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The Science of Interpretation

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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September 6, 2023 12:01 am

The Science of Interpretation

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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September 6, 2023 12:01 am

We are privileged to read the Bible. But this privilege brings the responsibility of interpreting Scripture correctly. Today, R.C. Sproul introduces foundational rules, methods, and principles for drawing out the intended meaning of God's Word.

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R.C. Sproul

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? That's the way we are to understand the Bible now, how it was written then. 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 thank you for joining us for the Wednesday edition of Renewing Your Mind. As we heard already this week, the Bible is sufficient for life and godliness. We don't need to wait for a still small voice. So how then are we meant to go about interpreting it?

That's a crucial question and the answer continues to be under attack. Here's R.C. Sproul to help us understand how we should interpret the Bible and what's at risk if we get it wrong. As we continue our series now on the theme of knowing Scripture, we want to concentrate in this session together on the foundational principles and concepts of the science of biblical interpretation. But before we do that, let's open with prayer. Again, our Father and our God, we look to you as the author of all truth for the aid and assistance of your Holy Spirit whom thou has promised to give us to help us and assist us as we seek a better understanding of your Word. Be with us then in the presence of the Spirit, for we ask it in the name of Christ.

Amen. 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. I think of the category of art because of the problems that we've all been able to recognize in 20th century culture of a new wave of art that has swept across the landscape of our culture and in many cases bringing a sense of confusion and chaos. We've had op art and pop art and abstract impressionism and so on, and in these different schools of art and of artistic expression that have emerged, we've seen confusion in the realm of interpreting art. Some art is so abstract and at times apparently chaotic that when we look at the painting, we're not sure whether we should turn sideways or whether it's been framed and hung upside down because we can't see the structure and the lines and the rhythmic patterns in it as we're accustomed to in more classical forms of art. And some of the more experimental and innovative art forms have been highly subjectivistic in their interpretation. And one of the questions that the art critic is interested in and the layman as well when he visits an art gallery or sees a painting in Time magazine is what is the meaning of this painting or what is the sculptor trying to say with his latest masterpiece? And 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, 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. But in an ultimate sense, 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, very 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, and hermeneutics is simply a fancy word to describe the science of biblical interpretation. And it takes its meaning and its definition from the original Greek word that is involved with communication and of communicating information by messages. For example, if you remember your Greek mythology and your Roman mythology, I believe in 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.

But in the Greek pantheon, the corresponding god to Mercury was the god Hermes. He was the messenger of the god, 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.

But let me just isolate for a second one crisis point that I think most of us will be able to sense a degree of familiarity with. We go back to the 19th century, to that period where we saw the emergence of what was called liberal theology. Now, as soon as I say that, I'm frightened that we're going to have a problem here of communication, because the word liberal generally means free-thinking, open-minded, progressive, and so on.

And I'm not using the term liberal now in its wide and broad and general sense. I'm referring now to a very specific school of thought with very specific ideas and doctrines that emerged in the 19th century, and so-called 19th-century liberalism had its own kind of crisis. It came to the conclusion that the supernatural elements of the biblical content were no longer believable in a modern, industrialized, scientific world, and that if we were to extract anything from the Bible of lasting value, of contemporary value, we had to desupernaturalize the New Testament and the Old Testament. And so there was, in effect, a crisis of belief, and many scholars came to the conclusion that you simply could no longer believe in angels and demons and miracles in the New Testament and virgin births and resurrections and ascensions and all of that sort of thing. Now, you might say, well, at that point, we're talking not about some of the tangential elements or the minor details of the Christian faith, but when you're talking about resurrection, you're talking about atonement, you're talking about the very substance of the Christian gospel.

And if you don't believe that, you're no longer Christian. And there were many who took that position in the controversy focusing on 19th-century liberal theology. But the crisis came about here. People who came to this point said, what do we do?

We have several options. We can just turn in our church cards and say, okay, frankly, candidly, we just don't believe in Christianity anymore, and let's close up shop and go home. But these were people who controlled major theological seminaries, colleges, universities, and they had at their disposal vast memberships in large church groups, in fact, in some cases, entire denominations. And they say, wait a minute, the church is an institution that still has a very significant impact on the culture, and we have this following. Why should we just close the doors of the church and turn them into museums? Why should we just jettison Christianity? Because we believe, as the liberals did, that there is still value from the New Testament teaching of Jesus that is relevant for modern man. They looked at the Sermon on the Mount, they looked at the ethic of Jesus, they looked at his humanitarian program, they looked at his social concerns, his concerns for mercy, his concerns for justice, and they say, why shouldn't the church continue to exist and Christianity continue to exist as a viable cultural force working for the betterment of the welfare of the human race? But in order to do that, we have to revise its original meaning and extrapolate from the New Testament just that relevant material and free it from all that primitive business of miracles and the supernatural. And so that theology had to create a whole new approach to interpreting the Bible, an approach that called for a reinterpretation, a revision, if you will, of the original message of Jesus to make it relevant to modern man. I mean, this is still very much alive today.

I remember when I went to seminary, the professors that I had came out of the liberal tradition and they would speak with great urgency about the passionate concerns that they had for social welfare, which are very important indeed. And they would say, gentlemen, we've got to make the gospel relevant to modern man. And somehow that didn't sit right with me. That always kind of agitated me viscerally inside.

It would turn my stomach upside down. I would want to jump up and scream at times and say, wait a minute, we don't have to make the gospel relevant. There's nothing more relevant than the gospel. We have to show the relevancy. We have to manifest the relevancy. We have to explain the relevancy.

But we don't have to make the relevancy happen. The gospel is relevant. And I'm, for one, persuaded that it is relevant in its original proclamation without being revised or reinterpreted. But that whole theology brought with it a whole new approach to biblical interpretation that we need to be aware of. Now in this present day crisis of hermeneutics, we've gone way beyond the problems that 19th century liberalism engendered. And again, there are many, many, 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 grammatico historical school.

Now there's another technical term, G-R-A-M-M-A-T-I-C-O dash, historical. Grammatico historical 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 grammatical historical 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. 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 grammatical historical 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, 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 dash 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, 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, P2, and so on, where multiple authors over many, many centuries changed and 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 underlined 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.

Just last week was interesting to see. 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, 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 freewheelingly, 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. And so I, for one, contend against it with all of the strength that I can bring about in this debate.

Let me just take an extra minute, if I can, to illustrate the thing. 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 Him.

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. As you can see, the science of hermeneutics isn't merely an academic exercise. It has real consequences, and getting it wrong can distort the Gospel.

You're listening to Renewing Your Mind, and that was R.C. Sproul from his Knowing Scripture series. As you heard today, Dr. Sproul believed that the most influential view of interpreting the Bible actually does violence to the text of Scripture, and he was committed to contending against such error. When you support the outreach of Renewing Your Mind and Ligonier Ministries, you are supporting the global distribution of faithful Bible teaching.

As our thanks for your gift of any amount, you'll receive streaming access to R.C. Sproul's 12-part series, Knowing Scripture, and Stephen Nichols' Why We Trust the Bible series, along with digital access to the study guides for both. You can stand for the proclamation of truth by giving a gift at renewingyourmind.org, or by calling us at 800 435 4343. Thank you for your generosity. The Bible is far from dry and boring. Be sure to join us tomorrow as R.C. Sproul reminds us to find the drama in the text. I'll see you then here on Renewing Your Mind. .
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-09-06 05:56:52 / 2023-09-06 06:07:17 / 10

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