Rules of Thumb

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    There are no laws dictating how the Bible is to be read - if there were, they would be ‘canon,’ the ruler by which we measure other claims, as opposed to the Bible itself!  Still, the tradition in its wisdom offers some guidelines, good advice, about how to read, especially when something seems unclear or when one passage seems to conflict with another.  Here is a short roster of trustworthy assumptions.

     Canon.  We have just mentioned this term, which bestows on the Scriptures a unique authority for the Church.  It refers also to a list of books which, taken together, may be relied upon to render a faithful and truthful account of truth.  This conclusion of the ancient Church was reached over centuries, in council, and throughout the Church catholic.  (We can leave aside for now the question of the Apocrypha).  Canon does not claim that there are no other truths than those in the Bible.  Rather it says that other claims can be judged by whether or not they contradict what the Bible does say.  The Bible has nothing to say about astrophysics, but if someone today were to suggest that God did not create the heavens and the earth, they would be in error.

     Perspicuity.  The Scriptures are clearest about what matters most. In other words, they will make plain to the attentive reader what he or she most needs to know - the creation, our sinful need, Jesus the Savior, the urgency of faith in Him, etc. 

      Sui interpres(Latin for ‘its’ own interpreter).  While one passage may be unclear, it is best elucidated by considering the rest of Scripture, which will serve to put it in context, balance its emphases, clarify its terms, etc. 

      Inner Testimony of the Holy Spirit. This was simply a way to say that the Bible has the power to make its own case for its truth to the reader. Not only is it clear, but it is compelling!  This doesn’t mean that commentary is not helpful. It is saying that through the Bible the One about whom it bears witness actually speaks to the human heart.

       Senses of Scripture.   What the Bible says is true, but how it is true varies.  It may give trustworthy moral direction, or tell us what happened to Jesus, or give us an illuminating vision of how heaven will be.  And the Bible can be true in several of these ways at once!  The tradition distinguished its trustworthiness in what the words actually say (the plain or literal sense), in what it conveys about Jesus Christ (the typological), how it directs our lives (the tropological), and how it points ahead to the Kingdom of God (the analogical).  No need to worry about the technical terms- the main point is that God’s Word is so profound that it is true in several senses at once.  Most importantly, when we hear the Gospel it enacts in our souls what it says about Jesus in history. 

   Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.

--Gregory the Great

God Speaks

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Exodus 3:13-16

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.[c] This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord,[d] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’

“This is my name forever,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.”
 

The Bible contains many kinds of writings, and it does many things: conveys the history of Israel, gives practical wisdom advice, presents moral laws, etc.  But the first thing it does, throughout the sweep of its different books, is to tell the reader who God is.  It communicates His identity.  In the language of the Bible, it gives us his name.  It must do this, since human beings imagine who God is in a myriad of ways. Simply the word ‘God’ does not yet tell us this, and that word alone could be easily misunderstood. 

So in the pivotal chapter 3 of Exodus, God finds Moses though he tries to hide in the desert with his in-laws.  He appears in His creation, yet miraculously, in the burning bush.  He tells Moses that He cares for His oppressed people and means to act to redeem them in history.  He confirms that He is the same God known to their ancestors. Each of these facts says something about who He is.

But most of all, He tells Moses that He is YHWH, the utterly free God, alive, sovereign: ‘I am who I am.’  He alone constitutes Himself, and is subject to no necessity.  He chooses to give them His name. And this disclosure of who He is takes place not only in Exodus3, but throughout the whole Bible. This God of the fathers, of the Exodus, of Zion, the first and the last, is the God embodied and revealed in Jesus Christ.  We have already learned in our catechism that we can discern hints of who God is, but only as we read the Bible can we be taught who God truly is. In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  (Hebrews 1: 1-3) 

But how do we learn who God is? He tells us. God speaks to us.  The ‘Word of the Lord’ that came to the prophets still speaks through the Scriptures.  In other words, they do not only convey information. As they do so, He Himself still speaks, through these words.

Now words tell the heart (unless the speaker is dissembling, which God does not do). The speaker has the initiative. They cannot be possessed and controlled in the same way things can be (though we try!) Now God is unique in that His Word actually brings about what He says. We have seen this in the very word “dabar”in Hebrew which can mean ‘word’ or ‘deed.’  ‘And God said ‘let there be light,’ and there was light.’  

 sMany things follow from what we have said. But this is the place to start: God speaks; we hear His voice through the Scriptures; in this hearing He conveys who He is; His Word can accomplish what it communicates.

Sing ‘Thou whose Almighty Word’

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk

 

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