Give Me Understanding: The Approach to Biblical Interpretation

You have heard of the battle for the Bible — who hasn't? You have read quite a lot about it in the earlier pages of this book. You know what it is about — whether I can be a faithful, obedient, consistent Christian if I let go of the total truthfulness, that is, the inerrancy, of Holy Scripture. You know, I am sure, some of the history that lies behind today's doubts as to whether we can trust the Bible or not. You know that for more than three hundred years God-shrinkers have been at work in the churches of the Reformation, scaling down our Maker to the measure of the human mind and dissolving the biblical view of him as the Lord who reigns and speaks. You know that in the rationalistic eighteenth century, Kant the fountainhead of most later philosophy, set the example of ignoring, as a matter of method, the possibility that Scripture is God's instruction to us, and you know that many leaders of Western thought

Page 98

followed in his footsteps like a flock of sheep. You know that in the nineteenth century, dominated as it was by evolutionary ideas, the Bible was regularly downgraded, as reflecting times when religious thought was crude and unreliable in comparison with later notions. You know how scholars have labored to sort out the facts of Old Testament history from the "fancies" of Old Testament narrative, and to find the "real Jesus" amid the supposed New Testament distortions of him. You know how ordinary folk have boldly backed their judgment on all sorts of things against the witness of the written Word. You know that in our disillusioned age people are skeptical of liberal optimism and can no longer believe that everything is getting better and everyone is growing wiser and science tells us all we need to know. But you know, too, that neither biblical scholars nor philosophers nor the great mass of ordinary people have returned to the older confidence in Scripture as the revealed Word of God, true and trustworthy because of its divine source and ability to give us the basic certainties about life and death that we need. This belief has not been reestablished, despite all the efforts of Christians — call them conservatives, evangelicals, fundamentalists, orthodox, as you will, the name does not matter — who have sought to recall the church from worldly doubt to true faith at this point. These facts, which form the background of the battle, must by now be very familiar.

   How should we regard this ongoing battle? It is a complex affair, carried on nowadays more by guerrilla tactics than by open frontal engagements. In some locations there continues a not-very-happy domestic debate among professed evangelicals as to whether or not we can keep in step with each other in proclaiming to the world and maintaining in our scholarship and ministerial training that Scripture is all true. My hope is that the fire that has caused the smoke here will prove to have been fueled by nothing more than attempts to avoid certain words (inerrant, error-free and other such), plus experiments by a few scholars who, having tried out in print their ideas about the Bible, will abandon them once they appear nonviable. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the same battlefield hand-to-hand combat has died down. There is a temporary standoff as various types of liberals,

Page 99

aware that ability, integrity, acuity and consistency are found in the evangelical camp, withdraw from the conflict and dig in for the defense and furtherance of their wayward opinions. Scholars with all kinds of ideas about the Bible's meaning and relevance are currently busy stating and defending their views, and what in the way of constructive discussion may lie beyond this preliminary entrenchment does not yet appear.

   Because evangelicals today have watched so many lapse from thoroughgoing biblical faith, and because they see how much depends on whether the Bible can be trusted or not, and because so many vested interests, denominational and institutional, are involved in the discussion, feelings and fears often run high, and this could be dangerous in several ways. I focus now on just one of the dangers, that of so concentrating on the tactics of the battle as to forget the strategy of the campaign and the kind of victory that is needed.

   When a battle is on, those involved tend to think exclusively of winning and to lose sight of the cause for which the battle is being fought. I recall the days when the Second World War was drawing to its end and Allied leaders began to say that, having won the war, our next and harder task was to win the peace. But not enough thought was given to winning the peace, and the record of events during the past fifty years shows that it was not won. In retrospect it almost looks as if we forgot what we had been fighting for. I am afraid that something similar might happen in the battle for the Bible. So I will now do what I can to ward off this danger, by asking you to raise your eyes above the battlefield and think about a series of strategic questions that pinpoint the significance of the debate for the theological and spiritual health of churches and Christians.

   My questions were suggested to me by the psalmist's prayer "Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law and observe it with my whole heart" (Ps 119:34 RSV). I should like to dwell on these words a moment before we go further.

Word and Spirit

How well do you know Psalm 119? Those who are wise come to know it

Page 100

very well, for they constantly seek to pray it. Why? Because it is a model, giant-size (176 verses long, twice the length of any other psalm and ten to twenty times the length of most), of that on which the wise know their well-being depends — namely, attention to what God has said. The psalmist celebrates the gift of divine instruction as "a lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (v.105), without which he would be in the dark and unable to find his way. He hails God's Word as the means whereby he comes to know, love and serve the God who gave it, and he admits that he would in every sense be lost without it. His prayer for understanding springs from this admission, for he recognizes that to understand God's Word — which means to understand his own existence in the light of God's Word — is to know the way of life. Lack of understanding of God's Word is itself a state of death. The wise identify. They see that the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom starts with the understanding that God alone can give. So they follow the psalmist in cleaving to God's Word and in asking its Author to interpret it to them in its bearing on their lives.

