Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Text without a Context, Pt. 3 - Dr. Bob Payne

Continued from September…

PASSAGE #2: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20)

Revelation 3:20 is a passage that has been used for many years in gospel presentations. It is normally used as a "clincher" verse to demonstrate a person's need for personal acceptance of Christ as Savior. It is usually applied this way: "Christ is knocking at your heart's door . . . all you must do is invite Him in and He will save you from your sins." Most picture in their minds Warner Sallman’s Famous picture, Christ Knocking at Heart’s Door. BUT, is this an appropriate and contextually accurate way to apply this passage? Furthermore, is this application theologically correct? I believe that the answer to both of these questions must be a resounding "no!"

I would like to convey through this article that Revelation 3:20 was never intended to be used as a salvation verse at all, but is actually an exhortation to believers. I will present my case in two parts. First, I will demonstrate that using Revelation 3:10 as a salvation verse rests upon a defective interpretation of the text. Second, I will also seek to present a contextually accurate understanding of the passage under consideration.


Is Revelation 3:20 a salvation passage? Look at the context. In Revelation 3, verses 14-22 we find the last of the messages to the seven churches. Verse 14 tells us that Christ is addressing this letter to the "angel [most assuredly a reference to a pastor, not an angelic being] of the church of the Laodiceans." From this point on, there is no indication whatsoever that our Lord is dealing with anyone else but believers. No doubt these Christians were disobedient, careless and complacent, but the context does not even hint to us that these people were anything else but genuine believers.

Notice the language of v. 19: "as many as I love." The Greek verb translated "love" here is phileo. As Dr. Daniel B. Wallace writes in his article, "Revelation 3:20 and the Offer of Salvation:" "Here phileo is used for ‘love'--a term that is never used of God/Jesus loving unbelievers in the NT. (Indeed, it would be impossible for God to have this kind of love for an unbeliever, for it routinely speaks of enjoyment and fellowship . . . )." Reading further in v. 19, we notice the words: "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten [italics mine]." The passage indicates that the ones whom Christ loves, He disciplines. According to Hebrews 12:6-8 only true sons are disciplined by the Lord, not those who are unsaved:

"For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons."

God does not discipline those who are not His. Clearly, the context reveals that only saved people are in view in Revelation 3:20, not unbelievers.1

The concept of a person "inviting Jesus into his heart" is also attributed to Revelation 3:20. It is based upon a careless translation of eiseleusomai pros auton. There is no problem with the A.V.'s rendering of this Greek clause: "I will come in to him." However, a difficulty occurs when interpreters try to translate the clause: "I will come into him." The two meanings are quite different. Neither the Greek nor the English is hinting at penetration ("into"), but rather direction ("to"). If Christ would have been indicating penetration into the human heart, the Greek word eis would have been used, and the translation "I will come into him" would be justified. But the Greek word pros is used here, indicating (in this context) motion towards someone. Wallace clarifies the issue for us:

"The idea of ‘come into' would be expressed with eis as the independent preposition and would suggest a penetration into the person (thus, spawning the idea of entering into one's heart). However, spatially prov" means toward, not into. In all eight instances of eisercomai pros in the NT, the meaning is ‘come in toward/before a person' (i.e., enter a building, house, etc., so as to be in the presence of someone), never penetration into the person himself/herself. In some instances, such a view would not only be absurd, but inappropriate (cf. Mark 6:25; 15:43; Luke 1:28; Acts 10:3; 11:3; 16:40; 17:2; 28:8)."

It is perhaps best to avoid such expressions as "inviting Jesus into your heart." It is, at best, an expression that is extra-biblical and theologically questionable. Moreover, the terminology can create great confusion in the minds of children.2 It would be far better for us to use the biblical term, "faith."3 Wallace has some significant observations:

"Among other things, to use this text as a salvation verse is a perversion of the simplicity of the gospel. Many people have allegedly 'received Christ into their hearts' without understanding what that means or what the gospel means. Although this verse is picturesque, it actually muddies the waters of the truth of salvation."


In Revelation 3:20 Christ is portrayed as standing outside the lives of church members. The Laodicean church had become complacent and self-sufficient. They no longer felt that they needed the Lord, for they were "rich, and increased with goods," and "had need of nothing." They were about to be judged, and now Christ tenderly appeals to them one more time, as individuals, to return to intimate fellowship with Him. William R. Newell writes,

"Here we have Christ in all His tenderness, His unfathomable devotion! In these last words to the Church, the love of the Bridegroom makes Him forget wholly the work of the Judge. It is The Beloved, of the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 5:2).

This final plea of the Lord Jesus to the individual heart, where he has been shut out of the love and fellowship of the general company, should win every heart that UNDERSTANDS!" (The Book of the Revelation, p. 79).

Our text says, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock." The perfect tense of the verb histemi portrays the standing as a past action with present, continuing results. The present tense of the verb krouo indicates a continuous knocking. Christ's appeal to the individuals of the church (as well as to lukewarm Christians today) is to open the door ("if any man hear my voice, and open the door"), so as to let Him back into their miserable, empty lives. Then, and only then could the intimate relationship with their Lord be restored ("I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."). Concerning deipneso ("sup"--which is a metaphor for fellowship), J. Hampton Keathley III writes in his internet commentary on the book of Revelation:

"Dine is a Greek word which referred to the main meal of the day—a real feast. This Greek word, deipnew, was used not only of the chief meal of the day—a full course dinner—but of the meal which was the occasion for hospitality and fellowship. At this meal, however, He is the host. It is He who sets the table and we are His guests dining on that which He has provided."

Revelation 3:20 is clearly a passage written to Christians to repent of sin and be restored to full fellowship with the Lord. Again, Keathley writes,

" . . . this passage is addressed to the church—to believers. This is a call to fellowship with the Savior. As an invitation to Christians, it's a call to repent, as commanded in verse 19. It is a call for confession of one's sins with a renewal of mind and heart to continue to draw upon the glorious life of Christ daily through walking by the Spirit and living in the Word. It means abiding in Christ, the vine (John 15:1-7; 1 John 1:7-10; Eph. 4:20-24; 5:14-18; Rom. 8:1-16)."

May each one of us heed Christ's appeal in the midst of this uncaring and spiritually apathetic generation!

1. Walvoord agrees, "This was an appeal to Christians rather than to non-Christians" (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, p. 942).
2. How well I remember a Junior High student telling me of the time when her little brother "asked Jesus into his stomach" because he couldn't understand how Jesus could live in a person's heart!
3. We should all reevaluate our soteriological terminology to make sure that it is biblical. How cautious we need to be!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Intellectual Quicksand - Dr. Clay Nuttall

Editor's Note: I am interrupting my series on “A Text without a Context” to publish an article by Dr. Clay Nuttall. One of the characteristics of what might be termed a “Reformed hermeneutic” is an arrogant, “cerebral” approach to the scriptures. This results in a “we are smarter than you are” attitude. Human reasoning at times takes precedence over biblical teaching.

In his article “Intellectual Quicksand” Dr. Nuttall deals with the arrogant attitude of intellectualism that is threatening the consistently literal hermeneutic that those who write for this blog hold so dear.


One of our readers, a good friend, wrote me about a conversation he had had with a future seminarian. The young man was quite enamored with the intellectuals in today’s evangelicalism, and he complained about a lack of intellectualism among fundamentalists. I mention this incident because I have had the same experience with at least a half dozen young men over the past few months.

Personally, I am thrilled to find anyone who not only is searching for information, but also is willing to screen massive amounts of material in order to understand the meaning of a given subject. One of my major goals as a teacher is to press my students on toward analytical and critical thinking. They need to learn to ask questions about everything.

The problem with this illustration is that every one of the above-mentioned young men was guilty of the same mistake; they sought intellectualism, but seemed unable to recognize the difference between truth and error in the midst of it. Several of the popular figures they identified as intellectuals teach theological error openly, but the younger men seemed to lack the ability to recognize that fact.

Such is the danger of broad intellectualism, an elitism that is heady for a young student - it is a spider’s web. It is quicksand, ready to entrap the unsuspecting.


