THE MEANING OF SCRIPTURE
by J. C. Wenger
Need to Interpret
At the very outset of this discussion, there will perhaps be those who question its necessity. Do we not believe, they ask, that the Scriptures possess genuine clarity? Did not Jeremiah look down the vistas of the centuries to the era of the new covenant and describe that era as one in which the saints of God will have no need of mutual teaching? Jeremiah 31.34. And do not the apostles Paul and John both indicate that this is precisely the situation in which Christian believers now find themselves? I Thessalonians 4:9; I John 2:20-27. About all that can be said at this point is that this sufficiency of the individual believer is a relative matter, that it is only in respect to the most basic essentials of Christianity that the Holy Spirit makes mutual Christian teaching unnecessary. The need for the study of the meaning of Scripture arises from inequalities which we must confess do exist among the saints of Christ. Who can deny that believers differ as to the extent of their knowledge? It is also evident that God has endowed some of His children with massive intellectual and spiritual power which enables them to grasp with unusual insight and comprehensiveness the basic truths of Christianity, and their wide implications for human thought. Such examples as the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, B. B. Warfield, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner are evidence of the influential role which certain of God's servants of the Word have played in the history of the church. And although it is true that there is a fundamental sense in which the individual Christian stands on his own feet as he reads God's Word, yet it must be pointed out that the New Testament also explicitly recognizes the value of brotherly instruction. I Corinthians 3:2; II Timothy 2:2; Galatians 2:11; Hebrews 5:11, 12. Indeed, the very writing of the New Testament books and letters was in itself basic evidence of the value of brotherly admonition and instruction.
We will need to pass over here that which is well covered by many works on the history of interpretation, namely, the story of Jewish hermeneutics, and ancient, medieval, Reformation, and modern schools of interpreters. Suffice it to say that the historic allegorical method of interpretation, regardless of how "spiritual" it may have seemed, and how "respectable" it may have made the Word of God appear to the generations of the ages past, justly met its end in the reformers of the sixteenth century. God used men like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin to do away with the "monkey business" of allegorization (as Luther called it), and to lead the church once more to a better hermeneutic. One is tempted to say, To lead the church once more to the genuine meaning of the Scriptures, for that precisely how the reformers regarded their hermeneutics--and with considerable justification.
It will not be possible in our brief treatment to analyze the unique strengths and weaknesses of the major works on interpretation of the last hundred years. (Note especially the monographs of Frederic W. Farrar, Robert M. Grant, and James D. Wood.) Special mention must also be made of the treatises by J. C. K. von Hofmann, Interpreting the Bible (original lectures, 1860; published in German, 1880; first English edition, 1959); Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (first edition, 1883; last reprint, 1961); Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (revised edition, 1956); James D. Smart, The Interpretation of Scripture (1961); The New Hermeneutic, edited by James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr. (1964); and especially of the fine work of A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (1963). In my own thinking, however, I have been The most influenced by the essays of Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (1950), as the following discussion will.
What then was the great contribution of the reformers? Put in a positive way, it was the central emphasis of the reformers to take what might be called the "plain sense" of the Scriptures basing every exegetical conclusion upon the meaning of the original language, and interpreting the figurative language of the Bible by those passages in which literal language is found. The reformers had a strong sense of the historical, of God's saving acts, particularly of His saving acts in Christ: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and the fullness of the revelation of God in His personal and incarnate Word. It is no accident that the study of both Hebrew and Greek largely came to its own among the Protestants of the sixteenth century. (However, Reuchlin, a Catholic, took the lead in Hebrew, and Erasmus in Greek.) The reformers held to the doctrine that the Bible has but one true sense in each passage. They rejected the medieval or fourfold sense of Scripture (literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical) Luther stressed what has been called the right of private interpretation, a doctrine which certainly does not mean that every Tom, Dick, and Harry can set up his private interpretation against the sound and trustworthy interpretative tradition of the church of Christ--although some Protestants give one the impression that this is what they believe--but rather in the sense that there is only one true meaning in any given statement in God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who enables His saints to attain that meaning. In other words, the church must ever stand ready to correct its traditional interpretation by the written Word. Luther saw a great need for just such correction in his day, and he with great energy and courage to offer the needed correction of the tradition. Luther saw also the importance of personal faith on the part of him who was hearing or reading God's Word, if he was rightly to understand it. Luther's greatest contribution as a scholar was certainly his German Bible translation, first the New Testament (1522) and later the entire Bible (1534). Luther did believe, of course, that common people could read the Word of God in their own tongue, and to their immense spiritual profit--not in the sense that they could understand it better than the exegetical princes of the church, but in the sense that the people were entitled to the Word of God both in its preached form and in its inscripturated form.
For Luther the Scriptures were person-centered. The chief function of the inscripturated Word was to witness to the Incarnate Word, the Lord Jesus, and to the great doctrine of justification by faith--the doctrine which Luther had in his own experience discovered through a most difficult struggle, with much agony of soul. This doctrine of justification by faith was for Luther the very touchstone of apostolicity in the writings which the church offered to the faithful as canonical. Luther was also aware how significant the context of any given passage was--and here he was not breaking new ground, for scholars as early as John Wyclif had written (cited by Wilbur M. Smith, Profitable Bible Study, Wilde, 1939, p. 38):
- It shall greatly helpe ye
to understande Scripture,
If thou mark
Not only what is spoken or wrytten,
But of whom,
And to whom,
With what words,
At what time,
To what intent,
With what circumstances,
Considering what goeth before
And what followeth.
Had Luther written this, he would have undoubtedly emphasized also the Christ-witness of the Scriptures, because for him the value of the Scriptures was that they were the crib which held the Lord Jesus. Luther stressed also the necessity of the church coming under the authority of the Word. Neither pope nor council dared, asserted Luther, to say or teach anything contrary to the content of the Holy Scriptures. His emphasis on the Christ-witness of the Bible; on the central truth of the Gospel, justification by faith; and his extremely successful effort to make the Bible writers "speak DeuLtch": these are the major contributions of the doctor of Wittenberg to the renewal of the church of Christ in the sixteenth century.
