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Learn how to deal with ambiguous passages in the Bible, why the Bible is silent on many issues, and whether God still speaks today.
I. How to Deal With Ambiguous Passages
II. Why is the Bible Silent on Particular Issues?
A. Scripture doesn't necessarily tell us how to do things.
B. We need to work hard to be Spirit-led in keeping with the principles of Scripture.
III. Does God Speak Today?
A. God does speak today
B. But it always must be tested.
Course: A Guide to Christian Theology
This is the 5th lecture in the online series of lectures on a Guide to Christian Theology by Dr Breshears. Recommended Reading includes: Biblical References from the Course and Study Guides 1 – 39.
(Any slides, photos, study guides or outlines that the lecturer refers to should be down loaded separately. If they are not available, you may be able to find something similar using the Google© search engine.)
I’ve found myself thinking of a good illustration of why the use of different translations would be helpful. There are a lot of issues involved in this, for example there is a statement from the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Sometimes you will find significant differences with different translations. For Malachi 2:16: ‘The man who hates and divorces his wife, says the Lord, the God of Israel, does violence to the one he should protect, says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.’ So you see that it says, ‘I hate divorce.’ If you now look in the NAS; it says, ‘for I hate divorce says the Lord God of Israel.’ In the ESV, it says: ‘for the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence.’ The NIV 2011 says, ‘the man who hates and divorces his wife, says the LORD, the God of Israel, does violence to the one he should protect.’ There are obvious differences in each of these translations. The NIV 1984 says that God hates divorce which is very different than saying the man who hates and divorces his wife.’ What is hated here; is it divorce or is it the man who divorces his wife? When you see something like this from different translations, you need to go to good commentaries or expects and get their opinion. Does God hate divorce or does God hate the man who divorces their wives without cause? You always need to look at Scripture within context. Here you will see that people have been unfaithful to God though God has been faithful to them. He uses this in context of divorce. So is it saying God hates divorce or does God hate unfaithfulness? In the context, it seems to be saying that God hates unfaithfulness. So we have seen an ambiguity within the text of these translations. The outcome in pastoral circumstances, I have found that this reference being used in almost abusive ways. To take someone, a woman, who has been abandoned by a husband; this abandoned woman now faces that the pastor regularly preaches by saying, ‘I hate divorce.’ She feels that she is hated because of her divorce. This of course is a wrong application. This makes divorce being worse than murder but what God hates is unfaithfulness. God hates the man who abandoned his wife and that unfaithfulness is hated. Jesus picks up on this in Matthew 5 when he talks about divorce. So you will discover, particularly in poetic places with different translations; there can be ambiguities that show up. This, ironically, is one of the more misinterpreted verses in Scripture.
II. Sufficiency of the Scriptures
Scripture is the supreme authority and whatever the Bible teaches is to be received as truth from God. But the Scripture isn’t enough for certain areas; for example: Scripture tells us that we must forgive. I am working with a person who really needs to forgive another person. Scripture says that you have to forgive; so how does this come about in this situation? The Bible simply doesn’t provide this information on the how. The reason why I think is because the how varies from culture to culture and person to person and there isn’t just one way to do it. So I don’t think Scripture necessarily tell us how to do things. Another situation, a couple just got engaged and I need to sit down with them and instruct them on how to be faithful to one another. I can use Scripture in telling them what to do but it doesn’t say how to resolve conflicts in a relationship. As a pastor I have to show them how to do that. I think the sufficiency of Scripture means whatever the Bible teaches; I receive as truth from God. Nothing contradicts it. With the present western culture that says a person can just live together is becoming more and more common and people are just totally blowing off the commands of Scripture that marriage is essential. It’s the only place where a man and woman can have a sexual relationship within Biblical acceptance.
There are other places where Scripture describes something; not necessarily an authoritative teaching where a man and woman become husband and wife, but a description on how things are done. Acts chapter 6 talks about how to select leaders with the church. I think that it is a marvelous pattern for selecting leaders in the church. I find very few churches that actually follow this pattern because it is a description and not a prescription; it is a historical here; it is how we did it verses doctrinally and here’s how you must do it. I think such descriptions within Scripture should be followed as close as possible because they are there for a good reason. There are a lot of other places where the Scripture is finite. I don’t think God makes a mistake in not talking about how one resolves conflict in marriage. I think he has given us the freedom to apply the principles of his Word in different cultures and different personalities and we must be wise and Spirit led in doing that.
