Foundations: No.69 Autumn 2015

“But That’s Just Your Interpretation!”: Foundations For An Evangelical Response

Postmodern scholarship has radically challenged the notion that texts have clear and accessible meaning which corresponds to the author’s intent. This has led to particular scepticism towards any claim of certainty within biblical interpretation. At best, such certainty is largely considered to be inappropriate and potentially divisive; at worst it is thought to represent a manipulative power play. Christians are often confronted which such scepticism when they seek to propound Scriptural truth to outsiders (or even to those in their churches), often expressed in the objection: “that’s just your interpretation”. This article aims to provide the foundations for an evangelical response to this scepticism, arguing that the only secure criterion for religious (or indeed any) knowledge is a revealed word from the truthful Father applied by his Spirit to the heart of a sinner redeemed by his Son.

Introduction

“You do realise that not everyone reads it the way you do, don’t you?”

My non-Christian friend and I had enjoyed a long conversation about the nature of the OT, during which I had spent some time outlining my understanding of the fulfilment of the OT in the gospel of Jesus Christ. My friend’s comment, quoted above, effectively ended the discussion. He did not dispute my exegesis of New or Old Testament texts; the mere fact that other serious readers of the OT (he was thinking particularly of Jewish scholars) had come to different conclusions was enough to close down for him the possibility that the Christian understanding was to be embraced. My friend is no radical pluralist; he did not wish to persuade me that both the Christian and the Jewish readings were true – in fact, he believed neither. He was simply sceptical that I could be so sure that the Christian reading of the OT was correct and the Jewish reading false.

My friend’s scepticism is by no means unusual. Postmodern philosophy has been highly successful in casting doubt on claims of any kind of certainty in interpretation, especially Scriptural interpretation, and the results of postmodern thought have filtered down to popular thinking. Indeed, to claim to know some transcultural and universally-applicable truth in an intellectual environment saturated by postmodern thought “smacks of imperialism and bigotry”.[1] Moreover, it is not a recent objection. As far back as Pyrrhonian scepticism in Ancient Greece, philosophers have struggled with “the problem of the criterion”[2]: if a dispute is to be decided, an unarguable standard for what constitutes truth, a criterion, must be agreed. But if the criterion itself must be chosen, then it too must be measured against a criterion – resulting in an undecidable circular argument. Far better, argued the Pyrrhonians, to live in ataraxia, “quietude” – a deliberate non-committal on divisive or controversial matters.[3]

Tracing the development of this theme through the debates of the European Reformation, the Enlightenment and the rise of postmodernism is a fruitful exercise, but one outside of the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that the fundamental problem – that of determining a criterion for religious knowledge (or indeed any knowledge) only deepened in complexity with each philosophical development. Spinoza rejected the role of faith and made certainty a function of human reason;[4] Kant argued that human reason only goes as far as apprehending the phenomenal (experienced) world and could not attain the noumenal (“real”) world;[5] Nietzsche rejected every suggested criterion as a fabrication: “there are no facts, only interpretations”, interpretations which ought to be deconstructed;[6] and Derrida argued that language itself was unable to bear meaning, such that “neither language nor human self-awareness conceals any thread of reference to things as they are”.[7] In light of this, my friend’s show-stopping comment seems completely cogent and natural. I had confidently appealed to the obvious meaning of the words of a centuries-old text, written in a culture completely alien to me, to demonstrate that its long-dead author shared my convictions about a universal truth to which my friend ought to subscribe, in direct opposition to the conclusions of other readers, even those with whom I share basic presuppositions. If even a fraction of the academic philosophy surveyed above had made an impact on him – either directly or through its popular-level percolation to the general public – my attempt to convince him of the centrality of Jesus Christ was not only nonsensical but morally offensive. Can there be any challenge to radical postmodern scepticism which could recover a criterion for knowledge to which I could appeal to better convince my friend? Or is the only option to present my opinion as one among many, such that he and I can live in blissful ataraxia?