If Luther is the initial reformer and the great Bible translator, Calvin is easily the theologian of the Reformation, and the Biblical exegete. Seldom indeed has the church been blessed with a man who could so surely t)lace his finger on the meaning of Holy Scripture as could Calvin. He too had a Christocentric Bible in the best sense of the phrase, but he was too careful an exegete to call every psalm Messianic just because Christ is referred to in some psalms. Calvin's commentaries may still be consulted with immense profit.
The evangelical and non-revolutionary Anabaptists of Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands, were somewhat of a trial to the leading reformers because of their radical views on the nature of the church and of the Christian ethic. These Anabaptists felt that Luther and Zwingli had stopped short of going all the way with the Scriptures in correcting the tradition of the church. It was fine, said the Anabaptists, that required fasts, compulsory clerical celibacy, the mass, the papacy, the concept of meritorious good works, and other accretions of church history which violated Scriptural principles, had been relected and abolished by the reformers. But why, asked the Anabaptist leaders--such as Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz in Switzerland, Michael Sattler and Pilgram Marpeck in Germany, and Obbe and Dirk Philips in the Netherlands--do the great reformers not go all the way with the Scriptures and abolish the state and people's church, infant baptism, and any office or activity which violates New Testament agape love? (For the Anabaptists this meant withdrawing from both the military and the magistracy--both of which institutions involved the imposition of the death penalty.) These issues involved a major problem in the interpretation of the Bible. What really is the relation of the Old Testament to the New? To what portions, if any, of the Old Testament may the church appeal? The reformers took the position that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were done away, such as clean and unclean foods, animal sacrifices, the institution of the priesthood, and the like. The Anabaptists agreed, but also thought that Christians should not justify compulsion in matters of faith by an appeal to the Old Testament, nor infant baptism, nor participation in warfare. The old covenant, they insisted, has been replaced by its perfect fulfillment (Hebrews 8:6, 7), the New Testament. It is therefore an unwarranted and impossible procedure for the church to cast aside clear New Testament directives in order to return to the preparatory Old Testament to find justification for such non-Christian institutions and practices as the state church, infant baptism, participation in warfare, and the use of force and bloodshed in matters of conscience.
The Reformation of the sixteenth century broke Western Christendom into Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican camps--all appealing to the Scriptures as their final court of appeal, except that the Catholics never did accept the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (sole authority of the Scriptures). It may be mentioned in passing that various Protestant scholars now feel that Protestant strictures may have been drawn a bit too severely against tradition in the sixteenth century, for in very truth there actually is an ongoing "tradition" of interpretation and practice in the Christian Church which gives it basic stability and vital continuity from age to age--provided such tradition remains subject to continual correction and scrutiny from God's inscripturated Word. At the same time, there are now also faint beginnings which may lead ultimately to the demotion of Tradition from its present place as an equal partner with Scripture in the determination of the doctrine and Practice of the Roman Church. The Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, has declared in print that the Catholic Church may need to surrender its "Two Sources Theory" of authority, Scripture and Tradition, and return to the position which recognizes the ultimacy of Biblical authority in the life of Christ's church. (Inspiration in the Bible [a poor translation of the German original title, Uber die Schrift-inspiration], fourth impression, 1963, pp. 30-38.)
What are the tools which will aid the interpreter of the Bible to arrive at sound doctrinal conclusions? It need hardly be said that it is obviously only the Bible in the original tongues which can be taken as the foundational text of God's Word written. No translation is ever quite perfect. The first-rate Bible interpreter will seek therefore to learn to read the Scriptures for himself in both Hebrew and Aramaic, and in Koine Greek. He will of course also make use of the best grammars, lexicons, concordances, and commentaries based on the text of the original languages. He will secure the most reliable books in Biblical introduction, Biblical history, and Biblical theology for both the Old and New Testaments. He will get all the light he can from authors who have studied the history of interpretation. And he will read from a wide spectrum of commentators, men from various Christian communions, to quicken his awareness of varying ways of understanding God's Word. He will also be a holy man of God, born again, sanctified, and filled with the Spirit, and a man of much prayer: for the spiritual qualities are even more important in the interpreter 'than the academic tools.
But what if a given Christian has never had opportunity to attain sufficient facility in the languages of Scripture to form sound judgments based on the study of the Greek and Hebrew texts? How then may one become as good an interpreter as possible? The use of a wide variety of good versions is a genuine help in arriving at the meaning of a given statement in Scripture. (The accuracy with which a given version has been made may be given a crude test by checking on two pairs of widely separated verses read verbatim in the original: Isaiah 35:10 and 51; 26:41 and Mark 14:38.)
Let us now attempt to formulate the major guides which good Bible interpreters have found useful. The first rule is this: Seek to determine as carefully as possible the exact meaning of the text, using the best scholarly helps, studying the context, examining parallel or similar statements, and asking honestly: What does the language mean? Sometimes the meaning of a given statement will hang in a major way on a key word--such as "cross," or "Spirit," or "flesh." Word studies may then be helpful. But at this point the Bible student also needs to remember that we do not over-emphasize etymology--for that process can be as misleading as allegorization. Ignorant people are impressed with the wealth of information which "deep scholarship" can draw from a single word--when as a matter of simple fact, the word when used by the writer did not any longer bear many of the meanings which its history suggests. The meaning of words is ever a matter of contemporary usage, not of etymology. And the rule works two ways. For the words of the Greek New Testament have often had a wealth of meaning added to them through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Hence words like "Crist," "salvation," "grace," and "life" have a far richer meaning in the New Testament than they did in non-Christian and in pre-Christian Greek circles. Furthermore, we do not study one word after another, and then pile up their meanings like bricks. On the contrary we study the syntax carefully. What is the force of this articular infinitive? Is this participle temporal or causative? Is the mood of this verb indicative or imperative?
