I think the heart of our disagreement is the Bible and how to read it.
I think that’s unquestionably true.
I think the Bible is true and binding on a Christian. If it says a thing, we must do it.
I think this is also unquestionably true. However, for a guy who’s pretty concerned with how things get defined, I think JMR – especially in the light of his following comments – needs to be more specific about what he means here.
So in an effort to make sure we understand what I mean when I say, “If it says a thing, we must do it,” here’s what I mean confessionally:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. [WCF I.4]
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. [WCF I.5]
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. [WCF I.6]
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. [WCF I.7]
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. [WCF I.9]
As these statement apply to this discussion, I’d summarize them in this way:
WCF I.4: Because Scripture God’s own words, it has an authority which is unlike and above all other modes of authority.
WCF I.5: While Scripture is beautiful aesthetically, and received historically, and internally consistent, it is because we are regenerate men that we receive it as divine and infallible.
WCF I.6: Scripture contains both explicit truths and implicit truths which are categorically necessary for man’s salvation, faith, and life. Because we assume all the parts of I.4 and I.5, we assume that there is a divine scope to Scripture which is greater than its human origins.
WCF I.7: There are mature matter in Scripture, and rudimentary matters in Scripture. The latter are plain enough for anyone to follow; the former may not be as plain to everyone. Turk’s correllary to WCF I.7 is that those who dismiss the former items present in Scripture which are implied but necessary are doing the same thing those who would dismiss the latter are doing.
I omit WCF I.8 only because the matter of translation of the Scripture is not relevant (yet) to LMR’s current iteration of his argument. We’ll see if he will go there on his own.
WCF I.9: Scripture is the best hermeneutic tool to unfold all the necessary meanings of Scripture. That means external contexts do not supercede the interpretations provided by Scripture for itself.
So when I say, “If it says a thing, we must do it,” I do not mean, “Only the things explciitly demanded which we have not ruled out because we are much more informed about the world than Paul was.” I mean instead: the Bible makes assumptions about the way the world ought to work, and we are therefore obliged to follow not only its explicit commands but also its implicit assumptions. I am pretty certain at this point JMR means no such thing, and I can prove it if he will let us know to what extent he would affirm or deny Section I of the WCF, especially the sections cited here.
Sadly, reading a book is not as easy as one might think. The Bible was written to a particular people and time . . . and has to be contextualized to be understood.
Let me say this about that.
It is simply no surprise that the first place JMR stops to justify the rest of his argument is the question of context. The reason he does this is that the context he would first choose is one which suits his ultimate argument.
No? Let’s see what he says himself:
Even then, of course, understanding what it means to “believe” can be difficult!
This statement is the reason I think it’s critical to start with a definition of what it means to “do what the Bible says.” It reminds me of a story D.A. Carson has told about a theological luminary who was speaking at length about the systematic riches to be found in the idea, essentially, that faith without works is dead. The luminary spoke for more than an hour on the subject, and at the end of his talk Dr. Carson had the opportunity to speak to this fellow privately. He asked the man to imagine that at his home parish, he gets a call late at night from an old woman who is dying, and he comes to be with her in her final moments. The woman was a marginal church attender in her life, but in good duty the luminary would of course go to be with her for comfort in her final moments. When he arrives, as he sits with the woman and her family, it is clear that her final hour is near, and she says to him: “pastor, I haven’t got much time in this life, and I know my life has not been a good one. What must I do to be saved?”
It seems to me that, like this luminary, who answered that this was a good and difficult question, and he wasn’t sure what to say if the time was brief, JMR has made context so transcendent a qualifier that, as he says, maybe we don’t even know what the Bible says when it commands us to “believe”.
The Bible is clear about some things — especially the rudimentary things. That anyone would be willing to say otherwise does speak to the question of what the Bible is and how to read it. The problem is that they are not giving us guidance toward whatever clarity the Bible has to offer: they are offering us the ancient and clever question, “Has God really said that?”
My answer is great things he has taught us; great things he has done. And by “great”, I do not mean “merely thrilling”. I mean “great to the scope and purpose of creation and salvation.” It seems to me that JMR thinks that God’s word is, at best, like an archived newspaper which is great for reference for what happened then, but is only a curiousity for us who live here and now.
When the Bible gives economic advice, things get trickier. For many of us the advice to own goats for milk would be counterproductive. We don’t get our clothes from lambs. Most of us have no problem with this, we contextualize the advice.
Since JMR hasn’t even given us which books of the Bible he is lifting this swell advice from, it’s difficult to see what and why he is actually saying — becuase, of course, context is everything. I would think that if this was true, spelling out the context would actually make his point.
I’ll admit it: I cannot find any commands in the Bible that we should personally own goats for milk. I can find the command not to boil a kid in his mother’s milk (Deu 14:21 among others), but the command that we must own goats I can’t find.
But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: maybe he means that since Deu 14 forbids the boiling of a kid in his mother’s milk, the implication should then be that the command is for everyone, and therefore everyone should own goats — especially goats which are making milk.
Maybe this is not JMR’s calculus here, but since he didn’t give it to us, we have to work with what we have. Let’s say “someone” would make this argument — some literalist who is not swayed by context. Are there other reason not to go here?
For example, does the interpretation of Acts 11 inform us at all about the scope of dietary laws? How about the interpretation of James 4 and the idea that there is a right way for the Christian to conduct commerce — meaning we don’t have to do things merely for subsistence but can do it for a profit? It seems to me that if “someone” wants to make the case for the necessity of goat ownership in the Christian life, he has many textual issues to deal with before he can flex his erudition and speak to the contextual issues.
To me it seems that way. How does it seem to JMR?
Proverbs warns about being lazy, but the signs of laziness in a farm based culture are not exactly the same as those in “word” based culture like our own. You can do a good bit of work from bed in our day!
It seems to JMR that Proverbs warns only about farm-laziness, as if the word for “work” does not appear in Prov 18:9 or Prov 22:29, or Prov 16:11.
This is itself a kind of laziness which, frankly, I suspect JMR knows better than. It is an inclination which is actually against what he says he is championing — namely, the leveraging of context to define broader meanings (or to narrow them as irrelevant to us).
But since we know laziness is a vice — that’s not in dispute here — I have to get back to work myself. Consider this part one of a series on JMR’s response, and I’ll be back tomorrow with more toward the rest of JMR’s reply.