Part 1: Absolute and Relative Demands in Scripture

Listen as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of Biblical interpretation in this address from The Gospel Coalition sermon library.

The problem that I’m setting myself in this first hour is to ask and answer the question … By what criteria can we establish if some apparent demand in Scripture is universal? In particular, is it for us? Let me give you some examples of questions, problems at various degrees of difficulty, before I say one or two prefatory things and then articulate an apostolic number of principles.

When I was a child, I learned the chorus,

Be like Jesus, this is my song,

In the home and in the throng;

Be like Jesus, all day long!

I would be like Jesus.

Well, it sounds suitably pious, but it does leave some hermeneutical questions. Does this mean I should walk on water? Does it mean I should raise the dead? Does it mean I should exorcise demons? What precisely does it mean? Are there certain spheres in which I should be like Jesus? “Ah, you say, that’s just a chorus.”

Yes, yes, but Paul tells us we’re to imitate him even as he imitates Christ. The chorus is, in fact, reflecting a biblical theme, but clearly it is not a biblical theme that can be projected without thought to every dimension of Christ’s life on earth. What then are some of the criteria we must deploy to distinguish where we should follow Jesus, where we can’t follow Jesus, and where it would be blasphemous to pretend to follow Jesus?

Let us take another instance. What about the foot washing? The text clearly says, John 13:14, “You should also wash one another’s feet.” That is what the text says. And with respect to the Lord’s supper, we read: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Fine.

Why is it in the overwhelming majority of our churches we do have a Lord’s Supper rite but we don’t have a foot washing rite? Although there are, in fact, some branches in Christendom which do have a foot washing sacrament. Are they right (no pun intended), or are they not? On what grounds do you make your choice?

“Let the women keep silent in the church.” That is a quotation. On the other hand, in 1 Corinthians 11, you’ve got women praying and prophesying in church, regardless of whatever it is they’ve got on their heads: hair or hat or something. What does one do when one finds injunctions apparently clashing with descriptions?

Let’s take another one. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Unless a man is born again he cannot enter [or see] the kingdom of God.” We always universalize that, do we not, and say that is always the case? Elsewhere Jesus says that unless a man gives away his wealth to the poor and takes up his cross and follows Jesus, he cannot be Jesus’ disciple. Do we universalize that? Should we? Why or why not? On what ground?

Then there are injunctions which on the face of it seem to clash rather embarrassingly, some of them adjacently. For example, Proverbs 26: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly.” Next verse, “Answer a fool according to his folly.”

But sometimes, not in adjacent verses, yet in adjacent corpora or in the ministry of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus in Matthew 6 clearly says, “Keep your prayer short. Don’t babble on like the pagans who think they’re heard for their much speaking. God knows what you need before you ask him. He doesn’t have to be informed.”

On the other hand, in Luke, chapter 18, Jesus tells a parable with this intent; we should always pray and not give up. Or Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, again, insists for his followers, oaths are not the way to go. “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; whatever more is sinful.”

Yet we saw this morning in the Bible reading that Paul puts himself under an oath. He does it several times. He does it again in Romans 9. God puts himself under an oath in Hebrews. What do we do with such passages?

Then there are questions of degree of cultural flexibility. For example, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Is that universally mandated? Now I’m a French Canadian by background. I can get away with that one. For some of you, if you tried it, it wouldn’t be holy. It might be a kiss, but you’re just not used to it enough. Is J.B. Phillips stretching the text, dishonoring the Word of God, when he says, “Give a hearty handshake all around”?

Well, let us move on then to the Lord’s Supper. My sister, for a while, was a missionary in New Guinea. What do you do in the Lord’s Supper when you come to a tribe that is technologically primitive and who has never seen bread? Do you go for yams and goat’s milk instead of bread and wine?

Supposing you come to a tribe that has never seen sheep and you come to Bible translation, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Supposing they sacrifice pigs? Should we render that, “Behold the swine of God who takes away the sin of the world”? Why or why not? One more.

In various branches of the Christian church there are people who advocate, for example, that we ought to try to pass, again, as law into our statute books capital punishment by stoning. After all, that is what was mandated under the old covenant. How do we establish which of the Old Testament laws should be continued? Some say, “None should be continued.” Some say, “None, except those which are explicitly reaffirmed.” And others say, “All, except those which are specifically abrogated.” How do you make up your mind?

Well, one could easily add 40 or 50 more to a list like that, and you will see immediately that some of them are almost superficial; you throw them up in order to have starting points in the discussion, but others, in fact, are extraordinarily difficult, and we’re not going to come into any great meeting of mind this afternoon. Before I start trying to articulate some principles, let me lay down a couple of things at the beginning.

First, there is a sense in which every statement, every demand of Scripture is both absolute and relative. In other words, I don’t want to cast this discussion as simply a distinction between those statements that are clearly absolute and those that are clearly relative, because I would want to argue on fundamental principles that every statement in Scripture, not least every demand, which things are of particular interest to us this afternoon, is both relative and absolute. It’s absolute in that it, too, belongs to the very Word of God. It remains as true as any other part.

This belongs to the corpus of God’s gracious verbal self-disclosure. It is a subset of divine omniscience. It is not a mistake. So whatever we mean by relative and absolute in the context of our discussion, I do not, for a moment, want to suggest that I am sort of creating a canon within the Canon, an inner corpus of more acceptable material while there is an outer corpus of material that we call the Bible, but which is still not binding on us in any way. I don’t want to do that or give the impression I’m doing that. On the other hand, it’s also important to say

Secondly, every statement in Scripture is, in certain respects, relative. By relative I mean now it’s culturally linked, not simply transcendentally above culture. After all, language itself is a cultural phenomenon. When God gave the Bible he gave it to us, in the first instance, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, which means that when you move it to England you have to translate it into English. Anyone who has worked in more than one language knows this business of translation is a remarkably difficult and culture-laden thing.