Given this introduction, the approach of this article might seem strange. In the following sections we attempt to present a foundation for an evangelical response to postmodern scepticism, built on Scripture itself. Throughout the article we will quote Scripture and simply assume its clarity and truth. The legitimacy of this approach will be explored as the article develops, as we argue that the only secure criterion for religious knowledge is a revealed word from the truthful Father applied by his Spirit to the heart of a sinner redeemed by his Son. If this is true, there is no other starting place than Scripture for proving that we can have confidence to interpret it correctly.

Scepticism in Scripture

Although we have suggested that the beginnings of postmodern scepticism were in Ancient Greece, Scripture invites us to delve further back to see its real origins. The very first words which are spoken against God in Scripture are sceptical ones – the serpent’s malicious “did God really say…?”[8] The point is, of course, that God had spoken clearly and unambiguously, and the serpent’s plan is to “lead the woman to a contempt of the divine precept”.[9] Adam and Eve’s sin was culpable precisely because they refused to believe the divine communication – they “engendered a false faith from [Satan’s] lies”[10] – not because they couldn’t have expected to understand it. Immediately, then, we see that against the assertion that scepticism is a state of humble ataraxia – a neutral stance which will not state more than is unambiguous and uncontroversial – scepticism is presented in Genesis 3 as a means to sinfully undermine trust in God’s word and oppose his purposes.

Moreover, this is not an isolated incident in Scripture – examples abound where an epistemology centred around acceptance of God’s word is contrasted not with a neutral ataraxia but with a sinful opposition to God’s clearly revealed purposes. Pharaoh, initially sceptical about Moses’ claim to divine revelation,[11] is presented with overwhelming evidence of God’s power in the form of the plagues, acknowledged as divine by court magicians, empirically verified by clear evidence and interpreted correctly by his servants.[12] Pharaoh’s unwillingness to obey is not a function of lack or ambiguity of evidence, but of his hard-heartedness.[13] When the Preacher of Ecclesiastes embarks on his quest to explore the meaning of life “under the sun”,[14] his response is a world-weary scepticism even towards words, which only increase the “vanity” or “meaninglessness” of existence.[15] But contrary to other Ancient Near Eastern pessimism literature, Ecclesiastes “holds forth the possibility of joy, faith and assurance of God’s goodness”[16] in the “words of delight… [and] truth” which have stable meaning “like nails firmly fixed” because “they are given by one Shepherd”.[17] The alternative to scepticism is thus humble trust in the source and reliability of divine revelation.

The contrast continues into the NT. Romans 1:19-20 goes further than stating the essential clarity of Scripture by claiming that the universe itself is “an intelligible disclosure of the otherwise unknown God”.[18] Again, there is no problem with the source material – rather, it is the proud epistemological self-sufficiency of those who “claim to be wise” which leads them to “suppress the truth” and therefore incur God’s wrath.[19] There is a “fundamentally moral”[20] underpinning for rejecting God’s word – that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”[21] The postmodern sceptical project resembles this dynamic: if belief involves humiliating repentance, it behoves sinners to develop strategies for unbelief, such as functionally silencing God by claiming no-one can really understand what he is saying. Even Thomas, a disciple of Jesus, is rebuked for his scepticism towards Jesus’ resurrection – his principled refusal to commit until he has sufficient empirical evidence to satisfy his own criteria is described as unbelief by Jesus, whose blessing rests on those who believe without such evidence.[22] Indeed, as John explains, the testimonial evidence of the inscripturated apostolic witness is precisely the divine revelation which ought to engender belief.[23] But of course, this revelation comes in linguistic form – can these Scriptural assertions stand up to postmodern attacks on the ambiguity of language itself?

