Intimations of Revelation from Recollections of Early Childhood

1998

 

I have some interesting reflections on my understanding of the Bible in my early years.  For instance, I grew up “knowing” that I could never take any one verse of the Bible at face value or in its plain sense.  I always had to look up every other relevant Scripture and make sure that my first reading did not contradict any of these other verses.  I would take the “clearer” statement (which was interestingly always the statement the Wesleyan church and my family believed) and then reinterpret any other passages as necessary.  If the subject was women in ministry, for example, Galatians 3:28 always won out as the “clearer” verse over and above “obscure” verses like 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.

 

Another interesting thing about holiness preaching I heard as a child was the use of types and shadows.  I was fascinated by the fact that the scarlet cord in Rahab’s window, the guarantee of her salvation, was a type of the blood of Christ which saves us.  I thrived on all these types.  I yearned to know how everything in the Old Testament tabernacle had a New Testament parallel and how all the Old Testament feasts corresponded to key events in the Christian dispensation.  When I first learned of Augustine’s interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Christ as the Samaritan, the inn as the Church, etc...) I was enthralled.  I remember thinking to myself, “I wish I was as smart as the saints who could figure out what all these Old Testament things were really about.”

 

In my growing up years, a lot of Scriptures were strikingly relevant to the present.  I learned, for example, that Magog in Ezekiel 38 actually referred to the Soviet Union.  The eagle in chapter 17 was the United States.  I learned an elaborate schedule in relation to the Lord’s return which was based upon an ingenious interweaving of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation.  I learned that the budding of the fig tree in Mark 13:28-30 referred to the time when Israel would become a nation again, and I became very concerned that I be right with God in the ’80’s.  I was not surprised when a pamphlet appeared giving “88 reasons” why the Lord would return in 1988.

 

When I went to college and there received a call to ministry, I wanted to pursue systematic theology rather than Bible.  To me, theology was where I could really make a contribution on the hard questions -- proofs for the existence of God, how the Trinity worked, how Satan could come to be in a world God had created.  The Bible, however, did not peak my interest so much, because I thought I already knew what it meant.  Although I may not have admitted it, interpretation for me was simply a matter of seeing the theology I already had in whatever verse I happened to be looking at.

 

And I had many verses ready for any particular situation.  I had verses I had learned in Sunday School or from the little box my mother had given me during a period of real fear.  I had no idea where most of these verses came from in the Bible, and I certainly took no thought for their context.  They stood in their own right.  In fact, that is the way they are printed in the King James:  each verse stands alone, separate, unconnected to the verses around it.  So when my first girlfriend put Jeremiah 29:11 on a card to cheer me up -- “For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil...” -- of course I never thought to look the verse up in Jeremiah to see what Jeremiah was talking about.  Anyone could see what God meant by those words all by themselves.

 

Somewhere in my college days, however, I was presented with a real crisis.  One of my teachers claimed that in order to understand the Bible correctly, I needed to know something about history.  He was suggesting that I had to know the context of a particular Scripture before I could really understand what Paul or Luke was trying to say. 

 

In fact, the preaching around college was somewhat different from that at home.  The preachers would tell me where Thessalonica was located in Macedonia or what conditions were like in the city of Corinth.  I found this all very interesting, although I was not sure what it had to do with understanding the Bible.  All the same, I gradually found myself saying, “I wish I knew all these historical facts that these preachers know.”

 

But the question of history became a real struggle of faith for me.  Did one interpret the words of Scripture in terms of what Paul himself was trying to say to the Thessalonians and, more importantly, why he was saying it?  For example, did the fact that only immoral women cut their hair in Corinth have anything at all to do with how my girlfriend should read 1 Cor. 11:6!  Should I greet brothers in Christ with a holy kiss, as 1 Thessalonians 5:26 indicated.  My grandfather used to do so.  If the Bible is one long book written by God for all times transcending any particular cultural context, then we must apply every verse to us directly today in the light of the words of the whole Bible, but without consideration of the historical context.  The English text of the King James is fine.  It is not necessary to know any Greek or Hebrew.

