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Understanding Your Bible

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Understanding Your Bible

STATEMENT OF FAITH
    Now, who shall arbitrate?
    Ten men love what I hate,
    Shun what I follow,
    slight what I receive;
    Ten, who in ears and eyes
    Match me: we all surmise,
    They this thing, and I, that:
    whom shall my soul believe?

You have probably echoed the poet’s cry: "Whom shall I believe?" We open the Bible and at once voices on every side cry at us to follow their way of reading it! But which pathway to understanding is the true one? How can I know which teacher to follow, or what commentary to believe? Or should I simply follow my conscience? The best help in this dilemma is a good understanding of an art called hermeneutics. That is what this book is about.

"Hermeneutics" comes from the name of the god Hermes, which the Greeks borrowed and used to describe any act of "explaining" something. They did this because Hermes, among other things, was the chief messenger of heaven and the guardian of speech and writing. He carried a magical golden staff, a gift from his older brother Apollo, which enabled him to convey the will of Zeus to humans, and to supervise every kind of communication. Upon him rested the burden of bridging the gaps that often prevent a message from passing correctly between sender and receiver.

Nowadays we use hermeneutics to describe the art of correctly interpreting a piece of literature, especially the Bible. To this modern science the ancient "golden staff" now belongs, and if it is used properly it will lead the reader toward the truth. Sometimes, sadly, the "staff" loses its magical sheen, becomes tarnished, and may do people more harm than good. That is to say, a corrupt hermeneutic may be worse than none at all! I hope to avoid that fault and to put into my readers’ hands a brightly shining wand that will truly help them to discover the mind of God.

But first, I should say something about the Bible itself, and the foundations upon which the following pages are built. Where one begins a journey often determines where it will end. I think you have a right to know your starting point, so that you may have some idea of where you will finish! Here then is my Statement of Faith about the Bible –

The Christian church possesses a collection of books that are reckoned by all denominations to be normative for faith and practice –

  • this collection bears the title "Holy Bible" and is also variously known as "scripture", "the scriptures", "holy scripture", and the like
  • the collection consists (for Protestants) of 66 books, which together are called the "canon" of scripture, a word that means the supreme guide or rule (canon) that God has given to bring us safely into his eternal kingdom
  • of this canon we may say that it is complete – nothing can be either taken from it or added to it; and that it is sufficient – we need no other guide, nor can there be a better one.
Among Christians there are five different views of scripture –

The Roman Catholic View – which holds that God has revealed himself truly in the written revelation of scripture, and that the scriptures must be obeyed as the sure Word of God. Nonetheless, the church, exercising its magisterium, has a teaching authority that is ultimately superior to the sole rule of scripture. That superiority has two major aspects

  • First, while the church cannot change the scriptures, nor enlarge the canon, it may add to the Bible a body of teaching drawn from its own traditions and based on its own authority
  • Second, the church alone has the right to fix the meaning of the Bible and to determine valid doctrine.

The Liberal View – which denies to the Bible any full measure of divine origin or authority, rejects its supernatural content, and credits its composition almost entirely to human thought and initiative. The Bible, since it is a human book, must be supposed to contain many errors, not just of inconsequential detail, but also in matters of belief, perception of reality, historical records, concepts of God, and the like.

The Neo-Orthodox View – which agrees with liberals that the Bible is primarily a natural (not supernatural) record of various human religious experiences, but adds that it does also contain a revelation of and from God. That revelation, however, does not consist of an objective statement of truth, but rather is subjective, coming to each reader in a different form, in response to individual faith, personal need, and singular perception. Thus the Bible cannot do more than contain the Word of God, and that Word means something different to each person who encounters it.

The Fundamentalist-Evangelical View – which holds that the Bible is entirely the Word of God, infallible in all that it affirms, inerrant in all that it contains, verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that no single word contains any fault. However, since the manuscript copies of the ancient texts at present available to us do contain a host of errors, and since no translation of even a faultless text can avoid being at least partially faulty, the claim of inerrancy must be restricted to the original documents. That is, when the various books of the Bible first emerged from the pens of either their authors or final editors they were completely free from any error of fact or revelation.

The Conservative-Evangelical View – which is the stance of this book. Conservative evangelicals agree with a large portion of the fundamentalist viewpoint, but modify it in various ways, as the following chapters will show. Fundamentalists, of course, will still find here much to please them, but many would demur from the more open position on infallibility and inerrancy that I have taken. The conservative-evangelical view could be summarised as follows.

 
 

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