   As writing, the psalm dazzles. It divides into twenty-two sections, each marked by a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet and each consisting of eight verses starting with that letter. All but one of its 176 verses refer in some way to what the psalmist variously calls God's "word," "words," "precepts," "statutes," "law," 'Promise," "testimonies" and "ordinances," which spell out God's "ways" and his "righteousness," that is, his revealed will for people, and the fertility of thought with which changes are rung on the theme of response to what God has said is amazing. Psalm 119 is a very clever composition. Indeed, it is more than that. It is a transcript of 176 distinct moments of devotion to God, and as such it is awesomely poignant. One wonders how far this heroic combination of ardor and humility, resolution and dependence, trouble and triumph, distress at the psalmist's own life (for psalmists, like other poets, may perhaps verbalize beyond their experience). One wonders if it has ever been fully realized except in the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ himself. Augustine's idea that

Page 101

the Psalms are essentially prayers of Jesus Christ is surely in place here. What this psalm shows us is the perfection of the perfect heart in its unwavering openness to all that God teaches in the Scriptures, and the Gospels show that our Master was mastered completely by what came to him from his Bible. So must we seek to be, for that is the way we are called to go. Jesus' disciples must be Scripture's pupils.

   Psalm 119 is the Bible's own exposition, written in advance, of Paul's statement in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all Scripture, being inspired by God, is profitable "for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (RSV); and Paul's statement is the Bible's own summary of what this psalm is showing us.

   "Give me understanding," prays the psalmist. Under many kinds of pressure and in a turmoil of emotions, he yet holds fast to the Word of the Lord and rests his hopes in the Lord of the Word. Distrusting himself and his own thoughts, however, he prays for understanding five times (vv. 34, 73, 125, 144, 169). He fears lest he should misconceive or misapply God's teaching, or narrow it unduly. He wants to comprehend its full range and thrust as it bears on his thoughts, purposes, attitudes, reactions, relationships, view of things and people, and he wants to comprehend it so that he may conform to it: "Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law." Every day this should be your prayer, and mine too, for it is not enough for us to know the text of Scripture if we fail to understand it, so that we think we are living by it when we are not.

   The New Testament identifies the ministry of interpretation and application for which the psalmist asks as the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit, is "the anointing which . . . teaches you about everything" (1 Jn 2:27 RSV), using as his means of instruction — his textbook, one might say — the contents of the Old and New Testaments. Understanding comes from the Spirit through the Word; Word and Spirit belong together. In the historic Anglican prayer book the prayer set for the second Sunday in Advent, based on Romans 15:4, reads:

Page 102

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.

The prayer set for Pentecost reads:

God, who as at this time didst teach the hearts of they faithful people, by the sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit: Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgment in all things, and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort.

   Each of these prayers completes the thought begun by the other, and both are needed to express the full truth about the teaching work of God. More of that later.

   I turn now to the series of questions that the psalmist's prayer suggests that we who battle for the Bible need to be asking ourselves.


First, why does biblical trustworthiness, whether we call it infallibility or inerrancy, matter? Why should it be thought important to fight for the total truth of the Bible? Some, of course, do not think it important, either because this is a belief they do not share or because they do not regard others' disbelief of inerrancy as either dishonoring God or disadvantaging the disbelievers. I, however, am one of those who think this battle very important, and this is why: biblical veracity and biblical authority are bound up together. Only truth can have final authority to determine belief and behavior, and Scripture cannot have such authority further than it is true. A factually and theologically untrustworthy Bible could still impress us as a presentation of religious experience and expertise, but clearly, if we cannot affirm its total truthfulness, we cannot claim that it is all God's testimony and teaching, given to control our convictions and conduct.