Language and meaning

Language and God’s nature

From the beginning of Scripture, God is revealed to be a speaking God; one whose words carry not only stable meaning but creative power. The initial explosion of God’s powerful word in Genesis 1 sets the scene for one of the Bible’s “most basic and influential assumptions”[24] – that God speaks, and what he says is trustworthy, powerful, true and good. Indeed, insofar as Scripture gives glimpses of the intra-Trinitarian life, it is clear that the stages of redemptive history are set in motion via inter-personal speech – including the creation of mankind to begin with,[25] the decision to judge sinful mankind,[26] the anointing of the Son as the Messiah,[27] the divine approval of Jesus’ work,[28] the source of Jesus’ words themselves,[29] Jesus’ prayer for the ongoing protection of his disciples,[30] and his confession of their name in the final act of salvation.[31] The Son himself is characterised as the “Word”[32] through whom the message of salvation has come in its fulness;[33] and the Spirit as the “breath” through whom the word comes with power.[34]

For those made in the image of God, therefore, human language has a stable referent in the eternal character of God himself. Although the precise nature of what in mankind constitutes the image of God is disputed, it is notable that Adam’s first act of God-given dominion is to emulate God’s definitional speech – essentially, to be an interpreter of facts just like God by naming the animals.[35] This leads to two conclusions about the nature of language. First, in contrast to Foucault,[36] language cannot be inherently manipulative: “The language of suspicion, of the covert exercise of power, or manipulation or tyranny is entirely out of place when speaking about God’s dealings with his people.”[37] Second, humans bear a responsibility to ensure they use language in a manner coherent with God’s intention in giving it as a gift to them;[38] the possibility of abusing God’s gift for selfish and manipulative ends is entirely real, but the fact of such abuse ought to inspire our reformation, not our rejection of the stability of language per se.

The correlation between human language and God’s prototypical divine speech provides the first plank in our argument – that the quest for a criterion for religious knowledge must start from the revelation of the eternally reliable Triune God. Indeed, without the changeless God guaranteeing that language can have a meaning, language and meaning are essentially unmoored from one another, and the attribution of meaning to language essentially arbitrary, as postmodern thinkers such as Derrida allege.[39] Similarly, if our conception of language has no stable telos – no good, God-honouring design for its usage – then the use of language as a means to power and manipulation cannot be questioned or legitimately resisted, and we have no recourse other than to submit to – or join in with – Nietzsche’s programme for the utter deconstruction of ideals.

Language after the fall

But does this conception of language hold after mankind’s fall into sin and the subsequent corruption of our nature? If the concept enshrined in the Canons of Dordt as “Total Inability” is true,[40] and the “blindness of mind [and] vanity and perverseness of judgment” is passed on to all the offspring of Adam “by the propagation of a vicious nature” such that people even render the light of natural revelation “wholly polluted”,[41] why should we suppose that human language – even that enshrined in Scripture – would remain unpolluted? Indeed, the immediate aftermath of the Fall shows people following in the serpent’s footsteps, lying, boasting, swearing murderous oaths, and concocting idolatrous plans which God frustrates by confusing language yet further.[42] However, after the first sin and the subsequent linguistic scattering at Babel, God does not abandon language as a means to communicate or fulfil his purposes. He is able to have a conversation with his newly-corrupted creatures which all protagonists understand, and the (spoken) curse of judgment is entirely effective.[43] God’s purpose of salvation is promised in speech and put into effect by a promise to Abram which is understood, believed and acted upon without apparent difficulty.[44] Moreover, the character of God as an inherently reliable speaker who always acts according to his word[45] and able to order all things according to his will[46] puts paid to any suggestion that “God was somehow constrained, hampered and indeed frustrated in His revelatory purpose”[47] by having to use language.

The possibility and necessity of stable inscripturated meaning

These considerations lead us to consider not only the possibility of stable meaning in God’s spoken word, but also in his written word. The move from spoken to written word forms a crucial plank in the sceptical project, summarised by Derrida’s maxim: “iterability alters”.[48] That is, inscripturation means that the same words will be said at different times as the written word is read; and in Derrida’s thought, that rehearsal could only change their (inherently unstable) meaning.

