The Guy Who Taught Us Not to Interpret the Bible Literally

College freshmen are impressionable people. Once as a college freshman I heard a pastor who was pretty good with his Greek New Testament explain how Jesus encountered demons. The pastor interpreted the phenomenon literally. I was impressed, so I bounced my new-found knowledge off my dad.

Wrong forum! Dad was a doctor. He let me know in no uncertain terms, that whatever Jesus did, He did not heal diseases by eliminating evil spirits. That was thinking for the “quacks” and the “kooks.” As we talked, our distinct belief systems had a major collision. I backed off, but for the next several months, whenever the subject came up, my father took pains to instruct the family, so that we all stayed scientifically orthodox.

That conflict demonstrates the essential difference between conservative and liberal theology. True Liberal theology began with the German scholar, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834; the term used in Germany is “Historical-critical Theology”). Schleiermacher had a great desire to defend the Christian faith and an intense interest in Bible study. He was also fascinated with European philosophy and drank deeply from the well of German idealism.

Stellar intellect that Schleiermacher was, he spent most of his student discussions talking about the Christian faith with his unbelieving intellectual friends. His first book was, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Grenz and Olson say, “None strove so valiantly to reconstruct Christian belief to make it compatible with the spirit of his age.”1

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Bonhoeffer and the Scriptures

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2013. Used by permission. All rights reserved. See Part 1, Bonhoeffer: Approaching His Life and Work.

Bible-believing evangelical Christians hold a high view of the Scriptures. Many evangelicals also see Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Bible-believing Christian. Bonhoeffer, however, accepted the prevailing historical-critical views of the Bible in his day. Therefore, we should be wary of calling Bonhoeffer a “Bible-believer.” The following three examples from his writings support this position.

Creation and Fall

In Creation and Fall (1932), an exegesis of Genesis 1-3, we find clear examples of Bonhoeffer espousing the historical-critical view of the Bible. In this work he referred to the Biblical author as the “Yahwist.”1 The “Yahwist” is a reference to the historical-critical reading of the text in Bonhoeffer’s day. John de Gruchy, who edited an edition of Creation and Fall, included an explanatory footnote at Genesis 2:4 to alert the reader that Bonhoeffer held Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis view.2 For Bonhoeffer, the Bible was subject to the prevailing views of historical criticism.

Commenting on Genesis 1:6-10, Bonhoeffer pointed out that the Scriptures contain errors in regard to the creation account.

Here we have before us the ancient world picture in all its scientific naïveté. While it would not be advisable to be too mocking and self-assured, in view of the rapid changes in our own knowledge of nature, undoubtedly in this passage the biblical author stands exposed with all the limitations caused by the age in which he lived. The heavens and the seas were not formed in the way he says: we would not escape a very bad conscience if we committed ourselves to any such statement.3

Notice that Bonhoeffer defined “scientific naïveté” as believing that God spoke the heavens into existence as Genesis 1 describes. Bonhoeffer then asserted, “The idea of verbal inspiration will not do. The writer of the first chapter of Genesis is behaving in a very human way.”4

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The Moral Glory of Jesus Christ a Proof of Inspiration

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The glories of the Lord Jesus Christ are threefold: Essential, official and moral. His essential glory is that which pertains to Him as the Son of God, the equal of the Father. His official glory is that which belongs to Him as the Mediator. It is the reward conferred on Him, the august promotion He received when He had brought His great work to a final and triumphant conclusion. His moral glory consists of the perfections which marked His earthly life and ministry; perfections which attached to every relation He sustained, and to every circumstance in which He was found. His essential and official glories were commonly veiled during His earthly sojourn. His moral glory could not be hid; He could not be less than perfect in everything; it belonged to Him; it was Himself. This moral glory now illumines every page of the four Gospels, as once it did every path He trod.

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The Inspiration of the Bible - Definition, Extent and Proof

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In this paper the authenticity and credibility of the Bible are assumed, by which is meant (1), that its books were written by the authors to whom they are ascribed, and that their contents are in all material points as when they came from their hands; and (2), that those contents are worthy of entire acceptance as to their statements of fact. Were there need to prove these assumptions, the evidence is abundant, and abler pens have dealt with it.

