07 November 2005

Perspicuity of the Scriptures (2)

This post is especially difficult because the subject matter is complex and because I have waited so long to write it that I cannot help but be anticlimactic. A quick note before I start: everything good here I learned from my pastor through a sermon he preached in May.

I would like to suggest that there are five ways to determine whether a doctrine is inescapable or not. These methodologies are interdependent. Some are foundational to others, and I will try to organize them accordingly.

(1) One can know a teaching is inescapable if denying it undermines the Christian view of the Scriptures. This criterion is foundational to all of the following ones, and it is also broader than the others. Take, for example, the historicity of Demas (Col 4:14), one of Paul's associates. It seems that a denial of the historicity of Demas may materially affect no other teaching of the Scriptures, save this: the accuracy and authority of God's written revelation. If the Scriptures are accurate and if words mean anything, then Demas had to be a real person. Many statements in Scripture are so crisp that one cannot deny them without denying the efficacy of language or the accuracy of the Scriptures: these statements are inescapable.

(2) One can know a teaching is inescapable if the Scriptures exclude those who deny it from the community of faith. There are numerous examples in the Scriptures of people being excluded from the believing community because they denied something made clear by the apostles or because they taught something the apostles clearly denied. For instance, the Apostle John records in his first letter, "Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist-- he denies the Father and the Son" (1 John 2:22). Many teachings in Scripture have been made so clear that the apostles refuse the name "Christian" to those who deny them: these teachings are inescapable.

(3) One can know a teaching is inescapable if the apostles explicitly attach the teaching to lexical data such as "the gospel," "the faith," or "the truth." 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 outlines a list of such truths including the death and resurrection of Christ. (Notice how this text also falls into the above categories. If one denied that James saw the resurrected Lord, he would be denying a clear statement [see #1]. Also Paul makes clear, "By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain" [v. 2]. That is, if one denies these teachings he must be designated an unbeliever [see #2].) Many teachings in Scripture have been made so clear that the apostles tell us that they are part of the gospel: these teachings are inescapable.

(4) One can know a teaching is inescapable if the teaching is essential to the logic of the gospel. Paul seems to be making this type of point when he says in 1 Corinthians 15:13, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised." Apparently some Corinthians were beginning to doubt or deny the possibility of bodily resurrection. But Paul says "If there is no resurrection, then one of the central truths of the gospel [see #3] cannot be true." This method is obviously related to #1, but it is more specific. The first method relates to the Scriptures universally, the second relates to the message of salvation in particular. Many teachings in Scripture have been made so clear that the apostles used them as foundational truths upon which the message of salvation is built: these teachings are inescapable.

(5) One can know a teaching is inescapable if the teaching has been universally affirmed throughout orthodox Christianity. This method is tricky, but I think it stands if the other four methods are presupposed. History works for us neither as an authority nor an interpreter. She is neither the law nor the judge; she stands only as a witness. So here is how I would explain the role of history: One way we can know that our Teacher is clear on such-and-such is to look back through the corridors of time at those who were likewise committed to the same Teacher (see #1-4). If they have universally understood and submitted to the Teacher in such-and-such a way, then we are probably wise to follow their example. Many teachings in Scripture have been made so clear that true Christians have never strayed from them: these teachings are inescapable.

The benefits of these methods are at least twofold. (1) They reserve the disciple's ultimate allegiance for his self-interpreting Teacher. (2) They mark out for the disciple those whom he may legitimately call co-disciples and also those who would lead him away from his Teacher.

An unfortunate result of a methodological survey like this is that it tends to turn the disciple into a minimalist. The true disciple is not concerned only with what his Teacher makes clear but with every drip of wisdom his Teacher gives. He barrages his Teacher with questions, longing to learn and obey. We should be not satisfied merely with those things that are inescapably clear, and I think I'll direct my attention to that dissatisfaction in my next entry.

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