   Here is a major issue for decision. There is really no disputing that Jesus Christ and his apostles, the founders of Christianity, held and taught that the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) were God's witness to himself

Page 103

in the form of human witness to him. There is no disputing that Jesus Christ, God's incarnate Son, viewed these Scriptures as his Father's Word (see how he quotes a narrative comment as the Creator's utterance in Mt 19:5, citing Gen 2:24); or that he quoted Scripture to repel Satan (Mt 4:3-11); or that he claimed to be fulfilling both the law and the prophets (Mt 5:17); or that he ministered as a rabbi, that is, a Bible teacher, explaining the meaning of texts of which the divine truth and authority were not in doubt (Mt 12:1-14; 22:23-40; and so on); or that he finally went to Jerusalem to be killed and, as he believed, to be raised to life again because this was the way Scripture said God's Messiah must go (Mt 26:24, 52-56; Lk 18:31-33; 22:37; compare 24: 25-27, 44-47). Nor is there really any disputing (despite skeptical poses struck by some scholars) that "God raised him from the dead" (Acts 13:30), thereby vindicating all he had said and done as right — including the way he had understood, taught and obeyed the Scriptures. So, too, it is clear that the apostles, like their Lord, saw the Scriptures as the God-given verbal embodiment of teaching from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:25; 28:25; 2 Tim 3:16-17; Heb 3:7; 10:15); and that they claimed, not merely that particular predictions were fulfilled in Christ (compare Acts 3:22-24), but that all the Jewish Scriptures were written for Christians (compare Rom 15:4; 16:26; 1 Cor 10:11; 2 Cor 3:6-16; 1 Pet 1:10-12; 2 Pet 3:16); and that they took over the Old Testament (Septuagint version) for liturgical and homiletical use in the churches alongside their own teaching. For it is also clear that the apostles understood inspiration as the relationship whereby God speaks and teaches in and through human instruction that is given, explicitly or implicitly, in his name. They also saw their own teaching and writing as inspired in just the same sense in which the Old Testament was inspired (compare 1 Cor 2:12; 14:37; 1 Jn 4:6; and so on), so that the later conjoining of their official writing with the Old Testament to form the two-part Christian Bible was a natural and necessary step. None of this is open to serious doubt.

   So the decision facing Christians today is simply this: Will we take our lead at this point from Jesus and the apostles? Will we let ourselves be

Page 104

guided by a Bible received as inspired and therefore wholly true (for God is not the author of untruths), or will we strike out, against our Lord and his most authoritative representatives, on a line of our own? If we do, we have already resolved in principle to be led not by the Bible as given but by the Bible as we edit and reduce it. We are then likely to be found before long scaling down its mysteries (for example, incarnation and atonement) and relativizing its absolutes (for example, in sexual ethics) in the light of our own divergent ideas.

   And it that case Psalm 119 will stand as an everlasting rebuke to us, for instead of doubting and discounting some things in his Bible, the psalmist prayed for understanding so that he might live by God's law. (Law here means not just commands but all authoritative instruction that bears on living.) This is the path of true reverence, true discipleship and true enrichment. But once we entertain the needless and unproved, indeed unprovable notion that Scripture cannot be fully trusted, that path is partly closed to us. Therefore it is important to maintain inerrancy and to counter denials of it, for only so can we keep open the path of consistent submission to biblical authority and consistently concentrate on the true problem, that of gaining understanding without being entangled in the false question of how much of Scripture should we disbelieve. This brings us to our next subject.


My second question is this: Under what conditions can the Bible, viewed as inspired and infallible divine instruction, actually exert authority over us? My answer: Scripture can rule us only so far as it is understood, and it is understood only so far as it is properly interpreted. A misinterpreted Bible is a misunderstood Bible, which will lead us out of God's way rather than in it. Interpretation must be right if biblical authority is to be real in our lives and in our churches. The point is obvious, but is not always stressed as it needs to be.

   Have you ever noticed that we use the phrase "Word of God" in two senses? Sometimes we use it to mean the text of Scripture, as when we

Page 105

call printed Bibles copies of the Word of God. That is a natural usage, but not a strictly scriptural one. When the Bible uses "word of God" in revelatory contexts, it means God's message, either (as in the prophets) a particular occasional communication to some person or persons or (as in the New Testament) the gospel, God's message to the world, or (as in Ps 119) the total message of the Scriptures. The psalmist's Bible, it would seem, was the five books of Moses; ours is larger, but the principle that all the Bible's teaching must be received as the Word of God remains unchanged. My present point is that you can have the Word of God in the first sense (by possessing a Bible and knowing something of its text), without having it in the second sense, that is, without having understanding. The psalmist asked God for understanding, and so should we, lest after vindicating Scripture as the written Word of God, we should still fail, as we say, to "get the message."

