I’m so grateful that we met Dr. Christopher Cone, President of Tyndale Seminary, last weekend. He offered a Bible conference at the church we’ve been visiting for a year, Southwood Bible Church, in Tulsa.
Warning: Fancy Words Ahead
At the core of Dr. Cone’s teaching is a consistent application of the literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic.
A hermeneutic is the approach you use to interpret text, especially books of the Bible.
One hermeneutic is to take the Bible literally. This is Dr. Cone’s approach. This is also my desired approach. Certainly some things in Scripture are metaphors and analogies and parables that use one thing to illustrate something else. That “something else” is often a spiritual truth. In spite of metaphors and analogies and parables existing in the Bible, the literal hermeneutic says, “Let’s first and foremost just assume that the Bible means what it says. And if we read certain passages and find that God’s giving us an analogy of some kind, that will be fine. But we first assume it’s literal and it grammatically means what it grammatically says.”
Another approach to understanding Scripture is a spiritualization approach. Some people want to spiritualize away as much literal meaning as possible. This almost always comes from the result of trying to fit the Bible to say what your dogma wants it to say.
Are You Smarter than a Bible Writer?
I don’t consider myself smart enough to spiritualize meanings in most passages. That is why I prefer to take the Bible literally until further notice.
Dr. Cone’s teaching really brought this home for me.
For example, Dr. Cone has shown that Noah used a literal hermeneutic to understand God’s Word:
God told Noah: “Build a boat.”
So Noah built a boat.
If Noah wanted to spiritualize God’s Word, he would start analyzing all the things God possibly could have meant when He told Noah to build a boat. If Noah had a time machine and looked forward to learn all about Greek philosophy, Noah could have guessed that the “boat” was actually an anthropomorphism for Noah swimming in the sea of sin all around him.
Noah could have gone further and guessed that when God repented that He made mankind, that really meant that God did not repent that He made mankind.
It takes a really smart Greek philosopher to say that what God says is the opposite of what He really means. (Actually, it takes a really stupid Greek philosopher, such as Plato or Aristotle to say something that ignorant.) I’m not capable of knowing when God is saying the opposite of what He means. As a matter of fact, I’ll say that I’m so ignorant about things that I think God never means the opposite of what He says. So if He says he repents that He made man, I think that means that He repents that He made man.
So I want to just take God at His Word.
What’s This “Historical” Thing Mean?
So, a literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic means the first thing you do when you read any verse is assume it means exactly what it says. Upon further reading, if the verse turns out to be a metaphor then the Bible will make that clear through surrounding text. But generally, it literally means what it says.
The “historical” part of a literal grammatical-historical hermeneutic is interesting. As an example, the Old Testament means what it says. (No surprise there.) But the “historical” addition to the hermeneutic means that nothing in the future that would or may happen was required to understand and use any Scripture given earlier.
That means The New Testament isn’t required to understand the Old Testament (“NT primacy”). In Dr. Cone’s words:
“One implication worth noting here is that … means by ‘considering context and the progress of revelation’ that the earlier Biblical texts provide grounding and definition for later Biblical texts, and not the other way around (the OT is not to be reinterpreted by the NT, rather the NT is to be understood in light of the OT).”
Something in the Old Testament does not change meaning just because we get further revelation from the New Testament (forward history from the OT). The NT may very well help us see the “big picture” but the NT wasn’t needed for those to whom only had the OT. And to drive home the point even more, we should view the Old Testament as helping us understand the New Testament better, not the other way around.
We should view early passages in Scripture as providing a framework for later passages in other words.
So what are you going to do if God tells you to build a boat?