This is one reason why devout Muslims, for example, want to argue that the only appropriate approach to the Qur’an is, in fact, in the original Arabic. Whereas the Christian heritage has always argued that although God gave his Word in human languages it is part of his marvelous condescension and his concern to communicate his truth to us that mandates we do our best to get it out in the lingua franca.

So in that sense, all of God’s truth is culturally laden. That can’t be avoided, not if it is given to people who are themselves enmeshed in culture. As far as I know, no one here enjoys the attribute of omniscience; therefore, all of us necessarily communicate in culture-laden terms. Now if you want to push on some of those matters later, please feel free. Within that framework, then, let me try to outline some points.

1. It is necessary to seek as conscientiously as possible the balance of Scripture rather than succumb to historical and theological disjunctions.

Now it has been a staple of confessing Christianity, of biblically faithful Christianity, to point out some of the disjunctions you find in liberalism.

For example, classic liberalism pits Jesus against Paul. Jesus says, “This, this, this, and this.” Paul says, “That, that, that, and that.” You set up these models to show their thought is incompatible. “There is no way you could move from Jesus to Paul. Maybe Paul is the real originator of Christianity.”

There are endless books that have tackled this from within a believing framework that talk about how you really do move from the one to the other. The disjunction doesn’t work. There are ways of producing a responsible, historical, sensible, theological synthesis, but even within confessing Christianity we sometimes build our own antitheses if we’re not careful.

For example, because we stand in the heritage of the Reformation, on the whole, we’re more comfortable with Romans 3:28, “Man is justified by grace through faith apart from the works of the law,” than we are with James 2:14 and following, where James makes it equally clear that one is not justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

Now you can set that up as merely verbal contradiction, and there is just no way you can avoid sharp antithesis. If you put both of those passages within their own contexts, I think you can make a lot of sense of both and build a still larger synthesis. If you want to see how to do that after, we’ll take it in Q&A, but that one has gone around so often in church circles, I shouldn’t have to repeat it here. I begin with it, however, precisely because it is one that most of us, I suspect, are agreed on. However, let us look for more difficult ones.

A number of years ago, we came to be introduced to the apparent tension between Galatians 3:28 and 1 Timothy 2. In Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man nor woman.” Yet in 1 Timothy 2, certainly some kind of distinction is being made. What do you do with it?

The tendency on the whole in modern discussion is to go this way: either you absolutize Galatians 3:28 and say, “That is normative for Paul. In Christ all distinctions are done away with.” In which case, when you get to 1 Timothy 2, you are forced to say there is some sort of cultural background here that shows this is not universally binding on the church.

Alternatively, to say in 1 Timothy 2, the appeal to the distinction is based on creation order, fall order; you can’t get things less culturally transcendent than that. You can’t appeal to some sort of synthetic background to show this is only culturally relative; therefore, when you come to Galatians 3, you have to limit it in some way.

You say, “Well, Paul’s argument there is simply dealing with justification by grace through faith. It’s not talking about order in the church or women’s ordination or something like that. Therefore, you cannot universalize Galatians 3:28.” Now this is a sensitive one, I know, and there will be divisions of opinion amongst us, but it is very important to see, first of all, what the arguments really are.

People are choosing one of those two patterns, not usually on the basis of unambiguous hermeneutically clear decisions, but because they want this answer or that answer. Given the whole church heritage from which they spring and where they are in their development, they want this one or that one; therefore, they will inevitably find reasons to justify this one or that one.

That, I submit, is reprehensible. It is morally reprehensible. God’s Word should not be treated that way. We may come out and say, “I’m not sure which way to go.” That is honest. We may come out and say, “I really think there are very important reasons for opting for this one as opposed to that one, and here they are.”

That’s fine, but what you cannot do is go in blind and simply choose one and relativize the other one out of mere cultural bias. In other words, it’s necessary to seek as conscientiously as possible the balance of Scripture rather than succumb to historical and theological disjunctions.

2. In the case of Jesus’ preaching ministry, recognize the antithetical style of his preaching, which has deep roots in Hebrew prophecy.

Let’s begin at the Hebrew prophecy end. You recall how Hosea says in chapter 6, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice …” By this is Hosea saying, “I hereby abolish the entire sacrificial system?” No, of course not. No one says that. You’re still at the eighth century BC. The temple hasn’t been destroyed.

It rather is a powerful prophetic way of setting it up as a formal antithesis to say, “Look, when push comes to shove, it’s not the rite that I want, it’s not the temple sacrifice that I want; it’s integrity in every area of life without which all the religious rite is not much more than rigmarole. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

It is cast, in other words, formally as an antithesis, but when you unpack the particular literary form, what it means is, “When push comes to shove, this is more important than that.” Now that’s important when you get a statement in Jesus that says something like, “Unless you hate your parents and love me, you cannot be my disciple.”

The sharp way of articulating something makes an issue very clear in the Hebrew mind. When push comes to shove, if Jesus is who he says he is … if he is our Maker and our Lord and our Judge … allegiance to him must take precedence even over allegiance to family. On the other hand, he is also the first one to remind us to obey the commandment to honor our parents.

Now this has some bearing on the example I gave earlier on the matter of prayer. When Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6, says we’re not to babble on for our much speaking, pretending that somehow we can wrest blessings from God by rabbiting on and on and on he is not simply giving a kind of universal formula in prayer, such that from now on, nobody is allowed to pray over 30 seconds, because God knows it all in any case.

The only thing you can ask God to do if God knows it all, and that becomes a reason for not praying, is “Your will be done, amen.” Then whatever happens is going to be done, and that is the end of the discussion. No, no, no.

He is reminding people that they are almost treating God as if he is a whinging, nasty, bad-tempered, ungenerous ogre from whom blessings can be extracted by piling on enough pious phrases and rabbiting on and on and on, parading our piety, using the right formulas, getting evangelical clichÈs right, until, finally, God is sort of talked into being generous. Poor chap wouldn’t manage it otherwise.