Now mind you, I am not defending the presence of dull or lazy minds in fundamentalism. Although it has had - and does have – many thinking theologians, I don’t think I could honestly say that this is the norm in our movement. The absence of careful and demanding study has provided us with a fairly nasty list of examples of how not to do it. The debates we have observed are too often extremely shallow, usually ending with personal attacks. (We have probably learned that technique from the liberals, who always attack character when they don’t have an answer.)

The blame for this void cannot be pinned on any one thing. It could be that so many of our churches, with their lame excuses for any kind of organization, have caused this. The lack of really serious Bible study, along with too many flat-line sermons, might have something to do with it. In addition, I’m sure our educational institutions haven’t put this issue on the front burner because, without exception, all the young men referred to at the beginning of this article are from “schools of our stripe”.

No matter who or what is to blame, it is sad that we have failed to stir their thinking process. It is tragic that we did not give them the tools that would enable them to recognize theological error. And so they rush off to study under some intellectual guru who will instruct them to think about error as though it were truth.


Please don’t write me before you read the following: I am not against intellectual pursuit! We need to demand that our young folks learn to practice analytical and critical thinking. They need to do so with a strong Biblical understanding of how to recognize error even when it is cloaked in apparent intelligence.

What kind of intellectualism is it that passes error on as if it were equal to truth? It is an information repository that is less than honest, that lacks integrity. Intellectual pagans are not deserving of our adulation. The apostle Paul speaks of this very issue in II Timothy 3:7 - “Ever learning, and never coming to the knowledge of the truth.”

Elite intellectualism in itself is a curse, rather than something to be worshiped. It is information without benefit of wisdom. It is academia at its worst. Someone who is smart only about facts may possess only half the wits he needs in order to be actually intelligent.

Every reader could do something to set this aright. Step No. 1: spend those hours reading instead of staring at the tube. Step No. 2: learn to ask questions about everything you read. In your study of the Scripture, stop telling the text what it says, and instead start asking questions of the text. Learn to think; and pass that skill on to those around you, particularly the young people. Perhaps then in the future we will have fewer young men being drawn into the quicksand of intellectualism. We need more people who, when they come face to face with bald-faced error, are aware of it. That, surely, would give joy to the heart of our Heavenly Father.


It is not just the young men who are in danger of being taken in by an orator with information and a smooth tongue. Some months ago in this journal I referred to a very popular writer as a “false teacher” because he holds or supports several unbiblical views, such as Preterism. That makes him a false teacher. Since he is viewed as an intellectual, I was not really surprised at how many of you wrote to scold me.

The real problem behind all this is that I do not know of any of these evangelical icons who practice a hermeneutic that is Biblical. What, then, does that say for the well-meaning friends who rush to their defense?

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Text without a Context, Pt. 2 - Dr. Bob Payne

The hymn writer wrote:

"Sing it o'er and o'er again:
Christ receiveth sinful men;
Make the message clear and plain:
Christ receiveth sinful men."

It is vitally important for us as Bible believers to make sure that we "make the message clear and plain" as we seek to present the gospel to a lost world. Some well-meaning, genuinely zealous Christians, have fallen into the trap of carelessly using out-of-context passages to present the "good news" about Jesus Christ. Passages torn from their context definitely do not "make the message clear and plain!" In fact, applying passages incorrectly only makes the gospel message seem confusing; and ultimately, serves to destroy the credibility of the entire plan of salvation.

Although there are seemingly an endless number of passages which are incorrectly interpreted as salvation passages, our study for the next two articles will center on only two verses: 1 John 1: 9; and Revelation 3:20. I hope to demonstrate that the contexts in which these verses are found are referring to those who are redeemed, not to those who are unsaved. As a result of this, it will become obvious that to use these two passages in our gospel presentation is inaccurate and potentially dangerous. The passages within the Word of God that speak of man's sinfulness, the penalty for sin, and the remedy for sin are numerous. There is no excuse for using inaccurately applied passages to point people to Christ! May God use this study to drive each one of us to "dig" into God's Word so that we might "rightly divide (handle accurately) the word of truth."

PASSAGE #1: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)

This verse from John's first epistle is sometimes applied in this way: "God wants those who don't know Him as Savior to confess their sins to Him. Only then can He forgive a person of his sins and cleanse him from all unrighteousness." At first glance the statement may seem harmless, but it not only presents a verse out of context, it also teaches doctrine that is patently false and unbiblical. Should those who have never received Christ as Savior be urged to confess individual sins in order to be saved? Our answer must be an emphatic and resounding "no!" Those who do not know the Lord are never commanded to confess their individual sins, but are only to acknowledge their sinfulness (Rom. 3:23).

To understand the context, and ultimately the correct teaching of this verse, we need to understand the identity of "we" in 1:9 (obviously the author is including himself). There are four possibilities: 1) the word "we" is referring to humanity in general (of whom John is a part); 2) the word "we" is referring to all unbelievers (of whom John is a part); 3) the word "we" is referring to all those who profess to know Christ as Savior (some are saved and some are not. . . of whom John is a part); or 4) the word "we" is referring to all believers (of whom John is a part).

With very little difficulty we should be able to immediately exclude #2 from our consideration. It would be impossible for the "we" to be referring to those who are unsaved, since John would have to be including himself in this group. Would it not be more than a bit absurd to say that John considered himself to be a lost man?

Nevertheless, could 1 John 1:9 be speaking of mankind in general (#1), or perhaps just professing Christians (#3)? Our answer must be an emphatic “no.” The context of the book makes this clear. Chapter one, verse three tells us that "truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ." This would not be an appropriate designation for either mankind in general, or for those who just professed Christ and didn't actually know Him. Also, notice the following statements found in chapter two, verses one and two: "My little children," and "we have an advocate with the Father," as well as "he is the propitiation for our sins." Once again, these statements would not be appropriate descriptions of either #1 or #3. The only way to sensibly interpret the "we" of verse nine is as a reference to all believers (#4).

As we read further in John's first epistle, we will also notice that in chapter two, verses 12-14, John tells us directly that he is addressing believers. Just a few verses later, he indicates yet again that he is writing to those who know the truth: "I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth" (2:21). No, John is not writing to humanity in general, or to the unsaved, or to merely professing Christians, but to genuine believers.

Keeping the context in mind, how then do we understand "confession" as it relates to a believer? First, it is important to understand the meaning of the word. The Friberg Greek Lexicon defines the Greek word homologeo, which is translated in 1 John 1:9 as "confess": "fr. a basic mng. of saying the same thing. . . as confessing that someth. is true admit, agree (HE 11.13); of an acknowledgment of sins confess (1J 1.9)." God wants us as believers, when we sin, to immediately confess/admit/agree with Him about our sin. Continual confession of known sin is an important part of the Christian life. Dr. Hall Harris writes in his internet commentary: "John points out that if as Christians we confess the sins we are aware of, we may be sure that God will forgive our sins and cleanse us not only from those sins we confess but from all unrighteousness."

So then, the meaning of the word isn't difficult, but just what is the purpose of this confession? Does it help "keep us saved?" J. Dwight Pentecost writes concerning 1:9:

"When the believer sins, the blood of Christ is instantaneously, automatically applied to the believer (v. 7), maintaining his sonship with the Father, but sin has broken fellowship. My child may strain our relationship by disobeying, but he is still my child. Disobedience does not affect position, it affects fellowship. To be restored to fellowship with God we must confess our sin" (The Joy of Fellowship, pp. 30-31).

Donald Burdick agrees,

"It must be remembered that this epistle was written to those who already are forgiven (2:12). John is not here speaking of the initial forgiveness of sin which occurs at the point of salvation. At that time the guilt of all one's sins--past, present and future--is forgiven. The forgiveness of this verse, however, is an experience which comes after salvation. Its function is to remove that which has disturbed the believer's fellowship with God. Whereas the former is a legal remission of guilt, the latter is the Father's forgiveness of His child to restore undisturbed communion" (The Epistles of John, pp. 26-28).

Zane Hodges also concurs with Pentecost's and Burdick's view on confession:

"What is considered in 1 John 1:9 may be described as ‘familial' forgiveness. It is perfectly understandable how a son may need to ask his father to forgive him for his faults while at the same time his position within the family is not in jeopardy. A Christian who never asks his heavenly Father for forgiveness for his sins can hardly have much sensitivity to the ways in which he grieves his Father. . . . The teaching that a Christian should not ask God for daily forgiveness is an aberration" (1 John from the Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament volume, p. 886).


