/ Bible / Jeffrey A Stivason

"Just the facts, Ma'am"

How is it possible for humans to interpret the world around us? I mean, interpret it properly. Let me put it differently. What is the pre-condition for the ability to interpret the world around us?  Well, a book might well be written on this subject, but I’ll make two brief points. First, God is all powerful and so He is in control of all things. He is what theologians call omnipotent and this has serious implications for our ability to know things. For example, Vern Poythress says, “The regularities that scientists describe are the regularities of God’s own commitments and his actions. By his word to Noah, he commits himself to govern the seasons.  By his word he governs snow, frost and hail. Scientists describe the regularities in God’s word governing the world.  So-called natural law is really the law of God or word of God, imperfectly and approximately described by human investigators” (In the Beginning was the Word, 67).  In other words, scientists simply describe what God is doing.

Second, God knows all things, He is omniscient. As a consequence, Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “[created] reality does not exist as brute, uninterpreted fact…it is already meaningful because it is interpreted by God” (First Theology, 322). In other words,  every fact is able to be interpreted because it is first known and interpreted by the God who gives all things meaning. In other words, there are no brute or uninterpreted facts because God is.

Now, all of this seems rather straight forward until you read someone like N. T. Wright.  I was struck afresh by his view of history. Consider this quote from his book New Testament and the People of God,

Suppose, for example, we try to make a small but central claim about Jesus. If we say ‘Christ died for our sins,’ it is not too difficult to see an obvious element of interpretation: ‘for our sins’ is a theological addendum to the otherwise ‘historical’ statement. But even if we say ‘Christ died,’ we have not escaped interpretation: we have chosen to refer to Jesus as ‘Christ,’ ascribing to him a Messiahship which neither his contemporaries nor ours would universally grant.  Very well: ‘Jesus died’.  But we still have not escaped ‘interpretation’, and indeed at this point it looms larger than ever: three people died outside Jerusalem that afternoon, and we have chosen to mention only one.  For that matter, thousands of Jews were crucified by the Romans in the vicinity of Jerusalem during the same century, and we have chosen to mention only one.  Our apparently bare historical remark is the product of a multi-faceted interpretive decision.  Nor is this unusual.  It is typical of all history (NTPG, 82-83).

Did you catch what he said? Wright contends that there is no bare fact or as he calls it a “bare historical remark.”  Why?  Because historical facts are the product of multi-faceted interpretive decisions or as he says elsewhere, “what we call ‘facts’ always belong in a context of response, perception, and interaction” (NTPG, 83.) According to Wright, all history is a matter of perception and reflection and if we follow his own logic we are left in a lacuna of perceptions and reflections even with regard to the statement ‘Jesus died.’  For instance, who was this ‘historical’ figure known as ‘Jesus?’  Isn’t that open to interpretation?  What does it mean that he ‘died.’  Is this word used metaphorically, descriptively, or as a metonym?  Chasing Wright’s logic, we are left with personal or communal perception and reflection. In other words, how can our thoughts be raised above human reflection and perception? The implication is clear, it is the individual or community that gives meaning to facts through their perceptions and reflections. Facts are not bare because humans interpret them.  

Someone will inevitably bring up the Bible at this point and they should! How does the Bible help? For Wright, it helps very little, if at all. He writes, “There is no straight line that leads from humans to some sort of revelation and thence to unambiguously true statements about divine being(s)” (NTPG, 128). In other words, there is no infallible or inerrant word from God telling us about the "Christ who died for our sins" to which we may appeal to help extricate ourselves from the lacuna of psychology that Wright calls history! For Wright, this is theological positivism and it is unwarranted.  Just for kicks listen to Wright describe revelation. He writes,

“Language about religion and revelation does indeed reflect many elements in human consciousness, and can indeed be used as a weapon of oppression. But this does not vitiate all such language.  Post-Nietzschean, post-Freudian and post-Marxian humans – artists, writers, musicians, lovers, as well as religious persons – still tell stories about aspects of reality that transcend power, sex, and money.  These aspects, for some, in the Bible and the Christian (or other religious) stories; for others, in the beauty of creation; for others, in other human beings; for others again, deep within themselves.  This gives rise to enormous problems, about natural theology, revelation and reason, and so on.  But these stories suggest that we must, however critically, recognize the presence of something we may as well call ‘revelation’” (NTPG, 129).

What? Aspects of revelation may be in the Bible’s stories but they could be in other religious books too? And who is best able to detect the presence of what “we may as well call revelation?” Artists and not theologians and exegetes. Sigh.

So, how can we know the Christ who died for our sins, let alone anything about the world around us?  The Bible is our answer. But not the Bible as Wright conceives it but the Bible as God gave it. The Bible is the word of God and it is authoritative, not because it has the best narrative that we might be able to squeeze into (pace Wright), but because it is true. It is God’s word, infallible and inerrant, and it is a sure guide for salvation and the foundation to understand our world. If you want to make sense out of what is happening today, then do yourself a favor and read the Bible.

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor (Grace RPC, graceingibsonia.org) and NT professor at RPTS in Pittsburgh, PA. He is also editor at placefortruth.com.

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