Read an Excerpt
THE LANGUAGE OF GODA Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible
By RON JULIAN J. A. CRABTREE DAVID CRABTREE
NAVPRESSCopyright © 2001 Ron Julian, J. A. Crabtree, and David Crabtree
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCan We Understand the Bible?
"Let's consider your age to begin with-how old are you?"
"I'm seven and a half exactly."
"You needn't say 'exactually,'" the Queen remarked: "I can believe it without that. Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I can't believe that," said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Once upon a time, a weary band traveled through the wilderness on a journey to a great city called Wisdom. The road was straight but very long, and they wondered if they would ever arrive. One day they came upon an old, weather-beaten sign that read, "Turn right to enter into Wisdom." At first the travelers were delighted. This was exactly what they needed-a sign that would show them the way to Wisdom. It had such asimple message, too. Simple ... and yet, what did it mean? The travelers started to argue among themselves over the meaning of the sign. Soon the travelers had split into factions, each with its own interpretation of the enigmatic sign.
One group said, "The meaning of the sign is obvious. Surely we should interpret it in the most natural and literal way. Although the road goes straight ahead, the sign is telling us to abandon the road and 'turn right.'" And so they left the road and walked off into the wilderness.
Another group stepped forward and said, "The meaning of the sign is obvious. Surely the makers of the sign do not intend us to leave the road; the road is here for a reason. The sign must be telling us to turn sideways and face to the right as we walk down the road. That makes sense, because the door into Wisdom is exceedingly narrow; only those who walk in sideways will fit through the door." And so they all rotated a quarter turn to the right and walked (somewhat clumsily) sideways down the road.
A third group took a turn at explaining the sign. "The meaning of the sign is obvious. Surely the other groups were taking the sign much too literally. Wisdom is not a physical city; it is a way of thinking. If we want to enter into Wisdom, we must abandon our leftist, liberal political views and 'turn right.'" And so they sat down at the side of the road to form a new chapter of the Young Republicans.
Those in the last group, having heard the first three groups, shook their heads sadly. "What use is this sign? Each group is convinced that they understand it, and yet they cannot agree on what it means. This sign is of no value in showing us the way to Wisdom." And so they turned around with heavy hearts and went back the way they came.
The authors of this book believe that the Bible can be understood. And we are not alone. Multitudes of Christians throughout the centuries would join their voices with ours, testifying that the Bible has a clear, understandable message that points the way to salvation. Unfortunately, the value of all this unanimous praise for the Bible's clarity is undermined by one thing: although we all agree that the Bible can be understood, we cannot agree on what it means. We are like those groups reading the sign in the wilderness: we each are convinced that it is understandable, but we each come away with a different message. How understandable is a message that everyone understands differently?
Am I exaggerating the differences among Bible-believing Christians? Are not the disagreements among Christians mostly about relatively trivial doctrines? No, Christians disagree about the most profound and fundamental issues of the faith. Consider, for example, a much-debated verse from the book of James: "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" (James 2:14). For some Christians, the message of this verse is clear. The mere act of "believing" the gospel will not result in salvation; we must have the kind of faith that results in a changed life. That is, we must have "works." For other Christians, however, the verse clearly says something different. They deny that eternal salvation depends on our works, and so they conclude that James must have meant something different by the word save. Sin has tragic consequences in this life, including physical death, and a faith without works cannot save us from reaping those consequences, although such a faith will save us from hell. Each of these groups has come to essentially opposite conclusions: one group says eternal salvation does depend on having works; the other group says eternal salvation does not depend on having those works. And both groups are appealing to the same verse: James 2:14.
That Christians disagree over such a fundamental issue is discouraging. By any reckoning, James sounded a life-and-death warning, one that he was anxious for his readers to understand. Yet we cannot agree on what he meant. If the Bible cannot speak clearly about its chief topic-salvation-then how can we expect it to speak clearly about anything? The obstacles to understanding seem formidable. Yet the purpose of this chapter, and ultimately the entire book, is to show that the obstacles are not insurmountable.