On the other hand, for those who are so spiritually lethargic, they’ve never disciplined themselves in prayer at all, then what Jesus says in Luke 18 is extremely important. He telling a parable to this end: men should always pray and not give up, because he is the heavenly Father who wants us to pursue him.

It’s just as if one of my children came to me and said, “Dad, I’d really like to start piano lessons, now. I mean, I’ve been on the flute for 5 years. I’d like to start piano lessons.” Or “You know, I know that I’ve been doing soccer for 3 or 4 years, but I’d really like to switch to baseball.” (Guess where we’re living now?)

What am I going to say? “Fine. Great. No problem.” Is that what I’m going to say? No, no. They’re going to have to nag me long enough for me to think that they really mean it. Kids are fickle, and part of my testing of them is to find out really whether they want this. They know I will give it to them if I think that it is good for them.

The heavenly Father is not less wise. He wants us to pursue him, and within that framework then, Luke 18 and Matthew 6 are both entirely mutually compatible if we remember that the former is given against those who are spiritually lethargic, and the latter is given against those whose view of God is so demeaning of him that at the end of the day, he is like a genie waiting to have the bottle rubbed the right way with the appropriate lengthy clichÈs.

3. Never mandate on the conscience of any believer what is mandated only once in Scripture.

“Ah,” someone says, “but, Don, how many times has God got to say something for it to be true?” Well, I would say God doesn’t have to say it all for it to be true. It either is true or it isn’t, which shows I’m not entirely in sympathy with deconstruction, but we’ll let that pass.

On the other hand, God may have to say it quite a number of times and in different ways for us to know just what he means, partly because we’re dumb, partly because we’re sinful, and partly because we’re crossing cultures and languages and we may misconstrue something. Therefore, even if I think I know what it means, I should not lay it on the whole church as something that is mandated for everybody when it is only found once. Let me give some examples.

What does baptism for the dead mean in 1 Corinthians 15? Well, if you’re a Mormon, you know what it means. In addition to the Bible, you have the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and other holy writings, and you’ve interpreted it a certain way to mean that people can be baptized for the dead, quite literally, by proxy baptism.

Mormons believe that you can save the dead by getting their names and having living people baptized by proxy for them. That is what baptism for the dead means. That is why they are some of the world’s best experts on genealogies, because they keep looking up names and names and names, because when you’re baptized for the dead it can’t be done generically. “I hereby want to be baptized for my great-great-great-great-great uncle or something. You’ve got to put a name in the slot somewhere.

Now I’m not convinced that is the right interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15. In fact, in 1950–1951, there were three articles written in Catholic Biblical Quarterly that detailed 41 different interpretations of that verse in the history of the church. In my own mind, I’ve narrowed it down to two, but I’m not quite convinced about either of them, and at the end of the day, if you push me, I have to say I’m not sure. I don’t know. So I refuse to make that binding on anybody’s conscience.

Now that is exactly how I would respond to the foot washing passage. The Lord’s Supper crops up several times. It crops up in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It’s at least alluded to in John. It crops up in 1 Corinthians 11 explicitly, and it’s alluded to many other times besides that. It’s described on occasion in Acts. Where do you find the foot washing? John 13. That’s it. Full stop.

Besides, despite the fact that Jesus formally says, “So you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” I am persuaded myself in the context that he is not establishing a rite that is ongoing but is giving a principle of forbearing humility.

In the context, the foot washing rite has some symbolism to do with the atonement that I shan’t go into here, but from my perspective, I cannot in conscience lay foot washing on as a rite in the church that is binding. If somebody wants to practice it, I’m not upset. I’m only upset if somebody tries to mandate it on the conscience of all believers.

Let me try one more. This one may push a little closer to home. It’s all right to talk about these people who have foot washing rites in their churches when none of us does, isn’t it? So we’ll take one where some of us do.

What about the distinction between teaching and ruling elders, much loved in some branches of Presbyterianism? At the end of the day, that distinction textually is based on one verse: 1 Timothy 5:17, and on this basis some branches of the Christian church make a pretty sharp distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders, even so far as the qualifications for the respective offices are concerned.

Well, I have no objection if people do that on pragmatic grounds. For myself, I’m a little nervous. It seems to me that every time elders/pastors/overseers are introduced, the same cycle of qualifications recurs, and then in every case teaching authority crops up. I’m not sure that a ruling elder, an administering elder, is someone who can’t teach but is a first-class administrator. That is a peculiarly modern Western post-industrial notion.

For in the ancient church, authority, ruling, was done precisely through the Word. It wasn’t done in the first instance through a computer program, but some elders were more gifted in the entailments of this in ruling, I suspect, and some less so, and a pragmatic distinction exists there in 5:17. I doubt there is sufficient warrant on the basis of one verse alone, however, to make an entirely separate division of ecclesiastical officers. My Presbyterian friends will doubtless correct me afterwards.

4. Examine carefully the biblical rationale for any saying or command to see at what level it is tied to the corpus of biblical truth.

Let’s take a couple of easy examples then get some more difficult ones.

“Repent in sackcloth and ashes.” Now I suspect there are very few people here present who when they have undergone solemn repentance before God have taken off their clothes, donned sackcloth, went and dug some ashes out of their neighbor’s coal fire because they’ve now got gas themselves, and sprinkled ashes on their heads. Are they being unbiblical?

Well, intuitively what we would say is, “Come on, there is not theology of ashes. That’s merely a culture-laden way of showing the seriousness of the self-abnegation that is going into this kind of repentance. I am showing that I am shamed, that I am dirty before you. I’m embarrassed. I’m showing I want to reject my sin. This is self-abnegation to prove the sincerity of my repentance. It was a culturally appropriate expression at the time. Now it would look slightly corny. I need to find other kinds of ways.” Intuitively, I suspect, that is what most of us would do, is it not?

