Four fences to validate accuracy, prevent error, and lead to higher truth–from Leben 3
We talk a great deal about truth. We talk about knowing truth, discovering truth, proclaiming truth, living by truth. Yet when all is said and done, this thing we call truth remains pretty subjective.
Many will respond, “Ah, but we know that God’s Word is the only truth. No truth is to be found outside the Scriptures.” Such a statement calls to mind C.S. Lewis’s observation when discussing the word Christian. “Now this objection is in one sense very right…very spiritual…It has every amiable quality except that of being useful.”
Of course it is perfectly accurate to say that God’s Word is truth. But it is also a useless com-ment if that is as far as it goes. The devil is in the details, or, in the case of Scripture, in the interpretation. It’s not quite so easy as making a blanket statement about the truth of the Bible. Even when it comes to a matter as fundamental as salvation, clichés about “the truth of the Bible” don’t get us too far. The New Testament has been “interpreted” to yield many distinct (though related) “doctrines” of salvation.
It would seem that Pilate said a mouthful when he asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Those who think in formulas have numerous quick replies, but they are not very helpful. Something beyond proof texts is needed.
Getting at Scripture’s general truth
I am sufficiently a traditionalist, believing rigorously in the “inspiration” and “inerrancy” of Scripture, to say that I believe all truth can be found, and must be founded in, God’s written revelation. But to interpret that truth correctly, as I believe God intends us to understand it, we need outside help.
The “outside help” I have found helpful in clarifying and focusing the Bible’s truth is not really extra Scriptural at all. Each of these “helps,” as I call them, are woven throughout Scripture as invisible warp and woof threads holding the narrative and teaching together. But the non-cliché phraseology may cause some to struggle at first to see the scripturality behind these factors.
The Word of God is the mighty bedrock of truth. Without it we would know very little about God and his purposes for his creation, and we would know nothing about Jesus. But the fruit yielded by the biblical soil is extremely variable. Thus, the interpretation of what the words of the Bible mean must be subjected to other criteria.
There is a more important reason why we need outside help to assist us to get at the Bible’s high truth. Much of the Bible concerns itself with “specifics,” yet we need to translate those specifics up to the high plateau of “general” truth. The words of specific passages and one-dimensional applications often do not in and of themselves apprehend high truth as God means us to understand it. We can talk in ponderous tones about “nothing but the Word of God,” but then what do we do where the Bible is unclear, or contradicts itself, and when a non-literal or symbolic interpretation is required?
If an elder is to be “the husband of one wife,” what does that mean? One wife at a time…or one wife throughout all a man’s earthly days? Does 1 Tim. 3:2 preclude a divorced man from church lead-ership? Knowing the Greek inside out does not resolve it, for Greek scholars do not all agree on controversial passages. Paul’s words will be interpreted in whatever way a given reader desires.
Unbelievably, Judy and I know an outspoken evangelical man who interprets 1 Tim. 3:2 as of at least one wife, saying that the original Greek supports polygamy. Well might the man interpret it thus—he has two wives! What an example of how Christians twist God’s words to suit themselves, even while maintaining great piety about “standing on the rock of Scripture.”
The Bible is inspired, but it is not always clear, not always literal, and there are always higher meanings. I do not believe that the Bible does contradict itself. But it often seems to. When it does, we need other guidelines to help us determine at what points we must widen and modify our interpretation.
The four fences
I have discovered four factors to be enormously helpful in illuminating scriptural truth.
—The Character of God
These four factors imbue Scripture’s truth with harmony and consistency. They act as external gauges to clarify its ambiguities and prevent interpretation from running wild without restraint. The interpretation of truth needs boundaries. Truth, as Lewis said of Aslan, is no tame beast. Neither is truth static. Its interpretation, can run about in most any direction if no standards exist by which to weigh its veracity. Taken together, these factors operate in a wonderful symphony of consistency.
I view them as four fences surrounding the field of truth that is the Word of God. They help us interpret that truth correctly. All four must be in good repair, otherwise interpretations will go running off into error, falsehood, or into the fenceless relativism of modernism which says that everyone draws his or her own fences, but where you draw them really doesn’t matter because ultimately absolute truth doesn’t exist anyway.