An immediate Scriptural counter-argument to this objection is that God does not seem to share Derrida’s concerns. Indeed, examples of inscripturation – many at God’s explicit command, some even by his own finger – are found throughout the Bible,[49] and in every case inscripturation is assumed to preserve the meaning such that later generations can have access to the same revelation as their forebears, and to aid in “remembering and internalising” God’s revelation – a form of writing on the heart.[50] Jeremiah 36 provides an important example of inscripturation which demonstrates that the written word is no less God’s voice than the spoken; when Baruch reads “the words of Jeremiah in the scroll” (bassēper, 36:10), Micaiah hears “the words of the LORD [coming] from the scroll” (mēʿal hassēper, 36:11).[51] In fact, one can go further than stressing the possibility of stable inscripturated meaning and insist on its necessity. Several times in Scripture the acts of God – even his spoken words – are misinterpreted or misunderstood without corresponding explanation,[52] unsurprising given the Bible’s insistence that our faculty for interpreting natural revelation is culpabably flawed.[53] The supreme example is the death of Christ, which as an unexplained event, appears offensive and foolish to the whole world (1 Cor 1:18-27). What makes the difference to a person’s perception of the cross is “what was preached”[54]: “the biblical position is that the mighty acts of God are not revelation to man at all, except in so far as they are accompanied by words of God to explain them”.[55]

Our earlier conclusions about the nature of language can now be supplemented with two reflections on the nature of Scripture. First, not only is it possible for Scripture to be a revelation of God, it is the only reliable revelation of God due to its divine origin and purpose. Even though our linguistic faculties are fallen along with the rest of our beings, God is able to use human agents to faithfully record his divine words such that they can be heard afresh in new contexts. For this reason, rejecting Scripture as the locus of divine revelation is recklessly destabilising; for where else can one find reliable truth about God? Any speculation on God’s nature that has its origin outside the eternally truthful and infinite God whose thoughts are higher than ours[56] is rightly open to suspicion and scepticism as an attempt to “measure the Divine nature by the limitations of [man’s] own”.[57] Second, this goes some way to explaining the method taken in this article (of defending Scripture by means of Scripture). If God really is the source and origin of the entire universe such that the universe is designed to bear witness to him[58] then our true knowledge of the universe is predicated on knowing God.[59] Even before the Fall, Adam as a finite being required the divine words of God to rightly interpret God’s world (Gen 2:16-17), to deal with creation “in the light of the destiny of the whole of created realm of being”.[60] How much more then, do those who are like “old and bleary-eyed men” through sin need the “spectacles” of God’s own self-revelation to understand him and thus his world?[61]

God, man and culture

But a further objection will be raised from the postmodern sceptic – namely, how can words given to people in a specific culture – using that culture’s language and norms – transcend that culture to speak meaningfully to those embedded in another culture?[62] Moreover, how can the hearers avoid reading into the text the norms of their own culture and interpretive community?[63]

The embedded human and the enculturated word

There is no embarrassment in Scripture about the enculturation of God’s words – indeed, as passages such as Deut 30:11-14 show, such enculturation is both necessary and a cause for celebration. For the people of God about to enter the Promised Land, acutely aware that their ongoing possession of the land was contingent on their obedience, a comprehensible law was crucial.[64] Deuteronomy 30 is therefore an exposition of God’s condescending kindness – he has not given them a heavenly law which would require the people to transcend their human existence in order to obey; nor is it a foreign law which would require cross-cultural translation. For a Hebrew-speaking people in a specific time and place, God gives a law in Hebrew which is able to regulate life in those conditions in a form and manner readily comprehensible to those who first heard it.[65] The fact that God was able to reveal timeless truths about his character, nature and purposes for creation in a specific time to a specific people in a specific language ought to give readers confidence that, in God’s sovereignty, transcendent truth can be accommodated and enculturated.