   Faultless formulas about biblical inspiration and authority do us no good while we misunderstand the Bible for whose supremacy we fight. The major differences between historic Protestants and Roman Catholics — papal authority, the presence and sacrifice of Christ in the mass, the form and credentials of the ordained ministry, the way of salvation by grace through faith — are rooted in differences of interpretation. So are the major cleavages between Christians of all persuasions and Jehovah's Witnesses, with their antitrinitarianism, their anticipations of Armageddon and their legalistic doctrine of salvation. Yet these groups have historically maintained the inerrancy of Scripture (some Roman Catholics are slipping these days, but that is a detail) and have claimed that all their distinctives are Bible-based. You see, then, how important the issue of interpretation is.

   Recently the more traditional guidance on biblical interpretation (well presented to us in such books as R.C. Sproul's Knowing Scripture and A. M. Stibbs's Understanding God's Word, published by American and British InterVarsity Press respectively) has been augmented by the academic discipline called hermeneutics. This covers more than principles for interpreting the text; it centers on the interpreting subjects, that is, the

Page 106

people doing the interpretation, and on the way they come to perceive and embrace what God is showing them in and through the text. It is an important field of inquiry, into which evangelicals do well to move, as indeed their scholars are already doing. The rest of my questions in this discourse are in fact hermeneutical. They will show you something of the perspectives that hermeneutical study opens up.


Here is my third question: What are the obstacles to our understanding the Bible? Obstacles, I suggest, can emerge at two points. The first has to do with the rules we follow.

   A venerable but zany way to seek from Scripture understanding of God's will for you is the so-called sortes biblicae (biblical lots). What you do is prayerfully open your Bible at random to see what text catches your eye, or prayerfully pick out a text with a pin while your eyes are shut: both methods have been tried. Campbell Morgan used to tell of the man who followed this method with the King James Version and came up with "Judas went out and hanged himself." Finding these words unhelpful, he did it again and this time got "Go, and do thou likewise." In desperation he tried once more and this time the words that jumped at him were "That thou doest, do quickly." Morgan's point (mine too) is that though this practice shows vast reverence for Scripture as God's means of communicating with us, it is of itself superstitious and wrong-headed, savoring more of magic or witchcraft than of true religion; it is precisely not how to understand God's Word.

   Similar is the approach that detaches texts from their context to find personal meaning in them by feeding them into the world of one's private preoccupations and letting that world impose new senses of old phrases. Seventy years ago a theological student, who later became a close and valued friend, had committed himself to start his ministry in a church in the north of England when he received a very attractive invitation to instead join a teaching institution in South Wales. He did not feel able to withdraw from his commitment, but one day he read in Isaiah 43:6 (KJV)

Page 107

the words "I will say to the north, Give up," and concluded that this was God telling him that he would be providentially released from his promise and so set free to accept the second invitation. No such thing happened, however, so he went north after all, wondering what had gone wrong. The he reread Isaiah 43:6, and noticed that it continued, "and to the south, keep not back!" At this point it dawned on him that he had been finding in the text a meaning that was never really there but had been reflected on to it by the concerns that he brought to his reading of it. To impose meaning on the text is not, however, the way to learn God's law. Yet we constantly do this — don't we? — and it is one chronic obstacle to understanding.

   Rules of interpretation. There are basically three rules of interpretation. First, interpret Scripture historically, in terms of what each writer meant his own first readers to gather from his words. This means seeing each book in its own historical and cultural setting and putting ourselves in both the writer's and the readers' shoes. Each book was written as a message to the writer's contemporaries, and only as we see what it was meant to tell them will we discern what it has to say to us. The way into the mind of the Holy Spirit is through the meaning expressed by those whose thoughts and words the Spirit inspired.

   Second, interpret Scripture organically, as a complex unity proceeding from one mind, that of God the Spirit, the primary author of it all. A simple human example will show what this means. The late C.S. Lewis was a virtuoso author who wrote criticism, literary history, philology, theology, apologetics, an allegory, poems, novels and fantasies for both adults and children, yet who expressed a consistent Christian viewpoint in all his varied output. If you were studying Lewis, you would look beyond the formal differences between one of his books and another to focus on their common outlook. So with the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture is a library of great literary diversity to which more than forty writers contributed over more than a thousand years. They too, however, express one mind, the mind of their divine source. This appears from the demonstrable fact that they tell one

Page 108

story about one God, one Savior, one covenant and one church, and teach one way of serving God, the way of faith, hope and love, of repentance, obedience, praise, prayer, work and joy. Following academic fashion, today's scholars concentrate on drawing contrasts, real and fancied, between one Bible writer and another, but practical Christians know that it is more fruitful to investigate how these writers blend. Scripture ought to be handled as an inspired organism of coherent truth, for that is what it really is.

