Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Principles of Interpretation

Today I read a chapter by J.I. Packer in the book Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment. One of Packer's arguments against universalism (the belief that one day all people will be saved and hell will be empty) is that it fails to apply proper principles of interpretation. He summarizes these principles in a paragraph, providing a handy reminder to all of us who are Bible-readers:
Now the proper key principles [of interpretation] here are, and always will be, that interpretation must be context-specific, author-specific, and focus-specific. That means first, that passages must be exegeted in terms of the thought-flow of which they are part and not have their meaning extrapolated beyond the manifest perspectives, limits, and boundaries of that thought-flow; otherwise, we will be reading into them what cannot truly be read out of them. (2) It also means that writers must not be assumed to contradict themselves, but must be respected as knowing their own minds; thus, what they write in one place must be treated as cohering with what they write elsewhere. And it means, finally, that in seeking the writer's meaning, we must never lose sight of the immediate point he is making, the persuasive strategy of which that point is part, and the effect that he shows himself wanting to produce on his readers. The way into the mind, meaning, and message of God the Holy Spirit in the biblical text is always through the mind, meaning, and message of its human writers. Though many passages in their canonical context carry a greater weight of meaning than their divinely led human writers knew, none carries less meaning than its human writer actually expressed, and none should ever be treated as if the three guidelines set out above do not apply to it.

Monday, August 06, 2007

What Defiles

I read Mark 7:14-23 for my devotions today, and translated the passage for myself tonight. Keep in mind that the Pharisees had just complained to Jesus that his disciples were violating the Levitical law by eating with unwashed hands. Jesus replies scathingly by quoting Isaiah ("The lips of this people honor me, but their heart is far from me. . ."). He then seeks to correct the understanding of the gathered crowd and his disciples:
And when the crowd was called to him again he said to them, “Everyone listen to me and understand. It is not what is outside of a man, then goes into him, which is able to defile him, but that which comes out of a man is what defiles the man.” And when he went from the crowd into a house his followers asked him about the saying. And he said to them, “Are you also thus without understanding? Do you not understand that anything that is outside, then goes into a man, is not able to defile him because it does not go into his heart but into his stomach, and goes out into the latrine? (He pronounced all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a man--that defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of a man, evil designs come forth; sexual immorality, thefts, murder, adultery, greediness, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, covetousness, slander, haughtiness, folly--every one of these evils comes out from within and defiles a man.
I saw a couple of things in the Greek (think of it as HD-TV) that I had never noticed before in the English. First, it's interesting that when the author notes that Jesus pronounced all foods clean, he means that Jesus pronounced it in the way that a priest would declare a healed leper clean. Jesus pronounced all foods Levitically clean. As one cleansed of disease no longer needed to be shunned by the community but could be touched and embraced, foods which had been unclean according to the Law no longer needed to be shunned but could be touched and ingested. Second, it seems pretty evident to me grammatically that the first item in Jesus' laundry-list of sins which come forth from within men is meant to be a general descriptor of the rest of them, like a title over a bulleted list:

Evil Designs
  • Sexual Immorality
  • Thefts
  • Murder
  • Adultery
  • Greediness
  • Wickedness
  • Deceit
  • Sensuality
  • Covetousness
  • Slander
  • Haughtiness
  • Folly
"Evil designs" could be rendered as "evil thoughts" or "evil plans" or "evil purposes." If one really wanted to Anglicize the whole clause it could be rendered, "For from within, out of the heart of a man, evil schemes are hatched." It gets at the idea really well but I think plays too fast and loose with the text. Anyway, I was really sobered by this second one because Jesus is making the point that the Pharisees could do their ritual hand washings all they wanted but it would do nothing to remove their (deeper) defilement in the sight of God, which can't be rinsed off so easily. I was reminded of the fact that sin is not mainly something bad I do because I was provoked by someone/thing outside of me, but a rottenness residing within me that is revealed by my actions. The fact is, the bad things I do don't make me evil, they prove that I'm evil. It's the chicken-and-egg question: What came first, the sinner or the sin? Jesus says the sinner came first. This means that if I curse when I spill my coffee I can't say, "I cursed because I spilled." The spill only revealed that I am profane. If someone is rude to me, I can't say, "The rudeness made me angry." No, the rudeness just revealed that I am angry. If an indecently clothed woman passes me on the street and I have an impure thought I can't say, "I had an impure thought because she wasn't decent." According to Jesus the indecency merely revealed my impurity. This means I can't blame my sin on what someone else does. Provocations don't make me evil, they prove that I'm evil. Sin is in me. Thankfully so is God the Holy Spirit, who continues to work in me to make me "pure and blameless . . . filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ" ( Col. 1:10 & 11).

Saturday, August 04, 2007

School Days, School Days

The fall semester starts a week from Monday, my second at SBTS. It has become clear in recent days that this semester will be very different than planned, but I am very much looking forward to it nonetheless. New students (of both the undergraduate and graduate varieties) are arriving daily. I've seen the undergraduates around campus the last two days with a blue and red folder tucked under every arm and a look that betrays both excitement and uncertainty pasted on every face and I have thought more than once of the Autumn of 1998. . .

I will be taking four classes: Greek Syntax & Exegesis, Systematic Theology III, Church History II, and Personal Evangelism. I'm looking forward to continuing my Greek studies and learning to use the little Greek I know to help me handle the Scriptures more accurately. I signed up for Systematic Theology III for two reasons: Dr. Ware is teaching it, and I want to get a better grasp of where I stand on eschatology sooner rather than later (I've already decided this will be the topic of my term paper in this class). I've already read Sinclair Ferguson's book on the Holy Spirit for this class and it was excellent and stirring. I'm very much looking forward to studying the Protestant Reformation in Church History II. In that class we'll be reading Here I Stand, a biography of Martin Luther, Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George and Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen, plus two other books. Personal Evangelism will no doubt be very helpful as well. I've had many opportunities to share the gospel at work, but I find I'm very poor at sustaining a conversation about the gospel. I didn't know what to say recently when one co-worker said, "I think it's unjust for God to impute Adam's sin to everyone who came after him." I need more training in this area in order to witness for Christ more consistently and faithfully.

Please feel free to pray for me (that I will be very diligent and learn a lot) should the notion strike you.