“If true human knowing depends on perfect, exhaustive knowing, we are consigned forever to ignorance because, whether in this life or the life to come, we will never be omniscient. . . . But that immediately suggests that the standard is too high. If you expose the relativity of human knowledge by appealing to a standard of omniscience, it’s an artificial standard. In fact, the first question I want to ask my postmodernist friends is, ‘How do you know that postmodern relativism is true?'” — Don Carson
Date: October 26, 2018
Event: 2018 TGC Chicago Regional Conference
You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.
- How to Talk to People Who Don’t Believe in Truth (Collin Hansen, Abdu Murray)
- Making Sense of Scripture’s ‘Inconsistency’ (Tim Keller)
- Foundations of Biblical Interpretation (TGC Courses)
Find more audio and video from TGC’s 2018 Chicago Regional Conference on the conference media page.
Collin Hansen: This is the Gospel Coalition Podcast where we seek to renew the contemporary church and the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m your host Collin Hansen. Today’s podcast is a talk by Don Carson addressing the question, “Can we be sure of our own interpretation?” It was recorded at our TGC Regional Conference, in Chicago, in November.
Don Carson: It’s an enormous pleasure to join you for this conference. I shouldn’t begin with an apology but I’m going to begin with an apology. I’m not too pleased with guest preachers who show up for their talk, and then, disappear off the face of the Earth, but that’s what I’m going to do. I’m supposed to be at The Canadian Gospel Coalition Conference, and I have to leave on a plane early tomorrow morning. So, this is hello and goodbye. But I’ll be thinking of you and praying for those who are speaking tomorrow morning as well.
Now I have a second apology. When I was a young faculty member at Trinity, we had a Dean, at the time, who would say, “Whenever you preach, do biblical exposition. And if, for some reason, you need to do a topical message on something or other, do it, and then, immediately repent.” So, I’m going to do it and, after I drive home tonight, I’ll repent. Because the topic that I have been assigned is one that is probably better handled by a kind of bird’s-eye view than simply working through a batch of scriptures. We will be referring to quite a lot of individual scriptures, toward the end of this address, but I want to begin on a broader note.
To set us off however, let me begin by reading Luke 1:1 to 4. Luke 1:1 to 4, to which I will return a little later in the evening. Luke 1:1 to 4. “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who, from the first, were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” This is the Word of the Lord. Let us pray. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O’ Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. For Jesus’ sake, amen.
So how can we be sure our interpretation of the Bible is right? In fact, in the contemporary culture, to claim that it’s right is very close to sounding arrogant, just right off the bat, before you even start. It has not always been that way. It is not that way in many other non-Western cultures. This is a Western phenomenon. Sixty years ago, 50 years ago, even when I was at Seminary, a bare 50 years ago. Now you can do the mathematics in your head. We studied a book by Bernard Ramm called “Protestant Biblical Interpretation.” It was an introduction to hermeneutics, that is the principles and art of interpretation, how to interpret something. And, there were chapters on grammar, and how to do word studies, and how to interpret different literary forms like parables, and so on. A great deal of wisdom accumulated from centuries of reflection on how to read the Bible, still worth reading to this day.
But, the assumption behind that book, from beginning to end, was something like this: the way you get a proper interpretation, a right interpretation, a faithful interpretation from a book, and in particular from the Bible, is this way. You approach it with the right questions, you shoot your questions into the text. And if your questions are good, the text gives you a good answer back. It might give you a skewed answer because you’re asking dumb questions, or incompetent questions, or questions that need refinement. But the aim of the exercise is to keep refining the questions, and worldview, and stance of the interpreter until it is so accurate, so percipient, so shrewd that the answers that the Word gives back to you are true answers, they’re right answers, they’re faithful answers, they’re accurate answers. And you can be sure, as you’re confident that this is the Word of God, that the interpretations are correct.
Now, a little reflection warns you that there’s something wrong with that. I could name a couple of seminaries, mercifully not Trinity, but a couple of seminaries whose names shall be kept secret, in order to preserve the guilty from embarrassment, where, for many, many years, they refused to have any historical theology in their curriculum, precisely because they didn’t need it. To be good, faithful, expositors all you needed was good hermeneutics. Learn the languages, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, learn the languages, learn your hermeneutics, and you cannot help but be a faithful interpreter. You don’t need to have a whole lot of church history and learn where the church has got it right, and where the church got it wrong, and who’s agreed on this point or is disagreed on that. You don’t need that, what you need is languages plus good hermeneutic.
But, already at seminary, I was beginning to get a little nervous. I mean how about Jehovah’s Witnesses? They’re inheritors [SP] too you know, so are conservative Mormons. But their interpretations, some of them are quite sophisticated, are dead opposite to what I view as historic confessional Christianity. Is it enough simply to say, “Well, it all depends on your point of view,” or, “it depends on your heritage,” “well, they’ve got that background so, inevitably, they came out that way.”? Yeah, but I have my background so I came out my way. Where do you stop? But that was just superficial raising of questions.