   Third, interpret Scripture practically, which means (to use a precise technical term) dialogically — seeking always the word God addresses to you, here and now, to prompt your response to him. In Bible study we start as flies on the wall, watching God deal with people of the past, overhearing his words to them and theirs to him, noting the outcome of their faithful or faithless living. But then we realize that the God whom we were watching is watching us, that we too are wholly in his hands and that we are no less called and claimed by him than were the Bible characters. Thus we move into dialogical interpretation. Having seen what the text meant for its writer and first readers, we now see what it means for us. We study Scripture in the presence of the living God, as those who stand under both it and him. Each time it is as if he has handed us a letter from himself and stays with us while we read it to hear what our answer will be. To have this awareness, and to pray, "Give me understanding, that I may keep thy law," and then to read Scripture (or hear it preached or read expositions of it) expecting Father, Son and Spirit to meet, teach, question, challenge, humble, heal, forgive, strengthen and restore you as you do so, is the crucial step in interpretation, to which historical and organic study are the preliminaries. In the preface to his first published volume of sermons, John Wesley formulated it thus:

I am a creature of a day . . . I want to know one thing, the way to heaven..... God himself has condescended to teach the way . . . . He has written it down in a book. O give me that book: At any price give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me . . . . I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find

Page 109

the way to heaven . . . Does anything appear dark and intricate: I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights . . . I then search after and consider parallel passages . . . I meditate thereon . . . If any doubt still remain, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God: and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.

   Apart from the seeming narrowness of the phrase "way to heaven," which could divert concern from creative work for God on earth (though it did not so divert Wesley himself!), you could hardly spell it out more right-mindedly than that.

   Pitfalls for the unwary. But now there is a second point at which obstacles to understanding arise, no matter how diligently we follow the rules. This has to do with the blinders we wear.

   You know what blinders are. They are the leather pads put over the eyes of street horses in the old days when carts and buses were horse-drawn, so that the animals could see only a little of what was in front of them. The blinders narrowed their field of vision drastically, thereby keeping them from being startled by what they would otherwise have noticed happening around them. Skittish racehorses are blindered on the track today for the same reason. Similarly, blindering may operate in our minds as we study Scripture; wearing the blinders may well keep us quiet, but only by keeping us from seeing what in fact we need to see. Let me show you what I mean.

   You and I, like everyone else, are children of traditions and hence are both their beneficiaries and their victims. They have opened our eyes to some things and closed them to others. Most of us, I imagine, are children of Protestant, evangelical, pietist traditions in the different denominational families, Lutheran, Reformed, Presbyterian, Anglican, Brethren, Baptist, Methodist, Mennonite, Bible Church or whatever. If we were reared Roman Catholic or Orthodox, the different traditions there will have left us different animals at some points from our Protestant brothers and sisters. The dispensational, pentecostal, covenantal, liberal and other traditions of Bible teaching to which we have been exposed will also have made their mark, as will the inclusivist or separatist, large-group or

Page 110

small-group, institutionalized or free-style traditions of church membership to which we personally owe most allegiance. Being human, we will see quite quickly how this shaping by environment applies to others at points where they differ from us and be very slow to see that it applies just as much to us too. We have benefited from the traditions of our nurture and should be grateful. But we need to be aware that all traditions function as blinders, focusing our vision on some things at which we have been taught to look constantly and that we therefore see clearly, but keeping us from seeing other things that other traditions grasp better.

   Again: we are children and therefore victims of reaction — negative stances of recoil blinding us to the value in the things we reject. Human reaction never results in God's righteousness, it is not discerning enough. Thus many Protestants have so reacted against Roman Catholic sacramentalism as to mistrust the sacraments entirely and in practice to deny their importance. (You could not guess from watching some churches that regular sharing in the Lord's Supper was prescribed by our Lord for his remembrance.) Other Protestants, by contrast, have so reacted against the antisacramentalism of their upbringing as to leave the Protestant fold entirely. Reaction against the formalism and aestheticism into which "liturgical" churches can lapse has led some to oppose all "set" prayers and all efforts toward dignity in worship, just as reaction against sloppiness and disorder in nonliturgical services has led others to turn their backs on spontaneity in worship altogether. Reaction against dry and heavy theology has made some of us woolly and wild, valuing feelings above truth, depreciating "head knowledge" by comparison with "heart knowledge" and refusing to allow that we cannot have the latter without the former, just as reaction against overheated emotionalism has made others of us cool, cerebral and censorious to a fault. Reacting against yesterday's legalistic prohibitions regarding tobacco, alcohol, reading matter, public entertainment, dress, cosmetics and the like, we have become licentious and self-indulgent, unable to see that the summons to separation and cross bearing has anything to say to us at all. Sharing the reaction of our times against the past (we think of history as bunk and of the latest word as

Page 111

necessarily the wisest), we cut ourselves off from our Christian heritage and end up rootless and unstable. These are just a few examples of how reaction, like tradition, can become a blindering force, keeping us from seeking the value of sacraments, liturgy, theology, discipline, church history and so on.

