There is a sense in which the science of biblical interpretation has provoked a major and serious crisis for the church.
Stay with us. Renewing Your Mind is next. A crisis of interpretation means that somewhere someone is getting the meaning of Scripture wrong. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind on this Monday. This week we have the privilege of presenting Dr. R.C. Sproul's series, Knowing Scripture. It is the duty of every believer, not just to read God's Word, but to study it. But with this privilege comes the responsibility to interpret it correctly.
Here's R.C. We want to concentrate in this session together on the foundational principles and concepts of the science of biblical interpretation. There's a sense in which interpreting the Bible is an art. Maybe even it would be better to call it a science, but for a moment at least, let's stick with the analogy of art. We went through a period of art in the last 25 years where there was kind of a freewheeling artistic expression where the artist was asked, what did you mean by your painting?
And his response was, I meant whatever you find in it. That is, a new rule of interpreting art emerged in some circles of art that said that the artist now has the license to make this statement, I paint it, you interpret it. That is a conscious step to embrace a form of subjectivism that says there is no inherent meaning in the art.
There is no objective significance to what the artist has painted or has sculpted, but rather whatever you find in it or however you respond to it is its ultimate meaning. Now that has provoked a kind of crisis in the field of biblical understanding, because in that approach to art, if we would transfer it to the Bible, it would leave us with no guidelines of objectivity, no rules by which we can discover an objective meaning. Now remember the framework that I'm working on here is the assertion that I've made that there is in fact only one ultimately correct meaning to Scripture, an objective meaning, and it's the meaning that the author of Scripture had in mind.
And we can look at that at two levels and two dimensions. We could try to understand the meaning that Luke had in his mind as he wrote his gospel, his intention. What was he trying to express?
What was he trying to say? What was he trying to communicate as one level of our search for understanding the Bible? I'm coming from that school of thought that believes that the Bible comes ultimately from God and that through the agency of the Holy Spirit, God is the ultimate author. And so what we're looking for in interpreting the Bible is what does God have in mind here?
What was God communicating to his people when, through the agency of the prophets or the apostles, certain books of Scripture were set forth? Now if we take that view of the Bible, that there is an objective meaning, then we need to look at the Bible and the whole business of interpreting the Bible not only as an art but as a science. And in fact there is a science, an academic discipline, a particular subdivision of theology that is exclusively concerned for looking at the scientific rules and methods and principles that ought to govern our attempts to interpret the Scripture. Every science has certain rules and methods that are followed within it. And sometimes there are differences and controversies that arise within a science as to what are the proper rules and what are the proper methods of approaching a certain science. In the field of psychology, for example, there are all different forms of competing approaches of methods to finding the best way to do psychology.
And that's found even in medical science and in astronomy and virtually every science there is has its competing schools of thought on what is the best method to approach the field, what are the most important rules to be followed. Now there is a sense in which the science of biblical interpretation has provoked a major and serious crisis for the church. Now when theologians discuss this crisis, they talk about it in terms of a technical word for it, which is the word hermeneutics. Some of you perhaps have never even heard the word, other ones you let it fall off your lips very casually in normal conversation, the hermeneutical problem here and so on, and you may be very knowledgeable of the disputes that are involved in that field. But hermeneutics, and let me just take a minute to spell it for you, H-E-R-M-E-N-E-U-T-I-C-S, hermeneutics.
Hermeneutics is simply a fancy word to describe the science of biblical interpretation. If you remember your Roman mythology, Mercury, the one with the winged feet, had the special responsibility in the pantheon of deities to be the messenger of the gods. And that's why he has wings on his feet so that he can fly from Olympus to Earth or back again and speedily bring the messages that need to be brought back and forth. He is the supreme communicator. He's the FTD of the ancient world. In the Greek pantheon, the corresponding god to Mercury was the god Hermes. He was the messenger of the gods.
And it's the same basic concept. We are trying to understand in the science of hermeneutics the message of Scripture. What is it communicating? What is it conveying?