Eventually, of course, I butted into the postmodern questions of the era. And then, things got a lot more complicated. How many questions depend on who you are? Am I likely to ask the same sorts of questions, of the biblical text, as a semi-literate prostitute on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria? Are my questions necessarily any better than hers? And here, in the West, we work with what’s called a guilt culture. I’ve spent enough time in Southeast Asia to know that there are many cultures that are often called shame cultures rather than guilt cultures. That if you lose face, it’s not because you’re guilty or feel guilty, but because you feel ashamed, you’ve lost value somehow, you’ve let down the side. In shame cultures, it’s sometimes rather difficult for anybody to feel guilty. Well, it’s easy for them to feel ashamed, but it’s a lot more difficult for them to feel guilty. But if they don’t feel guilty, what do you do with an atonement that addresses guilt?
And then, when you think about it a bit more, there’s guilt and guilt and there’s shame and shame. Often, when we talk about guilt, in the West, we mean subjective feelings of guilt. Whereas when the Bible talks about guilt, more commonly, it’s talking about objective guilt before God, “What’s the relationship between our subjective guilt and our objective guilt?”
But, there’s a similar parallel in shame. Normally, when my friends in Southeast Asia talk about a shame culture, they mean loss of face before their family and peers. They don’t mean loss of face before the Living God, the way Adam and Eve feel ashamed in Genesis 3. In fact, I think that a really sophisticated handling of scripture on these points shows that the cross addresses both, shame before God and real guilt before God and, derivatively, also subjective shame and guilt. But, that’s getting a little more complicated. Already though, you see that the baggage that we bring with us, the cultural baggage we bring with us, may shape, to some extent, the kinds of answers we expect the scriptures to give to us.
And then, things got more sophisticated. About 80 years ago, it became common, in the Western academic world, to speak of the hermeneutical circle. Instead of a straight line in which I, the interpreter, ask a question of the text and the text shoots an answer back, rather it’s as if I sort of sidle up to it and swipe the text. I sidle up to it with my biases, and my blind spots, and my English language, and my cultural associations. I don’t hit it square, I sort of slide up to it and swipe it. And so, the answer that it gives me is in line with the kind of presuppositions bound up with my question. And it sort of interprets me as it were. It comes and swipes me back. And then, I’ve been changed a little bit by the answer that I hear, and I go and ask it another question and swipe it again. And it comes back and swipes me. And pretty soon, you’ve got a whole circle going.
I’m interpreting the text and the text is interpreting me, but where you get on and get off and how you get real truth out of that, God only knows. I don’t. And so, people started speaking of the hermeneutical circle, not the hermeneutic straight line, a course on hermeneutics to give you the right answer, but hermeneutical circles. So that, if you have your interpretation, God bless you, that’s your hermeneutical circle. But if somebody has a different interpretation, who on Earth are you to tell somebody else they’re wrong?
And the arguments became pretty sophisticated along those lines. They’re less popular today, but the assumptions behind that way of thinking are still found everywhere in Western culture. When I speak at university missions, as I still do, the two most offensive things I can say on a university campus today, by far, have nothing to do with substitutionary atonement, or the deity of Christ. I can talk about all of those things at great length, try to introduce people to the notion of the Trinity. And people say, “Well, that’s a bit strange. But okay, if you say so.” I mean, they’re not offended, they’re offended when I introduce a biblical view of sin, of right and wrong, of truth and error, of offense before God. That’s number one.
Number two, they’re offended by any exclusive claim. But how can you be faithful with the Gospel without exclusive claims? “I am the way, the truth of the life. No one to the Father except through me.” How do you avoid that? Well, they don’t want exclusive claims partly because they bought into postmodern assumptions. Any exclusive claim is, by definition, arrogant. Where do you start? Where do you start?
So I want to suggest some ways to think about these things and put you on a path towards re-establishing confidence. I am sure, in a congregation this size, that some of you, not least those of you who are most faithful in your personal evangelism, have run across these things yourselves. Maybe, in your own thinking, you believe the truth, you believe there is truth, but sometimes, deep down, you’re a little troubled about how we really can claim to know the truth. And so, I want to address that question, in the earnest prayer that you will leave a little more confident in the living and abiding Word of God.
All right. Here we go. How should we respond? After all, there is biblical warrant for mandating that we respond. In the passage that I read to you a few moments ago, Luke 1:1 to 4, these things Luke is writing to most excellent Theophilus, he says, “So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” And there are lots of other passages with similar overtones, 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe…that you may be certain, that you may have the certainty of having eternal life, that you may know with assurance that you have eternal life.” If the Bible dares speak in this tone, it certainly is operating with a system other than the postmodern assumptions that shape our culture.