When I call the field of truth the Word of God, I do not mean merely “the Bible,” but the complete logoV, the Logos, the full scope of what God means in the Bible—a difference which may be greater than many realize. The Bible itself is merely the gate into the field. The fences put the “truth” of the Bible into perspective and validate and illuminate it, elevating the Bible’s specifics up to the high level of the Logos intended by the Father.
The questions, therefore, that we must apply to any proposed interpretation of Scripture are:
Does the Bible say it in both general and specific?
Does the character of God substantiate it?
Can we see it reflected with consistency in the world?
Is there an action or duty or obedience inherent in it?
Does it make sense?
When the Bible seems to indicate a meaning that violates any of these five (including contradicting itself), we must prosecute our inquiry further.
For example, we have learned that the Christian polygamist I mentioned had had an affair. When the young woman became pregnant, he took her for a second wife. In other words, his disobedience to a scriptural command forbidding adultery led to his polygamist interpretation of 1 Tim. 3:2. The fence of duty and obedience in his life is clearly in shambles. Thus his interpretation cannot be relied on. In disobeying the one command, he was led into error in his reading of Scripture.
Even the relativism of modernism has scriptural support straight from Solomon’s mouth in Ecclesiastes: “Everything is meaningless.”
Yet does not meaninglessness violate everything we know about the character of God? Solomon’s words are not consistent with who God is. With God everything has tremendous meaning! On every page of the Scriptures we see God’s efficiency. Nothing is wasted. Everything from God’s hand has multiple impact and purpose. Everything he does is creative and productive and alive with eternal usefulness and significance. There is no idle time, no idle words, no idle parts of his creation.
Likewise, Solomon’s words violate duty. If everything is meaningless, what is the point of obedience? Throughout the book of Proverbs, Solomon himself stressed over and over the lifelong benefit of diligence and duty. Everything is meaningless violates his own teaching.
Furthermore, the statement violates the universe, where unmeaning and chaos are the last terms by which any thinking scientist would describe a created world that is wonderfully ruled by order and harmony, from the concert of the planets to the organization of the cell.
Therefore, we must look deeper into Ecclesiastes 1:2. From the incompatibility of Solomon’s words to the above guidelines, we do not conclude that the Bible is untrue, only that we haven’t yet arrived at the full meaning God intends the book of Ecclesiastes to have.
The fences don’t necessarily make meaning clear. They only alert us to potential inaccuracies in our perspective. Not certain inaccuracies…potential ones. Not inaccuracies in the Word of God…but in our perspective.
Of the four fences, duty may be the most difficult for the modern mind to understand. I shall thus begin here and explain why I chose this word instead of one more common to evangelical ears such as “obedience,” which represents one key aspect of duty though not the totality of it.
Duty is a complex word with many shades of meaning. In brief its essence parallels its sound—do. Duty involves doing something simply because we’re supposed to, not necessarily because we want to or feel like it.
A lengthier definition might include: That which a person is bound, morally or legally to do; the obligation to follow a certain line of conduct; obedience and submission to something or someone greater; what is required; responsibility, the binding force of what is right.
Duty is doing one’s job, so to speak, persevering in life’s calling, faithfully doing what you ought to do. That is why much of what duty embodies is not necessarily fun or emotionally driven. In duty we find the tremendous word ought raised to high stature in the economy of God.
I love William Barclay’s “self portrait.” He says, “I can and do work…I know I have a second class mind, but I can sit down and work. I don’t make the slightest claim to inspiration in preaching or writing. I only claim to have gone to work as any working man must go.” (A Spiritual Autobiography, pp. 22-24)
This statement to my mind embodies duty and shows what mighty use God can make of it. Obviously the application to one’s Christian walk is clear. We are duty bound in the Spirit to behave in certain ways, to do certain things, to order our lives according to certain guidelines. Our responsibility is to do what God puts before us. And much of what is put before us is not necessarily pleasant. It is simply our duty. And thus it is our calling in God to fulfill it…simply because we ought to.