“Greet one another with a holy kiss.” Likewise, that is the kind of reasoning one would intuitively adopt there. We would say, “Is Paul really interested in the theology of kissing, per se, or is he really interested in the theology of mutual acceptance, of forbearance, of Christians loving one another, accepting one another, welcoming one another? And in the socially understood pattern of the day that was expressed in the language as a kiss.” Most of us, I suspect, would run along those lines.

What do we do, then, with women’s hats in 1 Corinthians 11? “Oh, now, Don, you’ve stopped preaching and gone to meddling.” Well, in the first instance, whatever the restriction means, I would want to argue, again, on several grounds that one needs to be careful about making hats on women a universal in the church in every time and place, for several reasons.

First, it’s the only place where they crop up. It makes me nervous. Second, and more importantly, I start asking the question … Is Paul interested in the theology of hats? Now what I would argue, and some will take umbrage at this on the other side, I suspect, is that Paul is very definitely interested in the relationships between men and women. He is very interested in that. He comes back at that one again and again and again, and so does Peter. That he is interested in.

In terms of the culture-laden bearings of the day, one of the ways in which that was expressed was in terms of headgear in certain circumstances. If in your particular cultural patch there are similar symbolisms … Fine, I have no problem. If you belong to a certain patch of society that is sufficiently conservative and traditional that those symbols are still effective, use them.

If, on the other hand, in your particular cultural patch, wearing a hat to church basically signals that you belong to the nineteenth century, it doesn’t have any particularly godly value intrinsically if Paul is not interested in the theology of hats per se. Now the question is … How do you decide whether Paul is interested in a theology of hats or if he is interested in a theology of man-woman relationships which is, in this passage, expressed in terms of hats? That is the question.

The question is answered, in part, by observing what kinds of textual links there are to similar themes in the Pauline and, ultimately, biblical corpora. Do hats keep recurring? Do kisses keep recurring, worked out with a whole theological set of connections? Or do man-woman relationships keep recurring, worked out in a whole set of theological and biblical relationships? I would want to argue very strongly for the latter, although even that will get me in trouble in some places. Whereas for the former, I’m not convinced that those connections can be found.

The next point is one of two genre questions. I will be saying more about genre tomorrow, the interpretations of different forms of literature, but I will introduce one of them now and one for point ten or eleven. Then I’ll talk about genre more comprehensively tomorrow.

5. Be especially careful in the interpretation of proverbs, for proverbs must not be interpreted as if they were either universal promises or case law.

They are neither one nor the other. They are neither universal promises nor case law; they are proverbs.

Let’s take the example I mentioned at the beginning of this session. Proverbs, chapter 26, verse 4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly …” Verse 5: “Answer a fool according to his folly …” Now put in the paired line in each case. Verse 4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” Verse 5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

Now both of those proverbs make sense. You can understand why if you start answering a fool according to his folly, you bring yourself down to his or her level, and eventually you’re just as stupid in your talk as he or she is.

On the other hand, you recognize, likewise, in certain instances to answer a fool with a foolish answer may, in fact, so expose his or her folly that he or she is tamed a little bit, cowed, taught something. The question is … When do you do one and when do you do the other? The short answer is, “The texts don’t say.”

This is Wisdom Literature. It’s not case law. It’s not saying, “In the following circumstances with the following characteristics, 13 sub-points complete with footnotes, then you follow this proverb. In this circumstance, by contrast, with the following characteristics complete with 14 footnotes, then you follow this.”

It doesn’t work like that. It gives you a principle of life that makes intrinsic sense, but the application of it is dependent, in part, on thoughtful care so that you are bringing to pass the fulfillment of the second line of the proverb. In some circumstances, by answering a fool according to his folly, you may be doing good if you’re exposing his folly. In other cases, you’re just doing bad, and you’re going to have sort out which it is as you go into the situation. Think about it.

I have a friend called Perry Downs who teaches on the same faculty as I do, but he is extremely good with young people, high school into first-year university, that sort of thing, junior colleges and the like. Although he teaches with us every once in a while, he teaches at a non-Christian junior college not far from where we live. It’s like the first couple of years of a university course in a smaller, easier environment, I suppose. Many of the students who go there are not the top stream or the like.

They run a course on philosophy of religion, and every once in a while they bring in local ministers to talk about what they understand the Christian faith to be. On one occasion two or three years ago, he was invited in. He happened to be a Baptist. Also, there was an Episcopalian of fairly liberal leanings and a Roman Catholic who had just got his doctorate and was quite proud of it. These three were trying to impress these first-year undergraduates with Christianity.

I think I have to say that in Perry’s defense, he communicates so well that he was winning all the positive reaction. But after he had finished trying to lay out what I would have called a basic elementary biblical survey of Christianity, and the others had all finished their bits as well in this 2–1/2-hour session, there was a young woman, 18-years-old, not overly endowed with brains, I would have thought, much enamored with gum chewing, who raised her hand to ask Perry a question.

“Yeah, but what about all the Hindus?” Perry, quick as a flash (only Perry could get away with this is), replied, “I hadn’t thought about that. I’ll have to start over.” That was exactly the right answer. In the right context that can be a serious question, and it has to be thoughtfully and courteously addressed.

In the right context, on the other hand, you have to really say, “Come on, give me a break. It’s not as if Christians have never thought about this in the whole 2,000 years of the church. You can’t throw up something as if you sort of destroy the whole system by something that is elementary on any reading.”

Once the class laughter had died down, then he backed off and gave her some room and said, “Now in all fairness, there is some real importance to your question, and we have to begin to think about it along these lines.” Then he started laying out a series of structures of thought I would like to think helped.

On the other hand, to puncture some of the intrinsic arrogance in a situation like that, may be not unwise if the kind of personality can get away with it, as he does. Within that framework, then, he followed the second proverb. “Answer a fool according to his folly lest he be wise in his own eyes.” So this involves, therefore, some thought and care to get these things right.