 

The problem was that whether I liked it or not, I was beginning to read the Bible differently.  You see, it had never really occurred to me before to think about what the words of the Bible had meant in their original context to Paul himself or the Corinthians.  I suspect the holiness preachers of the earlier part of this century might not even have understood the question.  I am not faulting them, merely highlighting how different such a method is from what was the common practice back then.  So when I learned how to read Scripture in context, I soon found it difficult not to read it that way.  In fact, I found it difficult to hold to some of my previous interpretations -- including many of those I had picked up in my early youth and childhood! 

 

I had thought, for example, that Isaiah 14:12 was about Satan:  “How art thou fallen from heaven, oh Lucifer, son of the morning...”  It was the word “Lucifer” that had always determined how I read this verse.  My eyes had focused only on that one word and from it I had understood the meaning of 12-15.  I had never bothered to look at any of the rest of the chapter.  Like I said, it is difficult to get any sense of context in the King James because it lists each verse as a separate entity.

 

But when I started looking at the context, particularly in a version that printed the text in paragraph form, even with headings, my perspective underwent a radical shift.  There was no way around the fact that the whole chapter, both before verse twelve and after, was originally about the king of Babylon (see 14:4 and 20, for example) and in its original context had nothing at all to do with Satan.  There was no indication whatsoever that Satan had ever entered Isaiah’s mind.  Before this point in my life, I had never given any thought to the historical city of ancient Babylon, the real target of Isaiah’s taunt.  Yet this was the powerful city which had caused such terror to the people of Jerusalem and generated the majority of the material in the prophets.  Yet the actual city had barely been an afterthought in any of my interpretations, except perhaps as a symbol for some present day city like Rome or the Catholic church. 

 

College had opened a Pandora’s box, and I was gradually becoming a “modernist.”  Now you should not think of this as a bad word.  It is not.  Almost all fundamentalists, like most atheists and evangelicals alike, are modernists.  What is a modernist?  It is someone who believes that there is an objective truth out there we can know intimately and accurately.  The atheists simply disagree on what that truth is.  Charles Stanley and Chuck Swindoll are modernists, as is Jerry Faldwell, because they believe 1) that the original, historical meaning of Scripture is the one which is authoritative and 2) that we can objectively know what this original meaning was.  

 

You see, whether we like it or not, everyone -- and I mean absolutely every single individual on the earth -- has inherited a way of looking at the world.  We do not choose this view at first.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of people will never even realize they have such a view, although it affects every aspect of their life!  Both fundamentalists today and atheists are modernists because both of them have absorbed this worldview from the modern culture of the last three to five hundred years!

 

In this respect, Wesleyans come from a very interesting position, actually quite different from much of fundamentalism today!  Although we are gradually absorbing the modernist viewpoint of our fundamentalist friends (to a great extent without even knowing it, I might add), our church was originally “pre-modern,” not modern.  I had never really thought of the Bible as history, I had been a “pre-modernist.”  I had treated Scripture like a group of words whose meaning was interpreted in the light of the theology I had grown up with, not in terms of their context. 

 

So whenever I came to the word holiness or sanctification in the Bible, for example, I automatically highlighted it and would relate it in any way possible to the doctrine I had heard repeatedly in sermons.  I did this because of the word, not because of the original meaning of the verse in its context.  As I said, the early holiness preachers rarely looked at the context of the verses from which they preached.  Without even realizing it, they followed a method of finding individual verses and words which reminded them (whether by catchword or analogy) of the theology they already believed.  They used the Bible to illustrate their theology rather than to derive it.  Context only entered the picture as it contributed to this process.

 

But once I began to ask what holiness and sanctification meant in their original contexts, I suddenly found that many of these proof texts were not actually about entire sanctification.  For example, I once heard a sermon on Ps. 51:2:  “Wash me throughly form mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”  The sermon related these two statements to two works of grace.  First, one has their sin acts forgiven in salvation, then one has the sin principle, the carnal nature itself, cleansed.  This is a nice presentation of the classic Wesleyan position on entire sanctification.

