The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11

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Parameters of Meaning – Rule 11: While interpreting Scripture with Scripture is valid, it is only to be employed as a check upon interpretation. Using the Analogy of Faith as part of one’s hermeneutics introduces it prematurely and may smuggle ones assumptions into the interpretation.

All evangelical Christians believe that Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture. We all can recite at least some words from 1 Corinthians 2:13:

These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

But of course, 1 Corinthians 2:13 does not say we compare Scripture with Scripture; that is just assumed. And it’s a decent assumption, since we know that one part of the Bible (say Text B) may be used to throw light upon the part one is trying to understand (i.e. Text A). Scholars refer to this as “the Analogy of Faith” rule, and it is a good rule. The real problem is when Text A has not been sufficiently studied in its context before Text B is brought in to clear things up. Or to put it differently, trouble can ensue when Text B is called upon before Text A has been exegeted to smooth over “issues” foreseen in Text A. The Analogy of Faith is being misused by being introduced too early in the interpretive process. Let me provide an example.

In Ephesians 2 we meet with a verse whose interpretation has caused some controversy:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1)

This verse is then interpreted by some Reformed writers through John 11:

Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me… Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go.” (John 11:41, 43-44)

A classic case of this is to be seen in R. C. Sproul’s book Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, where he relies completely on the Raising of Lazarus story to interpret Paul’s words in Ephesians 2. In fact, Sproul barely expounds Ephesians 2:1 at all, and certainly not in context.

What Sproul is doing (and many others who employ this same device), is that he is trying to establish one of the storied “Five Points of Calvinism” and the teaching of regeneration preceding faith as a necessary part of the order of salvation (ordo salutis). Whether Sproul is right about that or not is not the point. The point here is that he is straying outside of good interpretive parameters in his zeal to prove his case. John 11 refers to a real corpse where the soul has left the body. It is inanimate and cannot think or respond to any stimuli. But the persons being referred to in Ephesians 2:1-3 were never in that state. Paul distinctly characterizes them (unsurprisingly) as conducting their affairs under the influence of the godless world system and of its spiritual ruler, Satan (Eph. 2:2). They were living and thinking. Added to this (again unsurprisingly) their thinking and behavior was dictated by their sinful “flesh” (Eph. 2:3).

Paul’s description of the state of Christians before they became Christians is that they were living, thinking, planning persons who lived their lives under the thrall of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They were not corpselike. “Ah,” the rejoinder comes back, “they were like corpses because they were utterly unable to respond to the Gospel before being re-vitalized (i.e. regenerated) by God.”

But there’s a problem here. Lazarus’s dead body was literally unable to respond to anything, whereas we are told in Ephesians 2:3 that unbelievers do respond—in disobedience! It makes no sense to speak about a dead body as “responsible,” but sinners are responsible. In Ephesians 2 the deadness (nekrous) is not literal. They hear, they think, they reject. This is because they are “dead in trespasses and sins”—a phrase that is expanded upon in the following verses, as well as in Ephesians 4:17-19, and which is utterly nonsensical if applied to a corpse. Therefore, since the “deadness” of unbelievers includes their active response to the Gospel it does not follow that they need to be regenerated in order to believe, in which case the Jn. 11 analogy is inappropriate. Rather, the “deadness” might require only that they need rousing or convincing or alerting, or all three; something that the Holy Spirit is said to do (Jn. 16:8). We might refer to someone who is sleeping as “dead to the world.” Similar figures of speech are found on the lips of Jesus (e.g. Lk. 9:60 and 15:24, 32). One would not run to either of those passages to prove regeneration before faith of course, yet they are semantically closer to Ephesians 2:1 than John 11:41-44.

My goal here is not to argue with the doctrine so much as to point out how the Analogy of Faith was brought in before the parameters of meaning of Ephesians 2:1 were determined.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

In Ephesians 2 the deadness (nekrous) is not literal.