So let me suggest six points, some preliminary, introductory ones, and then some biblical matters, in due course. Number one, it is very important to avoid thinking that we can enjoy the certainty that God alone enjoys, that belongs only to omniscience. You see, one of the tricks, it is a trick, one of the tricks that postmodern critics often deploy runs something like this, “Choose a topic, any topic. Choose a text, any text.” No matter how good you are in reading that text, no matter how experienced, how knowledgeable, how learned, the fact is the more you know, the more you’ll be quick to acknowledge you don’t know everything. You don’t know that text in all its possible relationships. The only one who knows everything is omniscience. And you and I are never omniscient. Even when we die, we’ll not be omniscient. Some people think that when they get to heaven, they’re gonna know everything. You’re not. Let me disabuse you right away.
Omniscience is what’s called an incommunicable attribute of God. That is, an attribute of God that cannot be shared with non-God. So God can tell you, “Be holy for I am holy,” he never says, “be omniscient for I am omniscient,” or, “be omnipotent for I am omnipotent.” God has certain attributes that are often called incommunicable attributes, that is non-shareable attributes that belong only to God, that are part of what define God as God. So if, human knowing depends on having an exhaustive knowledge so that you get all the things together completely, and totally, in proper balance, and in the relationship to everything else in the universe and so on. If true human knowing depends on perfect exhaustive knowing, we are consigned forever to ignorance. Because, whether in this life or in the life to come, we will never be omniscient.
Just in passing, do you know how the Bible insists that, in the new Heaven and the new Earth, there will be people from every language, and tribe, and people, and nation? Revelation 7, Revelation 5. It keeps coming up. “Every language, and tribe, and people, and…” What language are we going to speak in England…in Heaven? I’ve just come from there…and believe me, I wouldn’t confuse the two for very long. And Collin would agree because he’s from Scotland. So, what language will we speak when we get to the new Heaven and the new Earth? Something Hebrew.
I’ve Chinese friends who have no doubt at all what language it will be. I’m sure that Americans just assume that it’s English. But on the other hand, people from every language and… There’s nothing that suggests we’re all going to speak the same language. Not a hint. And when it says, “People from every language and tribe,” we fully expect to see different tribes there, 4-foot-6 Bolivian Pygmies, 6-foot-7 Swedes, all blond-haired. We expect that fully, don’t we? D’you know? So if there are different tribes, why won’t there be different languages? I don’t see anything in Holy Scripture that says, we’re all gonna speak one language. If it takes me a million years to learn Mandarin, who cares? Use the second million for Arabic. D’you see? We’re gonna be learning things because we’re not omniscient, we never will be omniscient. So if to speak truly of knowledge, or better yet, to speak of true knowledge, depends on us being omniscient, we can’t know anything.
But, that immediately suggests that the standard is too high. If you expose the relativity of human knowledge by appealing to a standard of omniscience, it’s an artificial standard. In fact, the first question I want to ask my postmodernist friends, is, “How do you know that such postmodern relativism is true?” And, if they can’t be sure, that’s all the slippery slope I need. And if they are sure, they’re inconsistent.
The fact of the matter is we can know with certainty appropriate to God’s image bearers. When Luke writes to Theophilus and says, “I’m writing this so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught,” he’s not saying, “in order that you might be omniscient about them.” We do speak all the time about knowing things, we say it without embarrassment, while never claiming that we know anything exhaustively. In other words, the trick of setting up an exhaustive standard in order to relativize any lesser standard, makes sense only if you’re talking about God. And, even in our unfallen-ness, we are not God. Even in the new Heaven and the new Earth and our glorified state, we’re not God. We never have been God, we aren’t God, we never will be God. We will never have that kind of knowledge. And therefore to say, “That is the standard,” is manipulative. It’s not helpful.
Thus, the issue at hand is not a question of either being omniscient or being certain of nothing. This is not a zero-sum game, rather it’s a question of what kind of knowledge is appropriate for human beings made in the image of God. That’s a preliminary question, but you have to get it out of the way every time you deal with this issue. Is that clear?
Number two. Experience shows us, quite apart from High Theory and the like, experience shows us that we can learn and grow in knowledge. Okay, I’m going to ask an embarrassing question. In a group like this, with quite a number of pastors present and so on, how many of you know some Greek? I don’t mean that you’re experts, how many of you know some Greek? Come on, put up your hand, look around folks. Isn’t that encouraging? Okay, let me ask you. The rest of you can listen in. How did you learn Greek? Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon… epsilon? Epsilon. And it’s just hard to get the flipping alphabet under your belt. But you get there eventually.
Then, you start learning paradigms, logos, [foreign language 00:23:29] Log. There’s a logon in there somewhere. But eventually, the second-declension male paradigm is second nature. You know? And somewhere along the line, you learn about verbs. [foreign language 00:23:34] I release, you release… you singular. He, she or it releases. [foreign language 00:23:48]. Phew, that’s a lot of memory work. That’s just lesson two. But pretty soon, those paradigms, they just roll off your pen. You know, there’s no problem with them at all. Pretty soon, you’re into nasty things like participles, which function so very differently from the way they function in English, and so on. And, pretty soon, if the course is any good, you’re not only reading from the Gospel of John, you may be reading from Thucydides, and your vocabulary is increasing and your understanding of Greek syntax is improving. And, you’re actually beginning to enjoy reading in Greek, instead of just filling out more forms and doing exercises. But you know, I could’ve shared the same sort of exposure to calculus or chemistry.