The entire Bible points toward practical outworking of faith. We’ve got to do faith, not merely think faith, act out faith practically, not just talk out faith. James and Romans always function hand in hand. Faith and works.
By making “duty” one of the four fences surrounding truth, the point isn’t that every scripture must contain a clear command to a specific action. That would be too linear a reading. The Scriptures don’t work like that. One-dimensional interpretations always lead to legalism.
However, we must bring to bear on our attempt to understand Scripture the realization that all God’s truth, and all accurate interpretations, will—sometimes in subtle ways—inherently tend toward duty.
Everything is meaningless, if true, far from tending toward duty, would only discourage action. If everything is meaningless, why do anything? Nothing matters. Lethargy and inaction are the obvious results.
On the other hand, if everything has meaning, then what we do becomes of tremendous significance. Duty is intact, the fence secure. Correct reading of Scripture always has this result—encouraging me to do things well, to obey, to do my duty, because such is important to God.
Now, because the fence of duty is violated by the words, “Everything is meaningless,” does that mean I throw out Solomon’s words and ignore them altogether?
By no means. The apparent violation of the fences means we must seek deeper understanding beyond what the words seem to say. The specifics must point to some higher general truth of the Father’s Logos as yet unperceived. The violation of the fences forces us to probe deeper.
When we do, we see that Solomon, like the polygamist, had so shattered his own fence of duty, taking 800 wives and disobeying God’s commands at so many points, that his whole perspective of truth disintegrated. By his disobedience, he was no longer able to see truth correctly, or even judge between truth and falsehood. Out of that upside-down perspective came his statement, “Everything is meaningless,” as a warning of the ultimate result when we do not live by God’s principles.
The wisest man in the world lost his wisdom in disobedience. Solomon himself had become the fool of his own proverbs.
The “higher truth,” the Logos that God means in the book of Ecclesiastes now comes into view: Live in obedience to God’s commands or foolishness, ruin, and meaningless will result.
A controversial example
Let us consider 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where, in my opinion, the four fences also force us to probe deeper.
The words are, “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
What the literal words seem to mean (or so we are told they mean) is that at the second coming believers alive on the earth will follow believers who have already died, and will fly into the sky, to meet Jesus as he descends from a literal heaven located in the sky above this physical earth.
I find in this common interpretation a tendency away from obedience and duty. If we suddenly—most evangelicals think soon—will be taken out of this world in a literal twinkling of an eye, by definition less motivation exists to do our duty in the things we have been given to do. What does duty matter when I may be snatched away tomorrow without warning?
More motivation may exist to witness, perhaps. But in the way of personal responsibility in the small things of life—planning ahead, and other such practical injunctions from the book of Proverbs, the common interpretation tends to discourage them. Throughout history, some of the least responsible citizens of every age have been those who have believed so strongly in an impending second coming that they disengage from society because of it. If this interpretation of the second coming is true, however, it should tend toward greater diligence and duty in our daily tasks and responsibilities.
It is not that I do not believe in the truth contained in this passage. Rather, I say that the four fences surrounding scriptural truth must make us examine the implications of the words, so that we can probe the high meanings God intends. Only so can we translate those specifics up into the realm of Logos, God’s high truth. To my mind, the common interpretations of the end times do not do so. They are specifics-based, not Logos-based. And thus they violate multiple fences of validation.
The high meaning of 1 Thess. 4:17 is not something I would care to offer an opinion on at this time. I do not question the literal interpretation in order to set some other interpretation of my own devising in its place. It is a mystery in God’s Word we do not yet fully understand. But I believe one day that the high Logos of this passage will be revealed and may be much different than that which presently fills many books on the subject.
The character of God—truth of the highest order
That Scripture must conform to the character of God is so obvious it hardly needs be said. If the Bible is God’s revelation, certainly it must conform to the character and nature of who God is and how he works. Yet it is easy to lose sight of this obvious truth…and over the years much of theology has lost sight of it.
A great deal within evangelical theologic orthodoxy stems from just this dichotomy, originating out of the character and nature of men like John Knox rather than the character of God himself, the Being Jesus addressed as his Abba.
