Consistency: Logic and Biblical Interpretation

I’m done with an assignment that was dull, so let’s write some fun stuff.

There are many Christians who recoil at the very word “philosophy,” because they have the sense that it is a bunch of fancy-shmancy, meaningless fluff talk about nothing, which is at best useless and at worst actively deceiving and harmful.  Philosophy, they think, focuses way too much on the logic of man rather than the truth of God.  This is why many people use such arguments in theological debate as, “Oh, you’re just using philosophy!” or “That position is philosophical, while this one is biblical.”  The ironic thing, of course, is that they are using philosophy themselves, although they often do not realize it.  The very act of trying to systematize the Scriptures into a consistent manner is a use of philosophy, for example.

While bad philosophy can be very harmful (Col. 2:8), philosophy is a useful tool for Christians and has always been.  The patristics utilized Greek philosophy to help make sense of some of the mysteries of Scripture, such as the Incarnation and the Trinity.  Modern Christian philosophers use philosophical arguments to provide reasons for the existence of God and to refute objections to Christianity such as the problem of evil.  Systematic theologians use logic as they try to render coherent the various passages of Scripture, and even those who dislike systematic theology and strongly champion biblical theology utilize some form of interpretive philosophy when they approach the text.  This is why philosophy has often been called the “handmaid” of theology.

I agree that people should be careful about trusting their own philosophical musings over sound biblical interpretation, but the use of philosophy, or basically logic, can be a good check against errors in interpretation.  If, for example, we interpret Scripture in a way that is contradictory or inconsistent with another part of Scripture, it is a hint that either we are reasoning wrong or that one (or both) of our interpretations are off the mark.  For instance, I believe one error of open theists is not that they do not care for Scripture, contrary to what many of their opponents say, but that they focus too much on certain passages at the expense of others.  It should be admitted that there are some passages such as Genesis 6, the extension of Hezekiah’s life, and the Book of Jonah can be easily read within an open theist framework (something that open theist haters don’t want to admit, but they should).  That said, there are many passages in Scripture where open theism is decidedly difficult to reconcile with, such as Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial and God telling Abraham in Genesis 15 that, by the way, your descendants will be enslaved in a foreign land for a few centuries (obviously referring to Egypt, an event that occurred many, many years after Abraham died).  That should, I would imagine, alert open theists that something is amiss with how they are reasoning and interpreting.

Another example comes from Charles Spurgeon.  I recently preached on 1 Timothy 2:1-8, and in there are two key verses that are debated between Calvinists and non-Calvinists:  2:4 and 2:6, the former stating that God desires all men to be saved, and the latter stating that Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all.  Obviously, this does not jive well with Calvinism’s limited atonement, so Calvinists have often tried to give interpretations that rescue limited atonement from such a text:  They might argue that “all men” should be interpreted “all sorts of men,” or that “all men” should be interpreted as “all nations” or “all people groups.”  However, the text itself does not warrant this maneuver because there is nothing in the context that should restrict Paul’s idea of “all.”  Even John MacArthur, in sermons on this passage from 1986 (here and here), admitted that “all” means “everyone,” though he argues for a differentiation of God’s will and that Paul was not trying to give a sophisticated theory of atonement (I’ve heard that MacArthur might have changed his view in the 27 years since, which is no surprise, given how difficult it is to admit such a thing and hold to limited atonement).  Similarly, Spurgeon, who was also a Calvinist, could not bring himself to modify the word “all” to fit his own theology:

Shall we try to put another meaning into the text than that which it fairly bears? I trow not. You must, most of you, be acquainted with the general method in which our older Calvinistic friends deal with this text. “All men,” say they, “that is, SOME MEN”: as if the Holy Ghost could not have said “some men” if he had meant that. “All men, “say they,” that is, some of all sorts of men”: as if theLord could not have said “all sorts of men” if he had meant that.

The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written “all men,” and unquestionably he means all men. I know how to get rid of the force of the “alls” according to that critical method which some time ago was very current, but I do not see how it can be applied here with due regard to the truth…

My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have a great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God. I never thought it to be any very great crime to seem to be inconsistent with myself, for who am I that I should everlastingly be consistent? But I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scriptures. God forbid that I should cut or shape, even in the least degree, any divine expression. So runs the text, and so we must read it, “God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

Does not the text mean that it is the wish of God that men should be saved? The word “wish” gives as much force to the original as it really requires, and the passage should run thus–“whose wish it is that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” As it is MY wish that it should be so, as it is YOUR wish that it might be so, so it is God’s wish that all men should be saved; for, assuredly, he is not less benevolent than we are.

I applaud Spurgeon’s humility and fidelity to Scripture, which is why I think you will find few people, Calvinist or not, who will speak ill of the man.  He truly was a Gospel-centered preacher.  However, while we cannot hope to fully understand all the things of God, Spurgeon is here admitting that an inconsistency is staring him right in the face:  This text teaches that God desires everyone to be saved, and if that is how verse 4 is interpreted, than verse 6 must also be interpreted as Jesus giving himself as a ransom for everyone.  If this is the case, then Spurgeon, and anyone else, should be alerted to the fact that he messed up somewhere.  If 1 Timothy 2:4-6 is so clear, then the problem isn’t interpretation of the text, the problem is Spurgeon’s adherence to limited atonement.  To point this out is not to demand that Spurgeon make himself to be “everlastingly consistent,” because he is right; who cares what people think of us?  But what is at stake is not our pride or prestige, but the consistency of Scripture itself.  In this way, logic can be a check on our interpretation; 1 Timothy 2:4-6 is straightforward enough by itself that I think it should call into question any interpretation of limited atonement elsewhere.  Add other verses such as 1 John 2:2, 2 Peter 2:1, and 2 Peter 3:9, and the difficulty of holding to limited atonement becomes, in my estimation, unbearable without some exegetical gymnastics.

Thus, is consistency important?  Absolutely.  Not so that we can show ourselves to be awesome theologians but so that we honor God’s Word as true and coherent.  Keep in mind that being consistent does NOT mean that we have everything figured out; there will always be a large level of mystery in theology.  However, there is a big difference between a mystery and a clear inconsistency, and that is why a guy like Spurgeon should go back and find out where he went wrong in his previous theological musings.

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3 thoughts on “Consistency: Logic and Biblical Interpretation

  1. Pingback: An Overemphasis on Parallelism by Five-Point Calvinists in Interpreting 1 John 2:2 | leesomniac

  2. Pingback: The Superficial Systematic Splendor of Calvinism Leads to Senseless Supremacy | leesomniac

  3. Pingback: Intent and Extent: A Backfiring Argument For Limited Atonement and a Potential Problem for Four-Pointers | leesomniac

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