What is it saying? And hence we have this special discipline or science that we call hermeneutics. Well, I said a moment ago that right now, in this decade, the church is facing one of its most severe theological crises in the whole history of Christendom, and it focuses on this very question of hermeneutics, of how do we interpret the Bible. We could go back into history for the basic roots of the problem, and there have been different watersheds in church history where hermeneutics has raised its head as a serious question. There are many competing schools of hermeneutics vying for acceptance within the church today, and I don't have time in this brief introduction and overview to set forth in detail the various nuances of these many different schools of thought, but I'll just mention three in passing so that we can get at least a taste and a flavor of some of the agitation that's going on out there in the churches, in the colleges, in the seminaries so that we can understand what's up with respect to biblical interpretation. The first method, which I will call the classical, orthodox, Protestant method of biblical interpretation, that which was formulated by the 16th century reformers and maintained itself down throughout the ages and is still maintained in conservative schools of thought, is known as the grammaticohistorical school.
Now, there's another technical term, and we'll see if I can spell it off the top of my head, G-R-A-M-M-A-T-I-C-O dash historical, grammaticohistorical school. That school of hermeneutics takes its name from the idea that the proper approach to biblical interpretation is to try to study the historical situation in which the Bible was written, the use of grammar, syntax, language, and all the rest that was being used at the time the documents were written, and by studying carefully word meanings of the first century and before, coming to an understanding of the original meaning of the texts. What did Luke mean when he wrote the Gospel of Luke to first century people? How could we reasonably expect his writings to be understood at that time in history?
What was their grammatical and historical understanding of the text? And the grammaticohistorical view says that's the way we're to approach the Bible, and that's the way we are to understand the Bible now, how it was written then. We still have the problem of applying it to the 20th century, but we recognize that the documents themselves are tied, are chained, are tethered, if you will, to the historical context in which they were originally written, and that's the context in which we should seek to reconstruct if we want to have an accurate understanding of them. At the same time, we recognize that as interpreters, when we come to the Bible, we also have a historical situation, and our historical situation is the 20th century. I live in an age of atomic bombs and automobiles and television and all of that, and there's a sense in which my whole way of thinking, my whole way of understanding is very much conditioned by my cultural setting, and we're going to look at that in more detail and with some other problems that it raises later on. But just now for the moment, we understand that we as interpreters live in the 20th century, and there's a sense in which we're tethered to our own day.
So there is a gap between the 20th century and the 1st century and earlier, and the science of hermeneutics in the grammaticohistorical method seeks to bridge that gap by having us go back and try to reconstruct the 1st century. Other approaches say we don't have to do that. What we'll do is we'll take our 20th century concepts and our 20th century standpoint and go back and rewrite the Scriptures according to 20th century things. That's a different school of thought, which we'll get at a little later. But the classical method is to seek the objective meaning of the past.
That's number one. Then, after we understand what it meant, then we face the question of applying it to our present-day situation. But as much as possible, we try not to let our present-day situation color or distort the original meaning of the text. Now, the second method, which was developed in the 19th century, is called the religious-historical method, the religious-historical method. Now, that represented an approach to Scripture that grew out of a whole sweeping movement of philosophy and changing of thinking and method that was characteristic of the 19th century. If there was a buzzword in 19th century intellectual thought, it was the word evolution. Everybody's aware of the impact of evolution in biology, but it wasn't just Darwin in biology.
The concept of evolution was made felt in other areas in philosophy and emerging philosophies of history like Karl Marx, for example, like Hegel, for example, also in forms of political theory like Spencer's social Darwinianism, ideas that the whole process of history, art, economics, literature, everything, is involved in a process of emerging. And the basic governing idea is that history and art and everything else moves biology from the simple to the complex, and the governing assumption was that religion does the same thing and that all religions emerge from primitive types of animism and polytheism, and then as it gets more sophisticated, it moves to monotheism and to a more highly structured ethical abstract system. And that system was imposed on the Bible saying that we've got to understand the Old Testament, for example, as simply an early primitive historical development just like any other religious things and that really Abraham was probably a polytheist. He believed in many gods and so on and that you don't really have ethical monotheism until the time of the seventh century prophets and so on. Now, that viewpoint made quite an impact on the church.
