It’s all about hermeneutics Sunday, Oct 19 2008 

This issue of the Shepherd’s Staff is once again coming to you from the Middle East. Our B.E.N. campus is near Alexandria, and I am reminded of the tragic history of this city. I am referring to the events at the end of the second century, at which time Clement of Alexandria and Origen led the community in surrender to a human-based system of hermeneutics, turning their backs on the one Biblical system. That plague has followed the church to this very day.

Our new students here have almost no understanding of a hermeneutic that is Biblical, and for this reason hermeneutics is the first subject taught in each degree program. The most amazing transformation takes place when the students learn to see for themselves that a Biblical interpretation flows directly from the Bible! These servants of Christ are then able to own theology, as they finally understand how to gather the truth that was placed in Scripture at the time of its writing.

I have often said that what a person believes troubles me less than how he arrived at his position. The one Biblical hermeneutic will lead the Bible student to the truth. All other systems are equal in that they lead away from the truth; all error flows from an errant hermeneutic.

FACING THE PROBLEM

We live in a day when we can expect very often to hear of “the theological error of the month”. It is almost impossible to keep up with all the new ideas being proposed by so-called scholars. I will have to admit that many of them are brilliant intellectuals, but they have something in common with the history of Alexandria: their new theologies are nothing more an unabashed self-license to rewrite the Bible text.

The confusion is only accelerated by the plethora of new hermeneutical systems being proposed; however, in the end they all end in the same flawed theology. Small wonder that those on the left despise the issue of hermeneutics, because anything that simplifies the process would be anathema to their system. The goal of theological compromise is to “complicate to confuse”, while the Biblicist’s goal is to “simplify to clarify”.

GET TO THE POINT

The focus of this issue is on the fact that doctrine and theology are secondary to the process one uses to discover and confirm that theology. A breadth of background information and content consideration is essential to sound theology. On the other hand, just pouring a mountain of information into a student cannot produce continuing theological integrity. Such a student ends up with lots of information, but he still may not know how to lift from the text a theology that is Biblical. It is imperative that the student understands, and is skilled in, the science of interpretation by the one hermeneutic that is Biblical.

It would seem obvious, since the majority of hermeneutical systems are flawed, that the final product would in most cases be erroneous. In the final analysis, the normal, plain, consistent, literal hermeneutic stands alone as the guide to truth. This hermeneutic, of course, rests upon the grammatical, contextual, and historical setting of the specific text.

There is but one primary goal in this process, and that is the glory of God. Any other goal is secondary, no matter if it is ministry, missions, evangelism, or redemptive themes because, in the final evaluation, these all turn toward man and not toward God. That is also why man-centered theology elevates love above the holiness of God as its absolute guide.

THE TRUTH THAT FLOWS FROM THE TEXT

With all this in mind, my advice would be for every church to begin a program of systematic teaching of how to extract truth from the Bible text. Some preachers, I realize, might even feel threatened by knowing there were people in their pews that could measure the truthfulness of their teaching! Personally, I would be thrilled to teach people who could identify error because they knew how to get truth out of the Holy Scriptures.

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Great minds great ideas Sunday, Oct 19 2008 

It is often said that “great minds discuss ideas, and weak minds discuss people”. In my writing, I find it very difficult to leave out the names of people. After all, people have ideas; and we tend to connect the two. The difficulty lies in the fact that the minute a name is mentioned, the reader tends to lose focus on the idea.

Recently, I have heard several people make that mistake. What do you do when two people are running for public office and neither one of them, from our point of view, is qualified? The emotional responses are easy: “I will just stay home; “I won’t vote”; or “Now is the time to vote for a fringe candidate”. That would be all right if people were the issue, but government is about ideas and principles rather than people. Can we really make these very important decisions based on frail, fallible humans? If so, I would never vote.

The Curse in the Local Church

If I can claim expertise in any area, it is that of ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. This comes not only from experience gained by thirty-seven years in the pastorate, but also from much research, study, teaching, and publishing. What I have discovered is that local churches very often are all about people, not ideas. The emerging and emergent churches have begun their cultural tsunami on this shifting sand. The traditional church has been mired in the same problem for years, and as a result is finding it easy to fall into man-centered worship and ministry.

Of all the church splits I can remember, only a handful were due to differences concerning biblical truth, theology, doctrine, and ideas. In most cases, those church fights were about people. This is the very reason the majority of our churches fail to experience spiritual or physical growth. Perhaps we should ask, is it possible to grow a church built on truth, doctrine, theology, and biblical ideas?

An Application

And now, with all this in mind, how will you decide whom to vote for? The problem is that there has never been a perfect candidate. Give me a name, and I can find some moral, spiritual, or social failure. You will have to admit that every candidate for whom you have ever voted was in some way flawed. Some are better than others, of course, but all are flawed; so that at least makes the playing field level.