Why Communicationworks-And Why It Does Not
I HAVE AN urgent message for you: Never step into a crosswalk without first looking both ways. As the author of this important message, I have put my thought into words, and now my work is done. Your work as the reader, however, has just begun. Reading is not a passive process. I am not just pouring my ideas into your head, like pouring water into a basin. My words communicate-if they do-because you know many things already. Think of how many things I have not explained to you because I assume you know them already. To name just a few:
What is a crosswalk?
Is stepping into a crosswalk like stepping into a bathtub?
Why do I say "both" ways? Are there only two ways? Which ways should you look? In front of you and behind you? Up in the sky and down on the ground? Southwest and northeast?
What is the point of this message? I have given no explanation; why shouldn't you step into a crosswalk without looking both ways?
As the writer, I have assumed that you know that crosswalks are designated spots on roadways where pedestrians walk. You know that "both ways" refers to the two directions on the road from which cars may be coming. You understand that stepping in front of a moving car can kill you, and so you understand why I have given such a warning. As the reader, your mind is actively using your prior knowledge to make sense of my words. Throughout this chapter I am going to refer to this sort of prior knowledge as the reader's preunderstanding. Communication works-when it does work-because the author is counting on the preunderstanding of the reader.
Ironically, however, the very preunderstanding that makes communication possible is usually also the culprit when communication does not work. What if I, the author, have assumed the wrong things about your preunderstanding? What if you grew up in a jungle village and have never seen cars, streets, and crosswalks? What if someone reads this book a thousand years from now when all travel is done with Hovercraft and teleportation devices? Communication may break down because there is a gap between the preunderstanding I expect in my readers and the preunderstanding they actually have.
Most English-speaking adults have had enough exposure to Shakespeare to be familiar with the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Juliet stands at the balcony, saying, "O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?" As a kid, I thought I understood what was happening in this scene (probably because I had watched too many cartoons). Juliet was longing to see Romeo, and she was calling out for him, "Where are you, Romeo? I want to see you." Unfortunately, I had it all wrong. My problem started, I think, because I assumed that wherefore was Elizabethan English for "where." But wherefore does not mean "where"; it means "why." Juliet is asking, "Why are you Romeo?"; that is, "Why do you have the name Romeo, being the son of my family's hated enemy? Why couldn't you have another name and belong to a different family?" All of this I missed because I thought I knew what wherefore meant, but I was wrong.
It is easy to see how a gap could develop between my preunderstanding and Shakespeare's. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet around 1595-more than four hundred years ago. Nobody uses the word wherefore anymore, although we do use the related word therefore. I live in a different world than that in which Shakespeare and his audience lived. It's little wonder that I have to work harder than they did to understand their language.
If such a preunderstanding gap exists when reading Shakespeare, then what shall we say about the Bible? The historical gap between myself and the biblical world is measured not in hundreds but in thousands of years. Shakespeare wrote in a language that I can still recognize as English; the Bible was written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. I read Shakespeare for entertainment, and usually (not always) I have no strong feelings or stubborn opinions that color how I read him. But the Bible is dealing with some of the touchiest, most personal issues of all. Is there a God? Am I a sinner? What does God think of me? Is my understanding of life all wrong? What do I owe God? What do I owe my neighbor? What is truly valuable? Experience suggests that human beings have strong feelings about these questions, and those feelings are all a part of the preunderstanding we bring to the Bible. Furthermore, many of us come from denominational traditions that have given us a set of lenses through which we see the Bible. We already know what a passage is supposed to mean before we ever actually read it. And so the obstacles to understanding multiply: the Bible was written a long time ago, in a different place, in different languages, with a different view of reality from the world in which we live-a view of reality that we may find personally difficult to accept. The conclusion is inescapable: the preunderstanding gap between myself and the Bible can be huge.