Let me take another example from the parables of Jesus, from the proverbs of Jesus. Matthew, chapter 12, verse 30. This is a well-known passage. Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” Keep that text in mind. Then, Mark 9:40, parallel Luke 9:50: “… for whoever is not against us is for us.”

Now if you try to put those two texts together in merely mathematical terms, you’ll give yourself a headache. Where do people really truly belong? “He who is not for us is against us.” Next book, “He who is not against us is for us.” But, as someone as said, the sayings are not contradictory if you put them in their appropriate context and recognize them as proverbs

The one is spoken to the indifferent about themselves. “He who is not for us is against us.” You’ve got finally to choose. The other is spoken to disciples about other workers. “Those who are not against us are for us.” Do you see? Although at the level of mere proverbial utterance, you seem to have a clash, you drop them into their proper contexts, and far from having a clash, you’ve got a wise, pithy saying that requires thought and reflection and so forth.

Let me pick up one more pithy saying that is sometimes abused. “Owe no man anything.” That one regularly comes up at church business meetings where you’re talking about a building addition that is going to cost half a million quid. What do you do with it? “Owe no man anything.”

Well, in the context, of course, in the book of Romans, it is not talking about systems of finances at all. My father used to say, bless his heart, “A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof text.” There were well-to-do people, and you try to do jobs for them. You wrangled your way in to do jobs for them, because once you did jobs for them then they owed you certain things. So they provided you with certain things.

Once they had provided you with certain things, on the other hand, you owed them a certain allegiance, too. So you get this kind of reciprocal relationship of benefactors and benefactees. That’s very common in the ancient world. In part, the church was breaking that down. You find traces of that in Paul and Luke-Acts and elsewhere because the benefaction system can become exceedingly corrupt very quickly.

What Paul says in these passage is, “Don’t owe anybody anything, except to love one another.” That you always owe. Now in one sense, that is the most sweeping debt, if you like, of all, but it’s not talking in the fiscal arena. It is not prohibiting any kind of fiscal arrangement. It is talking about escaping from the benefaction system and having a proper view of human beings in the light of the gospel. I mention this next one rather briefly, although it is, in fact, quite complex.

6. Some demands in Scripture have to be handled with special care because of fundamentally different social structures when you move from the Bible to our day.

For example, when we’re told to obey those in rule over us, not just in the church as in Hebrews 13, but passages like Romans 13 and the like, “Pray for kings and those in authority,” and this sort of thing, in every case, the assumption in the New Testament is of an authoritarian regime.

If you take those passages absolutely and forget that God in his mercy has placed us within a democracy, you might eventually want to argue that you always, always, always have to vote for, pray for, and work for the incumbent, but that just doesn’t follow. The application of the principle, now, is definitely going to change just a wee bit when the structure of our authority, at least in the final degree, puts the ultimate authority with the electorate that can turf blighters out every few years.

It may mean, then, that we have to be very careful about how we uphold and respect the law of the land, except where it impinges on conscience. But in the ancient world, the law of the land and the rule of a fairly imperial Caesar, especially once you got by Caligula, were so much tied together that those sorts of thoughts simply didn’t enter into the discussion.

7. Determine not only how symbols and metaphors and models function in Scripture but to what else they are tied.

Now we’ve seen the first part of this when we considered the holy kiss or sackcloth and ashes. We see how they function in Scripture. They seem to be functioning to concretize, to contextualize, some fundamental truth that is very important in Scripture.

But sometimes these concrete historical realities are themselves tied to other things, like the Lord’s Supper. That is an extremely difficult one. The bread and the wine, after all, are tied in biblical thought to a lot of other themes. The bread is tied not only to Jesus’ bread of life discourse, John 6, but to the manna of the Old Testament.

Yet at the same time, it has to be recognized that the bread in the first century is a staple, and in the Western world, we hardly even know what that means. If I were to ask you … What is the staple diet of England, what would you say? Fish and chips? No, not really. The diet is so diverse here, isn’t it? The question is a nonstarter.

Whereas in many parts of the world, you answer with one word or at most two. Rice or rice and fish or yams or whatever. Now in Jesus’ day, the staples in Palestine were bread and fish. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” the populous did not think of something wrapped in cellophane with 42 varieties on the shelves of the local groceteria. They thought of that without which there is only death. Without the staple, you die. That is the way they thought of it.

Moreover, this was an agrarian society, so people were used to the fact that everything we eat, bar a few minerals like salt, is itself organic, and it dies so that we live, even if you succumb to a McDonald’s hamburger, you are basically eating dead barley, dead onions, dead lettuce, dead tomatoes, and dead cow. Too much sodium chloride, but it’s the only bit that isn’t dead.

In the ancient world, everybody understood that. We just don’t think in those terms today. Within that kind of framework, then, when Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and I give myself for the life of the world,” it becomes a very powerful metaphor that supports substitutionary atonement. He dies so that we live. If he doesn’t die, we don’t live. Unless the cow dies, or the pig, we don’t get the hamburger or the pork chops. Jesus dies; we live. He is the bread of the world.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a universalizing kind of connection so that if you move into a remote hill country tribe in Papua New Guinea, the most appropriate analogy may well be yams, and on the other hand, you’ve got intercanonical connections in that bread is tied to the bread of life discourse, the manna in the Old Testament, and a number of things that are part of a local specificity. What do you do in that case? I have no easy answer to that one. Let me take one that is more tied yet to texts where, quite frankly, I think there is an answer.

It’s an old saw amongst Bible translators. What do you do with, “Behold the Lamb of God,” in a society that has never seen lambs? Before you jump too quickly to suggesting, “Behold the Swine of God,” or something because they do sacrifice wild pigs, you have to remember that sooner or later you’re not only going to be translating John’s gospel, but the Old Testament, and then you’re into a whole system of division between clean and unclean where everything is going to be reversed if you start with the pigs as the clean ones.

