Can we all get along? (Rodney King, Los Angeles, CA, instrumental in the LA riots in the 1990’s) His mournful plea seems to have found favor in theological circles. It does not and must not be permitted to reign as the premier virtue in understanding God’s Word.
The goal of exegesis is to discern with precision and accuracy what God has graciously revealed to us. His message and purpose are found in the Scripture. The process by which we are privileged to mine the depths of God’s Truth is exegesis; systematic, accurate and irenic. We declare the results of this process with compassion and much grace. Church history presents a portrait of such differences down through the ages. Some resulted in conflict and schisms in the church. Admittedly the manner in which some were/are engaged were/are less than Christ-honoring.
My objective in this article is two-fold. One, to state with absolute clarity that there is one and only one correct interpretation/meaning for each and every passage of Scripture. Two, that in discovering and declaring that meaning, the exegete must focus on the text. It is tragic that more often than not this endeavor turns into hostile and ugly attacks on those with whom we differ. That is unacceptable and counter-productive. We must adopt and adhere to the mantra – ‘What does the text say?’
I recently read a BLOG in which the Blogger suggested that the answer to these theological tensions is ‘balance’. If I understood his appeal correctly, he is suggesting that we take a little from one perspective and a little from the other and amalgamate them. The result is supposed to be God’s purpose and the solution to the tensions in which we find ourselves immersed. Because there have existed differing theological perspectives down through the history of the church does not mean that both or either have been correct. Balance as this author proposed is simply a distortion of Truth. A little error mixed with Truth is still error.
Scripture is an integrated whole. God does not say one thing in one place and then say something contradictory of that in another place. God is not schizophrenic and neither is His word. When we correctly discover and apply God’s Truth there are not multiple interpretations that are correct. There are multiple applications made necessary by circumstances, various cultures and the capacity of the body of Christ in a given locale to apply Truth. But, there is only one correct interpretation. Our goal is to muster the competence, skills and discipline to discover and submit in humility to what God has made known. Genuine unity of the body of Christ is a matter of doctrine not some manufactured ‘balancing act’ which requires the differing parties to compromise what they believe to be Truth.
This struggle has been addressed by some theological heavy weights. J. Gresham Machen is but one example. Almost 100 years ago he waged war with those who sought to compromise the integrity and authority of Scripture. This battle continues to this very day. Machen's struggle was between Orthodoxy and Liberalism. Today the struggle is found in the evangelical camp. The issues are more subtle but at the root they are very much the same. The desire for harmony and unity is never a legitimate reason to abandon what the text says.
Clear-cut definitions of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding.
May it not discourage contribution to mission boards?
May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics?
But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. (J. Gresham Machen, Introduction to Christianity & Liberalism, 1923).
For any issue to be resolved and all parties engaged to find a sense of satisfaction there are several absolute essentials. These items are not exhaustive but I honestly believe they are at the very least representative and accurate.
A. A clear statement of purpose. What specifically are we endeavoring to accomplish?
B. Definition of Terms. Words are symbols in our attempt to communicate and unless we both make clear what each "symbol" means and agree on those meanings we will invest enormous time and energy with little if any resolution.
C. Profile or Terms of Engagement. How will our deliberations be conducted? What is and what is not legitimate protocol in our process?
D. Parameters that define the participants and how their deliberations will be embraced.
I appeal with great urgency for the items expressed above to be applied. I appeal for a Format that is Exegetical rather than merely Polemic. When the majority of the process is Polemic, each group with differences departs with the perspective they came with reinforced, but, we do not make real substantive progress toward the resolution of any issues.
There is a law of logic that applies to this process - The Law of Non-Contradiction. Here are the possible outcomes of our exegetical endeavor.
1. You may be correct and I incorrect.
2. I may be correct and you incorrect.
3. We may both be incorrect.
4. But, we cannot both be correct and claim that the very same portion of God's Word means different things. Differing application, absolutely. Different correct exegetically substantiated meanings - never. The Holy Spirit has one and only one specific meaning for every portion of God's Word. Our glorious task is to discern that meaning via honest and diligent exegesis. The word of God is characterized by internal consistency. The task of the exegete is to discover God’s intended meaning for each and every pericope of Scripture. Accurate exegesis is not an ‘ism’. It is to quote Francis Schaeffer, "True Truth!"
There is an Elephant in the room and we need to identify him, define the terms of our engagement, define our purpose and agree on what the results of our deliberations (hopefully gracious, honest, irenic and accurate) mean. Until we do this we will continue to host conferences and write BLOGs that malign 'the other side' but fail to correctly interpret God’s word, honor Christ and surely bring strife and division rather than resolution and harmony.
We must not adopt the ‘can we all just get along’ mantra for the sake of some sort of pseudo unity and harmony. Truth Absolute correctly interpreted and applied must be our goal. James provides a sobering exhortation to those who teach - Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1, ESV).
To my readers. I make no claim to having achieved this lofty ideal. I am in pursuit of what I proposed as a lifetime objective. When I finished Seminary I set out to know with precision what God has said and to pass that Truth on to my grandchildren from my rocking chair. I have the chair but am not yet confined to it! I invite you to join me in this lofty pursuit. You will need to get your own chair!!
The following link takes the reader to an article by Roger Nicole, now deceased. Real wisdom in what he wrote. Read, pray and apply.
(Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us)