THE HOLY SCRIPTURES
JESUS' ATTITUDE TOWARD THE SCRIPTURES
While the "Scriptures" that Jesus spoke of are the writings of the Old Testament (e.g., Matthew 22:29, Mark 15:28), His attitude toward them must certainly govern His disciples, whose Scriptures contain those books and the apostolic writings as well. No one may legitimately claim to be His disciple who refuses to walk in the same attitude toward the Scriptures that He possessed. That may seem to you to be an obvious principle, but it is a principle that is routinely ignored or denied by a very great many Christians, especially by scholars. And what was the attitude that Jesus had toward the sacred writings? We see it both by teaching and by example.
He taught that the Scriptures "cannot be broken" or “set aside” (John 10:35); indeed, He received the recorded commands of Moses as the very word of God Himself (Matthew 15:6), and excoriated those who used cunning logic to set aside its clear intent. He believed the story of Jonah and the great fish to be history (Matthew 12:39f), and believed the Genesis account of creation (implied from Matthew 19:4f). He acknowledged no "higher criticism" that takes away confidence in the direct connection between God's revelation and His Scriptures. His attitude must be our attitude. Can you truthfully say that it is your attitude?
In addition, one cannot read the gospels without becoming aware of how carefully Jesus searched, used and sought to fulfill the Scriptures. Scripture flowed from His mouth continually and naturally, because it was for Him the wisdom, the purpose and the power of God Himself. Although, as the Word of God (John 1:1ff), He was the author of those writings, while here below He was very careful to obey every prophecy that pertained to Him. In behavior, His life was governed by the Scriptures in amazing detail. No one in our day can reject the idea of detailed and careful observance of the Scriptures by appeal to the example of Jesus. For example, He moved from Nazareth to Capernaum (Matthew 4:14), told the healed lepers to show themselves to the priest (Matthew 8:4), spoke in parables (Matthew 13:34), healed and cast out demons (Matthew 8:16-17), entered Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:4-5), and gave Himself into the hands of His enemies willingly (Matthew 26:54-56), all because the Scriptures required it of Him. He did not draw the demonic distinction between "petty details," to be disregarded, and "important principles," to be fulfilled. Just as He requires of us, He was faithful in little things as well as great (Luke 16:10).
You see, pilgrim, we must not only imitate Jesus' high doctrine about the Scriptures; we must also imitate the zeal He demonstrated to obey them and fulfill them. That is an essential part of being His disciple. Some things written for us are great, and some are small, but we are to be faithful in all of them. If we do not yet have this commitment, we are not yet what He would call a disciple. Have you made that commitment to imitate Jesus?
Reverence for God requires equal reverence for the writings He inspired. Never put a cleavage between God and what He has caused to be written. What is written is the will of God: the word of God is God speaking. Therefore you are to revere His writings with the same reverence you are to show Him. The way you respond to the Scriptures is the way you are IN FACT responding to Him (as opposed to what you may IMAGINE you feel for Him). If you feel free to ignore a command in His word you are declaring that you feel free to ignore HIM; if you are eager to fulfill every command you are showing true surrender to HIM. Your attitude toward His Word is a marvelously accurate barometer of your true attitude toward Him!
WHAT THE SCRIPTURES SAY ABOUT THEMSELVES
They tell us that they are very carefully constructed by God
The apostle tells us that the writings of the old covenant (and therefore of the new) were conceived by God and were caused to be written for our instruction, not just for that of the immediate recipients (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:11). Moreover, even the events that are recorded within the scriptures were shaped by God with us in mind, not just for the immediate recipients (1 Corinthians 10:6).
Considering this great care and foresight, we must conclude that, regardless of any contrary appearances, the Scriptures are at no place simply casual letters produced by hurried writers (e.g., Philemon). Each prophetic book, gospel or letter is there because it forms one necessary component of the total record of God's revelation to man that He wanted to be written down. Every word that passed from the writer was at the same time the very word that God wanted used, He who declares the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10):
Every word of God is tested. Do not add to His words or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar (Proverbs 30:5-6).
The words of the Lord are pure words; as silver tried in a furnace on the earth, refined seven times (Psalm 12.6).
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there without watering the earth, and making it bear and sprout, and furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).
”If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life…” (Revelation 22:18-19).
What this means, fellow disciple, is that if any portion of the Scriptures ever seems unclear or confusing, never dismiss it as meaningless or as poorly expressed. Any true obscurity that is there is there for a carefully thought out purpose, just like the obscurities in the parables of Jesus. Just because the meaning of something is not apparent at first observation does not mean that it is not there. What casual observer would ever have suspected what deep truths of nuclear physics are hidden away within a chunk of uranium ore; but the truths of neither science nor the Scriptures belong to the casual observer. They belong to the careful and consecrated seekers: “And he said to them, ‘To you [i.e., disciples] has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables,...’” (Mark 4:11).