You’re going to get yourself in such a tangle you will never get yourself out of it, which means at the end of the day, you are going to have to introduce a new word or a description of this beast and put in a footnote. This sort of thing, it seems to me, is part of what some have called the scandal of historical particularity.

You see, in Buddhist thought, for example, if you could prove that Gautama the Buddha never lived, you wouldn’t destroy Buddhism because the coherence and believability, the credibility of Buddhism is independent of any particular thinker. It is a system of thought. So finally, if Buddha never lived, the system would still be judged, believed, dismissed on grounds other than the historical conditionality of the putative founder.

But biblical Christianity isn’t like that. The Bible insists the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. John insists, “We have seen his glory.” In his first epistle, he says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we declare to you.”

In other words, if you could prove that Jesus never lived, if you could prove that he never rose from the dead, you’ve destroyed biblical Christianity forever. It’s gone. What you’re left with is a pale imitation, but it’s not biblical Christianity.

This is what some have called the scandal of historical particularity. That is, the eternal transcendent God chose to disclose himself to real men and women in real space-time history such that if witnesses lied or if witnesses did not tell the truth or if witnesses were not believed, the entire Christian system of truth turns, nevertheless, on these things being accepted. That is remarkable.

Thus, one of the premier theologians of this century, Rudolf Bultmann, was entirely wrong in his attempt to safeguard Christianity by making faith independent of historical research. He said, “For real faith, it doesn’t matter what the object is; you simply trust.” Thus, his faith turned out to be a kind of existential leap in the dark.

That’s not biblical Christianity at all. He thought he was preserving Christianity from the onslaught of historical criticism. What he was doing was destroying it because he was disconnecting faith from its object. In biblical Christianity, faith is entirely without utility if its object is not trustworthy.

Now because of that vision of things, then, it is important to keep locating the Bible in its cultural context. It’s why you can’t move too quickly to swine of God when you’ve got a whole lot of other biblical connections. At the end of the day, you’ll lose too much when you disconnect so much of the Bible from the historical context.

God disclosed himself in real space-time history to choose with a whole set of distinguishing clean and unclean foods. At the end of the day, you can’t ultimately disconnect the text from so much history without losing, finally, its credibility as God’s self-disclosure in space-time history. You start to lose the scandal of historical particularity. You start ruining what the Bible is all about.

8. Comparisons and analogies must be very thoughtfully delimited, usually by observing contexts near and far.

I have a relative in a more enthusiastic wing of Christendom, more enthusiastic than virtually anything I’ve seen in this country, so be assured; I’m not taking cheap shots over here.

Her argumentation with me at one point ran along these lines. “In the days of his flesh, Jesus never turned down anybody who asked for healing, and without exception, the healing was successful. Now the Bible says, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ Ergo, you can fill in the conclusion.” Now what do you say with that? Is that good reasoning or not?

Well, let’s try this one. “Jesus Christ died on the cross. ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ ” Ergo … It doesn’t work, does it? Now what is necessary is to see in what context “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” is offered. It’s found in Hebrews, chapter 13. One must see what is being said, but precisely because Jesus discloses God in real space-time history there are all kinds of elements in his self-disclosure that are non-repeatable. They are historical events. He is not an abstract deity.

So whatever you think of the particular issue that concerns her, the reasoning that got her there was dead wrong. It was the linking of two texts that sounded pious but was fundamentally flawed, not only because it did not understand the context of the Hebrews 13 passage, but also at the end of the day because it was trying to force two texts together to bring out conclusions that the whole life and ministry of Jesus countermanded.

Now it’s partly within that framework, then, that I would put in that little chorus I mentioned at the beginning:

Be like Jesus, this is my song,

In the home and in the throng;

Be like Jesus, all day long!

I would be like Jesus.

There is clearly some truth to it, but one does not have to read far in the Gospels before one finds out where one cannot imitate Jesus, where one must not imitate Jesus, and where one must imitate Jesus.

9. Many commands are pastorally limited.

Many demands of God are pastorally limited, the pastoral situation being established by the context. Let’s take one in 1 Corinthians 7. As I’m sure you are aware from 1 Corinthians 7 on, Paul is answering questions that have come to him from the Corinthian church by letter.

Before that he is answering questions that have come to him by oral report. Chapters 1–4 deal with disunity in the church and chapters 5–6 deal with two or three separate items that have all come by oral report. Now in chapter 7, verse 1, we read, “Now for the matters you wrote about …” Then he starts off item after item after item, all the way to the end of the book. In Greek almost every time a new item is introduced is the same expression, “Now … about,” and it gives it away.

In most of these items, Paul is concerned not only to answer a particular issue but to keep warring factions in the church on that issue together. It’s quite clear, for example, that in the matter of meat offered to idols in 1 Corinthians, chapter 8, there are some people who think, “It’s all right. It’s perfectly kosher for Christians to eat food that has previously been offered to idols,” and there are some Christians who think, “You really shouldn’t do that.”

So they haven’t simply written to Paul and said, “Tell us what you know about Christians eating food offered to idols.” They’ve written to Paul and said, “Some of us think this, and some of us think that. What do you say?” which is pastorally a much difficult situation to handle. What Paul does in these cases is say, “To group A: Yes, yes, yes, you have some truth, but …” and “To group B: Yes, yes, yes, you have some truth, but …”

In other words, because he is interested not only in giving the truth but winning the people to a common mind, he phrases himself in such a way as to win the people not just the topic. For example, chapter 7: “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry …” Not to touch a woman. Celibacy has its points. “… but since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife …” and so on. Several of those all through the chapter.

Chapter 8: “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge.” Mind you, he says, “Knowledge puffs up …” That’s not a good thing. Verse 4: “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” These idols aren’t going to contaminate the meat. The meat is still just meat. “But not everyone knows this.”