What should we do when the church gathers together? The Scriptures only contain the barest descriptions on this topic: Acts 2, 1st Corinthians 14 and a couple of other places talk about what happens when you get people together in an assembly and how we should conduct the service in the church. Why didn’t God tell us how to do that? Again, I believe he was silent in order to give us freedom to act in a Spirit led manner to apply the principles of God’s Word in different cultures and different situations. So where God is silent on things, we need to work hard to be Spirit led in keeping the principles of Scripture. This is a good balance.
So what is prophecy? Some see it as the receiving of direct revelation from God and speaking it. I think it is better understood to be the Spirit empowered speaking of the Word of God which presses deep in the hearts and minds of people. The heart of prophecy isn’t the receiving of revelation as much as the power speaking of revelation. I think what happens is that the speaking within prophecy is the ongoing work of God. There are others who think that prophecy stopped with the apostles. I don’t find any place in Scripture that says that. If my definition is true, the spirit and power, speaking the Word of God is the heart of prophecy, then where would I find prophecy today? I have seen in some cases where councilors, for example, or pastors have been able to use the Word of God with incredible power in people’s lives. Where did they get the revelation; it’s from the Bible of course. Not all of counseling is prophetic revelation. Some preaching is prophetic. I have seen the Word cut deep within the souls of people. Of course, not all preaching is prophetic; whereas some is teaching, giving instructions and encouragement. So I think that there is prophecy today, and it comes in a lot of difference circumstances. Is God still speaking today? The simple answer is yes because he speaks through the Holy Bible. Does he speak beyond Scripture? Some people say no but others say that God led me to do this or that. This is God speaking! Others would say that God never stops speaking; in fact, the primary work of God is God speaking directly to his children. I believe that God does speak today but it always must be tested. From 1st Thessalonians 5 where Paul is finishing up; he has a few short points: rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances. Then in verse 19, he says not to quench the Spirit and don’t treat prophecies with contempt but test them all, hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. This means that the Holy Spirit is working today. So I think God speaks today but we have to test it. We also have 1st Corinthians 14:29 and 1st John 4 and there are others. It seems to me that we should test prophecy against Scripture and against the character of the prophet.
There was a woman that I knew well in my pastoral role, both with her and her families’ life. She was raped; it was what we would call a date rape. I was part of a group that was working with her on that. There was also a good Biblical councilor involved that did some good work. However, she needed more than that. She came to me as a pastor and said that she needed to deal with some spiritual things with God. We went to 1st John 1:9 where it says that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. I had her to read the passage a loud because I wanted it to work within her. So I ask what confession means. She replied, ‘it means saying that I was wrong.’ Then we went to Romans 10:9 where it says, ‘if you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ The word, declare, here is actually ‘confess’. Any other translation would use the word ‘confess’. Confess doesn’t mean you are wrong, in fact, it means that you are right. It means to speak what is in your heart. So in 1st John 1:9 it says if we confess our sins and what are ‘our sins’? It is a simple possessive; it is sins that belong to me, sins that I own. What kind of sins do I own? It is obvious that it is sins that we have done, that have breached the law of God. But it isn’t just that. If you look at sins in the Old Testament, it is not just things that I have done wrong but they are community things. So it can be sins that are done to me or it could be sins done in the community that impact upon me. If I lie, that is a sin, but if someone lies and slanders me; I’m impacted by that sin.