How careful we need to be with our interpretation of 1 John 1:9! To the unsaved man, sin is a matter between a lawbreaker and the Judge; but to the believer, sin is a matter between a son and his Father. Confession of sin does not maintain the believer's salvation, but it maintains the son's (small "s") close fellowship with his Heavenly Father. 1 John 1:9 encourages believers to daily and regularly confess known sin as the Holy Spirit brings it to our minds. To use this passage as an encouragement for people to receive Christ as Savior is not accurate. 1 John 1:9 is clearly a passage directed to Christians. Zane Hodges' comments are appropriate to conclude our study:

". . . confession of sin is never connected by John with the acquisition of eternal life, which is always conditioned on faith. First John 1:9 is not spoken to the unsaved, and the effort to turn it into a soteriological affirmation is misguided" (1 John from the Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament volume, p. 886).

Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Text without a Context, Pt. 1 - Dr. Bob Payne

When I was a student working on my undergraduate degree, I recall the professors “drilling” it into the heads of the “preacher boys” that “a text without a context is a pretext.” Although we as fundamental Baptists are critical of the cults when they take scripture out of context (and rightfully so), there are many who claim to have a high regard for the Word of God who do the same.

In most cases out-of-context preaching/teaching among fundamentalists is not purposeful. Many times at the root of the problem is a faulty hermeneutic, or a careless exegesis of the passage. Other times, well-meaning believers will lift a passage out of its context because of “innocent” ignorance. Perhaps they are repeating what they have heard someone else preach or teach. Although unintentional, it is still a serious error to mishandle the Word of God.

I am writing this short series of articles to emphasize the importance in hermeneutics of handling the Word of God in a contextually accurate way. The purpose of this series is not to “condemn” well-meaning fundamentalist brethren, nor is it to set myself up as the “final word” in hermeneutics. Instead, my desire is for this series to serve as a reminder concerning how careful we need to be as we approach the subject of scriptural interpretation. Whether we are preachers or not, we all need to use great care in handling the Scriptures, so that we might not violate the scriptural admonition given in 2 Timothy 2:15 to “rightly divide (handle accurately) the word of truth.” If unsaved folks can’t trust us to interpret a simple passage accurately, how can they trust us to accurately tell them about God’s simple plan of salvation?

Our day is a day of bad hermeneutics. Both preachers and non-preachers alike need to return to a diligent, careful study of God’s Word using a sound hermeneutical process. Although the main part of the hermeneutical process that I will be examining in this series is the context, the meaning of the text cannot be determined without also giving due consideration to such things as grammar, word studies, and historical background. These will also be included in our study as appropriate.

This month we will consider a commonly misapplied Bible verse…

"Where there is no vision, the people perish."
Proverbs 29:18a

I have heard more than one preacher interpret Proverbs 29:18 this way: “What Christians need today is real vision. Believers today are lacking in vision, and that is why so many are perishing and going to a Christless hell. . . 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.’” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the statement just written. The problem is the “proof text.” Both the original language and the context clearly demonstrate that this is an erroneous interpretation and application of Proverbs 29:18. The word translated “vision” has very little to do with our common, modern English definition: “Unusual competence in discernment or perception; intelligent foresight….”[1]

The BDB Lexicon defines the Hebrew word translated “vision” (hazon in Hebrew) in Proverbs 29:18 in this way: “divine communication in a vision, oracle, prophecy.” When we combine this lexical definition with the context of the latter part of the verse ("but he that keepeth the law, happy is he"), it becomes apparent that this passage is not teaching that we need to “catch a vision of a lost world.” The subject of the verse is not intelligent foresight, but revelation!

The “vision” in Proverbs 29:18 is a prophet’s vision. 1 Samuel 3:1 speaks of this type of revelation: “And the child Samuel ministered unto the LORD before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no open vision.” Derek Kidner wrote, “Vision. . . is to be taken in its exact sense of the revelation a prophet receives. Law in line 2 is its complement” (Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 175). So, the word “vision,” as well as its complementary term, "law," indicates that the subject of this verse is revelation from God.

The word translated “perish” is also often misunderstood. The term does not refer to “perishing in hell” (John 3:16). Instead, we need to understand the Hebrew word, as the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 737 indicates: “‘to let loose’ in the sense of ‘to let run wild’….” The author then gives a possible translation of this verse: “‘Where there is no vision (revelation from God), the people are “undisciplined/get out of hand”.’” Delitzsch uses the words “ungovernable” and “disorderly” to translate this Hebrew term (Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 6, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon). Kidner (Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, pp. 175-176) gives a similar idea when he translates the KJV word “perish,” as “run wild.” He writes, “The verb means to let loose, e.g. to let one’s hair down, whether literally (Lv. 13:45; Nu. 5:18; ?Jdg. 5:2) or figuratively (especially in Ex. 32:25 (twice): RV ‘broken loose’, etc.).” The modern translations do a good job rendering this word as “unrestrained” (NAS), and “cast off restraint” (NIV).

The meaning of Prov. 29:18 becomes plain when the words and the context are clearly understood. The author’s message is that “where there is no prophet’s vision the people cast off restraint/run wild/get out of hand, but he that keeps the law is blessed.” Although the gift of prophecy is not in effect in our day, the modern application is obvious: when the Word of God is ignored (or not present) people live unrestrained lives. We see the sad truth of this verse in churches today, as well as in our own nation. We can only find restraint and joyful living as the Word of God is heeded!

[1] “vision.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 26 Jul. 2007.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Hermeneutics, Pt. 6 - Dr. Clay Nuttall

Hermeneutical Aberrations

There is nothing wrong with forcing people to think by expanding their vocabulary, nor is there anything wrong with inventing terms that serve to clarify. I do think, though, that there is something wrong with inventing or using terms that will cause confusion in the reader’s mind. Our task, therefore, is to make sure to define our own terms in a way that will make them very clear to others. It is equally important that we challenge and clarify the new or unusual terms that others are using. Some of them may contribute to our growth, but others are used for the specific purpose of misleading people. In the past, that practice has been termed “turnspeak.” Commonly used words are actually given new definitions and motives are later revealed.

This illustration will help you understand why the interpreter must continually be asking questions. When I was in seminary, a favorite professor frequently stated that “all truth is God’s truth.” He would then proceed to integrate some philosophical point into the Bible text. He was very skillful at this practice, but after a while, it became quite clear that his truth was changing the actual meaning of the Bible text. It is still true that “all truth is God’s truth.” It is also true that what men often call truth is really thinly veiled heresy. Facts, philosophies, propositions, and concepts may well be intellectual information, but that does not make them truth.

Word games are good for us. It is wise, however, to see how quickly you can simplify something that has been deliberately complicated. The same is true with things that are similar, because we have learned that similarities are not equals. Using confusing similarities, for example, is one of the methods that atheistic evolution has employed to blind its captives.

Good and Bad Hermeneutical Tools

In the bibliography of your syllabus, several books have been listed for your consideration. Remember, I have already warned you that your source reading will contain a number of suspect concepts. At this point, I want you to begin to work through these problems using the things you have learned about the Biblical system of interpretation.

The interpreter needs to investigate several hermeneutical issues, using the tools that rise from Scripture. The first issue is the relationship of Old Testament and New Testament literature. You will want to use great care in reading through the material that comes from those who support the second system of interpretation. The fact is that tools have been developed to support aberrant theological positions, and those theories should be your first clue.

The Church

Looking at the very sequence of the Bible text, it should be clear that the Old Testament is revealed in the New Testament. One should be careful not to force meaning on the text, even in interpreting New Testament texts that explain the Old. For instance, the church was a mystery. It is first mentioned prophetically in the gospels. That means it did not exist before then, and the text tells us it did not exist before Pentecost. It is not until the epistles that we have any substantial information about the church. The book of Acts is like a primer creating a list of questions on this subject. There is no church polity in the gospels and, even though some would choose to disagree, the gospels are really Old Testament literature.