 

Yet David himself would have had no comprehension whatsoever of such a reading.  First of all, Hebrew poetry functions by a rule of parallelism -- say it and say it again.  Verse two says the same thing twice, with little distinction between the two statements.  For David, washing from iniquity and cleansing from sin were one and the same request.  It is also clear that the role of the Spirit in the Old Testament is significantly different from that which takes place after Pentecost.  For example, the Spirit of the Lord comes on Saul as he is attempting to kill David (1 Sam. 19:23).  Saul keeps sending people to get David so he can kill him, but seemingly against their will the Spirit keeps coming on them, causing them to prophesy.  Finally, Saul goes himself, and “the Spirit of God came even upon him.”  The real world of the Old Testament was obviously far different than the one we had constructed from the verses alone taken out of context.

 

What this sermon so aptly illustrates is that previously in our history we were pre-modern, we did not think of the Bible in terms of its original meaning.  Rather, we thought of it in terms of our theology -- our “tradition” of interpretation.  Some will object to calling our background a tradition.  To them, they are simply reading the Bible for what it means.  I hope that it is becoming clear that what we were really doing without realizing it was applying a method we had unthinkingly learned and which we unthinkingly used.  We took our doctrine and practices and read them into the text. 

 

Because we live in a modernist world, there is something very compelling to us about the modernist way of interpreting the Bible.  It seems self evident that Paul’s actual view of sanctification has more authority than the way a twentieth century preacher can interpret the words out of context.  Yet the road of reading things in context leads us into some very scary territory.

 

Take Isaiah 7, for example.  We all know verse 14:  “Therefore the LORD himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  We know this verse because it appears in Matthew 1:23, where Matthew refers to Jesus’ birth by the virgin Mary as its fulfillment.

 

When we read Isaiah 7 through modernist eyes, however, we become deeply troubled.  The chapter is a conversation between Ahaz, the king of Judah, and Isaiah the prophet.  Ahaz is worried about the two kings to the north, Pekah and Remaliah (7:1, 4-5).  They are threatening to invade Judah, and Ahaz is understandably nervous.  Isaiah says not to worry (7:7-9).  Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign from the LORD (7:11).  Ahaz refuses to ask (7:12).  Isaiah responds that the LORD himself will give you a sign!!  In Hebrew, this sign is the conception of a child by an almah, a word which can mean either a virgin or a young woman.  Isaiah assures Ahaz, “before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings” (7:16).  Before this promised child reaches maturity, Pekah and Remaliah will be gone.

 

One might certainly note that Jesus did not in fact reach human maturity until well over 700 years after this prophesy was uttered, and that it is therefore true.  But this interpretation misses the point.  If Christ is the sign, then it does not bring any reassurance to Ahaz.  It cannot hardly be considered a sign to Ahaz if its fulfillment occurs well over 700 years after his death.  The sign was not to me or the early church, it was to Ahaz.  

 

You can see how troubling the modernist way of interpreting in context can be.  It leads to a host of conundrums that even most of those practicing it have not fully realized.  When the notion of culture comes into play, I am faced with the fact that the world in which Abraham lived was startlingly different from that of Isaiah and certainly from that of Paul.  I cannot read the word Spirit the same in Paul as I read it in 1 Samuel.  In fact, I cannot read the word Spirit in Paul the same way I read it in Luke!  Every individual book of the Bible comes to be read in the light of its own context and each individual author’s vocabulary.

 

The complexity has only begun.  I look at the world as a sphere moving around a sun.  When I think of the first Russian cosmonaut scoffing because he did not see God in orbit, I laugh and think, “Wow, that fellow sure didn’t understand about where heaven is.”  But St. Augustine and Paul would not have laughed.  I suspect that they would have found it deeply troubling, as Adam in Milton’s Paradise Lost finds the world Copernicus has revealed (Book VIII).