Those who object to such detailed brilliance being attributed to words and concepts that have at the same time been produced by human beings undoubtedly have never been the recipients of supernatural revelation themselves. One only has to experience once in one's life the communication of divinely chosen words in order to have dispelled forever any doubts about God's ability to impart words and images to the human mind with precision. That is one of the important faith-building consequences of the baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit.
All the Scriptures are inspired by God Himself (2 Timothy 3:16); "inspired" means literally "God-breathed." This means that it is God who is the primary author, and that men are secondary authors. There is one wisdom and one logic and one plan that lies behind all the passages containing the same theme, no matter how widely separated they may be by time, by pages or by writers' styles. It was not a myriad of human wills that brought forth the Scriptures, but rather men who were moved by the single will of the Holy Spirit to write down things from God (2 Peter 1:21). Paul, for example, knew that the things he had written were also the commands of God (1 Corinthians 14:37-38). And Peter himself testified to the divine inspiration and authority of Paul's writings (2 Peter 3:15-16). Indeed, Peter tells us that the commandments of all the apostles are the commandments of our Savior Himself (2 Peter 3:2). One inspired author of a particular subject may not have known what another author was going to write about that same subject, but the Holy Spirit of God DID know, and the Spirit wanted to complement the first author’s writing. Pick any subject (e.g., baptism, end time events…). The writer of a particular text regarding that subject might or might not have had the “big picture” regarding that subject: but the Spirit who inspired that writer DID have that “big picture,” and each passage that He inspired describes one part of HIS understanding of the topic. THAT IS WHY WE MUST COLLECT ALL PERTINENT TEXTS BEFORE ALLOWING OURSELVES TO DRAW ANY CONCLUSIONS.
They tell us that God must open our eyes to understand them
Luke 24:25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
1 Corinthians 2:11 So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
Remember, the way that Jesus dealt with people while upon the earth, in the way He used His words, will of course be the same way that He deals with people from heaven, in the way He uses His scriptures. He often speaks parabolically, in much mystery (Mark 4:1-12, 33-34). Like the parables, and like the humanity of Christ, the scriptures not only manifest God, they veil Him as well. This does not mean that there is anything unrighteous in His utterances themselves for,
All the utterances of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing crooked or perverted in them. They are all straightforward to him who understands and right to those who find knowledge (Proverbs 8:8-9).
Rather, the principle of veiling means that His passages are constructed in such a way that they prove to be beyond the grasp of the lax and lazy, and unbelievable or irrelevant to the unrepentant. God does not cast His "pearls before swine" any more than He expects us to (i.e., Matthew 7:6). What we see in the Scriptures is that,
With the kind You show Yourself kind; with the blameless You show Yourself blameless; with the pure You show Yourself pure and with the crooked You show Yourself astute [literally, "twisted"]. For You save an afflicted people, but haughty eyes You abase (Psalm 18:25-27).
God is not eager to make converts from the haughty; instead, He deliberately hides Himself from them. "Truly, Thou art a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel" (Isaiah 45:15; also, Deuteronomy 32:20, Jeremiah 29:13). He deliberately speaks in parables to those who "are outside" (Mark 4:11), that is, to those who are not willing to humble themselves, empty themselves before Him, and become His sincere disciples. The Scriptures are written for disciples, not for casual and careless observers; it is to the disciples that He explains Himself and His mysteries (Mark 4:34).
They tell us that careful attention and obedience
are to be given to them
Be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them (John 13:17)
We have already considered this attitude of careful obedience to the Scriptures in the teaching and example of Jesus. But, one may ask, just how careful is "careful"? We can answer this by applying Jesus' teaching that (1) we should do for others (in this case, God) what we would want them to do for us (Matthew 7:12), and (2) applying His teaching that the measure we use in dealing with others will also be used upon us (Luke 6:38). We must therefore be as careful and as detail-minded in fulfilling the commands of Scripture as we want God to be in fulfilling the promises of Scripture. If we are careless and unconcerned with the details of the New Testament commands we cannot expect Him to fulfill His many marvelous promises in detail either.