When I went to seminary, it was standard operating procedure. You were considered a backwoods idiot if you did not accept the documentary hypothesis of the Old Testament. I'm sure most of you have heard of that, that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses, but they were written by various sources at varied periods of history, and their sources are indicated by the number J, E, D, and P, and then it got more sophisticated, J1, J2, P1, and so on, where multiple authors over many, many centuries read chains that are revised and finally came up with the books that are attributed to Moses, but they were relatively of late origin. And that governed biblical interpretation as if it was an absolutely foregone conclusion incontestably established fact. Now, the theories of evolution that underline those approaches to the Bible have pretty much gone by the boards, although some still hold them in smaller circuits.
But some of the interpretive principles are still very much alive. The documentary hypothesis, J, E, D, P, that kind of stuff is everywhere to be found as established, proven fact. I just saw last week an article where some Hebrew scholars, not Christian, but 54 Israeli scholars subjected the five books of the Pentateuch to the most rigorous, linguistic, syntactical evaluation that any portion of the Bible has ever been submitted to by a computer. Fifty-four scholars gave the most radically sizable amount of data that could be fed to a computer to analyze objectively authorship of the first five books of the Bible, and wouldn't you know, the computer spewed out the results, and according to the computer, that there was no question about it statistically that the first five books of the Old Testament were written by a single author.
I predict right now that it will take 40 years before the scientific proof of that will be accepted in the theological world, because it smashes an idol of the religious historical school of multiple authorship of the Pentateuch. But we're not here to debate that point, but simply to illustrate to you that there are different schools of thought. The third one, and the one that is most influential in our day, I'm going to call broadly the existential school of thought. The existential school of thought, which has given us the so-called new hermeneutic, says that we're not really interested in the original historical situation, because it doesn't relate to us today. What we need is a theology that is timeless, that is not bound to the first century or even bound to the 20th century, but transcends that all, that redemption is something that doesn't happen along historical lines, but it happens vertically, directly from above, where I come to the Bible, and the way I interpret it is existentially. In my own existential situation, God can speak to me out of the blue, sein kreck von oben, directly from above, out of the blue, and somehow the Bible in an instant becomes the Word of God to me as God speaks to me through it. But the Bible simply becomes a vehicle for this existential experience that takes place. And so in this sense, we are approaching very rapidly the idea of the Bible being what modern art is. Luke wrote it, but we interpret it, freewheeling, according to our own existential situation. But dear friends, I am convinced that does radical violence to the text of Scripture, and not only violence to the text of Scripture, but it does violence to the church, and it does violence ultimately to the truth of Christ. I, for one, contend against it with all of the strength that I can bring about in this debate. We've seen the same problem of the intrusion of relativism in interpretation, not simply in the religious realm, but in our own national heritage. The Supreme Court of the United States is, by historical appointment, primarily a hermeneutical agency.
What does that mean? That means that the function of the Supreme Court is to interpret the Constitution of the United States of America and measure it against existing bits of legislation. If Congress passes a law and you don't think it's constitutional, you can appeal it all the way to the Supreme Court for a ruling. And what the court was originally designed to do was to look at the current law, look at the Constitution, and see if the two are in harmony.
And if they're not, the law is thrown out as unconstitutional, but that requires interpretation and interpreting the Constitution. And the traditional method in the courts was to interpret the Constitution according to the grammatico-historical method until recently, where a whole new approach has now been embraced that says we can reinterpret the Constitution, not does this law really fit with what the fathers thought about in the 18th century, but does this law really meet contemporary community standards? Watch for it.
Watch for it in the news. Watch for it in the legislative editions. The governing principle of constitutionality has become consistency with contemporary community standards, which change and change and change because we've bought into a view of relativism. There are no absolutes. There are no abiding principles. And if that's the case, then the Constitution itself can no longer function as an objective foundational guide for future behavior.