The Old Testament declares pointedly that there would be salvation for the gentiles. The prophets connect the gentiles with Christ in several ways. As the light, He brings salvation to the gentiles. (Isaiah 42, 49) As the Root of Jesse, He is to reign over the gentiles in His Messianic millennial kingdom. This does not mean, however, that the church was revealed or prophesied in the Old Testament.

To understand these challenges, you will want to read carefully about “continuity and discontinuity.” Your research will take you to the “complementary hermeneutic,” and you will also want to read about the “evangelical hermeneutic.” Be sure to review these carefully.

The Holy Spirit and Illumination

The apostle Paul encourages us with information about the Holy Spirit’s ministry in guiding us to an understanding of revelation from God. (I Corinthians 2:10-14) The Spirit plays a major role in leading us into a faithful interpretation of the Bible text and protecting us from personal or private interpretation. Christ promised us that the Holy Spirit would be our guide and teacher, that He would be our comforter, and that He would be with us and in us. (John 14) This helps to give us confidence about arriving at a correct interpretation of Scripture.

There is one disturbing concept that corrupts this marvelous teaching - the idea that the Spirit gives us new meaning that adds to the Bible, or information in contrast to the Bible. That is outside the realm of orthodoxy. The Holy Spirit does lead us into truth, but nothing He teaches us will ever conflict with the trusted Bible text.

In his book on evangelical interpretation, Millard J. Erickson quotes Daniel Fuller:

“More recently, a radically different view of the role of the Holy Spirit has arisen. According to this view the Holy Spirit’s real role is not giving cognition, or knowledge of the meaning of the Scripture, but making possible the reception of that truth. Perhaps the clearest and most definite statement of this position has been given by Daniel P. Fuller.

Fuller begins by noting that some in the history of the church have relied on the Holy Spirit in contrast to the methods of determining the verbal meaning of the text. Origen, for example, insisted that since the writers of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit to give them the content of the Scripture that they wrote, the interpreter must also be taught by the Holy Spirit. This will enable the interpreter to go beyond the historical grammatical data or literal meaning of the Bible to its spiritual meaning. Fuller observes that “The problem with this understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in Biblical interpretation is that the words of the text can play no essential role in conveying its intended meaning, even though it is these very words which the writers were inspired to use in transmitting God’s message to men.”1

The reader may be puzzled or shocked at such self-assumed license, but there is nothing new about this view. Such radical ideas are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to rewrite the divine revelation settled in the Bible. At one point in the second century, Clement of Alexandria and Origen used this and other errant hermeneutical ideas to replace the existing hermeneutic. Up to that time, literal interpretation had been the dominant factor. Since the time of this intellectual revolution, all of Christianity has suffered, to some degree, from the influence of an allegorical interpretation.

As part of our graduate program, I teach near Alexandria, Egypt, every Fall and Spring. To this very day, the theology of the Middle East is an allegorical disaster. What we have been able to do is to bring back to Alexandria the very thing it lost back in the second century. That concept is the very heart of this course.

Our course text will give you some background on the issue of literal interpretation in the first century. What you will learn is that doctrines such as the millennium and the imminent return of Christ were taught in the first century because they rose from the literal text. You should consider getting a copy of the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, complied by Grenz, Guretzki and Nordling. To search such historical gems will launch your mind in the right direction. This book records the following:

“Alexandrian school. So called because of its origin in the city of Alexandria (Egypt), this Christian center of scholarship was led first by Clement of Alexandria in A.D. 190 and then by Origen in A.D. 202. The Alexandrian school was influenced by the philosophy of Plato and understood the task of Biblical interpretation as seeking out its literal, moral and allegorical senses. In other words, the Alexandrian theologians taught that although the Bible was literally true, its correct interpretation lay in the moral or allegorical senses more than in the literal sense.”2

You will have to follow this trail in your study of the history of hermeneutics. For now, I want you to note that what we have been proposing in detail throughout this class is exactly what is going on in the world today. The very same concepts, with their aberrations, are what we are trying to describe. There are two basic concepts of interpretation - one with a literal base, and a second with an allegorical base.
1. Erickson, Millard J. Evangelical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993.

2. Grenz, Stanley J., David Guretzki , and Cherith Fee Nordling. Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Hermeneutics, Pt. 5 - Dr. Clay Nuttall

The Extent of a System of Hermeneutics

We come now to the most effective illustration of what are basically two opposing systems. The amount of available material on this topic is so voluminous that we can consider only a few areas of contrast. Contrary to the protests of our theological peers, the grammatical/contextual/historical/literal system is more dissimilar than similar to the allegorical system, which is nearly identical to the reformed and covenant theological systems. The old adage says, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” In other words, the product tells us all we need to know.

No single issue in theology better describes this theological Grand Canyon than the subject of Israel and the church. Inside each of the two hermeneutical systems there are, understandably, some variances. The number of these differences is much smaller, however, in the literal-based system. In the allegorical base, the differences, though much greater as to number, are still common in their source.

The Literal Approach

Within the literal system, the widely held view is that the church is made up of those who are declared righteous, from the time of Pentecost up to the rapture and that the founding, history, and future of the church is distinctly clear and separate from national Israel. While the church does include Jews and Gentiles saved from Pentecost on, none of these is part of national Israel; they are known as “the bride of Christ” and will have that identification throughout eternity. It is also widely held by this group that the removal of the church from the earth will precede any portion of the tribulation period. This view sees God as dealing continually and separately with the Jews, the Gentiles, and the church.

The first system mainly views the ministry of the Holy Spirit as a clearly defined relationship with the church, beginning at Pentecost. Certain specific ministries are related to the church and not to Israel. These would include the baptism of the Holy Spirit and His indwelling relationship. This last item has a close similarity to the doctrine of the indwelling Christ: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” According to Scripture, only those who are in “the body of Christ” are “in Christ.”

The literal system has held that God made The New Covenant with Israel, not with the church. At the same time, the church has received benefit from that covenant, while not being a partner in it.

Among those who hold to a literal system, the subject of the kingdom, like all other matters, has some variance. In the main, however, there is a clear distinction between the eternal, universal kingdom and the theocratic, millennial, messianic 1,000-year physical reign. Historically, this system has not viewed the church as a kingdom or Christ as King of the church. This will be dealt with in detail later.

A literal interpretation has no quarter with the old liberal theological view of a general resurrection or general judgment. The end result of comparing a Biblical and literal interpretation of the text with the allegorical system is a major contrast of eschatological differences.

At this point, there is a need for clarification. There are those who would be legitimately included in the literal system who have some friendly, if not some relationship to several of the subjects just listed. Allow me to mention several areas of debate. The first is the permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Old Testament saints. The second is a relationship of the church to the New Covenant that would go beyond the sharing of some blessings, and the third is an inaugurated kingdom. This provides a good illustration of our earlier discussions. These intrusions into the literal community do not actually result from a careful use of the first system. These are examples of what happens when the allegorical system is integrated into the literal; it means that these are ideas borrowed from the covenant theological field. That is evident to anyone reading through the arguments of those who champion such hybrids.

It is also important to note that, just as these positions have been borrowed from the allegory-based system, others borrow from the first system. The result, then, is that those from the second system may hold some such distinctive as the any-moment rapture. There are two explanations for this. The first one is that, in recent years, many who had previously straddled the fence have begun moving to new theologies that represent the Reformed perspective. The second is that the allegorical system is so fluid that one could hold any view of the rapture or other event in prophecy. This may sound impossible, but that is the great negative of the allegorical base. If one decides on their own what is allegory, or what may be spiritualized in any selected text, they should expect confusion.

The Allegorical Approach

The second system provides ample evidence of the great divide in theological views between the two.

Views that flow from this second system vary widely. Their view of the church is so broad that it would include even Adam, while others see it as having begun with the Abrahamic covenant. Some would claim that the church includes the redeemed of the ages. One of the most popular views is that Israel has become the church, or that the church and Israel will become one in the future. None of these views rises from the literal Biblical view we have outlined. All of these views present great contrasts to that which is held by system one.

Since the distinctiveness of the church is set aside by the second system, it is no surprise that other views follow. It matters little to this system if the church is in the tribulation, if there is a millennium, or if you end up with just one people of God. One or more resurrections or judgments are possible. This, believe me, is vastly different from the literal system.

