Introduction: the Bible as a communication
The Bible is one Book, not two. It should be read from front to back, not in reverse. Tracing the chronology of Scripture is, in general terms, an important part of Bible study. Everyone is aware that there are cases where specific time-slots cannot be allocated with certainty to some episodes in Judges or the historical vantage point of Obadiah. You will always find a more liberally inclined person ready to correct you about the date of Daniel or “Second Isaiah” or Matthew’s Gospel. But from the standpoint of someone who says he believes in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the Bible is a fundamentally divine Word to creatures formed in God’s image.
This Word from God, which we now have in the Bible, was produced over many hundreds of years. As the story of the Bible unfolds certain things are put in place which will relate to things that appear later on. In most cases these key things are initiated by God Himself, the Author both of the Book we’re reading, and of the circumstances we read about.
The Bible is not simply a storybook. The Bible is, as I like to call it, “a word from outside.” By this I mean that it comes from the One who made and sustains our reality, both now and in the future. And this One, the God of Creation, has done two things which are presupposed by the existence of the Bible. He has spoken truth to human beings, and He has enabled human beings to speak His truth to one another. Putting aside for the moment the problem of our common failure to reflect God’s truth in our every communication (something I’ll return to), the fact remains that communication—from God first and then to each other—is going on. So before we can get into our main subject of progressive revelation, we must initially ponder what makes for effective communication.
For communication to work well there needs to be a common language between the speaker or writer and the hearer or reader. Assuming, of course, the basic comprehension abilities of both, it is first necessary that they share much of the same pool of words and metaphors with each other. If they don’t, communication can hardly continue effectively. But if we grant this point the next one comes on its heels: that is, if the speaker wishes his meaning to be understood he will communicate in such a way as to minimize possible misunderstanding due to ambiguities or hidden meanings. Both of these increase the likelihood of the intended meaning of the speaker being missed.
One thing that the speaker may wish to do to help decrease possible misunderstandings of his words is to include certain keys or touchstones whereby his true meaning can be tested. A Users Handbook may have occasional reminders to the reader to make sure they have read Part 1 of the manual before proceeding to more complicated chapters, for instance. Such touchstones help keep the reader on the right track, so that when they close the book their understanding of the author’s words closely overlaps that of the author himself.
If it turns out that the reader or hearer has come away with ideas which were far removed from the intent of the communicator, the fault lies either with the communicator or with the reader/hearer. If the first, it is because he communicated his meaning poorly. If he wanted to be understood he should have used plainer language. This basic truth is only more so if the communicator has employed words which could very easily be misconstrued or figures of speech about which people would come to wildly different ideas. But in truth the fault lies with the speaker/author.
If, on the other hand, the communicator has clearly declared his intentions, it is the listener or reader who has failed. There could be several reasons for this failure, but surely the most common are a failure to pay attention to the words being communicated, or else the hearer persuading themselves that the speaker really meant such and such. In the former case the problem is inattention. In the second case the problem is an overreach of “reason” (i.e. rationalizing more than is actually there).
God has spoken—so as to be understood
When we apply this basic theory to the Bible as the Word of God things can start to become problematical, although they really shouldn’t! If we take for granted that God as a communicator—indeed, the Supreme Communicator—wants to be understood by His creatures, then we can assume that He has said what He means to say in such a way that human beings can understand.
Objection 1: Time and Culture
Right here I can hear the objection about the Bible being written to Semitic peoples thousands of years ago in a totally foreign culture. In shorthand this amounts to “the Bible wasn’t written to you!”
This is one of the objections with which I shall have to return to in this series. But to give a brief riposte, I would say three things:
A. If the Bible is not written to me then, as an outlook on how I should look at the world it is irrelevant to me. The question is, “In what way is the Bible addressed to me?” Certainly not every statute or command addresses me; there is much in it which doesn’t; but as a vehicle of Truth I must receive it as God’s Word to me or it leaves me in a position of having to say that it is not God’s Word for me. And every cognizant person living or dead to whom the Word of God comes is in the same boat as me. God’s Word demands right response, which presupposes right understanding.
B. Just because there are many things recorded in Scripture which I am not included in directly, either because I was not there, or I was not being spoken to, or I do not belong to a specific group, does not mean that God did not want me to know what He said and did.
C. Finally, if God wanted me to know the overarching meaning of the events in the Bible then He would have to have it communicated to me in a way that diminishes the temporal-cultural obstacles which would arise. Granted, there are many ancient understandings of which I am ignorant, but these difficulties would have to be but a small part of the overall communication which God as Author wanted me one day to read and assimilate.
As George N. H. Peters put it long ago:
[I]f God has really intended to make known His will to man, it follows that to secure knowledge on our part, He must convey His truth to us in accordance with the well-known rules of language. He must adapt Himself to our mode of communicating thought and ideas. If His words were given to be understood, it follows that He must have employed language to convey the sense intended, agreeably to the laws grammatically expressed, controlling all language; and that, instead of seeking a sense which the words in themselves do not contain, we are primarily to obtain the sense that the words obviously embrace, making due allowance for the existence of figures of speech when indicated by the context, scope or construction of the passage. (George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 1.47)
Everything which might be said hereafter hinges on this. Every reason given for using the Bible in counseling or in apologetics or in ethics, or indeed in systematic theology, must begin here and must not forget it began here! This is the first touchstone or benchmark for interpretation. As we grow in learning and sophistication we are apt to forget our moorings. But we simply cannot proceed on in this subject without making this our starting point.