   I am talking about what sociologists call cultural prejudice. I am saying that we all suffer from it, most of all those of us who think we don't, and that as a result we are constantly missing things that are there for us in the Bible. We are ourselves part of the problem of understanding because of the way that tradition and reaction have conditioned us. When, therefore, we ask God to give us understanding, we should be asking him to keep us not only from mistakes about the meaning of texts but also from culturally determined blind spots. We cannot hope in this world to lose our blinders entirely; we will always be men and women of our time, nurtured by our cultural milieu and also narrowed by it. That is the inescapable human condition. But we can at least be aware of the problem and try to surmount it as far as possible.


I can now pose my fourth question (you might have expected it to be my first, but I had to work up to it). What is meant by "understanding"? What is the nature of the understanding for which we should pray?

   I have already hinted at my answer; now, to crystallize it, I offer you two pictures. First, picture a seminar as it might be conducted in universities known to me and as I might try to conduct it myself in the college where I teach. There are a handful of students, all of whom are supposed to have done some reading on the day's topic, and one of whom has written an essay on it. The teacher has him or her read it to the class. Then there are two ways the teacher can go. He may choose to get the whole class dialoguing about the essay right away. Or he may elect to dialogue himself with the essayist before that happens, filling in perspectives and, perhaps, giving some of his own reactions to what he has heard. Now imagine a seminar in which the instructor, himself an authority on the subject, is

Page 112

following the second course and doing it so skillfully that you, a member of the class, can see at once from his comments on the essay what he would have to say about your present ideas on the subject. By his direct dealing with the essayist, therefore, he is actually teaching you a great deal; should the seminar end without you speaking a word to him or him to you, you will still go out wiser than you came in. This illustrates what I earlier pictured as our fly-on-the-wall relationship to God's dealing with Bible characters and his address in and through the biblical books to their original recipients. By observing and overhearing, we learn what God thought of their attitudes, assumptions, ambitions and activities, and what changes in their mindset and lifestyle he wanted to see. This shows us what he must think of us and what changes he must want to see in us. That is understanding.

   Second, imagine yourself being coached at tennis. If the coach knows her stuff, you are likely to experience her as a perfect pest. You make strokes as you have done for years, that natural, comfortable way. She interrupts: "Hey, not like that; that's no good; do it this way instead." If you say, "But I like doing it the way I did it, and it sometimes comes off, doesn't it?" the reply is "Doing it your way, you can't improve;; it's a bad habit and you must break it." The coach will readily explain why you have to change; what she will not do is let you go on as you are going. She works for your good, forcing you to step up your game, and in your sober moments you are grateful. But she makes such a nuisance of herself that you often wish she would go jump in the lake! This illustrates the fact that understanding is never abstract and theoretical; it is always understanding of the work and will of the living God who constantly demands to change us. What is understood is ultimately God's claim on and purpose for our lives in light of all that he gives us in creation, providence and saving grace. Notions about God's ways that carry no implications about our ways are not signs of understanding. Understanding, when given, is not always immediately welcome, for as W. H. Auden said in an appalling line — appalling not as poetry but as stating something that is dreadfully true — "we would rather be ruined than changed." But God keeps at us! And when,

Page 113

with the psalmist, we set ourselves to keep his law by grace and make such changes as he requires, we know the benefit.

   The understanding, then, of which the psalmist speaks is a matter of receiving that teaching (first illustration) and that reproof and correction that leads to training in righteousness (second illustration) for which Paul said Scripture was profitable (2 Tim 3:16). It means knowing what God's truth requires today in one's life. Such understanding does not come by mother wit but is the gift of God.

Spirit and Understanding

This leads to my last question: How does God give understanding?

   In Ephesians 3:16-19 Paul prays that "according to the riches of his glory [God the Father] may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (RSV). From this breathtaking prayer I draw the following answer to my question. God gives knowledge (which equals understanding, compare Eph 1:17-18; Col 1:9; understanding in this case of Christ's love and how to respond to it): (1) through the Holy Spirit ("strengthened . . . through his Spirit," v. 16); and (2) through the Christian community ("with all the saints," v. 18). Let me develop these points.