Let it not be supposed, however, that because these things are assumed their relative importance is undervalued. On the contrary, they underlie inspiration, and, as President Patton says, come in on the ground floor. They have to do with the historicity of the Bible, which for us just now is the basis of its authority. Nothing can be settled until this is settled, but admitting its settlement which, all things considered, we now may be permitted to do, what can be of deeper interest than the question as to how far that authority extends?

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A Case for Cessationism

With all of this as a backdrop (see part 1 in this series), the question is reduced to this: Is God giving authoritative revelation on par with that which He has given in the past, much of which has been inscripturated, or is He not? If He is, then the church of Christ needs to take note and come into compliance with the modern prophecy movement, following its revelations as it would Scripture. But if the Lord is not revealing His inspired word today, then we need to reject the claims of the modern prophets and expose these supposed revelations for what they are. This means the position taken by most on prophecy—cautious but open—is untenable. The cautious but open crowd is skeptical of the claims coming from the prophetic movement and they are suspicious of the many “words from God” that so many evangelicals are claiming. Still they hesitate to embrace cessationism. They are concerned about limiting God or, as it was mentioned above, “putting God in a box.” To this let me make two replies:

  • It is okay to put God in a box if God, in fact, is the One who put Himself in that box. In other words, God can do anything He wants to do, but we expect God to do what He says He will do. If God has put Himself in the cessationist box we can embrace and proclaim it.
  • Taking the open but cautious view really does not hold up. Either God is speaking today apart from His Word or He is not. If He is speaking, how do we determine which of the multitude of messages people claim are from Him and which are bogus? If, with Grudem, we have eliminated the tests of Deuteronomy 13 and 18, how are we to evaluate all these revelations? How do we know to whom we should listen and whom we should ignore?
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What Is the Role of the Holy Spirit in Interpretation?

From Paraklesis, a resource of Baptist Bible Seminary (Fall, 2012). Used by permission.

We might better ask the question, “Does the Holy Spirit have a role in interpretation?” If the Holy Spirit does have a role, what is that role?

The purpose of this article is to propose first that the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation is not to enable the reader to grasp the meaning of a text. We will look briefly at certain verses which supposedly teach this to see whether they actually do teach this.

This article then proposes that a role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation is actually post-interpretation. The role of the Holy Spirit is to enable the reader to make a correct evaluation of the meaning of a text so that he can welcome or accept that meaning. The Holy Spirit also assures the reader of the truth of Scripture. A role of the Holy Spirit also may be to enable the reader to relate the meaning which comes from interpretation to his life. The article looks briefly at texts which seem to support these proposals and this suggestion.

The Holy Spirit does not enable the reader to discover the (author’s intended) meaning of a passage. He does not teach the reader the meaning of a text. The Holy Spirit does not help the reader to comprehend Scripture.

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Rules of Affinity, Part 5: Clarifying the Purpose

BiblePosted courtesy of Dr Reluctant. Catch up on the series so far.

In my so-called “Rules of Affinity” I am seeking to accomplish one main task. That task is to uncover the degree of affinity between any statement of a doctrine or part doctrine, and the biblical references which are brought in to support it or defend it. All of us know that Christians with different theological outlooks claim that their views are biblical. But in reality just saying “I believe such-and-such because it’s biblical” does not mean that it actually is biblical. It may be. But, for example, if someone says, “Calvinism is biblical” and someone else says “Arminianism is biblical” it stands to reason that behind both statements is the opinion (either informed or uninformed) of the one making the claim. No one ought to assume that any statement is proven by assertion.

As I was reading my own theology and thinking through the question of why I differed from this or that theologian, I concluded, naturally enough, that the main reason for my disagreements was because I believed my position was more in line with the Bible. That didn’t mean it was, but that was why I demurred. The words “God has spoken” seem to me to be the most momentous three words in the English language. I therefore wanted to know if what I believed and taught actually closely reflected what “God has spoken,” and how compatible were my theological propositions with the texts I appealed to. I did this by assuming a suspicious attitude towards my Theology. Hence, the negative application of the method was uppermost in my mind when it was first roughly devised. The negative use also became apparent when I began asking myself why I couldn’t accept certain formulations of doctrine by some of the great men I read. Almost immediately it dawned on me that the chiefest doctrines of the Christian Faith: the doctrines all Christians would say must be believed at a minimum to be a Christian, involved very straightforward appeals to biblical passages (hence, the Positive Application of the rules).

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