The Scriptures that provided for Jesus' life and ministry in such detail do so for ours as well. They outline or infer a theology; they provide examples and instructions for the operation, organization and discipline of the church; they are our guideline for relationships (husband/wife, parent/child, employer/employee); and they even provide some specific regulations that are to be followed (e.g., veils, animal blood, food sacrificed to demon-gods). While it is indeed quite possible to get so preoccupied with the fulfilling of details that we lose sight of the weightier matters of the gospel, such danger seems hardly likely to overtake our generation of scandalously lax and frivolous Christians. Our American tradition of "rugged individualism" and suspicion of governing authority has combined with the present age's wealth and lack of self-discipline to produce an attitude of disobedience that will cause this nation to be judged and destroyed. And this poisonous attitude has become well established within the denominations and traditions of Americanized Christendom as well. Yet, despite this horrible and long-standing condition, over the course of my long life, I have heard incomparably more sermons on the danger of Pharisaism and legalism than I have heard about the need to obey God generously and thoroughly! That speaks volumes about how far our Christianity is removed from that of the New Testament. But you and I, pilgrim, have been warned and exhorted sufficiently now, and we know what kind of obedience God will expect to see in us by the time we stand before Him. Do not let the rest of Christianity lull you into spiritual complacency. Become a Biblical and apostolic Christian!
INTERPRETING THE SCRIPTURES PROPERLY:
Throughout this work we defend the "literal" interpretation of the Scriptures. However, it is possible that the word "literal" can produce some confusion in the reader's mind. How, for example, do we take the following Scriptures literally:
Hide me in the shadow of Thy wings (Psalm 17:8)
He will cover you with His pinions (i.e., "wings"), and under His wings you may seek refuge (Psalm 91:4).
I have... covered you with the shadow of My hand (Isaiah 51:16).
He lifted up the staff and struck the water that was in the Nile, and all the water that was in the Nile was turned to blood (Ex. 7:20).
The sun will be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes (Joel 2:31).
What are these Scriptures, and the many like them, actually saying and asking us to believe? Does God have wings and hands? Did the Nile, and will the moon, actually turn into red blood cells?
Understanding the word "literal" to exclude the idea of metaphor, many have objected to its use (or, exclusive use). In one fine introduction to the Bible, for example, we read:
Man is not limited in his modes of expression, and there is no reason to suppose that God can only speak in one manner (e.g., literally). It is better to refer to the grammatical or "normal" meaning of biblical words than to insist on their literal meaning in all cases. The Bible reveals a number of literary devices, and there are times when the normal sense of a passage may be entirely metaphorical (e.g., Psalm 91:4; John 15:5).
What Geisler and Nix are saying here is entirely correct, if by "literal" you mean only the kind of interpretation that accepts each phrase without any reflection upon the meaning of the term beyond that of the meaning of the words used. The word "literal" is capable of various shades of meaning, and that is certainly within the range of meanings of the term. If you want to restrict the word "literal" to that meaning then you should react as Geisler and Nix have done. We are not concerned to defend a word, but a concept, and the word "literal" does not have to be used: I have used the term "natural" almost as often as the term "literal." Yet within the discipline of Biblical interpretation that term "literal" has become virtually a technical term, and can therefore be used in the wider sense that it has come to possess. The following is illustrative of the commonly accepted meaning of the term:
As many authors have noted, the very word "literal" introduces a few problems. For example, when a writer or speaker makes use of common figures of speech, a "literal" interpretation accepts the figures of speech as figures. In every kind of communication (except the Bible, according to some interpreters), the common figures of speech are readily recognized and interpreted as such. This principle must be applied also in Biblical study. "The moon [shall be turned] into blood" (Joel 2:31), interpreted literally, means not that the moon actually becomes blood... "Literal" interpretation means the understanding which any person of normal intelligence would get, without any special spiritual gifts and without any "code" or "key."
Perhaps the reason why the term "literal interpretation" has come to be used is because of the mind set that it communicates concerning the Scriptures. It tells us that we ought to accept everything in the Scriptures in its most literal sense possible, unless we have grammatical and stylistic reasons to require a metaphoric or poetic interpretation: take it as it stands, unless other Scriptures demand that it must not be taken that way.
There is no real difference between the two different positions we have illustrated in the quotes above. The only real difference is between those who have the mind set mentioned in the paragraphs above and those who are prepared to jettison anything in the Scriptures that is out of harmony with their current cultural, political, denominational or scientific opinion. This latter group would not choke as much over Geisler and Nix's wording as they would over LeSor's. They might say that Genesis 1 can be accepted by them in the same sense that it had for the author of the creation account -- as a use of folklore to teach theology. For that reason alone, I would prefer LeSor's way of expressing it. Again, however, there is no real difference between the two.