Choosing leaders or servants becomes much easier when we base our choices on ideas. For a believer, the decision is basic. While we normally base it on “what I think”, “what I believe”, “what I want”, and “what I like”, that suddenly turns into a human focus. I am pleading for a godly focus.

The question we should be asking is this: “What has God clearly said in His Word?” This is assuming, of course, that we know what the Bible has set down as the final word on each issue. In our circles, many people – both in the pew and in the pulpit – know about the Bible, but fail to really know the Bible. This, then, is how we should make our decision: consider ideas – what God has said, and not just what we think He has said.

Some Key Ideas

Forget the names of the candidates. Instead, discover what their ideas are, and then compare them to God’s standard. Make a list, a long list, and then decide what ideas we are obligated to support no matter how flawed a certain candidate may be. You may argue that you can’t separate the two; but if that is true, you have missed the whole point of this lesson.

What are some of these issues? How can I test a candidate’s ideas? During my years in the pastorate, just prior to any major election, I would choose to preach an election message. (Don’t get me started!) This was after the pattern of early colonial pastors.[1] The message was not about people or parties, only about ideas, some of which were marriage, capital punishment, abortion, infanticide, sodomy, war, morality, authority, and separation of church and state.

To miss the point, one would have had to be asleep or have a false allegiance to a political party or an unnatural attraction to a person. So, I have made up my mind. If this election were only about people, I would stay home or choose some ineffective fringe candidate in order to make my personal point. As for me, I intend to speak for truth and for ideas. The flawed candidate who is closest to God’s perspective on truth gets my nod. How easy is that lesson? Now, it is time for you to take the exam. Don’t fret – I will not be grading your exam; I have no right to do that. God Himself will do the grading.


[1] Headly, J.T. The Chaplains and Clergy of the Revolution. New York: Charles Scribner, 1864

Why is it so hard to tell the truth? Sunday, Oct 19 2008 

Recuperating from a third heart catheterization does have its advantages. My stack of reading material had grown to a dangerous height, and now I finally have time to begin chipping away at it. In the World magazine (May 17-24, 2008) I came across three articles about three different educational institutions that are in a state of upheaval over personnel issues. In each case some of their professors were now on the outside looking in. Two of them were familiar stories; I had already read reports from both sides of their conflicts.

This whole issue is not new, and I have personally observed the phenomena on a number of occasions. On this particular day, I quickly picked up another half dozen issues of the magazine. World is one of only two magazines that I buy. As I thumbed through it, I pulled out several more articles, all with the same theme – two sides to the same story. How could that be? Someone had to be telling the truth, and that meant that someone else must have been lying. You could argue that they just represent two different perspectives. I would think, though, that even with two points of view the conclusion should the same. After all, there can be only one true conclusion.

Were those professors on the outside because of their beliefs? Then say so; just be honest about it. It is not wrong for an institution to fire someone for his beliefs, but that institution should tell the truth about the situation. Smoke screens are not hard to identify, and they only confuse the issue. Don’t say the person was “unreasonable” or “uncooperative”; say he refused to back down on his beliefs. He may even be wrong about his beliefs, but tell the truth and clear the air. Don’t say the professor didn’t publish enough and then leave it there, even if that is true. If the truth is that the institution has made a hard turn to the left, and as a result the person in question got in the way, just say so. Why is it so hard to tell the truth? We all know already what the real issue is, so have the integrity to stand for what you believe; stop the spin.

The skin of the truth, stuffed with a lie

People who major in truth-telling will always be castigated. They are not welcome in evangelicalism or in much of fundamentalism. They are criticized as being arrogant, acting as though they are the only ones who have the truth. Even when you are just asking questions in an effort to get to the truth, you will be viewed as negative. Liberalism calls this “hate speech” and “radical”, but then it goes on to practice the very same thing. Finally, those who persist in truth- telling will be condemned for their passion. The accusation is, “you always sound mad” or “can’t you present something edifying?” Since when is truth no longer edifying?

In our circle of ministry, how often is the truth really told when someone leaves an organization or a church? Everyone smiles and says nice things, but the truth lies buried, because the truth hurts. Of course it does. It is supposed to, but it hurts only those with wrongs that have not been made right. I am fully aware that there are often matters that should not be made public. In discipline, the information only goes as far as the circle of infraction; discipline, however, is not the subject here.

Could it be that the hurt caused by using the skin of truth goes far beyond the sting of the truth? For instance, a pastor resigns and the excuse is “my ministry is finished here”. Of course it is finished, but why? The real answer is hardly ever discussed, and as a result the next pastor is “finished” before he ever begins. Twenty-two years ago my book on church polity, The Weeping Church, was published, and it is still in print. The book was a plea about “confronting the crisis of church polity”, and the crisis has not changed in all these years.