Perhaps the supreme example of this is the words of Jesus Christ – a man, born and raised in 1st century Palestine, speaking Aramaic to particular people in particular situations, who can yet claim: “whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say”.[66] But the incarnate Christ is more than just paradigmatic for how time-bound human words can yet be transcendent divine words; the embeddedness of Jesus was not a mere “accident of history”. Rather, just as mankind’s plight is the result of rebellion committed within human history, so it is necessary that the solution is also historical.[67] If we desire a transcendent, ahistorical revelation of God that is free from the “scandal of particularity”, we therefore abandon ourselves to the historical plight of mankind’s rebellion and destiny of wrath: “There can be no salvation by the discovery of eternal truth, for eternal truth brings naught but despair, because of sin.”[68]

However, this still leaves the issue of whether such an enculturated word can survive the process of translation unscathed. The very composition of Scripture – 66 books written across centuries in many different cultures and in three different languages – suggest this is entirely possible. One of the major flaws in the sceptics’ approach is that they reject a priori a God who can transcend time such that he can superintend his words across diverse languages and cultures; “for modern thought time is ultimate”[69] and thus meaning is time-bound and language becomes a prison. But if a personal God is admitted into the picture, then revelation can not only be unified across multiple times, languages and voices, but can also progress over that time.[70]

The necessity of interpretive communities

Part of the seedbed of postmodern scepticism is the despair at the modernist quest to find “objective” knowledge, accessible from a truly neutral standpoint. But Scripture takes the opposite attitude by evincing a humble joy in mankind’s creatureliness and limit compared to the Creator’s infinite knowledge.[71] Because God is the sovereign author of the whole universe and has ordained every event in it – and thus “understands us better than we understand ourselves”[72] – he can be “the causal source of contingent truth”,[73] revealing precisely the words his people need in their specific situation without error or oversight.[74] This does not mean that humans can possess the archetypal knowledge that only God has; but that we can truly possess ectypal theology, a true but non-exhaustive knowledge derived from God’s revelation.[75] Indeed, both the modernist desire for objectivity, and the postmodernist despair at never finding it, represent an attempt to have the kind of immediate knowledge only God can have – to be “like God, knowing good and evil”[76] – and “resembles an epistemological tantrum that refuses to accept the human condition.”[77]

This becomes even more acute when it is considered that the goal of revelation is not merely to enlighten certain individuals, but to gather a people to form a new humanity in Christ.[78] This new humanity does not immediately understand all that Scripture teaches, but joins in the task, “together with all the saints”, of apprehending the gospel of the boundless love of Christ, joyfully committed to the fact that they will never fully comprehend the “love that surpasses knowledge”.[79] To advance this cause, God provides teachers who, by “rightly handling the word of truth”[80] using the ordinary means of careful study and prayerful reading[81] are able to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”.[82] This does not mean that churches will always get it right; rather, division and dissension is to be expected as false teachers and false professors are uprooted from within the midst of the church.[83] But Christians realise they are limited beings and thus need the insights of others to help grasp the boundless truth of God’s word; individual Christians who sever themselves from the life of the church are effectively guilty of the same arrogance as the postmodern sceptic who craves objective, independent knowledge;[84] as is the church that cuts itself off from the rich blessings of church history and the diverse readings of the worldwide church and tries to “start from scratch”.[85]

A personal word in a personal universe

Underpinning the argument so far has been an assumed personalist worldview, such that linguistic laws are not just “out there”, operating by “a kind of mechanical control”, but rather “God personally rules over all the particulars of all languages and gives these languages as gifts to humanity”.[86] But this presupposition is by no means shared by the postmodern sceptic; indeed, the explicit rejection of all metanarratives and the anti-authoritarian streak (which caused Nietzsche to proclaim the death of God) is a common “God-defying” feature of postmodernity.[87] The postmodern “suspicion of transcendence… of our ability as reader to be addressed by what is beyond us”[88] is predicated on modernism’s suspicion of testimony, disparaging as gullible all “propositions made not on the basis of sufficient reason or evidence but only upon the credit of the proposer”.[89] Can there be an evangelical response to this suspicion of testimony?