The most difficult questions arise in connection with figures of speech, and the Bible abounds with all kinds of figures. A metaphor calls an object by the term which it resembles. If Herod Antipas was a sly thief, capable of stealing his own brother's wife, Jesus by a metaphor could call him a "fox" (Luke 13:32). If Christians are dependent upon Christ for their spiritual life, Christ is the "vine," and believers are the "branches" (John 15:5). Metonymy calls one thing another because of a mental association. To have "Moses and the prophets" means, of course, to have their writings. Luke 16:29. Synecdoche is a similar figure, used when there actually is a close connection between two things: for example, the cup and its contents: "This cup is the new testament in my blood," means, of course, The contents of this cup are a memorial of my blood. A parable is a perfectly natural story ("Behold, a sower went forth to sow"), while an allegory is an artificial story such as the account of the trees talking and choosing a king. Judges 9:8. Mention must be made of obvious exaggeration for the sake of emphasis: Never invite anyone into your house who might in turn invite you into his (Luke 14:12)-the point being, Forget about your social "level," be genuinely hospitable, and show compassion to the poor! A euphemism is the use of a mild term to express gently or with good taste something more serious. Instead of saying that a man died, the Bible may say that he "fell asleep" (Acts 7:60). Zeugma is the yoking of two ideas, while fully expressing only one: such as the exhortation in Hebrews 12:12. The writer wishes his readers to "lift" their hands in glad activity, and to straighten up the sagging knees--but he does not bother to write the second verb: "Lift up the hands which hang down, and . . . the feeble knees." The reader's mind is of course supposed to supply a suitable verb, such as strengthen, or straighten up. (Any thorough study of Bible interpretation will have a complete list of Biblical figures.)
The real problem in the area of figative language is not figures of speech, for generally a figure is obviously such. The real problem is language which is understandable literally, and which may nevertheless have a deeper spiritual meaning than the words indicate. Isaiah prophesies,
- The desert shall rejoice,
and blossom as the rose,
Is this prophecy an indication of future fruitfulness for the desert? Or is it perhaps a prophecy of the joy which the children of God shall have when God acts redemptively in their behalf? The prophet goes on,
- It shall blossom abundantly,
- and rejoice
Since deserts cannot literally sing, we are compelled to ask whether the whole section may not be figurative rather than literal. (Let no one say that this is emptying the Bible of meaning, for the joys of God's redemption in the hearts of His children are infinitely more significant than making flowers grow in sandy soil.) The context in statements such as the above is often helpful in discerning the meaning.
The mountains and the hills shall break forth
before you into singing,
shall clap their hands.
shall come up the fir tree.
shall come up the myrtle tree. (Isaiah 55:12, 13).
As indicated earlier, special emphasis must be placed upon the crucial importance of context in the interpretation of every sentence in the Bible. Is the context one of narrative, or of prophetic or apostolic teaching? Is the statement that of a spokesman for God, or merely the account of what some wicked person said or did? If the Lord condemned the doctrines of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, would it be a sound procedure to quote their comments as authoritative Scripture? Context therefore means the immediate situation in which a given verse stands; it means also the entire book in which it is found, and ultimately the whole corpus of divine revela- tion. And this brings us to a most important truth. The best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible itself. The child of God who reads through the Bible time after time with close attention will find one passage after another, which was formerly locked shut to his understanding, opening up and becoming perspicuous.
This brings us to our second major principle of interpretation. Gather as much information on the historical background of the Scriptures as possible. In a general way, the original readers were in a favorable position to understand the allusions of each writer, the sins against which he warns, the duties he feels impelled to emphasize, and so on. Americans today understand fully when they hear a busy person complain that he has "a hundred and one things" to do. It does not mean one more than a hundred; in fact it mean five urgent matters demanding attention and action at the same time. Or if one speaks of the communist threat, saying, "Somehow Moscow has me worried," the meaning of Moscow is clear: it refers to the governmental policy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In the Biblical world there were also figures of speech, and allusions to contemporary threats. Isaiah 46:11 speaks of "a ravenous bird from the east" --surely an example of an unclear allusion for an American reader of two and a half millennia later! The prophet helps us a bit by adding a parallel line, "the man that executeth my counsel from a far country." A careful study of the context of this prophecy seems to indicate that God is going to raise up a military figure who will deliver Judah from her Babylonian captivity, a man who will evidently restore Israel to her homeland, exchanging Babylon for Jerusalem. (Compare Isaiah 46:13; 44:28, and 45:13.) In the Old Testament there are continual references to Egypt, Syria, Assyria, Edom, Babylonia, and other nations and peoples. The more one knows of the life and history of these nations and peoples, the clearer will be the Biblical references to them. In the Revelation, for example, one reads of "Gog and Magog," a phrase which has no meaning to the common reader today. But if one consults a good Bible dictionary, he will find that Gog and Magog refer to a wicked prince and a heathen people from the north of Israel, perhaps from Southern Russia. To the Jews in the time of Ezekiel--and the language is reflecting Ezekiel in the Revelation of John (Revelation 20:8) --Gog and Magog were symbolic of a heathen threat to God's people, a threat which was formidable indeed. The "hornet" of Exodus 23:28 and Joshua 24:12 may refer to Egypt--for the bee was the symbol of Egypt in the hieroglyphics.
These illustrations help us realize that the more we know of the history, life, government, religious views, and practices, both of Israel and of the surrounding nations, the better the position we are in to understand the Bible. Archaeology is a great help to Bible scholars, for it reveals much way of life, the weights, measures, and money of the lands being investigated. I Samuel 13:19-22, for example, is a historical account of the period in Israel's history when the nation was too weak to stand up against the Philistines, a warlike people which had migrated to Canaan in ancient times, perhaps from the island of Crete (Indeed the name Palestine is a corruption of Philistine [land 1.) The strong Philistines the days of Saul were able to forbid the Israelites to work in iron, thus keeping them from manufacturing swords and spears of war. Consequently, the Israelites had to go to the Philistine smiths to have their tools sharpened. There is a Hebrew word used in 1 Samuel 13:21, spelled PIM, which was a total puzzle to the English Bible translators until modern times. The translators simply did not know what a pim was. Could the word perhaps mean a file? The translators had to write something; so tongue in cheek they wrote, "yet they had a file. . . ." The American Standard Version of 1901 added the honest marginal note: "The Hebrew text is obscure." At this point archaeology now comes to our assistance. Seven weights, marked PIM, have been found in Palestine, ranging in weight from 7.18 to 8.13 grams, which is roughly two- thirds of a shekel, or one fourth of an ounce. The RSV revisers were therefore able to clear up the obscurity: "The charge was a pim"--which may have been rather exorbitant, as John B. Graybill suggests. (Zondervan Pictorical Bible Dictionary, p. 892.) Incidentally, the Septuagint translators seem to have gotten closer to the meaning than did the translators of the English Bible. And this is of great interest to us. The ancient versions ~f the Bible, such as the Greek Old Testament, the so-called Septuagint, sometimes throw real light on the Old Testament, particularly where there seems to be some textual corruption. Hence English Bibles frequently have marginal notes indicating how the ancient versions read.