   God gives understanding through the Holy Spirit. This learning through the Holy Spirit does not cancel the need for study, any more than it invalidates the rules of interpretation that we spelled out earlier. Never oppose the work of the Spirit giving understanding to your work as a student seeking it; the Spirit works through our diligence, not our laziness. As we saw earlier, understanding of what God's written Word means for us comes through seeing what it meant when first put on paper and applying that to ourselves. It is in application specifically that we need divine help. Bible commentaries, Bible classes, Bible lectures and courses,

Page 114

plus the church's regular expository ministry can give us fair certainty as to what Scripture meant (and we should make full use of them to that end), but only through the Spirit's illumination will we be able to see how the teaching applies to us in our own situation.

   So we should look not only to the commentators for the exegesis but also to the Spirit for the application, and to that end I commend to you three questions that you should constantly be asking as you read and weight the sacred text. One: What does this passage tell me about God — his character, power and purpose; his work, will and ways in creation, providence and grace? Two: What does this passage tell me about us — the human situation, humankind's possibilities, privileges and problems, right and wrong ways of living, people in sin and people in grace? Three: What is all this showing me and saying to me about myself and my own life? Lift your heart to God and ask for the Spirit's help as you work through these three questions in the divine presence, and you will certainly be given understanding.

   God gives understanding through the Christian community. Understanding does not usually, and certainly not fully, occur outside the fellowship of faith. This aspect of the matter is not stressed in Psalm 119, but Paul's words "with all the saints" point to it, as does his directive in Colossians 3:16: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." Only as we gratefully share with others what we know and receive from them what they know will the "word of Christ" (the Christian message) dwell in us richly (abundantly and enrichingly), in the way that produces wisdom. Many of us are at a disadvantage here; we have had it so drummed into us that the only sure way to learn God's will from the Bible is to go off with it into a solitary place and dig into it on our own that we cannot easily accept that the interchanges of church fellowship, both institutional and informal, are the main channels of entry into spiritual understanding. But though personal Bible reading is important for getting to know the text and is the duty as well as the privilege of all literate persons, Scripture

Page 115

shows that the main means of learning from God is to hear his message preached and to involve oneself in the give-and-take of Christian fellowship in exploring the contents of Holy Scripture.

   Don't misread me! I do not question the value of the many excellent schemes of personal Bible study that are available today; nor do I question the profit of continuous private Bible reading, day in day out, something which I suspect most of us should be doing more than we are; nor do I forget that over and over again folk who had no biblical preaching within reach, nor any fellowship, have been wonderfully taught by God from Scripture alone. I am only saying that the New Testament expects that it is as we sit under the preaching and teaching of the Word and share with each other about it, rather than as we isolate ourselves to commune with the Bible as solitary individuals, that we will be given understanding most fully (and have our offbeat ideas and blindered prejudices corrected most speedily). Again, I do not forget that a Christian may not finally surrender his or her judgment to anyone; the responsibility that Paul imposed when he wrote, "test everything; hold fast what is good" (1 Thess 5:21 RSV) remains, and I must constantly tell you, with reference to all the views I express here or anywhere else, "I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say" (1 Cor 10:15). So now I ask you: Do I read the New Testament right? Is it not in company with the saints in the church, around and under the Word, that the apostles expect Christians to become adult in understanding? Please judge!

   If so, what follows? First, that you and I should take most seriously the preaching under which we sit in our churches. We should pray for our preachers as they prepare and for ourselves as we go to hear them, and we should listen not to criticize but to learn, even when the preacher is not one of the best. Second, we should take most seriously the value of group Bible study as a means to personal understanding and make a point of involving ourselves in it. Third, we should also take seriously the value of practicing fellowship with Christians outside our own circle by reading their books — including classic books from the Christian past and expository books written from standpoints other than our own within the

Page 116

Bible-believing spectrum. (Thus, for instance, Calvinists should sometimes read books in the Wesleyan tradition, and Methodists should sometimes read books in the Reformed tradition.) This will help us get some of our blinders off and see over the tops of some of the ruts we are in.

   The threefold benefit of correct understanding. Observing these maxims, and especially the third, will bring us a threefold benefit.

   First, it will deliver us from the tyranny of being tied to our own thoughts. All our minds are narrower than we think, and blind spots and obsessions abound in them like bees in clover. Personal Bible study is always to some extent patchy and incomplete, for there is so much in each passage that we fail to see. We are unbalanced too: those most interested in ideas focus on doctrine and forget ethics; those most interested in people focus on service and forget doctrine. We need the discipline of learning with the saints, past and present, in the ways noted above, to counterbalance our lopsidedness and to help us break out of the narrow circle of our own present thoughts into a larger vision and a riper wisdom.