Is it "not literal," or is it literal in reference to a spiritual condition (vs. a physical one)? Something can be literal in different ways.

I can say "I'm sick and tired of" my car breaking down, or some software not working correctly. Is my sickness and tiredness figurative, or is it literal in reference to a sickness and tiredness of heart and mind? It may be literally true that I'm sick and tired... but not physically true. It might not be a metaphor at all. 

Or it might. Is it? I can't decide.

Just throwing it out there because I get the impression that a percentage of the unending clash between various schools of hermeneutics (under the general grammatical-historical umbrella) is people not being clear on what each other mean by "literal."

I think the reasoning is solid though, that, John 11 doesn't have much to do with Eph. 2 other than illustration, unless evidence can be shown that Jesus did what He did to communicate something about the spiritual reality of the sinful condition. And maybe that evidence exists. John 11:25? So I'm not so sure Sproul was way off on that. Much of what Jesus said and did had layers to it.

But "dead" in Eph 2 has to have a meaning that isn't identical to the features of physical death in every sense. Because, as Paul (Henebury, not of Tarsus) pointed out, the "dead" do act, both spiritually and physically. But it may be that in reference to whatever it's in reference to, it is literally true.

I would start with assuming it is until there is biblical reason to think otherwise.

To get to the point, though, where does analogy of faith properly enter into the process? It's not clear to me that we can precisely determine that. I can't forget everything I've learned of the faith when I read Eph 2. I can try to step back and let it speak without systemic commitments prejudicing me, but by then, they already have. So it's a discipline of the imagination: "how does the meaning here look if I suppose I don't already know A and B about the topic?" I do believe this discipline is important and that interpreters can become skilled in it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Paul Henebury's picture

Sorry brother, not seeing it, nor the relevance of Jn. 11:26   I do understand about different uses of the literal, but the adjective "dead" is being used in a figurative (tropological) manner in Eph. 2:1.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

How do we know death is figurative in Eph 2:1?

I'm not committed to it or anything, but part of the point of the dialog in John 11 seems to be to communicate that Jesus raised Lazarus as a kind of object lesson. Even if we grant that He was making a point about spiritual realities, it's admittedly a bit presumptuous to conclude that those spiritual realities include the deadness of the natural man's relationship with God... without making a case for that idea being there. I'm sure someone has attempted it--rather than just assuming it.

But I don't want to assume Eph 2:1's 'dead' is figurative either--especially when there are multiple ways it could be literal. ... in addition to other passages that speak of our being resurrected and reborn, and various other evidence external to Eph 2.1.

I'm coming at it with a bias, though, as we all do. I've taken it literally for as long as I can remember (though I grew up hearing a fair number of anti-Calvnist preachers).

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Kirk Mellen's picture

Not agreeing or disagreeing with your thoughts on the extent of spiritual death, but your use of John 16:8 as a proof text of what the Spirit does in the life of the unsaved has always left me wondering.  Is Jesus saying this is what the Spirit does to bring about conversion of the unsaved world, or is He stating this will be the result of the Holy Spirit's entrance into the world and embodiment within the Christians?  It almost seems to me that Jesus could be saying that the Comforter's coming to the Christians, while a manifold blessing, will also result in the reproof of the unsaved world around them.  Not trying to steer the conversation in another direction, but it got me thinking.  I enjoy your articles Paul.

Paul Henebury's picture

I understand.  We all have biases (accept me of course).  The lexicons I've checked maintain that it's figurative death in Eph. 1.  I don't believe resurrection language is ever used for spiritual renewal.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

Many thanks.  The particular work of the Spirit in Jn. 16:8 is conviction, though in three areas.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Paul Henebury wrote:

I understand.  We all have biases (accept me of course).  The lexicons I've checked maintain that it's figurative death in Eph. 1.  I don't believe resurrection language is ever used for spiritual renewal.  

Thanks. Well, I'm intrigued as to what their reasons are. One for the "for further study" file.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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