Works such as Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias throw much light on the meaning of Bible verses by identifying for us various plants, animals, birds, coins, weights, and measures of the Biblical world. The older English Bibles sometimes had poor translations of certain Hebrew words. "Unicorn" is an example. The average reader thinks of a mythical creature having a single horn projecting from its head. What is the animal which the older English versions designated as the "unicorn"? It was a huge wild ox known as the aurochs--and when seen in profile appeared to have but one horn! Modern English versions read, wild ox. A similar improvement has been made in the translation of a Hebrew word which is translated in the King James Version as "groves." The Hebrew word seems to refer to wooden pillars or images of the female deity Asherah, perhaps a Phoenician goddess originally, but also corresponding to the Babylonian Ishtar, the goddess of human love and fertility. This goddess Asherah is associated in the Old Testament with Baal, the fertility god of the Canaanites. Lascivious and abominable rites were associated with this idolatry. Were one to read only of the "groves" in the older English versions, without consulting Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias, one would not understand the term at all. Historical interpretation means getting a proper understanding of the Bible by securing all the assistance which historical research is able to provide.
Revelation of the Two Testaments
Paradoxically, we must hold both to the unity and to the diversity of the Bible, for each Biblical book has its own unique characteristics and emphases. The greatest difference is between the books of the Old Testament, which of course were written prior to the incarnation and passion of our Lord, and the books of the New Testament, which were written after Pentecost and the establishment of the Christian Church. And yet there is a basic unity, both within the books of each Testament, and as between the two Testaments as well. Well. We find the same spiritual needs of men recognized in both Testaments, and the same seeking and redemptive God at work in the redemption of men and the creation of a people for His name. Jeremiah anticipated that there would be a new covenant with superior spiritual blessings. In beautiful poetry he wrote,
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord,
that I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel,
and with the house of Judah:
with their fathers
in the day
that I took them by the hand
which my covenant they brake,
although I was an husband unto them,
saith the Lord:
with the house of Israel;
After those days,
saith the Lord,
and write it in their hearts;
and will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
every man his neighbour,
and every man his brother, saying,
Know the Lord:
from the least of them
unto the greatest of them,
saith the Lord:
and I will remember their sin
no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
This is the new covenant with Israel, including the "Israel" of faith, not just those racially of Israel, which the Lord Jesus made with His own precious blood: "This is," solemnly declared Jesus the night of His betrayal, "my blood of the new testament [covenant 1, which is shed for many" (Mark 14:24). And the writer of Hebrews declared that Christ has "obtained a more excellent ministry [than Moses], by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second" (Hebrews 8:6, 7). The writer then goes on to quote Jeremiah 31 in support of the divine promise to establish this new covenant.
It was the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century who emphasized the superiority of the new covenant and its implications for Christian theology and Christian ethics. One of the most reliable interpreters of Anabaptism wrote:
"Regarding the relation of the Old Testament Scriptures to the New Testament the Brethren [the Anabaptists] differed fundamentally from state. church Protestantism. They believed indeed that all Scripture was given by inspiration of God and is inerrantly true in all its statements and doctrinal teachings. Nevertheless they recognized the fact that the relation of the Old to the New Testament Scriptures is that of promise to fulfillment, of type and shadow to reality, of the groundwork of a building to the building itself. God's promise under the old covenant was that a new covenant was to be established at the coming of the Redeemer; and the New Testament Scriptures teach that Christ is 'the Mediator of a better covenant'. . .
"A 'faultless covenant' was impossible before Christ's coming and His work of redemption. The Old Testament Scriptures were the rule of life for pre-Messianic times. The New Testament obligations ('The law of Christ,' Galatians 6:2) are more far-reaching and perfect than the Mosaic law. Whatever of the old law is obligatory for the Christian is repeated and taught in the New Testament Scriptures.
"This was the position of the Swiss Brethren and Mennonites concerning the Old Testament. The theologians of the state churches, on the contrary, found themselves compelled to go back to the Old Testament for maintaining the points on which they differed from the Brethren. They believed that in the Old Testament Scriptures they had found ground for defending infant baptism, the union of church and state, the persecution of dissenters, and war, for the followers of Christ. They failed to make the distinction between the Old and New Testament Scriptures on which the Mennonites insisted" John Horsch, Mennonites in Europe, 1950, p. 354). Confirmation of the reliability of the Horsch interpretation has appeared recently with the publication of the monograph of Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964). See also the articles "Bible" and "Old Testament" in the Mennonite Encyclopedia (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Mennonite Publishing House, 4 volumes, 1955-59)
It must not be thought that the Old Testament Scriptures are not the Word of God, however. For all Scripture is God-given and therefore profitable. II Timothy 3:16. The Mennonite Confession of Faith, adopted by Mennonite General Conference in 1963, states the following on revelation and inspiration (Article 2):
"We believe that the God of creation and redemption has revealed Himself and His will for men in the Holy Scriptures, and supremely and finally in His incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. God's purpose in this revelation is the salvation of all men. Although God's power and deity are revealed in His creation, so that the nations are without excuse, this knowledge of Him cannot save men, for it cannot make Christ known. God revealed Himself in saving word and deed to Israel as recorded in the Old Testament; He fulfilled this revelation of Himself in the word and deed of Christ as recorded in the New Testament. We believe that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. We accept the Scriptures as the authoritative Word of God, and through the Holy Spirit as the infallible Guide to lead men to faith in Christ and to guide them in the life of Christian discipleship.
"We believe that the Old Testament and the New Testament together constitute the Word of God, that the Old Testament was preparatory, that its institutions were temporary in character, and that the new covenant in Christ is the fulfillment of the old. We believe that the Old Testament writings are inspired and profitable, and as the divine word of promise are to be interpreted in conjunction with the divine act of fulfillment recorded in the New. "The message of the Bible points to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is to Him that the Scriptures of the Old Testament bear witness, and He is the One whom the Scriptures of the New Testament proclaim. He is the key to the proper understanding of the entire Bible."