The present author

Scripture repeatedly affirms that God is personally active in both the speaking and reception of his words. His word goes out from him and somehow “returns” to him after achieving its purpose, he is “watching over his word to perform it” and those who hear the reiteration of God’s word in a new context nevertheless “hear his voice”.[90] Moreover, God’s word is presented in Scripture as the means by which he communicates his presence[91] via the close association between word and Spirit,[92] and thus establishes his covenant between himself and his people.[93] Over against the impersonalist worldview that says that the universe operates in a mechanical fashion such that, if God exists, he “could only be present to human beings in some special, extraordinary intervention”,[94] God is constantly present by his Spirit in the “normal” operation of speaking, hearing and reading his word.[95]

This clearly constitutes a challenge to the postmodern view of the text as static; an object to be discussed and dissected removed from the presence of its author.[96] The concern that there is no “quality that the text itself is able to employ to govern interpretation… that may protect the text from anarchic reading”,[97] even if it does apply to texts in general, cannot apply to Scripture.[98] This does not imply immediate understanding or a removal of the need of ordinary means, nor does it guarantee freedom from error; but it does imply the possibility of corrigibility – reformation and correction not from a Magisterium of experts who have unusual insight into Scripture but from the Lord himself through his Spirit.[99]

Without an encounter with a personal transcendent being, the only hope of apprehending transcendent truth would be to become transcendent ourselves, to “break out” of the language system; but “inhabiting the system is part of what it means to be human… The only way to break out would be to have a nonhuman language, and then we could not understand it.”[100] If, however, our presuppositions allow for a personal God to break in to the system which he himself has designed to be the “means [he] has chosen for his presence”,[101] and if we have the epistemological humility to be content with non-exhaustive, ectypal theology, then believing Scripture to be true is “not to enter into an agreement with an absentee God; it is to trust the God who has come to you”.[102]

The virtuous reader

In the impersonalist worldview in which Scripture is static and dormant, a proper examination of it would be improved with the reader’s distance – the more disinterested and objective the reader, the less the reading is likely to be distorted by outside influence. But if Scripture is a personal word spoken to persons, then distance is equivalent not to objectivity but to indifference; an indifference which cannot help but have an impact on the quality of the relationship and thus the effectiveness of communication. With this in mind it is no surprise that Scripture links the accurate hearing of God’s word with the faithfulness and humility of the hearer, as our survey of scepticism within Scripture noted.[103] This gives the postmodern critique a profoundly moral (indeed immoral) slant: the “tendency to privilege perception over testimony” constitutes “a hankering after a primacy for my perception”[104] over that of the revelation of our Creator. It is possible to employ the hermeneutics of suspicion against postmodern authors themselves – as sinners under the judgment of their Creator, it is in their “power interests” to silence God.[105]

This is not to suggest that every passage of Scripture is plain and easy to understand, but that the chief cause of lack of understanding “is not so much the intrinsic incomprehensibility of Scripture as the refusal to abide by it”.[106] It is for this reason that Reformed theologians have pointed to the internal testimony of the Spirit as crucial for sure religious knowledge; not because without it Scripture is somehow impenetrable, but because the interaction between Scripture and reader is a personal interaction between God and a sinner whose shares in the “cognitive malfunction”[107] of the fall. It is precisely because of the “problem” the postmodernist has identified – that one cannot have an “objective” read on the text – that understanding for sinful rebels hearing the proclamation of their king is a “matter of having the right prejudices, or… interpretive virtues”; to be properly “attuned” to the Spirit’s voice.[108]

Conclusion

The argument for the approach taken in this article – to use Scripture to build the foundations for a criterion for religious knowledge – is now built. The origin of language is God and he is the only stable guarantor of meaning in general, especially in a post-Fall world. The only way as an embedded human being to hear the transcendent word of God is to rely on an objective revelation which continues to be superintended and shepherded by God’s Spirit. The only position to take which allows the personal God freedom to correct wrong understanding is humble trust in his Son and prayerful attentiveness to his word. The only stable criterion for religious knowledge is a revealed word from the truthful Father applied by his Spirit to the heart of a sinner redeemed by his Son. Any other epistemological stance logically leads to scepticism and despair.