The fact of the matter is, by the time you’ve taken three or four courses of calculus, you know the difference between differential and integrative calculus, you know how to do quite a lot of trigonometric functions, and so on. Yeah, you do, you do. That doesn’t mean you’re an expert in it, it doesn’t mean you know everything about it, it doesn’t mean you don’t make any more mistakes. And, you may not know exactly how Isaac Newton figured out the thing at the same time that Leibniz did in Germany, the history and the background is a little different. You know that it’s got something to do with how you put people on the Moon, but you might not understand that too much either. But nevertheless, you can do calculus. And the same is true with learning to bake a cake, or how to do an arc weld, or how to design a computer circuit, or whatever.
That is, experience tells us that we can know some things. We can grow in our knowledge. That doesn’t mean we’ve got exhaustive knowledge but experience. Without all the theory, and postmodern debate, and hermeneutical circles, and all that. Just the normal experience of having gone to school has taught us that we can learn some things and know some things.
In fact, part of our knowing is to unknow some things that we’ve wrongly learned. When you’re doing first-year Greek, you learn a whole lot of rules. By third-year Greek, you discover there are so many exceptions, the rules don’t work very well. But they don’t teach you all that in the first year, precisely because it’s too complicated. But nevertheless, you know first-year Greek, and then, you discover that you got to have a lot of footnotes in there to say when the rules don’t work, and so on. And that’s part of your increased knowledge with time. Do you see? And that’s true in just about every subject.
It’s true even with your understanding of God. You come from a secular background, and you’re introduced to God and the Bible study. And you learn a few things, that God is big, He’s sovereign, He hates sin. But somehow, even though He hates sin, He loves sinners so much as to send His son. What does son mean? I don’t have a clue but, on the other hand, He sends His son and His son dies on the cross. And, somehow, the son is God and the son is God’s son. It’s a bit complicated, I’ll have to ask Pastor Collin about that someday. And the Spirit fits in there somewhere. And I know that there are lots of books on it, and I haven’t got that yet, but I know that He loved me. It’s pretty thin, theologically speaking. But who’s gonna complain when the person’s close with Christ and become a Christian?
On the other hand, if that’s all the same Christian knows, five years later, God have mercy on him. God have mercy on his church. You’re supposed to grow in the things. Even the Apostle Paul says, “Oh, that I may know Him, after well and truly knowing Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His suffering being made conformable to His death.” We’re supposed to grow in our knowledge of the Word of God. We’re supposed to know and grow in our knowledge of the truth. That will mean that we’ll become more sophisticated in our knowing, doesn’t it? And some of the things that you will have to qualify a wee bit because, we had slightly reductionistic understandings.
Somewhere along the line, you learn the Doctrine of the Trinity, Father is God, Jesus is God, the Spirit is God, there’s one God. Okay, that’s true. Not deeply helpful but it’s true. You want to be able to confess it but there’s nothing in there about the eternal generation of the Son, or distinction between persons and identity or substance. Which things have been hammered out, and talked over, and thought through, and prayed over, and held up against the authority of scripture again and again and again in the history of the church. And how easy it is to go wrong on these things, and have nasty reverberations in your theology down the pike? In other words, experience teaches us in every domain, that we learn and grow in knowledge. And that means, brothers and sisters in Christ, that knowledge is possible, even when it’s not exhaustive, even when it’s far, far short of God’s knowledge.
Number three. This is my last theoretical one, and then we’re going to jump to some passages of scripture. Number three, there are models that help us recognize how we learn. I mentioned that hermeneutical circle, which is pretty devastating. When you’re first exposed to that hermeneutical circle, you don’t see how to get out of it. But it’s not as if you’d go round and round and round and round at the same distance from the truth all the time. Experience also shows that you get in closer and closer and closer and closer to the truth. In other words, it’s more like a hermeneutical spiral than a hermeneutical circle with a fixed diameter. That is also according to our experience, isn’t it? You get closer to the truth even if you haven’t got all the way in.
Or another model, for those of you who are mathematically-inclined. For those of you who are not-mathematically inclined, you hereby have permission to take about a minute-and-a-half mental break. For those of you who are mathematically-inclined, picture an X-Y axis. Okay? On the X-axis, you’re measuring time. On the Y-axis, you’re measuring your knowledge-distance from the truth. Your knowledge-distance from the truth. So, when you first approach some subject on your X-Y axis, you’re way up here, your time is really tight, you’re only a minute into it. But the difference between your knowledge and the actual truth is huge. But, as time progresses, you get closer and closer and closer, it’s what’s called an asymptotic approach. The line is an asymptote. That line never touches the axis.