Again it must be emphasized that there is a unity to the whole Bible. Both Testaments, teach the personality, love, and holiness of God; the sin and need of human beings; the necessity of mediated access to God; His demand for holiness of heart and life in us; our need for meditation and prayer; the creation of all things by God, and His providence in history and life; His grace toward those of faith; the need of divine enablement to live a life pleasing to God; and life in the hereafter.
Since all Scripture is God-given, there is a God-given unity to the Book. This means that the less clear portions must be interpreted in the light of the more lucid parts. And the Christian scholar who encounters a problem for which he can at the moment find no satisfactory solution must be content to put the problem on the "waiting-shelf" for the time being. On one point there is full clarity in the Scriptures. There is a continuity to the redemptive program of God under the old covenant and in the new. The new birth is a spiritual fulfillment of the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision. Colossians 2:11, 12. Christ is a spiritual fulfillment of the Passover Iamb of the Exodus. I Corinthians 5:7. Just as the blood of the Old Testament sacrifices was spilled, so the Lord Jesus shed His precious blood for our redemption. Hebrews 9:12. The Old Testament had various ceremonial washings and purifications, and similarly we have had our hearts purified by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5); our hearts were sprinkled, and our bodies washed. Hebrews 10:22. Although not all Israelites were saved--there was actually only a believing remnant--yet that believing remnant by entering the church of Christ established a continuity between God's chosen Israel of old, and the new "Israel of God" (Galatians 6:16); the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has been broken down in Christ, and in Him there is one new man, one united body, the church of Christ. Through this continuity, with the Israel of God, the members of the church of Christ are spiritually "Abraham's seed, and heirs" of the promises made to him and his seed. Galatians 3:29. The unity of the Old and New Testaments is a unity in redemption: first fully realized in Christ, however. Hebrews 9:8-15; 10:1-18.
The New Testament also plays a normative role in the interpretation of Messianic prophecy. Our Lord and His apostles furnish us with "sample understandings" of Old Testament predictions of Christ and the church. As the Norwegian theologian, Olav Valen-Sendstad, wrote If Jesus Christ appeared in human history as the God-Man, "then He and He alone" has perfect knowledge "in respect to the Scripture." A Christian theology of the Scriptures will therefore hold to no other view than which Scripture presents. Cited by Robert D Preus in Christian Faith and Modern Theology. New York Channel Press, 1964, p 114) We have already seen that Christ drew upon the writings of Moses, those of the prophets, and from Division Ill of the Hebrew canon, "the Psalms," for His exposition of Messianic prophecy. He Himself stated emphatically, 'Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words" (John 5:45-47)? Philip was in perfect agreement therefore with his Lord when he told Nathanael, "We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45). The whole sweep of the Messiah's life was toward the cross; it was His predetermined end, for it was the will of the Father that through His crucified Son the race should be redeemed from the guilt and power of sin. When Jesus began to teach His disciples the necessity of His coming death at Jerusalem, and Peter objected, Jesus rebuked Peter sharply for not aligning his thinking with the will of God. Matthew 16:21-23. "All things which . . . were I written" had to be fulfilled. Luke 21:22. The early disciples, prior to Pentecost, were actually blind to the necessity of Christ's passion and death. Luke 24:25-27. Jesus declared to His desperate apostles that it would have been in His power to save Himself by "more than twelve legions of angels. But how then . . . [should 1 the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be" (Matthew 26:53, 54)?
From a spiritual point of view, all history converged on the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. The Gospel kerygma begins therefore with the startling declaration of Christ Himself: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand . . ." (Mark 1:15). And all through His ministry, the phrase keeps occurring that this or that was done, "that the scripture might be fulfilled." The preaching of repentance by John the Baptist was the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy. Luke carefully dates the beginning of John's significant ministry as the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberias he reigned A.D. 14-37 J, when Pontius Pilate was governor I procurator of Judea [he served A.D. 26-36 1, and Annas and Caiaphas were the Jewish high priests. The word of God came to John, as it had to the great prophets of the Old Testament, "And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet 140:3-5 I, saying,
- The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
- Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
and every mountain and hill
- shall be brought low;
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
This use of Isaiah's Messianic proclamation is typical of the way Christ fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. He fulfilled the passages which had to do with His natural life (birth at Bethlehem, for example) in a literal sense. And He fulfilled also in their true sense those Old Testament poetical prophecies which were clothed in figurative language. He never carried a lamp, but in a spiritual sense, he came "to give light to them that . . . [sat] in darkness" (Luke 1:79).
Matthew quoted Isaiah (9:2):
The people which sat in darkness
saw great light;
light is sprung up (Matthew 4:16).
The godly Simeon cried prophetically:
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
and the glory of thy people Israel (Luke 2:32).
The New Testament indicates that Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Messianic intent of the Old Testament Scriptures. The apostles saw the essential witness of the Old Testament as a witness to the Lord Jesus and His Messiahship. This theme runs right through the New Testament, making Christ the unifying bond between the two Testaments promised in the Old, fulfilled by Jesus in the New. When Philip found the Ethiopian official reading Isaiah 53, e 'began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus" (Acts 8:35). Paul regularly went to the Jewish synagogue on his evangelistic campaigns, and when the opportunity to speak was extended to him, he demonstrated from the Old Testament Scriptures that the Messiah needed to suffer, and that Jesus was the Messiah ("Christ"): Acts 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28; 26:22, 23. The Apostle Peter preached the same message: "Those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that [his I Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled" (Acts 3:18). Whatever the Old Testament predicted, that the apostles saw fulfilled in Jesus; and whatever Jesus did, that they regarded as having been predicted of the Christ. Everything came to pass just as it had been prophesied.
The New Testament sometimes goes even beyond prediction, and sees in both words and events of the Old Testament intimations of the Christ or of the salvation which He was to bring. The Rock from which Israel drank in the desert was somehow none other than Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 10:4. The word of David in Psalm 110:1, "Yahweh said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand," was clearly Messianic. Matthew 22:41-45. Jesus was a Priest who resembled Melchizedek, rather than Aaron, and this too was in Messianic prophecy. Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 7. The Old Testament did not permit the Aaronic priests to enter into the holy of holies of the tabernacle: "The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made [open 1" (Hebrews 9:8). But Christ by the shedding of His blood has opened the way: "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus . . . let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith . . ." (Hebrews 10:19, 22). The elevation of the brazen serpent in the desert pointed to the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. John 3:14. And just as God had dwelt between the cherubim, over the mercy seat of the tabernacle, so in the marvelous miracle of the incarnation, the Word of God became flesh and "tabernacled" among God's people. John 1:14.