Paul’s arguments run on this sort of “Yes, but …” line more or less to the end of the book. There are one or two remarkable exceptions when he gets to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 17 and following, he says, “On what I’m about to write to you now on the Lord’s Supper, I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more damage than good.” Isn’t that interesting? The one central ongoing rite of the Christian church is precisely the point where Paul says, “I’ve got nothing good to say to anybody at this point.” It’s really quite remarkable.

Now granted this “Yes, but …” style of argumentation, it becomes extremely easy to pull out a text from one of these flowing contexts and distort Paul. For example, on the tongues issue. “I thank my God I speak in tongues more than all of you.” That is what Paul says. “But … in the church I’d rather speak five words in a known tongue than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” That is, in church, intelligibility is everything. That is also what Paul says.

If you’re on the charismatic side, you’re likely to cite the first part. If you’re on the anti-charismatic side, you’re likely to cite the other part. In other words, to deal fairly with Paul, it is extremely important in these “Yes, but …” sorts of passages, if we’re going to hear him properly, to recognize that part of the shaping of individual texts is constrained by pastoral concerns and to listen carefully for those concerns as you follow his argument through the text, or we’re likely to distort him in serious ways.

That is also the case with Jesus’ proscription of oaths in Matthew 6 and Matthew 23. There were some Jews in Jesus’ day who had developed a complex system of oaths such that they became an excuse for evasive lying. For example, like a little kid who takes the crosses his fingers, puts them behind his back, and says, “Cross my heart and hope to die; I’ll tell you the truth,” and then lies through her teeth. “It didn’t count; I had my fingers crossed.”

Thus, this solemn oath of “Cross my heart and hope to die” doesn’t mean a thing because the rules are so complex that you can annul that oath by this device. So in Jesus’ day, if you swore solemnly by the temple, you weren’t bound by it. If you swore solemnly while facing the temple, then you were bound by it. If you swore solemnly by the altar, then you weren’t bound by it. If you swore solemnly by the sacrifice on the altar, then you were bound by it.

At some point Jesus comes along and says, “Enough already!” You know? The altar is God’s, so you’re swearing by God. The sacrifice is God’s, so you’re swearing by God. You swear by the hair on your head, that is God’s, too. No matter what you swear by, it’s still owned by God, you’re still swearing by God. At the end of the day, just tell the truth. “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; and anything more is sinful.”

On the other hand, if you’re a Jehovah’s Witness and you hear that, then you make that part of a new legal system. Then you refuse to swear by the Bible or take any sort of similar oath of allegiance in a courtroom or anything. Exceptions are made for you in civil law, precisely because Jesus said, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; and anything more comes from sin.”

If there really is this pastoral dimension to what Jesus is doing, then it’s important to ask, at least, how all of the early Christians, so far as their actions are recorded in the Bible, understood his words. Paul swears. He takes oaths, several times. Does that mean Paul, poor chap, never really did understand Jesus on this point? God himself swears in Hebrews. Does this mean he’s guilty of evasive lying? No, of course not.

The point is that oaths ought to have the function of reassuring hearers. Now within that kind of framework, that is what Paul is doing when he puts himself under an oath. Now Paul tells the truth all the time, so far as his readers are concerned, so far as Paul himself projects himself. He is telling the truth. He wants his readers to believe him all the time.

But about some point where he feels especially passionate, and where he fears they may not understand him or believe him, he puts himself under an oath to enhance his credibility, not to say, “And elsewhere, you may understand, I’m really pulling your leg.”

So when God then swears by himself in an oath in the epistle to the Hebrews, the whole point of the exercise is to increase our faith, to enhance his credibility, not to introduce some new standard in lying. So again, there is a pastoral limitation indicated by the literary and historical context that must be grasped if we’re to handle these things aright.

Now one of the most interesting sets in this regard is the doctrine of assurance. We’re still on number nine, aren’t we? And I promised some time for discussion. I’ve got 12 of these points. Let me finish my number nine, if I may, then we’ll open it up for discussion. I’ll take the first few minutes of next day with the last three, if I can have your permission that way, before we go on to genre. May I do that?

Let’s take the doctrine of assurance. In the late Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism insisted that finally your assurance of your status before God came through the mediating role of the priest. The priest pronounced absolution, and you could only be sure that you stood in proper relationship to God on the basis of the priest’s absolution.

But as Catholicism became more corrupt (it wasn’t corrupt everywhere, but as it became more corrupt), then the possibilities of extracting money and selling indulgences became pretty remarkable. The most famous one, of course, of all was Tetzel, who sold indulgences for a nice fat fee.

The best indulgence was a full papal indulgence that pronounced forgiveness of all sins that you would ever commit. No matter what you did you’d go to heaven directly. Now you have to pay a lot of money for that one, but man, it was a hot item just the same! When Luther sees this sort of thing, he goes up in smoke.

This is not something that can be honoring to God. As he reads Romans and Galatians and comes to understand the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, then he must wrestle not only with the proper basis of our acceptance before God in the cross work of Christ, he must also ask and answer the question in that culture … On what, then is assurance based?

The Catholics had an answer. It was bound up with the priestly authority with absolution, which was vested in the priest. Where then is assurance based if you really believe in justification by grace through faith? What Luther argues is it is bound up with faith itself. If you really trust Christ and his sufficiency, if you really believe that Jesus died for sinners and you’ve committed yourself to him, and on that basis have been accepted before the living God, insofar as you trust him, you are assured. If you don’t really trust him to that extent, you’re not assured.

Thus, want of assurance is really only a sign that you really haven’t grasped adequately the sufficiency of Christ. It’s your faith which is the fundamental problematic.

Calvin didn’t see things quite the same way. He observed, for example in Lutheran society, that whole cantons in Switzerland, for example, and elsewhere, were switching over from the Catholic to the Lutheran side, and they were adopting Lutheran creeds and Lutheran perspectives, precisely because the seigneur, the feudal lords, made these decisions, the dukes and so forth. That didn’t mean that everybody was converted.