Why does a person move on? Perhaps he said it was the “will of God”, and who can argue against that; but why was it the will of God? It is amazing how many things we blame on God. Some folks spend their whole lives avoiding conflict. In fact, I don’t like personal conflict myself, but I love analytical and critical thinking that seeks to put thoughts in their proper place. What I write in this journal is meant to incite discussion. Discussing ideas like those above makes my day! I like to enter into such discussions with drive and passion, and I enjoy those who submit to careful observation. I don’t condemn timid folks who are afraid to enter the debate, and I appreciate those who refuse to condemn me for pointing the light toward dark corners.

Two different sets of standards

One of the things I observed in reading the stack of articles on this subject was not only the arrogance displayed in covering the truth, but the hypocrisy of unequal application. Every institution involved in this fray is familiar to me, and each one holds to academic freedom…at least on paper. On the other hand, in almost every one of these institutions such freedom was extended only to those who were willing to toe the line.

This is not about obedience to policies and procedures. The conflict is over ideas, and in many cases it’s about a theology that is biblical. One of the professors I read about was ousted because of his view of intelligent design. That particular institution is secular in perspective and has every right to choose unintelligent design as their model for origin, but they can’t claim academic freedom with any integrity.

Even in a place that is well known for its conservative theology, people are being sacked when the convenient financial crisis arises; but the truth lies buried. I try to follow the ministry of conservative ministries and academic institutions. I have been asked from time to time how it is that once-solid institutions end up veering to the left. It almost never happens because of their statement of faith; rather, it happens when the people in that ministry begin to take a low view of biblical truth. It begins by having personnel who are willing to shade the truth. The next step is usually the accommodation of error, or truth and error side by side. In the end, truth is not welcome and anyone who attempts to take a firm stand will find himself on the outside looking in.

Don’t expect it be any different in the future. Again I ask…why is it so hard to tell the truth?

The nature of psychology and biblical counseling Sunday, Oct 19 2008 

We always begin with what we know about any subject. Because it has many aberrations, we know that this issue of psychology/biblical counseling is not a two-sided debate. Most of us very likely believe that medical assistance will never be replaced by Bible teaching. Both true medicine and Bible truth have value. As a rule, our readers appear to hold Scripture as the final authority on any matter about which it speaks. We can clearly observe that there are extremes to all positions.

With these things stipulated, we can do away with about half of the arguments surrounding this debate.

Physical medicine has value and is based on science, even though it is an incomplete knowledge, rather than an absolute, which is why our physicians are very likely to say, “We will try this or that”. It is also why almost all medicines come with warning labels – not because we know what they will do in every case, but because of the unknown factors, or “non-knowledge”. Science, after all, does have some rather severe limitations.

We know that the Bible is true and absolute in every way, with no flaws. Following the “prescriptions” of Scripture will always bring the promised results. No warning labels are needed regarding salvation or holiness; they always work. When there are problems, it is because of man’s limitations; God’s Word has none. Any perceived failure of a Bible “prescription” is due to man’s failure to use the “medicine” properly.

The ground between these two factual issues is less than stable. Any part of the physical body can be physically and scientifically studied, including the brain. The problem is that psychology has never been fully proven to be a true or exact science. While there undoubtedly is value in a secular study of the mind, we are often left with more questions than answers.

The study of behavior is an interesting one. It is possible to modify behavior by the use of mind-altering drugs. The resulting changes, however, are external. Only the Holy Spirit has the power to change the inner man. The secular approach may limit or expedite an individual’s activity, but it has no power to change the inner man permanently. For that reason, most people who are put on drugs must continue using them, or their negative behavior is likely to return.

Only God has the power to change the inner man in a permanent way, and every true believer will admit to that power. Could a reason for the high suicide rate among psychiatrists and other counselors possibly have anything to do with the severe limitations of those practices?

On the other hand, a “Christian” approach to counseling has it’s dangers. Some counselors have been accused of “throwing Bible verses” at a problem and, unfortunately, that accusation is sometimes true. Every Bible verse has value, but the worth of a text can be found only by proper biblical interpretation. Use of the Bible in counseling requires a solid understanding of a biblical theology. Each verse must be approached carefully, using the self-revealed hermeneutical rules of Scripture. The use of Scripture in counseling demands the ability to properly see the meaning of the text, its grammar, its context, and the historical setting at the time of its writing.

This practice can be a double-sided sword. Not only is it dangerous to toss Bible verses like bombs at a distraught person, it is also dangerous to attempt to integrate Bible text into counseling when the counselor is unskilled in biblical interpretation. After all, you can’t integrate what you don’t know. Although they may exist, I have yet to meet a psychologist who is also a biblical theologian. On the other hand, the casual or nonchalant using of verses like a magic wand is suspect. There is no difference between the two extremes.

God can use any Bible verse with great effectiveness and in any way He chooses. We are not God, however; and when we use the Scripture in a setting that is clearly not in the text, we hinder its effectiveness.