The Old Testament Not Final
In all frankness it must be stated that the Old Testament Scriptures also contain various laws and regulations for Israel which seem not to reflect the full light of Christ and His redemptive love. (And is this not precisely what one would expect in pre Christian times?) Israel as a nation was permitted by God to wage war. Deuteronomy 7:1-3; Judg. 1:1-4. Deception was sometimes practiced. I Samuel 16:1. Divorce and remarriage were permitted. Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Polygamy was allowed within certain regulations--the multiple wives dared not be sisters. Exodus 21:10; Leviticus 18:18. Israel had the institution known as the avenger of blood (Numbers 35:12; Joshua 20: 3)--perhaps as a limitation of vengeance to one person. As a nation, provision was naturally made for Israelites to go to law. Exodus 21, 22. Oaths were permitted. Numbers 5:19. Many crimes were punishable by death Exodus 21:12, 15, 16, 17; 22:18, 19. Woman held a rather inferior status (Numbers 30:3-8), although vastly higher than that of the other Near Eastern peoples of that era. The general practice of the writers of the New Testament is to constantly ground their doctrine upon the holy Scriptures of the Old Testament. Westcott and Hort printed the Greek New Testament passages which quoted or alluded to Old Testament passages in a different kind of type, and these quotations and allusions number about one thousand. The New Testament writings also mark an advance over the Old Testament, for the full revelation of God had come in Christ before the writing of the New Testament books. The New Testament writers constantly make the truths of divine revelation as taken from the Old Testament more deep and penetrating. Christ Himself set the pattern in His Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7. With what appears to be an unerring instinct (it was Holy Spirit illumination, to be sure), the apostles reach for those Old Testament passages which will make good "pilings" upon which to rest their doctrine of faith and life.
What do Christ and His apostles do, on the other hand, about those statements of the Old Testament which reflect pre-Christian attitudes and behavior? The general answer is that they simply pass over them, rather than to point out that they are not using them. Perhaps the only exception is Christ's teaching on marriage and divorce. Jesus first of all laid down the rule that marriage is binding for life. And in good New Testament form Christ grounded His doctrine in the Scriptures of the Old Testament, citing the provision for permanent monogamy from Genesis 2:24, with its law commanding to leave and cleave. He then set forth God's holy law, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." The Pharisees thought that they could upset the doctrine of Christ by appealing to the law of Moses; so they inquired why Moses had commanded to write a bill of divorcement. Jesus replied gently that Moses permitted divorce "because of the hardness of your hearts . . . but from the beginning [Gensis 2:24] it was not so." Then He added, "And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication [unchastity], and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery" (Matthew 19:3-12). (The Greek word here rendered fornication/unchastity was a broad term which could include any form of immorality, such as fornication, adultery, or incest. It was not confined to premarital unchastity as is now the common usage of the English word fornication. [But the use of two Greek words porneias (unchastity RSV, fornication KJV) and moichatai (adultery) in Matthew 19 shows they carried different meanings: the first means fornication and the second adultery. Joseph example of wanting to divorce his betrothed Mary (Matthew 1:18-19) shows fornication broke the engagement in the Jewish culture. Thus the exception clause, which is only found in the Matthew gospel written to the Jews, only means an engagement can be broken by fornication. It does not mean adultery breaks the marriage bond. Revised by LMH])
This explanation of Christ, as to why Moses in Deuteronomy permitted divorce and remarriage, is as far as theologians can go today in explaining the pre-Christian laws and regulations of Judaism which fall short of the standards of Christ and His apostles.
So far we have seen that we need to interpret the Bible grammatically, actually seeking to determine as carefully and honestly as possible what the words actually mean; we saw that we needed to take into account the context of any given statement; we saw that we need to get all the light which historical research, including archaeology, can throw on the Scriptures; we saw that it was important to try to understand the fulfillment of the old covenant by the new, and the implications of this fulfillment; and we saw that the Scriptures are to be interpreted Christologically. We need yet to take a brief look at what scholars such as Louis Berkhof call theological interpretation. What is meant by this expression?
We may begin this discussion by reminding ourselves that it is true, both that the Bible contains God's Word, and also, because of its Holy Spirit inspiration, that it is God's Word. And since the entire corpus of Scripture may be recognized as God's Word, there is an ultimate unity to the Book which is dependent upon God Himself. In other words, the canons of the Old and New Testament Scriptures are a divine intention. It is agreed on all hands--by both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars--that when Christ and the apostles refer to the Scriptures they mean the twenty-tour books of the Jewish canon, our thirty-nine books. (Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary, p. 479; d. p. 153.) And there is no dispute within Catholic or Protestant circles on the twenty-seven New Testament books. The authority of these New Testament books--just like the twenty-four of the Old-does not rest on ecclesiastical decree or pronouncement. They are in the canon of the church because they were inspired; they are not inspired because of any conciliar action. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament have an authority which the church recognized as the voice of God. This voice was heard basically in apostolic books, either written or dictated by apostles, or resting on their witness. (Thus Mark wrote down the preaching of Peter, while Paul was Luke's spiritual father.) The ancient Christian Church had a lively tradition as to which books could be depended on to present apostolic truth. (An almost complete canon emerged early, with only a few of the smaller books being added to the canon later in the second century [this sentence revised by LMH 1998]. As early as A.D. 367 Athanasius listed our twenty-seven New Testament books and designated them as canonical. [This does not mean these books were not accepted much earlier - LMH.].)
That the entire Bible is worthy of the high designation, Word of God, means that it is more than the writings of good men. It all has its ultimate source in God. This is true not only of the Old Testament prophetic writings, where holy men of God came before God's people with the declaration: "Hear the Word of Yahweh!" It is just as true of the apostolic writings, the content of which did not always come by a special revelation from God. Luke, for example, indicates that he engaged in historical research in the writing of his Gospel, being careful to look up eyewitnesses. Luke 1:1-4.
