. Paul issues this very command. All this to say that how Christians view and interpret Scripture is to a very large degree indicative of the genuineness of their claim to faith in Christ. Because of this, the subject of interpreting Scripture is one in which every Christian will have to become more competent. The level of hermeneutical acumen within Christianity must change if we are to be good soldiers carrying on a good campaign doing our part to proclaim and defend revealed truth.