Interpreting the Text to Death with Kierkegaard

kierkegaard 2It is a truism today to say that the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, it was a truism back when the Bible was being written that it’s not simply a matter of just “reading” the thing all the time. Even the Bible says that it’s hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). Or, as the Westminster Confession comments:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (2.7)

We’ve known for a long time then that even though the basics are clearly laid out, there are at least some parts that are not at all obvious or plain. For thousands of years now, Christians have wrestled with, commented on, and interpreted the text of the Bible. This is part of why we have seminaries with classes in hermeneutics, study of the original languages and ancient cultures that form the setting and background of the text, dictionaries, commentaries that are thousands of pages long, and journals where scholars devote dozens of pages to analyzing the nuances of a single word in the context of a single verse. Without a doubt, our knowledge of the text has expanded and been deepened by the faithful work of scholars and interpreters over the last few generations and this is a good thing.

The people of God need preachers who will roll up their sleeves and carry on the task of discerning what the Lord has spoken and is even now speaking in the text. Poor interpretation is at the root of so much bad preaching and teaching in the church, which leads to bad living by the church.

Of course, under-interpretation, simplistic readings, and a lack of textual nuance aren’t the only danger we run when it comes to interpretive task. Indeed, Kierkegaard tells a cautionary parable about the danger that can come with an unbridled focus on interpretation:

Imagine a country. A royal command is issued to all the office-bearers and subjects, in short, to the whole population. A remarkable change comes over them all: they all become interpreters, the office-bearers become authors, every blessed day there comes out an interpretation more learned than the last, more acute, more elegant, more profound, more ingenious, more wonderful, more charming, and more wonderfully charming. Criticism which out to survey the whole can hardly attain survey of this prodigious literature, indeed criticism itself has become a literature so prolix that it is impossible to attain a survey of the criticism. Everything became interpretation—but no one read the royal command with a view to acting in accordance with it. And it was not only that everything became interpretation, but at the same time the point of view for determining what seriousness is was altered, and to be busy about interpretation became real seriousness. Suppose that this king was not a human king—for thought a human king would understand well enough that they were making a fool of him by giving the affair this turn, yet as a human king he is dependent, especially when he encounters the united front of office-bearers and subjects and so would be compelled to put the best face on a bad game, to let it seem as if all this were a matter of course, so that they most elegant interpreter would be rewarded by elevation to the peerage, the most acute would be knighted, etc.—Suppose that this kind was almighty, one therefore who is not put to embarrassment though all the office-bearers and all the subjects play him false. What do you supposed this almighty king would think about such a thing? Surely he would say, “ The fact that they do not comply with my commandment, even that I might forgive; moreover, if they united in a petition that I might have patience with them, or perhaps relieve them entirely of this commandment which seemed to them too hard—that I could forgive them. But this I cannot forgive, that they entirely alter the point of view for determining what seriousness is.” –For Self-Examination, pp. 58-59

With this little parable Kierkegaard throws up a large, flashing, red warning sign for those of us enamored with the endless study of the text. The danger comes when interpretation becomes an excuse for disobedience. Kevin Vanhoozer has pointed out that the proper interpretation of the text of Scripture requires performance. Ingenious readings are not the point—hearing and rendering a fitting response to the voice of God is. When the task of interpretation eclipses our actual response to God speaking to us out of the silence, calling us to repentance, commanding us in righteousness, convicting us of sin, consoling us in pain, and drawing us to communion with Himself, things have gone awry. At that point you have sentenced the text to a slow and agonizing death by commentary.

Obviously, this isn’t an anti-intellectual call to “just read the Bible” without trying to engage at that deeper level. Study the Bible. Wrestle with it. Don’t be satisfied with simplistic readings of difficult passages. Go read big books on the subject. At the end of the day, though, we must never forget that when the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets it didn’t come as a word to be inspected, dissected, and thereby domesticated, but as the mighty command of the King who intends for his subjects to hear and obey his voice. We study in order to hear–we interpret in order to obey.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Does it Matter that the Holy Spirit is a Person?

holy spiritMany of us are confused about the Holy Spirit. The Father we have a decent conception of, the Son too (Godman, Lord, Redeemer, etc), but the Spirit? We honestly don’t know what to do with “it.” And that’s one of the main problems. Some of us think of the Spirit primarily as an “it”; a thing, a force, and not a person. But according to the Scriptures the Holy Spirit is a person, coeternal, and coexistent with the Father and the Son. What’s more, it matters that we know that he’s a person.

This is one of the realities R.A. Torrey emphasized in his later teaching on the Holy Spirit. In a lecture* aimed at proving the personality (personhood) of the Spirit from Scripture, Torrey first argued for the importance of the question. (I kind of love that, by the way. People used to argue for why they were going to argue.) He knew some might write it off as an abstract, unimportant question, so he very quickly made three arguments for why we should care to know this.

First, “it is of the highest importance from the standpoint of worship.” Look, if the Holy Spirit is a person alongside the Father and the Son, then he deserves to be worshipped alongside the Father and the Son. If we treat him as just an impersonal power or force sent from the Father, or something like that, we will be “robbing him of his due.” We won’t be treating him with the adoration, honor, glory, and majesty that a Divine Person is worthy of. According to Jesus, God desires to be worshipped in Spirit and in Truth (John 4). If you miss the personality of the Spirit, you’re actually missing out on both of those dimensions. You are missing out on the joy of knowing Him for who not just what he is.

Second, “it is of the highest importance from a practical standpoint that we know the Holy Spirit as a Person.” From the Spirit comes the power to do all that God calls us to do in this world. But, Torrey says, if we think of the Spirit as a mere force, then we will be constantly asking silly questions like, “How can I get hold of the Holy Spirit to use it?” much like Simon the Magician. We don’t know to ask in prayer, “How can the Holy Spirit get a hold of me and use me?” The difference between these two questions is the difference between pagan use of the divine and a biblical understanding of God as Lord.

What’s more, on the one way, we will ask how to get more of the Spirit instead of asking how the Spirit can get more of us. Torrey says the first way necessarily leads to pride, strutting about as if you belong to a better class of Christians because we have “more” of the Spirit as force. When you understand the Spirit is a person, you realize you have to humble yourself to be of any use to him. He is the one who comes and takes a hold of us, fills us, disposes of us, and glorifies Jesus through us as he wills.

Third, “the doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit is of the highest importance from the standpoint of experience.” Here Torrey points us to the experience of Christians, both in his own ministry, and throughout the centuries that attest to this. Knowing the Spirit as a person means the possibility of deeper communion, joy, and love, as we come to know our God as he dwells within us. God does not come to us through a lesser, impersonal intermediary. He does not speak to us at a distance and relate to us from far away. Instead, Father and Son send the Spirit, another Advocate, who comes to inhabit us, and bringing us into the very life of God through union with Christ.

We could go on at length on the importance of the personhood of the Spirit. We will stop here for now. Maybe take some time to pray. If you have not considered the reality that the Holy Spirit is a person, stop and meditate on that. Pray that God would give you a sense of it, both intellectual and spiritual. If this is not new to you, stop anyways. Maybe pray Torrey’s prayer, “Lord, how can the Spirit get a hold of more of me? In service? In communion?” Or maybe simply praise God that through the gift of the Spirit, God gives you the gift of himself.

Soli Deo Gloria 

*reprinted in Fred Sanders’ How God Used R.A. Torreypp. 203-227