And so you can actually change the Constitution not by a constitutional amendment, but by simply reinterpreting it. That's the kind of crisis we have in the Christian faith, in the Christian church, and that's why the science of hermeneutics is vital, because if the new hermeneutic prevails, then we will have a Jesus who is not the same yesterday, today, and forever, but a Jesus who goes through as many changes as the theologians who are interpreting it. We're going to be searching for an objective method, and we're going to be examining ways to establish it throughout the rest of this course. And we look forward to hearing more messages from this series the rest of this week. As Dr. Sproul pointed out, if there is no objective truth, then we have no confidence that Christ was raised from the dead, to which the Apostle Paul replied, We are of all people most to be pitied. Thank you for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind, and this week we are featuring messages from Dr. R.C. Sproul's series, Knowing Scripture.
In 12 messages, he provides a solid foundation not only for how to study Scripture, but why we can trust Scripture. We'd like to send you the full series, contained on four DVDs. Simply contact us today with a donation of any amount to Ligonier Ministries. Our phone number is 800-435-4343.
You can call us with your request, or you can go online to renewingyourmind.org. Our study today is yet another reminder of why we must return to Scripture in every area of life. It's why the church is Reformed and always Reforming, constantly checking the plumb line, so to speak. Dr. Sproul always emphasized the importance of understanding the foundational doctrines in Scripture. You've probably heard his talk about Reform theology.
Dr. Sproul was unapologetically Reformed in his teaching, and here's why. Recently we had a board meeting for Ligonier Ministries. We said for 20 years this ministry has focused our teaching outreach on addressing the Catholic questions of Christianity, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of the authority of Scripture, the person and work of Christ, being careful not to give too much emphasis to the distinctives of the theology that I personally embrace of Reformed faith. Because we wanted to minister to the broad evangelical audience, because we understand that the church is being torn apart in this day, not over issues of predestination or not, but over issues of whether or not God exists.
But at this meeting I said, look, we've done that, we've produced the materials, now it's time to go into phase two, and the board says, what do you mean by phase two? I said, I'm tired of pussyfooting, because I don't think we're ever going to see a healthy evangelical church until the evangelical church is Reformed, solidly Reformed, where it takes seriously biblical Christianity and its concept of a sovereign God, because unreformed Christianity has failed in our culture. It has been pervasively antinomian, it has been pervasively liberal in its trends and tendencies away from Scripture, because there's not a basal commitment to the sovereignty of God.
And so I'm not going to play around anymore. When people tell me that they don't believe in predestination, I'm going to grab them by the throat and say, why not, the Bible teaches it. And I say, enough of your humanistic clinging to your concept of free will that's just foreign from the biblical doctrine of the bondage of sin in the heart that you can find, never mind that the majority report of evangelicals is Arminian.
I'm not, and I think Arminianism is death to Christianity in the final analysis. At the heart of Reformed theology, at the heart of Luther's struggle, at the heart of Calvin's awakening, at the heart of Knox, at the heart of Edwards were men who were awakened to the greatness, to the majesty, to the holiness, to the sovereignty of God. And finally, by contemplating the holiness of God and the sovereignty of God, they were driven to develop their doctrines of the grace of God. Because until you face a God who is holy and who is altogether sovereign, you don't know what grace means. Christians really never get outside of that temple experience of the Pharisee who says, I thank you, I'm going to pray, God, and I thank you very much, but I'm not like that miserable sinner over there. The Pharisee prayed, he went to church, and he expressed his gratitude, acknowledging that to some degree and in some measure he owed his righteousness to God. I thank you, I'm not like that miserable sinner over there, where the other man couldn't even lift his head to heaven. Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.
That's Dr. R.C. Sproul, and we'll continue his series, Knowing Scripture, tomorrow. We do hope you'll join us as he addresses the wrestling match in the church regarding how to interpret Scripture. He'll explain why it's critical that we interpret the Bible literally. I hope you'll join us Tuesday for Renewing Your Mind. .
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