God’s so-called wrath is one such example, proceeding, as I see it, out of the character of certain ancient church fathers and later reformers and their response to their spiritual adversaries more than out of the nature of the Father of Jesus.
God is holy, to be sure, and the Bible speaks of his wrath, of course. But our interpretations of what those qualities imply are so horrendously at odds with what the character of Jesus’ Father must be, that we have to probe deeper to find what they really mean. We have to translate “specific” words and surface one-dimensional interpretations (“wrath”) up into the higher plane of the Abba-Logos.
How God works
In addition to who God is, we must look to the way God works. It is not that God always works in exactly the same way. But neither is the outworking of his plan random. He operates in a generally consistent manner to accomplish his will. Aberrations in his general M.O. are just that—unusual and uncommon.
One of the ways in which God normally works is in carrying out his plans slowly, over a long time. Mankind needed redeeming while Adam and Eve walked the earth. Yet it took God thousands of years to ready the world for the coming of his Son. People died in sin during those thousands of years as God made preparation for redemption. God is never rushed. He did not send his Son to the world until “the fullness of time.”
When Jesus came, he spent thirty years in preparation. God worked his divine will through the slow processes of human development. In all of what God does through his natural creation, growth is slow.
Of course God can work speedily. It is just not his usual way. The fence of “God’s character” dictates that 99% of the things in his plan will be accomplished slowly.
When we subject 1 Thess. 4:17 to the validating scrutiny of how God works (slowly), we discover in the common interpretation an explanation of events involving a very different method (instantaneous transformation of believers.) I find myself immediately jarred, not because I disbelieve in 1 Thess. 4:17, but because I sense something intrinsically at odds with the way God’s purposes are usually carried out. The very words “twinkling of an eye” should alert us—if we are reading with a careful eye—to the possibility that we may here be encountering symbolic language. Why so few evangelicals consider that these words may be symbolic in the same way as are the words “crucifixion with Christ” and “circumcision of the heart,” is a mystery.
We don’t know for certain whether or not “twinkling of an eye” is symbolic language. It may be one of those 1% of cases where God will not work according to his normal pattern. But we cannot be cavalier about making such an assumption. It’s not something God does very often. Thus, his normal method, which is most consistent with the slow-working aspect of his character, should cause us to wonder if these words imply more than what seems apparent by a surface reading.
God can but does not usually do things “in the twinkling of an eye.” Therefore, might in the twinkling of an eye have a high symbolic meaning? What is the Logos intended by God here. Truth is obviously present…but what is that truth, and on what level is it to be understood? What is in the Abba-heart to accomplish?
The universe must reflect God’s truth
Truth must also reflect, not just who God is and how he works, but what he has made. Everything that proceeds from God’s hand must flow in harmony and consistency.
That is not to say such harmony will always be immediately apparent, only that, if we dig deeply enough, such harmony exists. As the Jews recall to mind daily, The Lord our God is one.
In the same way that God normally works slowly, he ordinarily works through the natural laws of his created universe. He is not bound to, but he usually does. Nearly all the spiritual lessons of the Bible, including most of what Jesus himself taught, come through the natural outworkings of the physical world.
Miracles are not God’s customary mode of getting things done. They serve the purpose of occasionally arresting our attention, but are not intended as everyday occurrences. Those who preach that God wants to work a miracle in your life every day badly misread the Scriptures, the nature of God, and the very purpose of miracles.
God carries out 99.999% of his broad sweeping plan in the lives of men and women through life’s normal processes. life itself is a grand miracle. Once set in motion, it continues on. God’s plans and purposes are incorporated and drawn up into it, for the most part without a frequent supplementation of additional miracle. It is only rarely that God choses for “miracle” to interrupt the flow of his ongoing natural miracle of life.
To continue our analysis of 1 Thess. 4:17, we need to look at the fact that though occasionally God suspends natural law—the sun standing still, an ax head floating, walking on water, healings of diseases and afflictions— ordinarily he does not. Sickness usually runs its course. Most people are not healed by instant miracle, but by the slow, natural “miracle” of the body’s recuperative power, or by the high-Logos miracle of death and transformation into perfect health. Both natural recovery and resurrection into eternal life are miracles, but occur through the working of natural law.