Regardless of which use of the term "literal" you choose, there will still be some problems of interpretation. For there are times when we simply cannot know for sure when metaphor is being used, or how metaphorically the language is intended to be taken by God. Using the Scriptures above, just because the moon is not turned into red blood cells, for example, but is made to appear blood-red in color, does not in itself prove that God did not turn the Nile into true blood for a short time. It is quite possible for Him to have done just that, because He is the Lord over all molecular structure. In cases where there is dispute over possible metaphor we should proceed as follows.
It is of course also true that there was a decline away from apostolic patterns in various congregations from the very beginning: we see it occurring even during the Biblical period itself (e.g., Revelation 2-3; Galatians 5:5). But not all churches did fall away, and even where there was a falling it was gradual. Thus, during the first several centuries of Christian history there was much apostolic tradition recorded by contemporary authors that helps us to understand the inspired Scriptures themselves. This does not mean that I am holding up early tradition as an independent source of authoritative revelation. Their own writings make it clear that the early churches always considered themselves to be under the authority and judgment of the apostolic writings, and so do I: the Scriptures can and do judge the early brethren as deficient in some ways (but they judge our contemporary Christianity much more harshly!) We can learn how to understand many Scriptural practices and emphases by listening (critically, intelligently and openly) to the traditions and values of the first generations of our brothers in Christ. Similarly, when there is a debate about whether a text is intended to be understood metaphorically or literally, or when there seems to be more than one "literal" interpretation of a text we should search the early brethren out. They have much to teach us about the apostles and about apostolic Christianity, as can be seen in the body of this catechism. If we are unfamiliar with a doctrine, discipline or institution that seems to be outlined in the scriptures (when taken literally) and we see that our early brothers in Christ report that such is exactly what they had received from the apostles, then we can have confidence to step out and practice what is outlined in the Scriptures, regardless of how strange it feels to us. Perhaps the clearest example of this is seen with respect to the Lord's Supper -- both its practice and meaning (See Chapter 12).
BE SURE TO USE ALL THE PERTINENT SCRIPTURES
To find what the apostles taught (and all that the Spirit inspired), it is important to remember that New Testament patterns are typically found by piecing together many scattered clues. This is necessary because of the fact that we have already stated: the apostles, by and large, gave systematic discourse on Christian foundations through their personal ministry, not through their writings. The Scriptures consist mostly of reminders of things already taught in person, and of the application of principles they had already taught to new problems that the communities were not able to solve for themselves. There are some exceptions (e.g., the epistles to the Romans and to the Hebrews); but even there we discover no systematic introduction to the whole Christian way, but only a relatively more systematic treatment of particular themes.
Our theories/conclusions/theology must explain ALL the pertinent facts in the New Testament Think, for example, about the tremendously important matter of when does God consider us to have entered into His covenant of salvation?: Is it when we are baptized as infants (as Catholic-types teach)?; is it the instant we begin to “trust in Christ” in the recesses of our heart (as most Protestant evangelicals teach)?; is it when we are baptized for the forgiveness of sins (as the Church of Christ teaches)? Or is it perhaps only when we are baptized into the “true Church” (as Eastern Orthodoxy teaches)? In order to establish the apostolic doctrine about this matter, we must not start generalizing until we have first gathered ALL of the texts that pertain to the topic at hand. Just because Peter says that “baptism… saves you” (1 Peter 3:21) doesn’t mean that ANY practice of baptism brings about that salvation. Just because Paul says that “…by grace you have been saved through faith… not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9) does not mean that there may be other things necessary for us to go through, specified elsewhere by the Spirit (e.g., Romans 10:9-10, 1 Peter 3:21). In order to know the teachings of the Spirit our conclusion must satisfy a literal and grammatically natural sense of ALL of the pertinent passages, not just satisfy some of them nor even most of them. If we do not follow this method faithfully, we will almost certainly fall into some kind of heresy (i.e., creating a theology or way of life that only fulfills SOME of the Scriptures, rather than all of them).
Are Christians bound by anything in the Old Testament?
...not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:18).
The physical nation of Israel, the Law-based covenant, the temple and its sacrifices: all of these existed to prepare for the reality that would be manifested in God's Son. They are each the facets of a single gem, and the Old Testament gives absolutely no reason to believe that any one of them can be separated from the others. Jesus brought with Him a new covenant, not merely some new additions and deletions for the old one.
When the priesthood is changed, of necessity there also takes place a change of law also. ...there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness (Hebrews 7:12,18).
When He said, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear (Hebrews 8:13).
But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Galatians 3:23-25).