In contrast to the literal approach, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the New Covenant, prophetic and other events are up for auction. I think the reader can understand why there is so much animosity toward such a dependable and clear system as the literal Biblical hermeneutic.

Theological Theories

To confirm the above, one has only to take a look at the many popular and extreme theories looming on the horizon. We have already described supersessionism and the replacement theory, where Israel becomes the church in some form at some time, so I repeat this only for purposes of emphasis; it illustrates the great ocean of difference between the two contrasting systems of interpretation. The products of the two are violently different, and the differences are much greater than are the similarities.

The second system is capable of producing such theories as preterism. In this extreme position, one sees all prophecy as having already been fulfilled; there is no future rapture, tribulation, second coming, millennium, etc. Even more stunning is the list of famous evangelical names that have given credence to such fanciful ideas. The reader should pay close attention to those names and approach very cautiously anything that these types of theologians may propose.

The opposing view to a literal hermeneutic produced yet another idea. This one is called progressive dispensationalism. Reportedly, it was meant to provide a bridge between historic dispensationalism and covenant theology. It could be considered a failed attempt, because all of the above has demonstrated that the divide between these two views is not a mere creek - it is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. In the end, a cursory observation shows the movement as progressively edging toward the Reformed model. The reason for that conclusion is that the views in progressive dispensationalism mirror those that rise from the allegorical base.

Finally, there is the matter of the kingdom. I remember the liberal concept that was taught when I was a young student. They explained that they were “bringing in the kingdom, building the kingdom, and growing the kingdom.” Now those same terms are used freely by evangelicals and even by some fundamentalists.

The church is not a kingdom, nor is Christ king of the church. We are not building or growing a kingdom, let alone the kingdom. God’s plan for this age is the church, and we are not building or growing the church; God is doing that. In a prophetic statement, Matthew wrote, “And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

On final reminder is in order. These discussions are not about people. They are about ideas. We should, and must, speak firmly about ideas. Doing so will allow each reader to grow as a scholar and as a thinker.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Hermeneutics, Pt. 4 - Dr. Clay Nuttall

Hermeneutical Errors, Conclusions, and Theological Signposts

In obeying the rule of simplifying rather than complicating things, we need to consider another example. From my point of view, there are only two religions on this earth. The first is Biblical Christianity. Its authority is divine revelation, the very Word of God, and its God is the sovereign Creator. The second religion is what I like to call “Humianity” - a play, obviously, on the word “Christianity.” The authority of this religion is human reason, and its god is man. At a later point, I will make available to you my article entitled Humianity, the Religion of Man.

As in our previous discussions, we recognize that there is no perfect example of Biblical Christianity on this earth. It is all tainted with human reason, as any member of a local church should be able to see. The failure of man in his effort to defend subjectivity is no excuse for disobedience. Though there are no perfect local churches, our goal should still be to obey the Bible to the best of our ability. Being satisfied with mediocrity is not acceptable to God. We may not be able to attain pure objectivity, but it remains our goal nonetheless. Finding excuses to do it our own way does not set well with a holy God.

Biblical Christianity is dependent upon Biblical truth, which in turn is dependent upon a Biblical hermeneutic. We must not waste time trying to discover theories to mask our sin. People often argue that the temptation of Christ was not real, or fair, because He was God and could not have sinned anyway. That might give you a hint as to where the theory came from that Christ was capable of sinning. What Christ really demonstrated for us in His temptation is that we, also, can have victory in Him through the power of the Spirit. The illustration is not meant as an excuse to sin; rather, it is a positive encouragement to resist temptation.

The Spirit of Fear

If God is at the center of our hermeneutic, and our foremost goal is to show forth His glory, then there is another subject with which we must deal. Each month, I write an electronically published journal called The Shepherd’s Staff. The title of the September 2005 issue was “The Silent Pulpits,” and it is subtitled “Silence Is Not Always Golden - Sometimes It Is Yellow.” The article deals with today’s fearful shepherds who have grown silent about the wickedness and doctrinal error sweeping our land. In it, I point out the pressure put on them by well-known evangelicals - the ridicule and badgering of anyone who dares to step into the arena of ideas and discuss the possibility of mushrooming liberalism in evangelical, and even fundamental, churches. Thankfully, there are some brave souls willing to stand in thoughtful and forceful opposition to those who are leading the charge with their “pop theology.”

Every interpreter needs to be considerate of others, kind in spirit, and constantly learning. All study has a purpose. If we interpret the Bible solely to entertain ourselves and others, we are wasting our time. If we interpret the text to prop up our own subjective theology, we are disobeying God. If we rightly divide and study the Word of God to see our lives changed, as well as the lives of those to whom we minister, we do well. In my book, The Weeping Church, I quote Harry Blamires:

“The scholar evades decisiveness; he hesitates to praise or condemn; he balances conclusion against competing conclusion so as to cancel out conclusiveness; he is tentative, skeptical, uncommitted. The thinker hates indecision and confusion; he firmly distinguishes right from wrong, good for evil; he is at home in a world of clearly demarcated categories and proven conclusion; he is dogmatic and committed; he works toward decisive action.

To typify the extremes in this way is useful, but must not be taken too literally. For the scholar, as thus characterized, is not the only man who studies: and the thinker, as thus characterized, is not the only man who thinks. Obviously there is no scholar who does not think; and there is no thinker who is quite devoid of scholarship.”

This is exactly what we have been describing in the foregoing material. Of all the things a teacher might pray for in a student, the most important would be a proper balance between the scholar and the thinker. The thinker does not just parrot what others produce; he grinds it to powder to see what it is really made of. If he finds it flawed, he not only rejects it, but also reports the flaw to all who will listen. He is factual, but not cowardly. His search does not end with the discovery of error and the manifesting of it; he puts all his energy into discovering the true meaning to put in the place of error.

The thinker must be a scholar, but he cannot be afraid; he must be bold, but not brazen; he must be open, but honest; and he must be ready to endure the onslaught of those who are comfortable with mediocrity. This kind of interpreter will not be at all welcome in any denomination or institution that is committed to the status quo. He will be in the minority, for the simple reason that’s the way it has always been. He is the enemy of error and the foe of all who are comfortable with it. This person is ready and willing to deal openly with error and its companions.

Not Just Difference of Opinion

There would be no love or kindness in the decision to let sleeping people perish in their burning home because you hesitated to disturb them. Similarly, there is no compassion or Christ-likeness in remaining silent when an objective Biblical hermeneutic is being left behind. There is no faithfulness in silence when a faulty system continues to turn out faulty theological theory that will be devoured by many. It’s not just a difference of opinion. Everyone does have a right to his own opinions, but our concern must be with allowing the text to speak for itself.

For the better part of eighteen years, I hosted a radio program called “Pastor’s Perspective.” The program was aired live at noon each Wednesday. It was a 30-minute question-and-answer format and was always the highlight of my week. On one particular occasion, the last caller of the day was a woman asking a question about sign gifts. From my perspective, this was one of those softballs we had already fielded many times.

Her response to the Bible texts I offered was one of flat-out dismissal. She said, “I guess we just have two different interpretations.” “No”, I replied, “we don’t have two different interpretations; we have two different systems of interpretation.” That was, and still is, the real issue when it comes to hermeneutics, the science and system of interpreting Scripture.

[1] Blamires, Harry. The Christian Mind. Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1963. 51.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hermeneutics, Pt. 3 - Dr. Clay Nuttall

The Challenge to Literal Interpretation

One major problem in a discussion of literal interpretation is that people, not God, often end up being at the center of the discussion. Little is to be gained if we focus on man. It has been said that “small minds talk about people, and great minds talk about ideas.” One tool of liberalism is to argue that, if you challenge a person’s views, you are degrading that person. Even when we consider a person, or a group of people, who hold a particular position, we do not, and should not, degrade their character. If a person’s use of concepts indicates a lack of integrity, then that rises from the discussion of their ideas. People are not the enemy; error is. This issue, however, is one of the reasons people are opposed to identifying error.

When man is at the center of our thinking, we tend to chastise anyone who dares to be dogmatic about theology. Some would refer to people as “having another interpretation or point of view.” We are reminded of our need to respect others’ personal views. However when God is at the center, our concern is with what He has said and what He thinks. This is exactly why we need a Biblical hermeneutic.