 

Then I think of Genesis 1, which was revealed to a culture which had a view of the world even farther removed from mine.  Here is a picture of a world consisting of three stories:  waters above, waters beneath, and dry ground in the middle.  When I really try to understand the chapter in its cultural context, I find myself no longer able to read some of the books on scientific creationism with which I had grown up, for I realize that they are trying to mix together apples and oranges.  The way Genesis 1 speaks of the world comes from a completely different “cultural language” than modern worldview with which the scientific creationist approaches the text. 

 

And so I am faced with an incredible problem.  How can the words of the Bible, encased in human language (which is always connected with culture), not only relate to my world, but how can Paul’s “language” relate to Moses or John to Isaiah?  No culture or individual will read the very same words of Scripture in the same way.  My world and my faith begin to unravel.

 

In all such cases, my past gives a ready answer, “The gospel is so simple that a man ‘though a fool, would not err therein.’”  And somehow I agree.  After studying Greek and Hebrew and earning a doctorate’s degree in New Testament, I realize that I still do not know what the “right,” historical meaning of much of Scripture is.  Does it matter?  Did it matter to the medieval peasant who only heard the Bible read in Latin, a language he did not understand?  Does it matter to the aged Wesleyan saint who loves the Lord with all her heart -- or the same Baptist or Roman Catholic saint?  It was always interesting to me that the Lord never seemed to “correct” these people.  He just let that entirely sanctified Catholic go on being Catholic.  God somehow is able to reveal himself to us all if we are willing, despite our understanding.

 

And so I find myself almost back to where I started, but this time in a “second naïvete.”  The illusion to Isaiah 35:8 illustrates the principle so well.  To begin with, I do not believe that he ever quoted the portion of the verse exactly.  The last seven words of the verse in the King James read that “men, though fools, shall not err therein.”  I have no doubt but that my father has heard holiness sermons from this verse, for the “subject” on which these fools shall not err is the “highway of holiness.”  I can almost reconstruct the sermon.  God has provided for us the way of holiness.  “The unclean shall not pass over it,” as the verse says, for the way of holiness is only for the pure of heart.  Yet it is also a simple way to follow.  Even a fool will not err in it if his heart is right.

 

This interpretation of the verse is extremely pre-modernist.  It could hardly be farther from what Isaiah meant.  To begin with, the term fool in Hebrew does not mean someone who is not smart.  It means someone who is downright wicked!  And the word “err” here is meant in the older sense of wandering.  The verse is actually saying that no wicked person will wander onto this “highway of holiness.”  The NIV rightly translates the phrase, “wicked fools will not go about on it.”  Isaiah probably meant it in reference to the return of Israel (or Judah) from captivity.

 

Yet God revealed a truth through it.  Suddenly I realize that this is God’s normal mode of operation, making the words of Scripture become the Word of God in accordance with our limited ability to understand.  Not to say that the Bible was not the Word of God then, or that it is not the Word of God now.  It was, is, and will be all of these.  I have moved into the age of the “post-modern.”  For those of you who already know this term, you do not need to be alarmed.  I predict that the most notorious form of postmodernism, which does not actually believe that objective truth or meaning exists, will not turn out to be the only form in which it exists.  Just as there would seem to be both a “Christian” and a non-Christian modernism, there will also be a “Christian” and non-Christian form of postmodernism.

 

In particular, there is a new term afoot known as critical realism.  Such a “post-modernist” believes that truth is “real”ly out there, but that we will always know it from inside our heads.  We will never be able to see it objectively, although at times we may come closer than at others.  We will always see the truth from within the “language game” we have inherited from our culture and from which we can never completely remove ourselves.  Perhaps you can think of it as a rather late admission in the history of the world that the Fall affects our minds as well as our hearts.  Most of us have been pretending that we have a God’s eye view of the world -- and of the words of the Bible.