To touch the axis, you’d have to be God. You’d have to be omniscient. But experience, mathematics, all kinds of things, show that we do have a kind of asymptotic approach to knowledge. Do you see? And, within that framework, it’s that kind of asymptote that calculus controls, and it’s good enough to put people on the Moon. Calculus doesn’t deal with exactitudes, it deals with infinitely-close approximations. Ah, it’ll do. Do you see? You have to admit your finitude and asymptotic approaches save the day. And the same is true in all human knowing. Well, that’s for models to get us going. They’re useful discussions when you’re dealing with university students who are absolutely certain of the truth that you cannot be certain of the truth.
Number four. It’s very important to remind ourselves of some of the bases in scripture to our knowledge. It’s very important to remind us of some of the bases in scripture to our knowledge. Let me mention three. There are many more, but I’ll mention three under this point. Consider those glorious chapters, Isaiah 40 to 45. Let me read some verses from Chapter 41:21, and following. “‘Present your case,’ says the Lord. ‘Set forth your arguments,’ says Jacob’s King. ‘Tell us, you idols, what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were,'” so you have to know some history, you have to know some prophesy, “‘so that we may consider them and know their final outcome.'” In other words, “Do you, idols, know the past? Do you, idols, know the future? Tell us what the past is, what the future is, so that we can consider what the claims are regarding your knowledge.” “‘Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods.'” “Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear.” “But you are less than nothing and your works are utterly worthless. Whoever chooses you is detestable.” “I have stirred up one from the north, and he comes, one from the rising sun who calls on my name. He treads on rulers as if they were mortar, as if he were a potter treading the clay.” “Who told of this from the beginning, so we could know, or beforehand, so we could say, ‘He was right?’ No one told of this, no one foretold it, no one heard any words from you.” “I was the first to tell Zion, ‘Look, here they are.’ I gave to Jerusalem a messenger of good news. I look but there is no one, no one among the gods to give counsel, no one to give answer when I ask them.” “See, they are all false. Their deeds amount to nothing. Their images are but wind and confusion.” Pages and pages of such reasoning, in the first six chapters of Isaiah, starting in Chapter 40.
What’s going on here? We are dealing with revelation from an omniscient God. In other words, we don’t begin as neutral robots, blank drives. We are ourselves, finite, but we’re in connection with a God who is not finite. So somewhere along the line, we have to come to grips with the Revelation claims of scripture. Now of course if you’re a pedant, you can immediately ask, “Yeah, but how do you know they’re true claims?” and all that. We’ll come to more of that. But that’s what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a god who claims he does know everything. Everything in the past, everything going on now, and everything going on in the future. In fact, in a passage like Matthew, Chapter 11, he even knows what would’ve gone on under different circumstances. He has contingent knowledge, He has exhaustive knowledge of the past, exhaustive knowledge of the future, and He has contingent knowledge. His knowledge is absolutely exhaustive. So, although He cannot tell us everything, He cannot, precisely because we’re finite, perfect knowledge is an in communicable attribute of God.
Nevertheless, we can be sure, granted the assumption that God does know everything and that He has spoken, we can be sure that what He says is true. And that is precisely His argument, in the first chapters of the second part of Isaiah, that is to say, His argument is that, unlike the false gods, unlike the idols, He’s a god whose knowledge of the past is perfect. And he will show you by citing this, and referring to that, and as it is written, and so on. But he’s also a god with perfect knowledge of the future. “So let me tell you what’s going to happen,” He says, “all you have to do is wait around and find out if I’m telling the truth.”
People sometimes ask me to give lectures on trends in America. What’s going to happen next. I’m always nervous about topics like that, you know? I tell people, “I’m neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, and I work for a non-profit organization.” I borrowed that one from someone too, but it’s so good. Isn’t it? That’s because I’m not God. I mean I can blunder my way through a few probabilities for the next few years, but that’s about it. But God, God who knows the future in fact, stakes His truthfulness claim on His ability to know all things, past, present, future, and contingent. And to demonstrate that knowledge over against the putative claims of the idols.
Or, take a look at Luke 1, again, 1 to 4, with which we began. Here human knowledge turns on good research. Now, more than research, but not less than research, many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us. That is, there are lots of people writing stuff about Jesus. The things that have been fulfilled about us in the context are the Jesus’ narrative. Who He was, where He came from, what He did, what He said, miracles, death, resurrection. The things that have been fulfilled among us. Just as they were handed down to us by those who, from the first, were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word. So, there were eyewitnesses who were actually there and heard and saw things, and they wrote down these accounts.
So, Luke says, “With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I decided too to write an orderly account.” In other words, what did he do? Did he just pick up the manuscript or some report somewhere and say, “Well, it’s good enough. It might be true, it might be false, but it’s close enough. The story’s too good to ignore, we’ll write it down.” He did it? No, no, no, no, no. “I carefully investigated, myself.”