   Second, this procedure will deliver us from the tyranny of being tied to our own time. C.S. Lewis speaks of the "chronological snobbery" of those who care to know only the present because they think that only the present is worth knowing. Such snobbery is found in both the church and the world, and in both it is a naive cultural conceit that needs to be punctured. The best way to puncture it is to get back to the really big saints; reading the classics that in God's providence they left us will soon cut us down to size and bring us a great deal of ageless wisdom into the bargain. So (for instance) if you want to understand the dimensions of sin and grace, you really must read Augustine. If you want to get the measure of the world of faith, you really must read Calvin. If you want insight into the life of sanctification, you really must read the Puritans — Owen, Sibbes, Brooks, Gurnall, Bunyan, Baxter and company. If you want to appreciate the height and might of God's work in revival, you really must read Jonathan Edwards. If you want to grasp what prayer is all about, you really must read folk like John of the Cross and that other giant of spirituality (for such he was) Martin Luther. The wisdom of these great souls finds us

Page 117

paddling in muddy shallows and takes us out to the deep things of God. In enlarges us spiritually as Sophocles, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky enlarge us humanly. After every new book, urged C.S. Lewis, read two old ones. He meant two classics, and his advice was good. It is tyranny to be tied to one's own time and cut off from the wealth of the past — even if you are not conscious of it as tyranny. You and I will do well to break these bonds by keeping regular company with yesterday's great teachers.

   Third, this procedure will deliver us from the tyranny of being tied to our own heritage. As we saw, we are all children of tradition (that is, of a particular heritage of teaching and training), and it is certain that the tradition that shaped us had a narrowing as well as an enriching effect on us. But we can start to neutralize that narrowing effect by learning to appreciate traditions other than our own. Some assume that their own tradition is all right and anything that is in any way different must be all wrong. If you are assuming that, think again! Or rather, start thinking now, for it does not look as if you have thought seriously about it at all as yet. What do you expect of traditions? Do you think of them as all corrupt and of yourself as untainted by them, or do you allow that there may be good in them, as for instance in the tradition (denominational, interdenominational or whatever) that did most to shape your own present faith and life: The fact is that in each section of the church all over the world the tradition that has developed (teaching, worship patterns, hymns, style of nurture and so on), whether viewed as definitive in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox manner or as merely provisional and pedagogic in the Protestant way, looks back to the Bible and offers itself as mediating the faith of the Bible. And since the Spirit has been active in the church since Pentecost, teaching and guiding according to Christ's promise, we should expect to find that at many points all Christian traditions mirror truth truly, even though at other points they appear flawed. Traditions are unlikely to be either wholly right or wholly wrong, but in the light of the Spirit's covenanted ministry, we should expect them on the whole to be more right than wrong — and when we test them across the board by the Bible they all seek to expound, this is what we find.

Page 118

   Imagine a millionaire exploring a great department store, saying of every item on display that he or she likes, "I'll have that," and so piling up a vast stock of delightful purchases. That is a picture of each Christian's privilege in relation to the varied traditions of the different segments of Christ's one church.

   A well-known American reviewer (name withheld) once commended John Stott for not writing in a way that shows him to be an Anglican, as that man J.I. Packer regrettably does. Well, I am indeed an Anglican, and there is an eclectic quality in Anglicanism that may have helped me to see the point I am now making. But the privilege of claiming as one's own anything in any Christian tradition that appears good and wise is a privilege that belongs to every Christian, not just to Anglicans. To enrich our own Christianity by ransacking the traditional wealth of all Christendom is open to each of us, if God gives us sense enough to do it. I for one have been vastly enriched by writers and preachers, past and present, who were not Anglicans — more so, perhaps, than by those who were. I admit to thinking that the Anglican heritage is the most nourishing in the Christian world, but what I owe to the Puritan tradition from John Owen to Charles Spurgeon and to the Welsh Nonconformist tradition in some of its latter-day representatives is more than I can measure. Both of these traditions seem to (doubtless blindered) me to have had blind spots of their own, but they have been vastly profitable to me nonetheless. I should like to think that other Christians were seeking and finding similar enlargement of understanding from traditions not their own.

   To sum up: It will not be enough to fight and win the battle for biblical inspiration and infallibility if we are then going to lose the battle for understanding the Bible and learning to live under its authority. We must be clear therefore on the rules of biblical interpretation and with that work constantly to get the blinders off our spiritual eyes so that breadth and depth of practical insight may be ours at all points. If we want God to give us understanding, this is the way we must go. I ask you now to judge what I have said, and if you agree with it, to do something about it.  

Chapter 5  ||  Table of Contents