 

It is not that I go back to my pre-modern sense.  In fact, I cannot do so for I have realized the distinction between me and the text.  I cannot unlearn the distance between myself and Paul.  And I really need the modernist interpretation to ground me.  Otherwise, I am in danger of becoming a David Koresh.  I cannot use God’s commands in Joshua to exterminate evildoers as permission to shoot off homosexuals, for Christ has told me to love my neighbor (and I think I have understood this injunction fairly well, although not perfectly).  The original, historical meaning remains a fixed point of sorts, the bridge from which my individualistic, “spiritual” reading bungy jumps.  In the case of the Koreshes and Jim Joneses of the world, the cord has snapped, and they have tumbled to their deaths.

 

I take courage from the pre-modern interpretations of the New Testament itself.  Look at Matthew 1:23, which I have already noted.  It is no longer a problem for me that Matthew does not read Isaiah from a modernist perspective.  To be honest, my problem consisted in part because I was not modernist enough, for what Matthew means by “fulfilled” is not the same as what I as a modernist would think it means.  Aristotle, for example, spoke of the watering of the earth as the “final cause” of rain.  To me in my present perspective, the watering of the earth is not a cause of rain, it is a result.  How arrogant of me to assume that Matthew had to follow my rules on what the word fulfill means.

 

As my forefathers, the New Testament authors gave the Old Testament words fuller meanings in accordance with their true theology.  This was perfectly acceptable.  It was perfectly legitimate for Paul in Galatians 3:16 to make a big point out of the singular “seed” in Genesis 17:19 even though it clearly refers to all of Abrahams plural, physical descendents in Genesis.  It was perfectly acceptable for Matthew to consider Jesus’ return from Egypt as the “fuller” meaning of Hosea 11:1, which clearly refers back to the exodus of Israel from Egypt.  I believe that even our tradition used to speak of the near and the far of Scripture, the one of which referred to then and the other to the fulfillment either in the New Testament or yet to come.  The Roman Catholics called it the sensus plenior of Scripture -- the “fuller sense.”  This is the way that God still reveals himself to those who are not equipped to study the Bible in terms of its original meaning -- and to those who think they are so equipped!

 

So where is the Wesleyan Church right now?  A big jumble of pre-, post- and plain old modernism.  Most Wesleyan pastors still use at least some proof texts with no thought for the context, though many do try to pay attention to context at times and often will make use of modernist commentaries.  Modernism never fully caught on in the Wesleyan Church, and in many cases we are trying to slip directly from pre- to post-modernism.  This is dangerous, for while we take along the bungy cord, we may never attach it to anything.

 

In our pre-modern days, our bungy cord was tied to our tradition, and this was a very fixed point indeed.  In postmodernity in its worst form, however, there is no fixed point.  Have you ever heard anyone say recently, “Well, it means that to you.  It means something different to me.”  With our Living and Amplified Bible, we do indeed pave the way for God’s direct revelation to individuals, and this is great, needful, and important.

 

But where is the bridge that holds the individual from the abyss below?  I do not think that a person needs to know Greek or Hebrew to find God or get to heaven.  As long as our theology is okay, God can use any old version to reveal the truth to us.  Whether we admit it or not, this is what goes on most of the time anyway.  But if our theology comes from the Bible, then it must come from the original meaning, and this you cannot get from an English translation.  In fact, you may not even get it from reading the Bible in Greek and Hebrew if you do not know some history.

 

To be honest, our history as a church puts us in a unique position to lead the church into the age of postmodernity.  On the one hand, we need theology makers who have passed through the fires of modernism intact, taking with them a sound theology based upon the original meaning of Scripture.  Our pastors should be aware of these categories.  They should see these distinctions, but their work will not so much be in teaching their congregations the original meanings.  Frankly, they have almost never done this anyway.  What is most important for them is to know the core theology and to be able to apply it in preaching and teaching.  This is what has always been most important for the people of God.  His Spirit will do the rest.