Do you know, I’d be willing to bet that the reason Luke’s Gospel has the account of the virginal conception of Jesus when Matthew doesn’t, when Mark doesn’t, and when John doesn’t. It’s because Luke was a doctor. My guess is he went to Jesus and said, “Mary, I’d like…” to Jesus’ mother, and said, “Mary, I’d like to have a wee word.” Can’t imagine John doing that, somehow. But Luke, the doctor? Yeah.
“Carefully investigated.” In fact, if you read the second book that bears his name, the Book of Acts, he describes things going on in Caesarea Philippi, he describes things going on in Thessaloniki, he describes things going on in Philippi, he describes things going on in Rome, he describes things going on in Jerusalem and so on. And, the accounts, as you put them together with the Pauline letters, and so on, you can place him in all of those centers. He traveled. How does he know what went on so well in Antioch? Because he was there. And if he wasn’t there, at the crucial time, he said, “Show me the books,” because he carefully investigated the… In other words, there is a lot of human knowing that depends on witness, research, reports, letters, descriptions. Do you see?
Now that’s quite apart from God’s sovereign overarching hand by a Spirit to guarantee that what is written down in what we call, graphé, the writing, scripture is, in fact, without error. That’s a slightly different topic that I won’t indulge in here. But, as part of this research to provide human knowing, there is a lot of hard study, research, that’s going on. And I venture to tell you today too that a lot of accurate biblical exegesis, a lot of biblical interpretation that’s there, depends itself likewise, in some hard study. So that I’m openly prepared to tell young men who want to enter pastoral Ministry, if they don’t love to study, stay out of the Ministry. We don’t need you. We don’t need you. We don’t want you. You’re dangerous. Mind you, I also want to tell them, if you don’t love people, stay out of the Ministry too. If you’re just bookish, that’s not much help. “I don’t mind studying, it’s the people I can’t stand.” That’s not exactly what we’re looking for either.
There’s more than one value to pursue here. But, one of the values here is to give yourself to the study of the Word of God. In fact, Timothy has told that all see your progress in both doctrine and life. So f you’re to demonstrate your progress in doctrine, you want so to study and grow that people, in your church, after five years, will say, “You know, when he came here, he was a pretty good preacher. But he’s better now.” That’s expected, that’s the standard. Do you see? Partly, doubtless because of his own maturation but also because he’s studying, wanting to be a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed. In other words, there is a great deal of human knowing that depends on study, whether yours or that of the people who’ve come before you, who have put things together in a book. Not least the Book, God used that kind of access to truth.
So, what did Luke contribute to this? Did he make it all up? No, no, no, no, no. “I too decided to write an orderly account for you.” In other words, what Luke has added has been a bit of thematic structuring, a little bit of ordering care. If I had time, I would show you some of the structures that he’s built into the Gospel of Luke, to make things hang together in powerful convincing, convicting, ways. “And all of this so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
You might have picked up a story here and a story there, a report here and a report there, and an eyewitness account here and an eyewitness account… At some point, somebody’s gotta put this stuff together. Matthew did that, Mark did that, Luke did that, John did that. And here, you see how one man did it, who was himself not an eyewitness, he acknowledges it, but who had access to all of the eyewitnesses. Did his research. And God used him to give us one of our canonical Gospels, and with Acts, together, about a quarter of the New Testament.
Or one more base for knowledge. I mentioned 1 John 5, 1 John 5:13. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know you have eternal life.” That became an important verse, at the time of the Reformation, because, according to the Catholic Church, and it became more entrenched in this view later, in the Council of Trent, it’s a sin to claim that you know you have eternal life, since tomorrow you may commit a terrible sin and be consigned to the pit. To claim that you know you have eternal life is arrogance, it’s the sin of pride. But John has no hesitation, he says, “I write these things to you who believe so that you may know something.” And now, of course, it’s more than mere propositional knowledge, but it includes propositional knowledge, it includes the propositional knowledge of the proposition that you have eternal life.
What are these things? Well, these things are the entire theology of 1 John. And there, what we learn from the first chapter, is that our acceptance before God is because we have an advocate with the Father Jesus Christ the Righteous One and he’s the propitiation for our sins. That lays the groundwork. But then, in addition to that, people who have received this gospel, who have received this knowledge by faith, then they believe certain truths about Christ. Number one, there’s a truth test.
Number two, they submit to the lordship of Christ and behave differently. There’s an obedience test, a moral test. And number three, they’ll actually love people they didn’t love before. They’ll love brothers and sisters in Christ, there’s a love test, a social test. And it’s not two out of three or best out of three. It’s a package. You either submit and are growing, in this direction, and these things will confirm that, in truth, the Gospel is taking place in your life, or you don’t pass the test. Because, in the New Testament, there are some people who claim that they’re Christians where their claim is false. The evidence is against them. Doesn’t Jesus himself say, “By their fruit you shall know them.”?