How should I have responded to my friend’s comment? Given the argument above, a fruitful approach might be one which helps my friend consider his own epistemological presuppositions and examine the heart attitudes which underlie them. In Isaiah’s devastating critique of idolatry, his sad conclusion is that “no-one stops to think” (Isa 44:19) that their idols are blocks of wood – creaturely, unreliable, powerless and unsatisfactory. In helping my friend “stop to think”, I also hope to “give the reason for the hope that [I] have” (1 Pet 3:15), reasoning that a Biblical epistemology is more satisfying precisely because it finds its ultimate grounds in the gospel of Jesus that I want my friend to believe.

Perhaps the beginnings of my response would be something like this:

“No, you’re quite right, not everyone reads it the same way as me. But let me ask you a question – why do you think that is? It could be that the text is simply so unclear and ambiguous that no-one could possibly understand what it means. Do you think that’s the case here? I guess the very fact that we’re able to talk about it and discuss our interpretations without just giving up the exercise as hopeless shows that, deep down, we really do think that these texts mean something, something discoverable, and that when people speak or write they genuinely expect to be heard and understood. But my interpretation is different to others’. And I’m perfectly happy to admit that the main reason is that I’m self-consciously invested in Jesus Christ – because of who he is, and what he says, and what he has done for me in living, dying, and rising to forgive me and restore me to fellowship with his Father, my creator. I am, frankly, biased to believe what he says and to accept his interpretation of the Old Testament more than that of my Jewish friends. I’m committed – because I’m committed to Jesus – to the truth that God, the author of Scripture, rules the universe at all moments and in all places by his active control.

So reading Scripture isn’t actually like reading any other book – God continues to speak, personally, through what he has written, so that false teachings are side-lined and the truth continues to be available to the world. Not that that happens in a mystical or magical way; if God’s the inventor of language, he’s also the inventor of all the normal human ways of interpreting language and we expect to able to use those means to interpret his word. I also trust him to continually equip the church – as he promised – with teachers and scholars and so on who can help me understand it better. Again, that doesn’t mean I agree with every teacher who’s ever called himself a Christian. I’m actually called by Scripture itself to test what people say by Scripture, to expect false teaching and that I’m to be bound by my conscience as I understand Scripture rather than my church.

But what about you? How do you read it? Have you actually read it? And why might you read it differently? I hope you wouldn’t want to claim that you’d be able to read it completely without bias – I’ve already said I wouldn’t claim that for myself. But perhaps it’s worth you considering – what are your biases? Why do you believe what you believe about the Bible? Why do you believe what you believe about God? Could it be that at least part of the reason you don’t believe that the Bible is true is that you don’t want to believe it? Here’s my fear for you – that you hope so much that the Bible isn’t true that you’re no longer prepared to hear what it’s clearly saying. In fact – and I say this fearfully – there are statements in the Bible which suggest that God, in judgment, will stop speaking to those who won’t listen. I’m desperate this doesn’t happen to you. We’ve been talking for a long time about the Ancient Near East, and about matters of philosophy and science and archaeology and so on. That’s all important, and I’m glad we can talk about it. But I hope you agree that what we’re really disagreeing on – the big difference between us – is what we make of the Lord Jesus. No matter how you interpret the New Testament, it’s clear that it presents Jesus as someone at the very least worthy of our focused attention – indeed, our devotion and our allegiance. I’d be so glad to read the Bible with you and talk through what it’s saying about Jesus; I’d be thrilled if you’d come to church with me and see what difference he makes in the lives of those who trust him. What do you think?”