Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Is the Bible self-explanatory?

Much of what I heard at MERM affirmed what I already believe. It helped me think more clearly and offered new interesting angles. There was one thing that made me stop and think because it challenged me to change my belief. Dr Martin Atkins mentioned that John Wesley said that the Bible was not self-explanatory (or was it self-revelatory?) and that was why we needed preachers. I've held for a long time that ordinary people are quite able to understand the Bible - with the aid of the Holy Spirit. But I have also wondered then why we have preachers and teachers. I know that I read and understood a lot of the Bible 'by myself'. I am afraid of a sort of elitist thing that says 'I am a trained minister and therefore I can interpret the Bible and not you' which is open to abuse. Also, I think it is terribly unsettling for a congregation to be told too often 'I know this is what you think this Bible passage means, but actually it means that'.
On the other hand, training in understanding the Bible is definitely helpful, as is preaching. So is the Bible self-revelatory or not?
I wonder if the real thing is that the more we know of the Bible the more we can understand it. We talk easily about 'the whole tenor of Scripture' - but how many people genuinely know for themselves what is in the whole of Scripture? Yet academic training in Biblical Studies tends to teach selectively rather than holistically.
It's coming clearer, but I need to think some more!


Dan said...

Hi Jenny, me again - the random surfer :) Just wanted to chip in with 1 John 2:27.

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.

There's definitely an advantage to being "trained" in the way of biblical understanding. But all too often we assume this training takes place in bible colleges when actually it takes place wherever we read the bible and spend time with God. I don't mean to be dismissive about education of course, but I always bear in mind what someone once said (I think it was Leonard Ravenhill) - "You can have 32 degrees and still be frozen!"

I think you're right to fear elitism. Revelation isn't something a select few know how to obtain, it's something that God imparts. One of the amazing things about God, I find, is how "messy" his system seems to us. We like to have an established hierarchy for revelation, but the truth is that God often chooses people outside this "chain of command", as it were, for reasons of his own. As it says in Luke 10:21,

At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.

I think at least part of the reason is that he wants us to realise that everything flows from him, not our organisations and committees. The Pharisees knew the scriptures back to front and inside out, but God seemed to bypass them completely. Meanwhile a simple fisherman realised who Jesus was and was told "this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven." At the end of the day all God's sheep hear his voice, and God knows the heart and he knows who he wants to speak to at any given moment.

As for the bible not being self-revelatory, I can't see how it could be anything but self-revelatory! (In tandem with the Holy Spirit) After all, Psalm 119 says

I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts. I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word.I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

I don't see very much room in there for the notion that we can only be given regurgitated revelation! Rather, God's word directly increases our understanding and wisdom, and keeps us from falling.

I apologise for this reply being so long. I only really meant to quote 1 John!

God bless

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Dan - don't be a random! You are always welcome. I agree with you and I like your Scripture references, thank you. I think that the path I must pursue in my thinking is the idea of the 'tenor of the whole of Scripture'. There is definitely something in that how much Scripture we know broadens our understanding of individual passages.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

From a practical point of view I consider: Preaching is about knowledge, yes, but it is also about applying that knowledge to the people. It is by far not everyone who can do that, even if they have the knowledge. And people are spiritually forgetful, and fall into spiritual slumbers. They need continual reminding and awakening, which again is the role of the preacher. Again, not everyone has the gift to awaken people. Similarly teaching: it is a gift, and not everyone can do it, even if they have the knowledge. From my experience, though, the "humblest" people in the Church may be among the most valuable spiritually, and one overlooks that at one's peril. In our own Church, an excellent example is our Hon. Church Secretary, who is a domestic worker.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

It occurred to me that with self-explanatory, you may also mean something like self-referencing, which is the thinking behind postliberal and narrative theologies.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Thanks Thomas. I think you are right in your first comment. I'm clueless about self-referencing as you refer to it! What do you mean by the term?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

In terms of postliberal and narrative theology, the Bible needs to be understood "on its own terms". One does not use (in theory) outside criteria to judge it -- neither rationalistic critique nor historical fact. For instance, did Moses exist? The old answer would have been: yes or no or maybe. The new answer is: it's a non-issue, just absorb yourself in the story. Self-referencing is, I think, not the correct term -- which escapes me now.

Jenny Hillebrand said...

Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, in some ways I would be saying that. I believe that someone who has never heard about God or Christianity or had a decent education can read (or listen to) the Bible and by the power of the Holy Spirit come to know God - and the actual existence of Moses or otherwise in a non-issue. On the other hand, a university professor with multiple degrees who will not accept the Holy Spirit is able to read the Bible and not learn one tiny little thing about God. Although he may have many learned theories on Moses.
God has given us an awesome book.