So, in other words, one of the things that gives us confidence that we actually have the Gospel in our lives is that we meet the tests that Jesus himself, by his apostles, has laid out for us. Now I know how all of those things can be abused. I’ve had Christians come to me in terrible anguish of heart because they feel they’re not good enough to pass the test. But, if that’s the set of categories in which they’re thinking, I keep wondering if they really grasp the gospel at all. If you’ve got to be good enough to pass the test, you’re hoping to be good enough to get in. Whereas, the getting-in bit is bound up with Jesus Christ, the advocate, the propitiation for our sins. But the transformation of character is a confirming second-nature, second-degree kind of affirmation that this is real.
It’s a story I’ve often told, but I like the words of John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace.” In fact, what I’m gonna quote to you is a slight simplification because he wrote in a thick style that is just about incommunicable today. But John Newton, as you know, was a slave trader. He estimated that he transported something like 20,000 slaves across the Atlantic. And after his conversion, he used to say that, in his nightmares, he could still hear them scream. But he was converted. And in due course, he left the slave trade. And with more years, he got some theological training and became pastor of a little Baptist Church in Olney, England. That’s where he wrote “Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Toward the end of his life he wrote words to this effect, “I am not what I want to be. I am not what I ought to be. I am not what one day I will be. But I am not what I was. And, by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Do you see, that’s what 1 John is looking for, confirming evidences of the powerful work of the Gospel in the individual’s life.
And, in fact, to that, you can add Romans 8:16, the testimony of the Holy Spirit who testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God. So, grounding our confidence that we are truly born again, that we are assured of our faith, are three things. First and foremost, above all, confidence in Christ and his death and cross were on our behalf. Above all. And second, transform lives. And third, the confirming work of the Spirit of God who bears witness to our spirit that we are His children.
Now, you say, “Boy, that’s getting pretty spiritual to be talking about epistemology.” I’ll come to that in a minute. Number five, it is crucial to recognize that, according to scripture, our minds are not neutral machines, blank data banks, tabula rasa, where we simply put in the good stuff, and then we know things. Rather a passage like 1 Corinthians 2, that every Christian knows to cite, reminds us that our minds themselves are corrupt. When Christians speak of total depravity, they don’t mean that everybody is as depraved as he or she could be. When Christians speak of total depravity, they mean there is a mark of depravity in every domain of life, in our affections, in our wills, in our knowledge bases, in our claims, in our biases, our loves, our hates, including our minds.
What do we read in 1 Corinthians 2:14? “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolish.” In other words, he considers them untrue. He considers them untrue because he considers them foolish. He doesn’t have the Spirit, so he doesn’t understand. That doesn’t change the objective reality of what God has done in Christ Jesus, but he doesn’t accept them. Why? Because he’s not clever enough? No. Because there hasn’t been enough evidence to convince him? But he’s got as much evidence as the next bloke who has become a Christian. What he doesn’t have is the Spirit of God. No Christian can talk long about how we know things, without introducing the work of the Spirit. He cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.
We forget the next two verses. “The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments.” I have a relative who will remain nameless, bless her heart, who became enthused with the more enthusiastic branches of the Charismatic Movement. And, when I was still a relatively young man, she introduced me to her fiancé, who was even more enthusiastic than my sister at that point. And I was trying to get to know the bloke, you know, he could turn out to be my brother-in-law. And we were in my father’s car, I was driving. Next to me was this guy who might well become my brother-in-law. Behind him was my sister. And next to my sister was my father behind me. And we were talking about Christian experience, of one sort or another. And, this young man announced that the Spirit had taught him, that morning, that a certain passage in Matthew meant such-and-such.
Now God has a sense of humor because it so happened that I had had my devotions, that morning, from the same passage. And, at that point, I have had 2 years of classical Greek, and I was reading it in the Greek Testament. Now I was trying hard not to be a smart-mouth. No, I wasn’t trying really hard, I was too young, but I was trying. I was trying, marginally, not to be a smart-mouth. So I said to him, “Well, you know, as far as I can see, the passage does not mean that, it means such-and-such.”
“Oh no,” he said, “the Spirit told me. That’s what it means.” And my sister piped up from behind, “Spiritual things are spiritually discerned Don, that’s what the Bible says.” Ooh. That told me where I fit in the pantheon of categories.
Do you see, that’s just not what this passage is talking about. It’s not saying, “Greek doesn’t matter, syntax doesn’t matter, words don’t matter, it’s your subjective feeling that the Spirit means something rather that confirms you.” That’s just not what this passage is talking about. Look at it again. In the context, we’re told, verse 15, “The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things,” that does not mean, in the context, “All things without exception,” but every domain of things. Do you see?
The person without the Spirit can’t really rightly understand the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian. There’s an entire spiritual domain that they don’t have access to. They can’t understand it. The person who is a Christian has access to the world’s way of thinking because, he or she came from the world. But he or she also has access to the spirit domain because he or she’s got the Spirit. Now, the whole domain is open to us because of what the Spirit has given. Do you see? They’re spiritually discerned. “The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things,” the whole range of things, “but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments,” That is the judgments of people who don’t have the Spirit, they’re merely human. It’s the natural mind, the merely human mind without the Spirit “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” We have the mind of Christ. In other words, there are dimensions to human knowledge that are bound up with conversion. There are dimensions of human knowledge that are bound up with the work of the Spirit.