So in this woman’s situation, she had been raped. In my judgement she had not done anything wrong, but that rape was her sin; something that had been done to her in being defiled by that act. The Old Testament talks a lot about defilement. We just don’t think about that as a sin. I ask her whether she had ever said talked to the Lord Jesus about her rape. He replied, no; she had never done that. I replied, well, let’s do that. I was her priest here and we were doing Scripture work here. I said to her, ‘I just want you to tell Jesus about the rape’ and I will help you do that. Now, the last thing I wanted to hear is about someone being raped. In such a thing, my sense of justice gets enraged. But I was there as a priest of the most high God helping her do here confession and she did. She told Jesus what had happened. When she finished I ask her what Jesus was going to do now. She replied that Jesus was faithful and just, completely righteous who will take care of all things and will forgive our sins. She thought that she had done something wrong and so God will forgive sin and purify us of that sin and from all uncleanness. She needed purification and this is what God promises. I then ask her to open her hands and receive from God through the power of the Holy Spirit his cleansing. And she did and it was amazing as she received into her body and spirit and soul and mind and heart, the cleansing of God. I actually got some water and sprinkled on her (from Ezekiel 36). I decided to go further and instructed her to ask Jesus if there is anything he wants to say to you right now. She did so aloud and then a few seconds later she started sobbing. I prayed comfort for her and sat silently as she cried. I ask her what she had heard. She replied, ‘I heard Jesus.’ She heard three words: pure, precious and princess. This was amazing; this woman who had viewed herself as defiled and ruined was cleansed by the Power of the Word of God and was told that she was now pure and she was precious and that she was a princess. This changed her whole identity from defiled and ruined to pure precious princess. I believe that this was an example of God speaking. So in thinking of the sufficiency of Scripture, I think there is more than Scripture, God can speak to us outside of Scripture.
The basic idea of Canon refers to the 66 Books of the Bible which are to be received as the authoritative work of God. It only applies to these 66 books. So the universal picture of God is that God speaks in these books. Now there are a lot of theories about the formation of the Canon and so you will often hear the Canon was done in like 497 AD, but I don’t think this is correct. The entirety of the New Testament with just a few exceptions were immediately received as canonical authoritative books of God from the beginning the church recognized the four Gospels, Acts, Letters of Paul with 1st Peter and 1st John. These were immediately received as authoritative. There was some question (although not much) about Hebrews, James, 2nd Peter and 2nd John, 3th John, Jude and Revelation so the final list was not resolved until much later. These were immediately accepted and are to this day. There are disputes with the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church about other books which generally speaking Protestants (non-Roman Catholic Church and The Easter Orthodox Church) don’t accept. These books are usually referred to as apocryphal, meaning of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true. We say now, the Protestant Canon is closed. This is the heart of the idea. So we say that these 66 books are authoritative and wiser than our contemporary culture.
V. The Interpretation of Scripture
How do we interpret Scripture? We read the Bible and within its context with the community, we see what it says. Be should be careful in taking verses out of context. We read it with the Christian community and ask what the Bible is actually saying. The errors come when we take isolated verses and when we take the Bible as beubg a private interpretation. We need to be careful in looking to deeper meanings. When you start looking for meanings behind the meanings, a lot of times we will read our own feelings and thinking and try to assign it Biblical authority. Whatever is said in regards to the Bible must be clearly and accepted as Scripture within correct interpretation.
VI. Archeological Background
There are a lot of issues here and one that I want to mention is the whole question of how much do we need in terms of historical archeological background. This is a personal issue of mine. I think it is easy to miss the meaning of text in trying to find the archeological background of the Bible. It is more important to understand what the Bible says instead of understanding the history of it. I believe that the Bible is basically a self-contained book. So if I want to know what Babylon means, I think the primary and almost exclusive source is the Bible. But there is of course room for archeological cultural background to help understand things. However, I think the primary importance is to understand what the Bible says and so focusing on the text of Scripture and then use these other things to illuminate it somewhat.
My basic commitment is that we should use several; one that is more word for word, of which I use the English Standard Version for this. There is also what is called the dynamic equivalence; taking the meaning of the original and put it into the meaning of the contemporary. A very good Bible for this is the NIV, the New International Version of the Bible and I use both of those. I also used the King James as I was raised on it. I also look at one of the Catholic translations; the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible because they come from a different theological tradition. I also look at the Jewish translation which gives me a different perspective. So I suggest that you use three or four translations coming from different traditions and when you see the same teaching on one topic, you are assured that it is okay. There are a few places where translations will vary significantly; this may be a textual variation or an ambiguity in the original which you need to check out.
1. What is the best way to deal with ambiguous passages?
2. Why is the Bible silent on particular issues?
3. Do you believe that God speaks today? Why or why not?
4. How do we test if a message is from God today or not?
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