Calvin’s whole approach was a little different. He wanted to insist on the one hand that the objective basis of our assurance before God is Christ’s cross work. That’s correct. We can’t add to that. We can’t take away from it. We’re accepted before God because Christ died for us. But on the other hand, he insisted that regeneration was such that it inevitably produced good works, so that you could, with time, look back on your life and see if it had changed. If your life had changed, then there was an experiential subjective element that supported your assurance.

At the same time, he was the first in the magisterial Reformation to talk about the witness of the Spirit, based in part, in my view, on a misreading of 1 John, but on the correct interpretation of Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” When the Reformation came to this country, that three-dimensional structure of assurance came with it through William Perkins and Thomas Goodwin and others. The balance shifted a little bit, but it came with it.

The idea was that our assurance is like a three-legged stool. There is the objective element; it is absolutely primary. We are assured before God because of Christ’s cross work on our behalf, God’s gracious provision of a sacrifice to pay for our sins. We trust Christ. At the end of the day, that is what we have to trust, that our confidence is not in our faith but in its object, Christ himself.

On the other hand, because the Puritans insisted in the strongest terms that genuine faith issued in good works, they expected some good works, some transformation of life to follow. If you didn’t have anything to show for it, they would say, “You didn’t have the right to proper assurance. In fact, this could be just merely mental assent. It might not be real faith at all. Your life has to change if you’re a Christian.”

At the same time, their whole theology of the Spirit insisted that there are some experiential factors within our souls in which God speaks to us by his Spirit. He beats witness with us, gives us an inner comfort that we are the children of God. A three-legged stool is quite stable, but if you knock out one of those legs, you sure come a cropper. Throughout the history of the church, it is arguable that the knocking out of one or the other legs has happened many, many times to terrible disadvantage in the church.

For example, in North America (it’s easier to talk about sinners over there), there are huge swaths of evangelicalism now where they believe “Once saved, always saved,” all right, basing everything on the first peg, but they don’t want to look at their own lives. You can find people who made a profession of faith and walk like the world and the flesh and the Devil for 30 or 40 years, but if you push them in the corner, they’ll still say, “Once saved, always saved.”

What you have then is the kind of Christianity that is not intrinsically powerful. It does not intrinsically transform. On the other hand, you could go to Scotland, some other foreign place where we can talk about their sinners. Now if there are a few Scots here, excuse me. You can go the Hebrides or the Outer Isles and find many godly people living within life’s memory of real revival, where they take religion seriously.

They are people of the Book. They are not playing around with the superficial slogans of North American evangelicalism. But you can also find in that context, sometimes, churches with 200 or 300 people in attendance on a Sunday morning, and then when they have, perhaps, annual Lord’s Supper, only 12 or 15 or 20 communicants will show up because the rest don’t feel as if they have adequate assurance, really, to commend them to God.

Now in this case, they have so much emphasis on self-examination for a transformed life that there is actually a want of assurance there. In other words, you’ve moved from leg one to leg two, and there is so much weight resting on leg two, now, that at the end of the day, as Martin LloydJones used to say, you can have a form of Calvinism that slinks back into Arminianism, where you’re looking at a certain kind of works to be confident.

Then on the other hand, you can watch people who put all their confidence in what the Spirit says, and at the end of the day, you can’t teach them anything. They have confidence from the Spirit of God, and if you disagree with them, you’re disagreeing with God. The objective nature of the atonement of Christ is diminished. The importance of transformed life is diminished. At the end of the day, you sink into raw subjectivism.

What I’m saying by this is that many areas of life, biblical theology hangs together by proportion and balance and pastoral care. You see, if someone comes in who is, let’s say, a deacon of the church, who has been around the block a few times and has had a lot of experience and walked with God for some time, and then comes into to see me and says, “Don, I have to tell you, I’m going through real doubts about my salvation. I’m really not sure that I’m saved, and perhaps I should resign from the deacons’ board.”

What should I say? Should I simply say, “Well, look, read John 5:24. This says, ‘If you believe in Jesus, you have eternal life.’ Do you believe in Jesus?”


“So do you have eternal life?”

“Well, I guess so.”

“Well, not ‘I guess so.’ What does the text say? Do you believe in Jesus?”


“Do you have eternal life?”


“How do you know you have eternal life?”

“Well, I don’t feel like it.”

“Yeah, but what does the text say?”

“The text says, ‘If you believe in Jesus, you have eternal life.’ ”

“Do you believe that?”

“Well, yeah, it’s in the Bible. I suppose it’s true.”

“So you do believe in Jesus?”


“So you have eternal life?”


“And you know that because the Bible says so?”


“So you’ve got assurance. Case dismissed. Out you go.”

Well, for some people who aren’t convinced in the sufficiency of Christ’s cross work, that God’s promises really hold, you might have to go around that circle two or three times. But if it’s a deacon who has been in the church for some time and comes to me with that problem, I’ll tell you the first question I’m going to ask him.

I’m going to ask him when he started sleeping with his secretary. I’m going to ask him when he stopped praying. I’m going to ask him what he’s doing wrong at home. Is he cheating on his income tax? I’m going to ask him what kind of sin he has mucking up his life so that he has lost his assurance?

In other words, the loss of Christian assurance has many, many different causes, and as there are different causes, there are different pastoral solutions. To take one of these elements and make it the whole is to distort the nuances and subtlety and richness and love and sensitivity of God in giving us a Bible that is so rich and well-orbed to meet us in our various needs. To get a wrong diagnosis is to prescribe the wrong medicine.


Is there enough evidence for us to believe the Gospels?

In an age of faith deconstruction and skepticism about the Bible’s authority, it’s common to hear claims that the Gospels are unreliable propaganda. And if the Gospels are shown to be historically unreliable, the whole foundation of Christianity begins to crumble.
But the Gospels are historically reliable. And the evidence for this is vast.
To learn about the evidence for the historical reliability of the four Gospels, click below to access a FREE eBook of Can We Trust the Gospels? written by New Testament scholar Peter J. Williams.