Clarification and Consideration

Who is right? Which movement has the valid point of view? The answer is - none of them. God alone is perfect, and His truth is everlasting. That means our goal is to remain as close as we can to God’s truth as revealed in Scripture.

The next problem has to do with what people claim. Many in our theological realm would claim to follow the same rules of interpretation we have outlined; they just retain the right to define them differently. That is the first step away from revelation.

It is of little consequence that well known theologians may claim to hold to the literal system of interpretation. It is their product that will tell the real story. If five of these intellectuals go to the Scripture and come away with different interpretations, there is something we can know for sure: all of them may be wrong, but only one can be right. There is only one right interpretation - the one God has given. How did the others end up with error? The answer is simple. Either they failed to use the rules that rise directly from the Bible, or else they misused them.

There is often a great deal of difference between what people state and what they demonstrate. What we say we believe has to be proven, or demonstrated. Mere words are extremely hollow. For someone to claim to hold the same rules of interpretation, then to demonstrate otherwise is suspect. Take, for example, the atheist. I have met only a handful of people who actually say, “There is no God”; they are stated atheists. On the other hand, the majority of people I meet live as if there is no God; they are atheists by demonstration. We are what we hold in our hearts. This is exactly what the psalmist meant when he wrote, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God” (Psalm 53:1) So, we see that it is of little consequence for someone to claim to use the rules that rise from the Bible.

It should also be observed that most interpreters will use some portion of some of the rules, but that does not necessarily mean they are loyal to the whole set of guidelines. Our goal is not to see if we can be faithful to God’s hermeneutical instructions part of the time. If God is the center of our discipline, then it will not matter to us if someone is sincere and thinks he is right, or if he’s just doing the best he can. The fact that all men are imperfect is a given. To focus on God is to emphasize His infallibility rather than man’s fallibility.

There has to be a reason why men are so intent on protecting themselves. We do not know all there is to know about the Bible, and we never will, at least not this side of heaven. There are some things God simply has not meant for us to know. There are some passages the interpretation of which will never be known, and we have no right to force those passages. The interpreter should not be insulted that God has not told him everything.

A Bad Habit

Many Scripture texts are cloudy, but many are exceedingly clear. The clear ones establish the heart of Christian theology; in those essential areas, the Bible is very transparent. If this were not true, there could be no assurance of the salvation God has provided in Christ. We rejoice, therefore, in the things we know dogmatically, and we are willing to leave the others to our sovereign God.

Many contemporary theological theories take advantage of this point; that is, they practice using cloudy passages to confuse the clear ones. They waste valuable energy in building sandcastles on ifs, ands, and buts of a dislocated passage. This also happens with those who isolate the grammatical rule and construct theological error built on pronouns. We expect to use the clear passages to open doors to the cloudy.

Another bad habit you will observe in your reading is what appears to be a deliberate attempt to confuse people. The Reformed system does this by stating a multitude of suppositions and then drawing a conclusion that does not exist in any one of them, or in the totality of them. My advice to students is to learn to identify the old tool of liberalism quickly – complicating for the purpose of confusing. In our study of God’s truth, our goal should be to simplify in order to clarify. In study, and in ministry, this will make the interpreter effective.

False Charges

The literal system of interpretation revealed in Scripture has often been attacked. This system gives clear and concise answers from the text. It guards against theological error. Not only has literal interpretation been mischaracterized and falsely defined, it has been wrongly identified.

The Biblical system of interpretation has been accused of being too rigid, inflexible, and fixed. David Turner refers to it as “a wooden approach”.[1] He also states that it “tends to put the question of interpretation too simply.”[2] This illustrates exactly the point I just made about the irritation of theologians with simplicity. Turner goes on to criticize literal interpretation as “hyperliteral.”[3] On the other hand, those who have chosen the literal base of interpretation see the allegorical base as plastic, moveable, and pliable.

There is further complaint, this time about the approach we use. If hermeneutics is a science, or an art, then we would expect it to be exact as long as the rules are properly used. That is disturbing to those who have chosen the allegorical base. Their argument is that it cannot be that dependable, given the fallibility of man. The discussion, however, is not about man; it is about God. The question is, “Are these really God’s rules, and can we know what God’s rules are”? What is actually happening here is that God - not man - is being challenged.

The Biblical hermeneutic is like a mathematical system. The proper use of numbers results in the same answer over and over again. If there is an error, it can be blamed on the person using the system. What the allegorical base folks would do is to try to blame the mathematical system. That, in essence, is the fallacious argument being used by those who desire to weaken a literal approach. The proper use of God’s rules will repeatedly give us the same answer. If there is error in the conclusion, we should blame man rather than the hermeneutical system. Therefore, it is true that, if interpreters obeyed the rules, they would all come to the same theological conclusions. Our presuppositions and faulty conclusions would all be eliminated by obedience to God’s careful plan for interpretation.


The grammatical, contextual, historical, and literal rules of interpretation rise directly from the Scripture. If they are ignored, disobeyed, or corrupted, the conclusion itself will be erroneous. The reader will observe how this plays out in the following segments. The Reformed system rises from forces external to the Scripture, or a mixture of human reason and Bible texts.

One more important comparison must be made between literal and non-literal/allegorical methods. The centerpiece of Biblical interpretation, herein described, is the glory of God. That places God exactly where He ought to be. The centerpiece of all other approaches to interpretation is man. Our peers who hold to Reformed and Covenant positions would disagree. They seem to argue from the point that they have some part in everything. They do indeed hold to the importance of the glory of God, so that is not the question. Is the glory of God, however, really the centerpiece of their theology, writing, and preaching?

Their view appears to be that the glory of God comes through the redemptive plan. That is why one is overcome by the constant references to redemptive theology, redemptive history, and a particular theory of soteriology. As marvelous and powerful as this area of theology is, it represents only a portion of the reasons why the glory of God should be the centerpiece. While this may be misunderstood by some, it should be noted that God would still be worthy of glory had there been no plan for redemption. We would do well to avoid suppositions like this one but such a suggestion has the desired shock value.

To illustrate this concept, we need to make it clear that all interpreters use some literal interpretation and some allegory. The problem has to do with which base the person chooses. The base of literal interpretation goes to the text expecting it to be literal unless the text tells them that it is allegory; it begins with a literal view. The contrasting view actually begins with an allegorical perspective, which will be demonstrated repeatedly in this article.

[1] Blaising, Craig A. Darrell L. Bock. Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1992. 276.
[2] Ibid., p. 276
[3] Ibid., p. 277

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hermeneutics, Pt. 2 - Dr. Clay Nuttall

Methodology, Guidelines and Rules

The next step in laying our foundation for this course is to understand the proper use of each of these rules and also the reasons that rise from the text.

Grammatical Interpretation

The proper use of grammar in interpretation can not be underrated. Without this tool, it will be difficult to be confident in your conclusions. This is one of the reasons that languages play such an important part in the training of the interpreter. Having said this, however, let me give you an illustration. A friend wrote an article, which was published in a national magazine. He stated that, “Any interpretation that is not based on the grammar cannot be trusted.” I wrote to him and said, “Your statement is true and false. It is true as you stated it, but any interpretation based on the language alone cannot be trusted.”

This is why I protest the use of “Biblical theology” if it intends to communicate that the use of language alone means it is Biblical. The grammatical guideline is only one of the legs of the process. My godly father-in-law was a dairy farmer after the old style. He was also a diligent Bible student. Dad explained quite vividly what would happen if you tried to milk a cow while sitting on a stool with one or two legs. The result would be quite messy. He explained that milking a text of the Bible requires more than one or two legs for the same reason. While the illustration is a simple one, it is also brilliant.

A large number, if not a majority, of present day theological theories have risen from such violations of the Bible’s self-revealed rules of interpretation. This fall from the hermeneutical stool is illustrated in another term typically used by theologians. They refer to the proper hermeneutic as the “grammatical, historical” system. The reason this term and the “Biblical theology” term mentioned above are used appears to be simply a game of “Simon says.” If that is what the leading, or majority of, theologians are saying, then you have to say it the same way. Students must learn early in their studies to ask questions about such things. Later on, you will see that you have to ask, “What do you mean by grammatical, and what do you mean by historical, and why have you limited your guidelines to two when the Bible gives another?” I asked a friend this same question, and he said that when he uses the term “Grammatico-Historical,” he means to include the other things as well. I asked him, “Why don’t you just say what you mean then, instead of leaving people in doubt?”

