High Context and the Perspicuity of Scripture

What hath the Big Bang Theory to do with hermeneutics? Let’s find out as we dive into Deeper Waters.

Just recently on Facebook, I was in a dialogue with a skeptic who was saying that God should have made His novel clearer. This is the kind of thinking that I find I regularly seem to have to argue against. Why is it that God should have made it clearer, and clearer to who?

What 21st century American thinkers can think is clear might not be what a 12th century Japanese person thinks is clear. It might not be what a 17th century Chinese person thinks is clear. It might not be what a 3rd century Egyptian thinks is clear. Why should it be that our society is the one that gets precedence?

Note that this also implies that Scripture will be dispensed at the lowest level possible. Why think Scripture should be that way? I would think that God, if He is the most awesome being of all, would in fact NOT be simplistic in His writing. The reality is that he would write far better than any author could in having multiple levels of depth to what he writes.

Consider this in light of the Geisler controversy. The idea is that the text does not seem to create any clear indication of being apocalyptic in Matthew 27:52-53 and even if it was, it must still be literal somehow. (Never mind that hardly anyone stops to think about what that means.)

One aspect missed in this is that the Bible is written in a high context society. The Bible assumes that you knew the prerequisite background knowledge to understand what is being said. Take the book of Revelation for instance. Two thirds of Revelation alludes to Old Testament Scriptures. It assumes that you have a working knowledge of the Old Testament. If you don’t have that, you will misunderstand the book. You cannot open Revelation and have just the text and understand it without knowing the background of the Old Testament.

Consider for an example the Big Bang Theory.

Oh I don’t mean the scientific theory. I mean the TV show. If you don’t know about this sitcom, it’s one that some friends suggested my wife and I watch, not only because they suspect one character (Sheldon) has Asperger’s, but they thought I in particular would since these are really four intellectual geeks together. The show is filled with such humor.

Regularly throughout the series, one will find bits of humor that depend on having a high knowledge of the subject matter discussed. I have no doubt that if I was more of a scientist, I would understand much of the humor even more. There is enough in the text that one can get a basic understanding of what is being said, but the more knowledge you possess of the subject, the more you will understand the inner-depths of the text.

If I want to enjoy a joke more in the series, I can look up a name or a word in the joke and do some studying and then look back at that joke when I watch a rerun and say “Ah! Now I understand that. It makes a lot more sense now!” What do I do with the Bible? The same thing. I go back and understand the context that the text is in, and that includes its historical and social context. Could it be that the Bible is not written from the perspective and reading style of modern Americans, but rather Ancient Jews?

When asked then how we can know what the text means, the answer is the same as that which Paul gave to Timothy. It’s 2 Timothy 2:15. Study to show yourself approved.

If we want to understand the deepest things of God, we will have to study. There are no shortcuts to this.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Is The Bible Simple To Understand?

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth. There doesn’t seem to be much going on on the Inerrancy front at the moment, so I thought instead on a somewhat related note, I might look at the question of if the Bible is easy to understand. One objection often raised is that the man on the pew can easily understand the Bible so why do we need to add a lot of complicated stuff?

Fair enough. Why don’t we take a look at a fairly simple verse we all grew up with? I will quote it the way I remember it.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes on him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Of course, most of us recognize John 3:16. This verse has been called the gospel in miniature. It’s my understanding that even Martin Luther called it that. I have no problem with it. We can pick up the Bible, read this verse, and understand that God loves the world. He loves it so much, He sent His son to die for it that anyone who believes in Him will have everlasting life.

So keep in mind, nothing I say in this post is to detract from the beauty and simplicity of this verse, and there is a beauty and simplicity in much of the Bible. If you want to be saved and know who God is, you don’t need to have a degree in the Bible. You don’t need to be a high-ranking theologian. You can do that with Scripture alone.

However, while there’s a simple message that can be grasped here, let’s look and see if there are some hard questions we could ask as well.