The rapture, as commonly envisioned, necessitates a suspension of natural law. It could no doubt be interestingly debated whether the rapture defies gravity or not. At what point do the bodies of believers become glorified and therefore weightless? But certainly the simultaneous mingling of the earthly and heavenly realms, with visions of cars without drivers crashing into telephone poles, airplanes without pilots… these go against God’s normal and natural method.
Such images derive from a comic book mentality, but are not consistent with biblical patterns. They have great appeal because they are bizarre. Serious students of the Bible, however, recognize how widely they deviate from consistent high-Logos scriptural truth.
It is not that God cannot work in this way, or that he will not in this case. Perhaps he will. If it serves his purposes then God will certainly suspend natural law. I only make the point that we are on solid scriptural ground to inquire whether more Logos meaning “might” exist beyond the literal words. We are not seeking conclusions, only inquiring whether we have encountered one of those places in the scriptural mountain where the Logos lies buried in a rich vein of gold unseen from the surface.
Common sense, the important lost virtue
Why has common sense been lost as a valued component of spiritual maturity? To some it is even reviled. To some evangelical theologians the words, “That doesn’t make sense,” are welcomed as a badge of honor. On the basis of a misreading of “the cross is foolishness” to the world, and “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,” and other such passages, they demean the very common sense God has given us by which to discern truth.
Is it any wonder the world thinks us an unthinking lot when the violation of common sense has become a virtue?
But our minds, our hearts, and our intellects have been given us by the Creator as tools to assist us in living out the commands and instructions of Jesus.
Many may still be trying to get used to such humdrum terms as duty and common sense appearing alongside “the character of God.” But the Bible is not the only revelation we have been given. We have also been provided “internal” revelation which we must give its due weight in evaluating truth. The conscience and the intellect are not aspects of our fallen nature, they are characteristics of our created-in-God’s-imageness that he gave us to employ for his glory.
God gave the conscience to point toward duty. The conscience, therefore, is an aspect of God’s revelation.
God gave the intellect and the heart to combine— emotions and thoughts together—to produce what I call a divine common sense, which is also an integral aspect of the divine revelation. But because it is so misused by Christians wedded to contorted orthodoxies, it is a part of the divine revelation that often lays neglected beside the road.
A brief example will hopefully clarify my meaning, though it is far too scripturally complex to pursue in depth.
The prevailing theology says that God is a good God of forgiveness and love, but that he will punish unrepentant sinners for eternity. This dichotomy pits two opposites together and says that God will act in both ways at once. This clear violation of common sense is one of the great stumbling blocks against the Christian faith in the world.
Christians dismiss the difficulty with “God is higher than our ways” arguments, adding that “common sense” is a function of depraved man’s sinful condition and therefore cannot be trusted.
Without trying to resolve the dilemma, I simply reaffirm my conviction that common sense has been given us by God, like the conscience, to use to discover truth. It is no more depraved than my hand. Sin can corrupt any of God’s gifts—my hands, common sense, the conscience, the created world, the love between a man and a woman…sin knows no bounds. But intrinsically those gifts come from God. We either spoil them or submit them to his use.
Therefore, as a child of God—redeemed, praying to have the mind of Christ developed in me, turning over my heart and intellect and being to the Holy Spirit—I can submit my common sense to him too. If in all humility and honesty, I then say, “Infinite love and forgiveness toward all men and women, operating alongside the eternal punishment of sinners, appears to violate common sense,” that is a reliable God-given indicator that something may be missing in the commonly given interpretive-equation. It tells me nothing for certain. My common sense is not itself truth, it is only one of four validators of Logos truth. But my common sense is capable of opening vistas to higher possible meaning. So there are only two possibilities: My common sense may be misleading me at this point, or my observation may be from God just as surely as are the pricks of the Holy Spirit’s working through conscience.
