Results tagged “interpretation” from Reformation21 Blog

The second-century Church Father Irenaeus's most famous work, Against Heresies, was principally directed at the contemporary heresy of Gnosticism, especially as that movement found expression in the thought of a teacher named Valentinus in Rome. One can discern in Valentinus's doctrine the two chief characteristics of Gnosticism: a strong distaste for the material world (and its captivity to change and decay); and bizarre speculation about how the world came into existence (which speculation generally served to reinforce distaste for the material world). Valentinus held that ultimate spiritual reality comprises a hierarchy of thirty gods (collectively known as the 'Pleroma'), the least of which (named Sophia) became consumed with illicit desire to comprehend her superiors and consequently gave birth (as it were) to a spiritual being called Achamoth. Achamoth, in turn, generated the "god" who created this world. 

Unlike his contemporary Marcion who simply rejected portions of Christian Scripture that didn't gel with his heterodox theological vision, Valentinus generally accepted whatever texts were being circulated as Christian Scripture and then tried to convince his hearers that such texts had hidden meaning that revealed his bizarre doctrine -- hidden meaning that others could only discover with the help of him or other select teachers who had inherited knowledge of such by means of a secret tradition stretching back to the Apostles. So, for instance, Valentinus discovered a reference to the Pleroma in the parable of the Laborers in the Field (Matt. 20.1-16), because the various hours at which the master sends out laborers into his field (1, 3, 6, 9, and 11) add up to thirty (the number of gods in the Pleroma). As silly as such a reading of Scripture might seem to us in the present, many people were led astray by such teaching, perhaps because it satisfied an innate human itch to have the one-up on others, to be in the know (or rather, gnosis) about what Scripture really means.

Valentinus's system, and ones similar to it, presented Irenaeus and other apologists of orthodox Christianity with perfect opportunities to reflect upon proper methods for reading and understanding Scripture. Thus Irenaeus advanced in his work the basic thesis that Scripture means what it says -- that is, that Scripture is clear in its articulation of the fundamental points of Christian theology, and that anyone of sound mind can actually pick up Scripture, read it, and grasp those points.

"A sound mind," he wrote, "and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind [i.e., power to understand], and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures." (Against Heresies 2.27)

Irenaeus was not naive. No matter how clear and unambiguous Scripture's teaching of Christianity's main points might be, "advancement" in understanding that teaching, to his thinking, still required eagerness, devotion to piety and love of truth, daily study, and meditation. He also recognized (as Peter did [2 Peter 3.14-16]) that Scripture contains some passages that aren't so easy to decipher. Thus he complemented his basic thesis about Scripture's clarity with guidelines for navigating the more difficult texts. He encouraged his readers to read and interpret those more tricky passages through lenses provided both by the clear texts (see Against Heresies 2.28) and the teaching of Scripture as a whole, which teaching can be summarized in creedal form (AH 1.10). He also reminded his readers that "the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ" (AH 4.26) -- that is, that one's understanding of a biblical text, difficult or otherwise, should conform and lead to Christ, whose person and work stands at the very center of God's Word to us through the prophets and apostles.

Irenaeus also insisted that one should rely on authorities within the Church whose very job description entails receiving, safeguarding, and passing along the Church's corporate and traditional sense of what constitutes biblical truth. But he was more cautious in this admonition than is sometimes claimed. He recognized that some persons lawfully holding office in the Church might be wolves rather than sheep, and such persons, rather than serving as guardians of the Word, would ultimately be judged by it. "Those, however, who are believed to be presbyters by many, but serve their own lusts, and, do not place the fear of God supreme in their hearts, but conduct themselves with contempt towards others, and are puffed up with the pride of holding the chief seat, and work evil deeds in secret, saying, 'No man sees us,' shall be convicted by the Word, who does not judge after outward appearance, nor looks upon the countenance, but the heart...." (AH 4.26) Christians must, then, exercise some measure of judgment regarding persons in authority; there can be no blind allegiance to the teaching of any man, no matter his credentials.