A description of our system of Biblical interpretation might better be called “Grammatical, Contextual, Historical and Literal.” I can think of no reason why anyone should reject such an expanded designation.

Historical Interpretation

This rule, which rises from the Bible, refers to the historical setting at the time of the writing. It includes not only the author, but the geographical, social, cultural, political, religious, and physical contexts and much more. It takes some work to dig out that information, but it is available. While it may be incomplete, it is still better than trying to understand a text without it.

Here is another reason we need to ask questions. The historical setting at the time of writing is not what most people mean when they use the term “historical.” One person may mean the current culture as reflected upon the past. Yet another may be referring to the history of theology, or even church history, etc. While all of these are important, they are not what we mean when, in interpreting a text, we refer to the historical rule that rises from Scripture. Those other items are important when making application or understanding theological positions, but they are not the rule of historical interpretation. Even consideration of how a text might have been interpreted by others in the past is not the central area. Just think of the great number of passages that have been misinterpreted by so many in the past. That does not make their error truth. Even if error has been held by a majority, and for a significant period of time, it is still error.

This violation of historical interpretation is clearly illustrated by the practice of the liberal mind. I doubt you can find one liberal politician who is not also liberal in religion, because it is their system of thought that brings them to common conclusions. In our country, Supreme Court judges of a liberal persuasion have done this very thing. Instead of seeking the historical meaning, and the intent, of the authors of our Constitution, they have used such things as historical precedent, or case law, to rewrite the Constitution. This same practice is what theologians follow when ignoring the intent of Scripture as to historical interpretation. It should make us question why a theologian would use such a tool straight from the liberal agenda.

Contextual Interpretation

One of the reasons why context has been omitted from the definition is that current theologians consider context to be such a wonderful defining factor. Context will not let one get away with limiting interpretation to grammar or redefining “historical.” No text was ever intended to be isolated. A theological conclusion must be candled by every Scriptural statement dealing with that particular theological issue. Limitations on the meaning of a text are placed there by the Holy Spirit. Where, when, how, why, and to whom the text was written are all necessary factors in our understanding the intent of the writer. To exclude or ignore the rule of context removes one more limitation to the reader who has motive. Most theological errors are developed outside the Bible, with a subsequent effort to get the text to agree with them. That requires removing as many restraints as possible. It seems to matter very little that it was the Holy Spirit who placed those restraints in the text.

The purpose of this course, then, is to learn how to understand the guidelines God has revealed and to hold each other accountable to them.

Literal Interpretation

The final issue is the matter of literal interpretation. This subject, more than any other, has been misrepresented, maligned, and redefined. We cannot say whether this mischaracterization is deliberate, but it certainly has identified the spirit of the view that opposes literal interpretation. The interesting point here is that, in the overall consideration, we end up with just two basic forms of interpretation. A literal system is the Biblical system that rises from Scripture, and it produces a true Biblical theology. The non-literal system, with an allegorical base, is the contrasting view.

What, then, does “the rule that rises from the Bible” mean? It is the view that all texts are meant to be viewed as natural as they are. Like all literature, what the text says is what it means. There are indeed times when the text makes it clear that the material being presented is a symbol, type, or allegory, but when the text clearly indicates that the subject is a symbol, then that is the literal interpretation of that text.

The idea that literal interpretation means taking every passage as a literal being or situation, when the text and context indicate otherwise, is a false concept. What the non-literalist is really looking for appears to be a license to determine, outside the Bible rules, what is allegory, and it shows in their theological conclusions. This will be illustrated as we proceed.

Paul Tan has an interesting chapter in his book on this subject, and it is recommended reading.[1]

[1] Tan, Paul Lee. The Interpretation of Prophecy. Winona Lake: BMH Books Inc., 1976.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Hermeneutics, Pt. 1 - Dr. Clay Nuttall

Introduction to Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is foundational to all the Biblical subjects that you will examine. It precedes all theological study because correct theology demands a correct hermeneutic, and a Biblical hermeneutic will produce a Biblical theology. Erroneous theology can be traced to an errant hermeneutic.

For some, this will be a new exercise. For others, it is an advanced study in Biblical interpretation. In some cases, this experience in the Scriptures will guide you to an element of correction to commonly held misconceptions.

During your reading, you should be aware that there is more error written on this subject than truth. The goal of this article is to help the reader understand a Biblical hermeneutic and, as a result, be better able to identify both major and minor aberrations. This theme was deliberately chosen because it illustrates the contrast between use of a text-sourced system and others based on theory and/or philosophy.


The word “Biblical” is easy to use. Leaders tend to use it to legitimatize all kinds of humorous and seriously flawed theological notions. When we use the word, we mean “that which rises from the Bible without the infection of human presupposition and intent.” We need to learn to challenge things that are not logical, even those used by well-known intellectuals. The fact that a person is intellectual does not mean his conclusions are anywhere near the truth; any course in the history of Christian thought will give ample evidence of that fact. Well-meaning theologians often refer to Biblical theology as the discipline that is limited to the languages of the Bible. In listening to their explanations, I personally have concluded that they must view systematic theology, historical theology, and doctrinal theology as “lesser beings.”

The thinking person would have to ask, “If the study of Biblical languages is Biblical theology, would not that then make the other courses un-Biblical theology?” My view is that Biblical theology includes all that God has given in the theology of the Bible, rather than just one part. Later on, we will discuss the reason why any independent rule, such as the use of grammar alone, or as the primary rule can actually be dangerous.

We will continually refer to the hermeneutic that rises from the text of Scripture as the “Biblical hermeneutic,” and this will be demonstrated repeatedly.


In a broad sense, “Hermeneutics is a science of interpretation and termination. The word is derived from the name of the Greek god, Hermes, who was the messenger and herald of the gods and the interpreter of Jupiter.”[1] Hermeneutics is the art of finding the meaning and intent behind an author’s words.

Theology is a science, and it is rightfully called the queen of the sciences. In relation to the Bible, hermeneutics is the science of interpreting a Biblical text and then expounding the text based upon that interpretation.

This process goes far beyond individual words. Close attention must be paid to grammatical construction and syntax. We will see that the process is also guided by the micro and macro context, and the historical setting at the time of the writing is very important.

The discipline of hermeneutics is far-ranging. Advanced studies in the subject would include, but not be limited to, the following:

The history of hermeneutics

Aberrations of hermeneutical forms

Contemporary hermeneutical systems

Philosophical concepts as they affect interpretation

Challenges to the Biblical hermeneutic

Current issues and Biblical interpretation

Biblical criticism in contrast to the science of interpretation

The use of a Biblical hermeneutic and systematic theology

It will become clear that there is no research, study, preparation, or presentation where this subject is not an issue, and that any hermeneutic that does not rise from Scripture can produce anything the interpreter wishes to say. Our focus will be on the basic methodology, guidelines, and rules that rise from the Scripture and will produce an interpretation true to the text.

A High View of God and the Bible

The interpreter’s approach to the text does depend on one’s presuppositions. Individual motives may be hidden at the outset of his work, but they will be revealed in the process. God should be displayed as the center of all the interpreter’s conclusions. The highest good and motive is to glorify God, which requires a high view of God. The holiness of God, and His sovereign character in all that He is and does, should be reflected in our considerations. If, on the other hand, man is constantly placed in the center of our interpretation, direction, and ministry, that indicates a low view of God. This will be demonstrated as we continue. Only the Biblical hermeneutic can produce a high view.

A high view of the Bible will also be revealed in the student’s process and conclusions. This book is unquestionably the Word of God. Any interpretation that adds to, or takes away from, the text is unacceptable.

One of the first considerations is the matter of inspiration. A low view of inspiration will corrupt any possibility of obtaining an accurate result. From the very beginning in the Garden of Eden, man has been adjusting what God has said. I refer to this as the “Lucifer Syndrome.” Man has an innate desire to be like God and to know what God knows. Complete theological systems have been built on the effort to know as much about salvation as God knows. The rejection of Bible authority, sufficiency, and supremacy comes from a low view of the Bible. It is for this reason that we will study carefully the theological concepts contained in Scripture, such as inspiration, revelation, animation, and inerrancy. In this study, you will also consider the matter of illumination and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. For now, a simple reminder of inspiration will be sufficient.