Having submitted my brain and intellect to the transformation of the Holy Spirit’s work, I rely on my common sense to keep me oriented toward truth. When I become aware of gaps in the prevailing old-covenant interpretations of God’s character, methods, and ultimate purposes, I am convinced that it is the Holy Spirit himself illuminating those dichotomies through the window of my common sense. My response is not to slap my common sense down like an unruly pet, saying, “Bad dog!” Rather I rejoice:
Thank you, Lord, for illuminating your being and purposes through all the tools of revelation you provide— through my brain, my conscience, the world you have made, and from that in my heart which knows that you must be higher and better and more loving than men’s low theologies. Thank you for pointing me to more…reveal the heart of your Abba Logos to me yet more fully!
Personal experience and private revelation
Many will perhaps point to “personal experience” as another tool of revelation. And indeed, it can be a powerful means by which truth comes to us. Like the Bible, experience can serve as a “doorway” into the high Logos. But I hesitate to elevate it to the same stature as the other fences or the biblical door because, as valid and helpful as it can be, experience is generally an unreliable indicator of truth. God certainly uses personal experience and private revelation (as well as spiritual discernment.) But they are unpredictably subject to the ups and downs of emotion, faulty interpretation, and personal bias. It is hard for pride to gain much traction when one is doing one’s duty. It is fearfully easy for pride to flourish amid glowing personal experience, and truth that God has shown only me.
Therefore, personal experience and private revelation do not rise to the high level of providing universal windows into truth any more than do doctrine, theology, worship, or church tradition. All these point to truth in some instances, but are riddled with error in others.
Literal and symbolic obedience
Does it seem I am using the four fences only to argue against surface meanings in favor of more spiritual ones? I do so only to illustrate the principle. But the fences apply equally when the conclusion points in the opposite direction and upholds a literal meaning.
When Jesus said, “Do not judge,” and “Forgive your enemies,” and “Do as you would be done by,” he meant no more nor no less than exactly what he said. Obedience in such cases must be literal. All four fences confirm, in these examples, the necessity of a literal obedience.
In John 13:15, after washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
Does Jesus mean we literally are to serve one another, to take the humble position, to wash one another’s feet?
Or is Jesus speaking “symbolically” and “figuratively” here? Is this a Circumcize your heart passage (symbolic), or a Do as you would be done by passage (literal)? What is called for here—symbolic interpretation or literal obedience?
Judging from our response, it must be the former. How many pastors, teachers, and priests have you witnessed on their knees washing the feet of their people? A few, perhaps, but it is not a widespread practice for which Christ’s Church is generally known.
Jesus said, You should do as I have done. But judging from common practice, the conclusion seems to be that Christians do not take this scripture as one where literal obedience is required.
Why do so many insist on a literal interpretation of 1 Thess. 4:17, but a figurative interpretation of John 13:15?
All Scripture can be subjected to the validation and clarification of the four fences to get beyond one-dimen-sional interpretations and to probe more deeply into the rich ore of God’s “general” and over-arching truth. The “inerrancy” of Scripture takes on a far grander scope when viewed from this high perspective.
Miraculous suspension of God’s normal method
God occasionally breaks in from above the fences, not laterally into untruth, but forcing us up and out into unseen, heavenly dimensions altogether unperceived on the two-dimensional plane.
These breaks into a higher dimensionality of truth are not “exceptions” at all, but only verifications of truth on the ultimate level of the Abba-Logos
Does the resurrection, for instance, violate natural law and common sense?
Of course. The resurrection immediately forces us to examine its stupendous claim more carefully. Our perceptive inquiry must drive us higher toward the Logos.
Considered at a higher level, we might ask: Does the resurrection violate truth? If a man rose from the dead, as historical evidence verifies, then perhaps something higher is at work. Perhaps to understand it we must escape the bounds of two-dimensional thinking altogether and enter into a higher realm.
The whole purpose of the scriptural specifics we study is to drive us to find God’s high truth. What seems an inconsistency at one level, if you pursue it far enough, drives you ultimately to the far more profound truth that the Man who rose from the dead could be no other than the God who created natural law, death, common sense, and everything else, and who is therefore the only One capable of making them all submit to his purposes!
In apprehending the higher meaning, we have found the Logos himself!