Against Heresies is a remarkable piece of writing. I reckon it could serve as a textbook on hermeneutics in most confessionally Protestant seminaries without too much qualification. It's certainly unambiguous in its assertion of Scripture's perspicuity (or clarity), that idea about the Bible that the magisterial reformers supposedly dreamed up in the sixteenth century. It's likewise just as nuanced as the magisterial reformers in laying out principles for navigating less than clear biblical texts and relating one's impressions of biblical meaning to traditional interpretation. As such, Irenaeus's work is a powerful reminder that the Reformation was not a reaction against 1500 years of getting it wrong, but a recovery of genuine catholic Christian beliefs and practices (and so a reaction against the perversion of catholic beliefs and practices in the immediately preceding centuries).

Shoehorning

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It may have been ever thus, but there seem to be an increasing number of books - often from the fields of biblical or systematic theology - that present themselves as having discovered or provided the overarching theme of the Scriptures as a whole, the lens through which the whole should be read and interpreted. At other times, there is a supposed historical precedent which, we are informed, must govern the way in which we handle not only uninspired texts, but even the Scriptures themselves. Perhaps there is even an experimental approach: we have had such-and-such an experience, therefore it must be validated by the Word of God.

Every other theme or text is then shoehorned into the grand scheme, trimmed and hammered until the squarest of pegs slide into the roundest of holes. Sometimes, there is something that is compelling about such presentations, and much light is shed on the Word of God. One might still not accept the demand that this be the point at which we stand in order to change the world, while appreciating the help given in seeing this as a weighty theme or principle. At other times, I am concerned at how blunt or even crass that process is, with some shallow little epithet becoming the cookie cutter into which every text or doctrine must be forced. We end up reading our Bibles with a combination of myopia and tunnel vision, and not just those that come of being fallen creatures.

At the same time, most of us are probably accustomed to reading the Bible through a certain set of lenses. We come to the Word of God with certain notions, and these - consciously or unconsciously, possibly even subconsciously - inform our hermeneutics. This is largely inevitable. We open the Bible with certain presuppositions, a certain system influencing if not governing the way in which we read.

As a result, we tend to find in the Scriptures what accords with our own convictions. You might recall John 'Rabbi' Duncan's attempt at self-definition: "I'm first a Christian, next a catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order." I wonder if (with necessary adjustments and extensions, depending on our beliefs) we also read the Bible through those kinds of lenses, in more or less that order?

So the key question must be, who makes the lenses and sets them in the frames? Here is a great challenge for us if we are to be faithful and humble readers of the Scriptures. Prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit, we must adjust our lenses and our frames to ensure that the Scriptures come into focus as they are, and not adjust the Scriptures so that they can be read through our lenses and frames.

This, I think, is one of the particular things that I appreciate about the expositions of Calvin and some of the other older writers. Please understand that I am not seeking to set up a Calvin versus the Calvinists dichotomy, or necessarily trying to endorse the system that often goes by the name of Calvinism. Rather, I am talking about the way the man handles the Bible. And I think he handles the Bible humbly and faithfully. There is no doubt that he reads with certain presuppositions, as do we all. But when he reaches a given point in his handling of a text, and noticeably where it is something which pushes his system - starkly and mechanistically considered - out of shape, he does not start trying to kick the text into shape, but he takes off his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. And that is something we all must do.

Spurgeon once said, "Brethren, we shall not adjust our Bible to the age; but before we have done with it, by God's grace, we shall adjust the age to the Bible." If we are to do that, we must also ensure that we do not adjust our Bible to the system, but the system to our Bible. As we read, we must allow every line to have its full and honest weight, to be interpreted historically and and linguistically and grammatically in accordance with righteous standards, and to submit to whatever we find. To be sure, we do not and cannot come nakedly to the Word of God, and it would be folly to suggest that we do and can. But let us be done with shoehorning the Bible, in the whole or in part, into a preordained system. If I find it in my Bible, I must believe it. If I do not, then I am not bound by it, and neither can I bind anyone else to it. We cannot use the Bible to legitimise what we have already decided must be true. If God's Word declares it, I receive it and embrace it, even if - where reason fails, with all its powers - there faith prevails and love adores. We worship even when - perhaps especially when - we cannot fully comprehend. Let us make sure that - whatever we start with - we are continually adjusting our frames and refining our lenses to ensure that the fixed points of the Word of God inform everything else that we believe or do, and live and worship accordingly.