If the whole body of the Scriptures is the Word of God, it follows that there is often a divinely intended meaning in the Book beyond the conscious intention of its many writers. It is therefore the task of the Spirit-illuminated reader of God's Word to go beyond what the original hearers or readers may have understood the Word to mean and even to go beyond what the original writers on some occasions may have meant when they wrote. We must seek for the meaning which God Himself intends us to get from His Word. It is He who is the God of all truth. In regeneration He gives us a nature akin to His own. In illumination He assists us to reach His intention as we read and meditate upon His Word. Theological interpretation therefore means that we must honestly seek by meditation and prayer to reach the understanding of God's Word which He intends us to attain. For example, the Jews of Moses' day no doubt thought that God had created the universe in six twenty-four-hour days. What Moses thought, we have no way of knowing. What God intends us to get from this account is undoubtedly how He in an orderly manner in six divine "days" brought everything into being which exists, and how He is the Creator and Sustainer of it all. Augustine (354-430), the great church leader, perceived this truth, although among the churchmen of his day his insight was not accepted. But Augustine was no doubt right in rejecting a strictly literal interpretation. Surely God does not want us to consider these as six puny earth days, but six divine "days."
Another illustration is the teaching of the New Testament apostles that Christ would come "soon." We do not know how the early church understood this word, nor how the apostles themselves meant it. And that is not the main question. The real point is, What does God want us to take from this word? Undoubtedly the answer is qualitative, rather than quantitative. He wants us to seek to live expectantly, aware that He could appear in glory at any time and deliver His church militant from all her suffering and distress; rather than to try to compute the number of days or years which will elapse until His parousia takes place.
A third illustration would be the animal sacrifices for sin in the Old Testament era. We now know that animal sacrifices can never atone for human sin. Hebrews 10:4. Therefore it was only be the grace of God that Israelites could have their sins forgiven. There was no intrinsic value in animal sacrifices. Yet the promise of the law was clear and unequivocal that when the people of Israel made their sacrifices, God would forgive them Was Moses aware that these sacrifices were of value only insofar as the Israelite were penitent? Did not many Israelites think that there was something intrinsically meritorious about their cultus? Theological interpretation insists that what matters is what God wants us to understand, not how the people of the time understood His Word--or failed to understand it; nor how even the writer understood it. (And in relation to this illustration, we recall how the great prophets such as Isaiah and Amos thundered against the hypocritical manner in which many Israelites participated in the cultic worship of that era.) Similarly the Jews thought that circumcision was instituted forever;. they found it hard to accept the teaching of the New Testament that God's concern is only with the "circumcision" of the "heart," that is, with the new birth which the Holy Spirit effects in each convert who turns from sin and yields to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Christian Truth in Focus
In the interpretation of the Old Testament the teaching of Christ and His apostles is normative. In the interpretation of the New Testament, however, it is the Holy Spirit who must enable us to reach God's intention. And in relation to the New Testament, the church must seek to make central the same emphases which Christ and His apostles had. This means that the church must preach repentance from sin and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 20:17-35. It means making central the new birth and Christian holiness. Romans 5-8. It means seeking to do everything possible to carry out the command to witness and evangelize. Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1-28. It means operating on the principle of love, the Greek agape. John 13; Romans 12,13; I Corinthians 13; I John 1-5. The New Testament asks us to live as "strangers and pilgrims" in this wicked world (Hebrews 11:13, I Peter 2 11, Romans 12 1, 2), but it does not ask us to adopt the cultural accidents of a Palestinian first-century culture: eating the food of that period, wearing the clothing of that day, or using the means of transportation and communication of that era. There is noting "Christian" about a given mode of life, such as being a shepherd like David of old. It is just as Christian to be a pilot on an airliner, or a researcher for a drug company, both of which are in many ways more significant in today's society. True Biblical interpretation for the Christian Church means discovering and emphasizing the central affirmations of the Christian faith, not distorting New Testament Christianity by majoring in minor matters, or teaching an unscriptural sacramentalism, or putting undue stress on peripheral or "occasional" elements of Scripture. (The term "occasional" refers to the obvious fact that certain instructions were onetime directives to certain individuals or groups, and not relevant in any major way for the ongoing life of the church. For example, Paul told a sensitive Timothy to use a little wine to quiet his stomach.)
This principle of interpretation could also be put negatively: Do not distort New Testament truth. Making Christianity into a system of ceremonies would be an example of distortion. We cannot afford to give the impression that the heart of Christianity is observing ordinances. Almost all Christians agree that baptism and the Lord's Supper are permanent practices for the church of Christ. And there is certainly nothing but commendation for such bodies as the Church of the Brethren-, the Mennonites, and the Brethren in Christ, if they also practice literally the washing of the saints' feet--providing they stress in all these ceremonies (baptism, Lord's Supper, and foot washing) both the value of their literal observance and the spiritual realities of which the ceremonies are symbols. For unfortunately it is possible for people to make of religious ceremonies an end in themselves, and ceremonialism is indeed a distorted Christianity. The only way to avoid ceremonialism is by a clear and vigorous teaching program which keeps God's people aware that the ceremonies of Christianity, even baptism and the Lord's Supper, are meaning only because they witness to the spiritual blessings which we have in Christ. The warnings of Amos and Isaiah against ceremonialism without faith and obedience are still needed! For sacramentalism dies hard, and there are still many nominal believers who think that they are recipients of God's grace through the sheer reception of the water of baptism, or the bread and cup of the Lord's Supper. But any participation in sacraments" without faith in Christ is an abomination to God. No spiritual blessings are in the New Testament promised on the flimsy basis of trust in ex opere operato, The danger of a wooden literalism in the understanding of the New Testtament cannot be denied. Especially serious is the error of sacramentalism, which thinks to receive blessings through the sheer observance of ceremonies.