Closing the Gap
WHAT ARE WE going to do? You may have been told in the past that we should come to the Bible with "no presuppositions," that our minds should be "blank slates," that we should just let the Bible "speak for itself." The spirit behind this advice is good. Practically speaking, however, this advice is impossible to follow. When we read, we interpret the words in the light of what we already know. Not only is it impossible for us to stop using our preunderstanding, but also we would not want to stop even if we could. Would we really gain anything if every time we opened the Bible we forgot everything we already knew about God, salvation, and so on? Of course not. We cannot make any sense of what we read without drawing on our prior knowledge.
Yet the problem remains: preunderstanding is essential to communication, but it can lead us astray. When we read words in the Bible like God or salvation, we already have a preunderstanding of what those words imply, and we may be wrong. Christians have differing ideas about what Paul meant by "faith," and reading Paul's great teaching in Romans and Galatians does not seem to resolve the issue. Every time Paul talked about faith, we all read in our own meaning. How is Paul ever going to get through to us if his meaning is always being swallowed up by the ideas we already have in our heads?
Abandoning our preunderstanding is not going to help us; instead, we want to correct our preunderstanding. We want to close the gap between the knowledge we do bring to the text and the knowledge we should bring. But is that possible? Many in the modern academic world are saying, "No, it is not possible. Readers are irrevocably locked into their own private world of meanings, and the meaning of the author can never break through." This book is not intended to deal with the ins and outs of this academic debate. I do, however, disagree vigorously with such a skeptical view of communication. Common sense tells us that people can and do change their minds about what a text means. I brought the wrong preunderstanding to Romeo and Juliet, but that did not stop me from correcting myself and changing my mind. I have also at times changed my mind about what the Bible is saying. More than once I have argued strongly against a particular interpretation of a passage, only in the end to become convinced of that interpretation and change my mind. This is a normal feature of how people learn.
Furthermore, as Christians, we do not have the option of being skeptical about the possibility of communication. Surely God would not have chosen to communicate in writing if we were incapable of understanding it. Paul told us that the Scriptures are "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). That is, people who have the wrong ideas can hear the teaching of Scripture and be corrected. If a faulty preunderstanding doomed us to perpetual confusion, then the Bible could never set us straight. Paul told us that the Bible can set us straight, so it must be possible for language to communicate, even to people whose preunderstanding is wrong.
This book is about how people such as ourselves-people who are ignorant about many things and just plain wrong about many others-can overcome the gap between their faulty preunderstanding and the truth. Let me identify five essential steps to closing that gap:
1. Be willing to change your mind.
2. Gather new information.
3. Follow the author's lead.
4. Imagine all the possibilities.
5. Seek consistency.
I want to talk about each of these steps in more detail.
Step 1: Be Willing to Change Your Mind
The first step is by far the most important: we must be willing to admit that we might be wrong. A mind that is determined to retain its beliefs will do so, no matter where the evidence leads. We all find this easy to understand-when we look at other people. Baptists firmly believe that Methodists and Presbyterians need to admit that they might be wrong. Pentecostals firmly believe that non-Pentecostals should open their minds to other possibilities. What is so easy to see in other people, however, is painfully difficult to see in ourselves. We might be the ones in error. We might be making wrong assumptions that color how we read the Bible. The journey toward the truth is ultimately a humbling one. To step toward the light means admitting that I have been standing in the dark.
It pains me to say it, but sometimes Christians are the people least open to the possibility that they might be wrong. Those who of all people should understand the need to stand humbly before the truth are sometimes the most dogmatic and arrogant of all. We act as if our conversion were the last time we will ever be called upon to change our minds. This stubbornness certainly shows itself in how we approach the Bible. As a teacher of biblical studies, I often have the opportunity to see Christians debating the meaning of biblical texts. I would like to say that I often see people with different viewpoints actually listening to each other, actually considering the other person's point of view. I would like to say this, but I cannot.
Excerpted from THE LANGUAGE OF GOD by RON JULIAN J. A. CRABTREE DAVID CRABTREE Copyright © 2001 by Ron Julian, J. A. Crabtree, and David Crabtree. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.