As Hebrews tells us very clearly, after Jesus fulfilled every demand that the old covenant imposed upon man, He set it aside forever: it is no longer an instrument of God for dealing with man. The value of the old covenant consists in this, that it provides the context for knowing how to interpret the provisions of the new. As Augustine is reputed to have said somewhere, "The New is in the Old contained; the Old is by the New explained." The new is hidden within the old and explains the meaning and purpose of the old; and the old was planned so that it could provide the key for interpreting the provisions, purposes and language of the new (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:6). But the old covenant has been set aside forever (except as an instrument of condemnation). As with any legal will (to which Hebrews likens it in 9:15f), a new one completely supercedes the wills that have gone before, and none of their provisions apply except such as are reiterated in the new.
This is a most important principle for establishing Biblical patterns of obedience. It deals most decisively, for example, with the claim of the Seventh Day Adventists regarding Levitical forms of Sabbath observance and food restrictions. And it deals with the longstanding and widespread belief about the "Ten Commandments": that they can be detached and made binding upon humanity apart from the rest of the Law. As has been commonly observed, the substance of all those ten are repeated in the New Testament, with the exception of the law for Sabbath observances.
Anything in the Old Testament that has the promise of perpetuity attached to it continues on into our era in its fulfilled condition in Christ. This is true for the promises connected with the Davidic dynasty (e.g., Psalm 89:36-37), the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16-17), or anything else. With regard to the Sabbath, the application of this principle would explain why the apostles did not mention its observance in the list of things binding upon gentile believers (Acts 15:6-29), and why Paul made its observance a matter of personal choice (Romans 14:5-6). The Sabbath was not transferred to Sunday in honor of the resurrection, as many assume; it was fulfilled (not transferred), when Christ entered into His rest and when believers could now enter into that same condition by being permitted to rest from their works of the Law (Hebrews 4:10). Once fulfilled, it was no longer binding upon God's people: "...not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18).6
What we need to keep in mind is that Jesus quite literally brought the glory of heaven and the way of heaven down to earth in His own person. His teachings are the Way of heaven; the law was NOT the way of heaven. Jesus’ disciples are, for example, commanded to turn the other cheek and to not resist him who is evil (Matthew 5:39). Such a way was never even hinted at by the prophets for old covenant members. Because the way of Heaven is so different from the way given to Israel, we must never merge the new covenant with the old. Every command or instruction in the old covenant that God wanted to be carried over into the new covenant is specifically taught in the new covenant. We cannot dip into the old covenant (as the Churches have done to their shame) in order to turn new covenant elders into old covenant “priests”, nor to come up with “just war” theories for new covenant saints to obey. Our obedience is only to the new covenant commands, the commands of the Messiah, the way of heaven.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Alexander Campbell and the other founders of the Churches of the Restoration Movement7 for restoring this most important principle, a principle that is still commonly ignored in contemporary Christendom. The following is a sample of his contribution:
The old Jewish constitution was promulgated first on Sinai..., and what is written after it in Exodus and Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy all the laws, manners and customs authorized by the national constitution are to be found. They are not to be sought after in Genesis, nor in the antecedent economy.8 Neither are the statutes and laws of the Christian kingdom to be sought for in the Jewish scriptures, nor antecedent to the day of Pentecost; except so far as our Lord Himself, during His lifetime, propounded the doctrine of His reign.9
In this age of "improvement" of divine institutions, we read and hear much of "two dispensations of the covenant of grace"; thus making the Jewish and the Christian institutions dispensations of one "covenant of grace." Why not make the patriarchal (still more venerable for its antiquity, and which continued a thousand years longer than the Jewish) also a dispensation of the covenant of grace, and then we should have had three dispensations of one covenant? This is but a show of wisdom. The Holy Spirit calls them "two covenants" or "two institutions," and not two modifications of one covenant.10
Having said all this, however, does not mean that we need not bother reading the Old Testament. The Old Testament contains far more than the law of Moses. The character of God does not change from one covenant to the other, even though the details of covenant obedience do change. Furthermore, the historical truths in Genesis continue to provide God’s revelation about how He created this world. And there are prophesies that He revealed to the prophets of Israel that are yet to be fulfilled.
Look, for example, at Matthew 22.41f ("What do you think of the Christ...?"), to see how carefully He examined every word of Scripture, to draw out its meaning and implications. <back>
Greek: “qeopneuvstoß” ("theopneustos") <back>
Joshua 1:8; see also, Deuteronomy 17:18-20; Psalms 1:2, 119:4. <back>
Geisler and Nix, op. cit., p.56. <back>
William Sanford LaSor, "Interpretation of Prophecy," Baker's Dictionary of Practical Theology, Ralph C. Turnbill, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), p. 129. <back>
8 What Campbell means here is that you cannot find what Jesus and the apostles call "the Law" in the book of Genesis. Genesis is a book which describes the "former economy," i.e., the way God allowed man to relate to Him prior to Moses. <back>