It must be admitted also that there is no easy way to draw a line between the practices which the Lord intended to be permanent symbols and ceremonies for the church, and the first-century cultural expressions of values and virtues which were not intended by God to be kept permanently in their original form. Most Christian bodies include in the former group baptism and the Lord's Supper, and in the latter such instructions as to keep one's loins girded and to greet one another with a holy kiss. The Society of Friends denies that such a distinction can be drawn, and therefore keeps no ordinances at all, stressing only the spiritual realities of which the ceremonies are symbols. But this attitude of rejecting New Testament ordinances has been justly rejected by almost all of Christendom. Having the loins girded is properly regarded as a symbol of constant readiness I for the Lord's Return I and is certainly no instruction to the church around the globe to wear for all time the flowing garments of Palestine in the time of Paul the Apostle. There are other practices which are not so readily classified in the category of permanent symbol or temporary expression of spiritual attitudes. The symbol which comes closest to baptism and Lord's Supper is that of the basin and towel (John 13:1-17), for it must be admitted that the words of institution spoken by the Lord in John 13 sound just as binding upon His disciples as those pertaining to the bread and the cup. The basin and towel point to the obligations which membership in a redeemed brotherhood involves: the obligations of serving love, as well as symbolizing the daily spiritual cleansing which Christian believers enjoy in Christ. On the other hand, there seems to be no mention in the Acts of the literal observance of foot washing as a Christian ceremony for the church.
Sacramentalism and the giving of undue attention to the ceremonies of the New Testament are not the only way to distort the teaching of the New Testament. How frequently is it said by well-meaning believers "I'm only a sinner, saved by grace." Now there is no doubt at all about the truth of our being saved by grace, nor about our pre-conversion state having been that of a sinner. The only question relates to the testimony, "I'm only a sinner." Does this statement ring true to the testimonies of the saints of the first century? Is it not much more the case that New Testament believers rejoice in the consciousness that they have been "washed, sanctified, . . . [and] justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (I Corinthians 6:11)? Do they not rejoice that the Lord Jesus has baptized them with the Holy Spirit, in contrast with the water baptism of John? Matthew 3:11; Acts 1:5; 2:4, 17, 38; 11:15, 16. And does not Christ's baptism with the Spirit result in the death of the old sinful life, and a subsequent walk "in newness of life" (Romans 6:4)? Was not the "old man" crucified with the Saviour on Golgotha's cross? Romans 6:6. Does not the indwelling Holy Spirit render powerless (Greek, katargeo) the "body of sin" (Romans- 6:6)? Instead of constantly emphasizing their sinfulness, ought not the saints to "reckon" themselves as "dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:11)? And are we not commanded not to allow sin to "reign" in our mortal body, nor td "have dominion" over us? Romans 6:12, 14. Rather, are we not even now love-servants of God, with our "fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life" (Romans 6:22)? Yea, "the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" enables us to attain unto genuine righteousness Romans 8 1-11. How utterly we deny the chorus of New Testament witnesses for holiness by emphasizing only our sinfulness and denying that possibility of victory over sin which the New Testament commands us to appropriate by faith! Just as the Spirit of God teaches us in the Book of Acts the centrality of those ceremonies which set forth our redemption in Christ, so He also wants us to grasp the reality of our deliverance from the law of sin and death as set forth in the epistles of the New Testament
It is also possible to distort New Testament truth by constantly asserting that our only message is that of grace. It is certainly true that the believer's only hope is God's grace in Christ. We are saved by grace (Ephesians 2 8), we stand in grace (Romans 5:2), and it is by grace that we anticipate the future enjoyment of God's glory (Acts 15:11). But grace is not God's only word for us. We are also taught by our Lord that we must both hear and "do" His words. Matthew 7 24 And a faith which does not issue in good works is "dead" (James 2 26). It takes more than lip profession to enter the divine kingdom, we must also do the Father's will. Matthew 7:21. If anyone wishes to be Christ's disciple, he must deny himself, daily take up his cross [of suffering as a disciple I, and "be following" his Lord. Luke 9:23. It is true that the water of life is offered to us "gratis" (as the Rheims New Testament of 1582 so well renders the Greek), but Christ also said: "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city" (Revelation 22 17,14).
One more illustration must suffice. In many Christian circles, especially those in the Arminian tradition, there tends to be a constant emphasis on faithfulness, on "holding out." And this is, to be sure, a good emphasis. It is Biblical. Only he will be saved who "shall endure unto the end" (Matthew 24:13). But this emphasis on enduring can be rightly understood only when it is related to another New Testament emphasis, namely, the assurance that it is none other than God who is able to keep His children from falling, "and to present . . . [them I faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy" Jude 24). Behind the faithful disciple, therefore, stands the infinitely more faithful God, the One who has "begun a good work" in His children, and who will certainly "perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Paul knew in whom he had believed, and he was persuaded that God was able to guard his deposit 'against that day" (II Timothy 1:12). Christ's "sheep" are secure because: (1) He is able to keep them, and (2) it is His will to do so. John 10:27-29.
There is only one way for a believer to avoid distorting the truth of God's Word. That is the lifelong practice of reading constantly in the holy Scriptures, praying for Holy Spirit illumination, living up to all the light one has, ever seeking for a more perfect understanding of the divine will, heeding the warnings of God's Word, and claiming His promises. And here both the glorious doctrinal tradition of the Christian Church, as set forth in the ancient creeds, and the living teaching ministry of the church are of immense help in assisting the saints to see the truth of God's Word in good focus. Even the New Testament contains what were likely ancient confessions of faith which stress the centrality of the Lord Jesus as the object of our faith:
- HE WHO WAS
manifest in the flesh,
justified in the Spirit,
seen of angels,
preached unto the Gentiles,
believed on in the world,
received up into glory (I Timothy 3:16).
One of the finest hymns of the church is one which really sets forth the Christian faith in sharp focus, making central what the New Testament makes central, the catechetical hymn of Mrs. Cecil F. Alexander, 1848:
- There is a green hill far away,
- Without a city wall,
- Who died to save us all.
We may not know, we cannot tell,
- What pains He had to bear;
- He hung and suffered there.
He died that we might be forgiv'n,
- He died to make us good,
- Saved by His precious blood.
There was no other good enough
- To pay the price of sin;
- Of heav'n, and let us in.
O dearly, dearly has He loved,
- And we must love Him too,
- And try His works to do.
We have found him,
- of whom Moses in the law,
and the prophets, did write,
This is chapter 3 of God's Word Written, by J. C. Wenger, © copyright 1966, renewed, by Herald Press, copyright now owned by Leland M. Haines, Northville, MI.Biblical Viewpoints Publications.