How did the truth get in the Bible? This question is answered clearly in II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:20, 21. God used inspiration to accomplish this. Of course he used human writers, but supervised the writing in such a manner that it was “God-breathed.” The writers were “borne along” in such a way that the material was of no private interpretation. That is how God’s truth entered the Bible.

The Bible Is Literature

Hermeneutics is not the same thing as a study of the Bible as literature. That is a matter you would consider in the study of Bibliology. If the Bible is literature, then we must abide by the rules that are followed in the study of any literature. To understand the intended meaning of an author of any type of literature, the following are necessary prerequisites:

Grammatical Interpretation - All literature must be understood by using the grammar relating to the language in which it was written, so the grammatical rules and language usage of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are required.

Contextual Interpretation - All literature is set in a context. In order for its original meaning to be maintained, it must be understood in its context, both macro and micro.

Historical Interpretation - All literature is written in a historical setting. The Bible can be understood only by accurately reviewing the setting of the text at the time it was written.

Literal Interpretation - All literature is expected to be literal, unless the text reveals that it is poetry or fiction. Though greatly misunderstood by many, the fact is that all Scripture must be viewed as literal, unless the text itself tells us that it is allegorical.

It should be obvious that these rules are not man-made, but that they rise naturally from the Scripture text.

[1] Hartill, J. Edwin. Biblical Hermeneutics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1062. 7.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

New Series - Dr. Bob Payne

This month we begin a series by Dr. Clay Nuttall on hermeneutics. The series will give the reader a basic understanding of a literal hermeneutic. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Perils of Prophetic Preaching | Dr. Bob Payne

Years ago J. Dwight Pentecost penned these words concerning Christ’s imminent return in the air for His saints:

…Many signs were given to the nation Israel, which would precede the second advent, so that the nation might be living in expectancy when the time of His coming should draw nigh. Although Israel could not know the day nor the hour when the Lord will come, yet they can know that their redemption draweth nigh through the fulfillment of these signs. To the church no such signs were ever given. The church was told to live in the light of the imminent coming of the Lord to translate them in His presence….

This doctrine of imminence, or “at any moment coming,” is not a new doctrine with Darby, as is sometimes charged….Such a belief in imminency marked the premillennialism of the early church fathers as well as the writers of the New Testament.[1]

Those of us who believe in a literal interpretation of the Word of God can add a hearty “amen” to the preceding words. Nevertheless, our concern is aroused as we observe some very disturbing modern trends in prophetic preaching. Many evangelists, Bible teachers, and pastors have traded in sound hermeneutics with its doctrine of imminency for an emotional, sensational, popular approach to prophetic preaching. With this style of preaching the newspaper becomes more important than the Bible, and prophetic scriptures are twisted and reshaped to fit into the mold of current events.

In this doctrinally confused generation we need to return to literal hermeneutics and a Bible-centered style of prophetic preaching. May those of us who are dedicated to “rightly dividing the word of truth” avoid the following perils of modern prophetic preaching:


Some preachers would never be bold enough to predict an exact date for the rapture of the church, but they come dangerously close:

…The magnetic polar reversal, predicted by computer model for 2012 is gaining more attention since its likelihood was first announced. Having moved several hundred miles across Canada the Magnetic North Pole is currently headed for Siberia. While the effects of a Magnetic Polar Reversal have never been observed by mankind, it has apparently happened in the distant past. What’s unique this time is that the Sun is due for a polar reversal at the same time. I’ve speculated that the effects of the polar reversal could fulfill Revelation 6 and if the projected time of 2012 is correct, it fits nicely into the End Times prophecy window we opened above.[2]

No doubt, language like this is sensational and exciting, but is it biblically accurate?[3] Does it reflect a sound biblical understanding of the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return?

Paul wrote to Titus: “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.” We see here that Paul and the saints of his day were looking for Christ’s coming in the air. They believed His coming to be at any moment. The doctrine of imminency does not teach us that Christ must come by 2012 (although I pray that He does!), nor does it even teach us that Christ must come soon. What it does teach us is that Christ could come at any moment, therefore we always need to be ready (1 Jn. 3:3).


Those who preach the message of “pop eschatology” frequently pull passages out of context from the Olivet Discourse (which deal with the time preceding the Millennium, not the rapture) and distort them in such a way as to make current events fulfill them. Once again, this violates the biblical doctrine of imminency and distorts the meaning of the scriptures.

Some years ago, I recall a Bible teacher saying that the increase in heart disease that he saw in our country was a fulfillment of the prophecy that we see in Luke 21:26 (“men’s hearts failing them for fear”), and a sign that Jesus’ coming was very soon!

Recently I read an article on the internet by an author who used the same faulty hermeneutic. After listing various “signs” from the Olivet Discourse that “prove” that Jesus’ coming must be soon, he writes in conclusion:

As you know most of the signs in the Olivet Discourse are progressive and all are described as happening well before the end. Their main interest to us is found in the phrase “beginning of birth pangs.” Natural disasters, the tendency toward war as a tool of diplomacy, famine amidst plenty (35,000 children die each day of starvation and related diseases) and pestilence are described as being common to the era but increasing in frequency and intensity as the end approaches. This was certainly the case in 2005 and is an indicator of how close we are to the end.[4]

I still wonder about one advertisement that I saw for a video about prophecy concerning Jerusalem. I’m not sure what proof text the author would use to defend this statement: “…and even see how the first moon landing fit into Bible prophecy about Jerusalem!”[5] May God help us to avoid this kind of poor theology and careless hermeneutics!


We live in an age where people read more novels about prophecy than they read the actual prophecy. Moreover, American Christian culture is enthralled by the speculation that they see in these novels. The official “Left Behind” website now lists 12 novels in the “Left Behind” series (from which came multiple movies), as well as “Left Behind” video and PC games, and many other “Left Behind” products. As long as there is money to be made, this “Left Behind” speculation craze is likely to continue for some time.

Some preachers of the Word of God have latched on to this speculation obsession. No longer is the Bible at the hub of their prophetic preaching. Now, speculation over who the Antichrist might be, or what part terrorism might play in prophecy takes center stage.

There are indeed some dangers in prophetic speculation:

  1. Some speculation violates the normal, literal sense of the biblical text.
  2. Some speculation gives everything in prophecy a natural explanation and so removes the supernatural element (e.g. the creatures of Rev. 9 are helicopters).
  3. Some speculation partakes of urban legends (e.g. there is a computer in Europe called “the Beast”).
  4. An over-emphasis on speculation focuses on constantly changing current events and distracts from the exposition of the unchanging Word of God. Also, becoming fixated on current events leads to disappointment, discouragement, and doubt when the promise of a soon return (instead of an imminent return) does not come to pass.
  5. An over-emphasis on speculation leads to a pre-occupation with what might happen than with the purpose for which a prophecy was written. This may very well lead a person to read biblical prophecy the same way that he would read a cheap science fiction novel.

Although some minor speculation concerning what a particular prophecy might be referring to is inevitable, any type of speculation must be kept in perspective. In prophetic preaching speculation must be kept well in the background; the Word must be at the forefront. Moreover, speculation is speculation. It must not be given authority on par with the Word of God.


Prophetic preaching must remain focused on a literal interpretation of the Word of God, and the any-moment return of the Lord Jesus Christ for His church. The preacher must be cautious not to predict the time of the coming of Christ, nor twist the scriptures in an effort to show that His coming is near. Furthermore, those who handle the Word of God must be extremely careful not to over-emphasize prophetic speculation. In this day of doctrinal drift and sensationalized ministry, prophetic preaching must be anchored in the Word of God.

[1] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), pp. 202-203

[2] Jack Kelly, “Seven Major Prophetic Signs of the Second Coming,” from

[3] Or scientifically accurate for that matter. Remember the “prophetically significant” planet alignment of the 1980’s?

[4] Ibid.

[5] Perhaps Today, pdf-formatted, web version (Sept.-Oct. 2006), p. 8