To begin with, who’s saying this? Is this still Jesus speaking, or is it John narrating on the meaning of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus? I’ve seen arguments that go both ways.

“For God.” Who is God exactly? What does this mean? Does this mean the same being as in the Old Testament? What is He like? Is He triune? Does he switch roles? Some of these questions might seem strange, but they could all have an impact on Christian history. Marcion thought the OT god was an evil being. Arius would say the Son was not fully God and therefore there is no Trinity. Someone like Praxeus would say God is one person and therefore there is a switch of roles. Of course, the doctrine of the nature of God is rich with content and every theologian could spend their lifetime working on it and not get anywhere near fullness, as not even eternity will do that for us.

“So loved.” What is this love? Is this like the sexual love that I have for my wife? Is this like the family love I have for my parents? Is this like the phileo love I have for my friends? Does this mean that God has emotions? If He does, how does He love? If not, then what does it mean to say God loves? Can you have love without emotion?

“The world.” What does this mean? Are we not after all told to hate the things of this world and that love of the world is opposition to God? Are we not told about the corruption of the world? If the world is corrupt, why would God love it? Does this mean the material world? Does God love material objects? Does this refer to the Roman Empire? Why would God love the Roman Empire? Why would God love the world beyond Israel anyway? Is not Israel His special people?

“That He.” What does this mean? Are we going to say that God is a man? If God is a man, does He have a male body and if so, is He designed? Is this something that is perhaps sexist? Does this mean that God could be masculine, but if God is masculine, is He opposed to the feminine? Why do we say God is masculine, if that is the case, if male and female are both made in His image? If male and female are both His image, why does the text not say “That He/She”?

“Gave.” What does it mean for God to give something? Does it really cost anything for God to give something since He is the maker and Lord of all? If we are speaking about the sacrifice of Christ, can we really call it a sacrifice if Christ was to be raised three days later?

“His Only Begotten Son.” What does this mean? Does this mean that Jesus is the Son of God through sexual means? If not, how can Jesus be called the only begotten? Are there not others who are called sons of God? Isn’t Adam a son of God? Aren’t angels sons of God? Weren’t the kings of Israel and Judah considered to be sons of God?” Are we not as Christians considered to be sons of God? How is our sonship different from Jesus’s?

“That whosoever.” Are these whosoever free or not? Does whosoever apply to only the elect, or does it refer to anyone freely? If I am a Calvinist using this verse, should I be careful lest the person I am talking to is not one of the elect? If I am an Arminian, do I really believe that it’s possible that everyone could be saved? Would that mean Christ died in vain for some?

“Believes.” Does this refer to having intellectual assent? How can this be since we are told that the demons believe and tremble? But if belief does not refer to intellectual assent, then to what does it refer to? Is this an act of the will and if so, is it done freely or by irresistible grace?

“in Him.” What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Does it mean that I have to acknowledge that Jesus existed? Can I accept Jesus as a good man? Could I even accept Him as a resurrected man but not the God-Man? Does this verse then say anything about how I should act in response to this belief?

“Should not perish.” What does it mean to perish? Don’t we believe in Hell usually? Is Hell a place where people perish? Isn’t it a place where people really live forever in pain and/or shame? Does this verse refer to total destruction then? Does this mean that people have the freedom to avoid perishing?

“But have everlasting life.” What kind of life? Do I really want to live forever? Don’t people who exist in Hell also live forever? What does this say about salvation? The verse nowhere says “salvation” or “justification.” What does this say about sins? Do we have anything in this verse about sins? Will this everlasting life be in Heaven or will it be on a New Earth? Is there a difference between those two?

These are all questions we could ask. My point has not been to raise these to answer them. I have no intentions of doing such. My point is that yes, the Bible can be simple to understand at times, but at the same time, those simple verses have a rich complexity and too often in debates, we can say “Well it looks plain and simple to me.” Maybe it does, but that does not mean that it is.

To get the diamonds out of Scripture, we have to do some digging.