Now this does not mean that every person who’s a Christian is going to be a better exegete than every person who’s not a Christian. I’ve met some Christians who have the Spirit, they’re genuinely converted, and they understand the difference between conversion and no conversion, between being saved and not saved. In that sense, they have this inside track, but they’re horrible readers. They just are horrible readers. They make the most amazingly silly jumps when they try to interpret Holy scripture. They’re just bad readers.
Whereas, I have met some non-Christians who are very careful with the Greek text. But though they’re very careful with the Greek text and say all kinds of things that are really true, when you get to things like substitutionary atonement, almost always, their minds do a flip. They jump away from it, they can’t take it anymore, they reject it because they don’t have the mind of the Spirit. They may even get it mechanically correct, in some ways, but they’ll distort it, they’ll run away from it, they don’t have the mind of the Spirit. It’s too is too charged with demand, that they cannot possibly face. There is a spiritual-warfare content that is bound up with our lostness that can be met only, in fact, by the power of the Spirit.
Well, let me close with one final point. It’s worth remembering that if you bow to the lordship of Jesus, you are logically required to adopt Jesus’ view of things, including Jesus’ view of scripture. This Jesus who says the scripture cannot be broken. This Jesus says that the law and the prophets are all fulfilled in Christ. Or, more broadly, God has not left himself without witness, especially the witness of Holy Scripture. Now he’s left other witnesses as well. The witness of Christians, the witness of nature, and so on. But especially the witness of scripture.
Let me remind you of a remarkable parable, or something very much like a parable, in Luke, 16, The Rich Man and Lazarus. The rich man, if you recall, dies and finds himself in Hell in torment. And somehow, he’s been able to see Abraham and Lazarus far off. And he cries to father Abraham, “Have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water.” That’s Luke, Chapter 16, verse 24. Now the first thing you have to recognize is that this man, in Hell, is blind as a bat. He’s in Hell and he sees Lazarus, whom he’s ignored at his gate, wouldn’t even give him dog food. And Abraham. What’s the first thing you’d think he would say? “Oh, Lazarus. Did I get that one wrong? I’m so sorry. Can you ever forgive me? Please, please. I’m so…” You’d expect that, there’s not a sign of repentance anywhere. Anywhere. Rather the very man, to whom he would not give dog meat, he now wants to be sent as an errand boy to bring him some water.
And Abraham refuses, he says, “There’s a great chasm fixed. No one can go from here to there, no one can go from there to here.”
“Well then,” he says, “in that case, I beg you, Father,” notice, Lazarus was the beggar, but now, this man in Hell is begging. “I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my family for I have five brothers. Let him warn them so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” This is not a sign of repentance, he still doesn’t address Lazarus. He still isn’t saying that he’s sorry. He just wants his family to have an out.
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” And today we must say, they have Moses, and the prophets, and the Gospels, and the epistles. God has not left Himself without witness.” And this man, in Hell, tries to correct Abraham’s theology. “Oh, no, no, no, you got that one wrong, father Abraham. Let me tell you what it’s really like. If someone from the dead goes there, they will repent.” This, man in Hell, not only is not repenting, he’s correcting Abraham’s theology, who is in Heaven.
I cannot think of a single passage, in Holy Scripture, that suggests that people in Hell repent of their sin. Not one. Hell is not filled with people who are crushed into repentance. It’s filled with people who, despite their torment, still think they’re at the center of the universe and are prepared to tell Abraham where to step off, for all eternity. The arrogance of it, the hopeless arrogance of it… And Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, read and the Gospels and the epistles. They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” And by the time Luke wrote this, someone had risen from the dead with resurrection body. And millions have believed.
What you must see is that truth claims are bound up with our very salvation. And God has left Himself witnesses in nature, in the proclamation of the Word, in the church, in reading, in books, in history. By the convicting work of the Spirit, He’s left the residue of research, He’s left the residue of study. This has all come down to us and we are required to understand and believe the truth and confess it, so far as we are able. And if there are elements in scripture, where we’re less certain of what’s being said, then it’s a mark of humility to acknowledge it. Maybe we’ll know more next year. We grow in our knowledge as we grow in our calculus, or our French courses, or our Greek courses. We grow in our knowledge. But we do have knowledge.
And these things were written that you may know the certainty of the things that have happened among us. Let us pray.
So grant, Lord God, we ask of you an ability to understand and believe the truth to discern it, to proclaim it, to bear witness to it, all the while recognizing that we are no better than others who do not see it. It is by grace that we see, by grace we believe, by grace that we know. We give thanks for it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Collin Hansen: You’ve been listening to the Gospel Coalition Podcast. For more gospel-centered resources, visit thegospelcoalition.org. Support for this podcast comes from listeners like you. Learn more and join us at tgc.org/donate.