Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 27, 1959
NUMBER 16, PAGE 1,9b-12

"Interpreting" The Bible

Roy E. Cogdill

(This is the second article written in review of the recently published book by J. D. Thomas of Abilene Christian College entitled "We Be Brethren".)

We pointed out in the previous article in this review that Brother Thomas in his book diagnoses our present difficulties in the church as due to a difference in our "method of interpretation". With this view we differ radically. It is our conviction that our differences are due fundamentally to a difference in attitude toward the Word of God and divine authority.

Brother Thomas devotes the first eight chapters of his book to what he believes is the major problem — that of interpretation or "methods of interpretation." He also is conscious and, evidently very deeply so, of a difference in attitude for he devotes two chapters to "legalism", which is an attitude he charges against those of us who differ with him in our treatment of the word of God, and he spends one whole chapter defending himself against the charge of being a "liberalist". In fact he and Brother Roberts, also on the faculty of A. C. C. and others, have been rather busy trying to prove that they are not "liberalists." We will deal with the "legalism" and "liberalism" discussion in other articles. Just now we are interested in studying with our readers the idea of "interpretation" and "attitude".

It is our conception that the attitude of a man toward the truth of God will pretty definitely determine the success he has in his effort to understand and apply what God has said. Surely nothing is more important than the proper attitude toward God's Word. This is emphasized both in the Old and New Testaments. In fact, most of Old Testament history tells the story of how God sought to develop in the hearts of his people a proper attitude toward Him and His Word. This history has been retained in the Word of God that we might learn from Old Testament study the lesson that God sought to impress upon his people then. In those days God warned his people against coming to him with an "idol" in their hearts.

"Therefore speak unto them, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord Jehovah; Every man of the house of Israel that taketh his idols into his heart, and putteth the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet; I, Jehovah will answer him therein according to the multitude of his idols; that I may take the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from me through their idols". (Ezekiel 14:4-5.)

The same warning in principle can be found in the New Testament scriptures in these words.

"And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they might all be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness." (II Thess. 2:10-12.)

It would not matter, therefore, what rules were followed to understand the scriptures and learn the will of God, unless we have the right attitude toward it, our efforts will only result in the justification of our idols instead of learning the truth. That is the reason the wise man of the Old Testament said, "Buy the truth and sell it not".

We have often heard people say that "you can prove anything by the Bible". That is mighty close to blasphemy against the word of God. But it is true that any man can prove anything to his own satisfaction by the Bible. If he comes to justify his idols, he will be able to do so in his own mind.

If there has ever been a book written in a more labored effort to justify some practice or conclusion already reached, we have not seen it. Brother Thomas never forgot for one moment the end toward which he was driving and sought all the way through the effort to bend every rule and blend every word toward that objective. He had no plain passage of scripture that furnished authority — either generic or specific — by way of express precept, approved apostolic example, or necessary inference — hence it took a book of 260 pages to establish that he had the privilege through his own "common sense" or "good judgment" to place the "wavy line" in his chart on authority wherever it needed to be placed to serve his purpose and justify his practice. Then he gives us the benefit of his judgment and his wisdom in his own conclusions, arbitrarily reached, without one ounce of evidence from the word of God to sustain them. He could easily have solved the problem by just producing some kind of authority — any kind — by some plain passage of scripture — any passage that is plain enough that it doesn't take a PH.D. to "interpret" it for us. It is tragic that Brother Thomas could not treat his subject from an altogether objective viewpoint giving us what the scriptures say plainly in support of what he tries to justify and leave himself and his experience as a "trained thinker" out of the consideration. He started out to do so and the work had some promise, but when he tried to work out a formula by which all problems of authority could be solved and was forced to inject his own wisdom and judgment into the decision as to where the "wavy line" in his chart on authority belongs and formulate his own decision to guide us as to which examples are binding and which are not, then his attitude changed to an altogether subjective one depending on his learning and wisdom.

But let us look at some of the things in his book and see this matter for ourselves:

"In general, our BRETHREN agree upon principles of interpretation, as they cover the major doctrines of the New Testament. We have no problem whatever about what one needs to do to be saved, or the overall scheme of redemption, or the place of the church in God's plan; but the rising of these new problems about church cooperation and the care of orphans has brought the question of details of how correct interpretation must be done into sharp focus."

"The real differences between the BRETHREN involved in these controversies can be attributed to differences in methods of interpretation.

"In the past we have all agreed that the Bible teaches us authoritatively, and outlines actions REQUIRED of us, by: (1) direct command, (2) necessary inference, and (3) by approved apostolic examples. These basic methods have in general been accepted by all of us since the beginning of the Restoration period of church history. There has previously been no serious need to challenge any of them." (Page 5 — last line — page 6 — paragraph 3.)

Unless there is some special "interpretation" of this language which we are not able to see, Brother Thomas thinks that we are faced with some problems now which have heretofore not existed. We must challenge some of the means which we have always used because of these "new problems". The same old rules by which we have always "interpreted" the word of God on such matters as (1) what one needs to do to be saved, (2) the overall scheme of redemption, and, (3) the place of the church in God's plan; will not work anymore and will not solve the problem of "church cooperation" and the "care of orphans". This is a tremendous admission. Who created these problems? Have they not always existed? Does the teaching of the Bible bring about these new problems? Do we have something existing among us — newly created — that the Bible is not responsible for that has brought us face to face with the need for new rules of "interpretation" that it takes a PH.D. to ferret out for us? Has any practice or teaching ever arisen that the plain word of God has not been able to deal with without inventing new rules and "methods of interpretation"? What a dilemma something has created!

But hear our author further:

"No one is especially to blame for our present "bottleneck" in the matter of knowing when and how examples teach required actions. We have never before faced these problems in just this same way and have simply never needed to dig into the question in such a detailed way. There has been nothing wrong with the interpretation that we have done in the past — the Bible does teach by command, by necessary inference, and by approved examples — and probably the worst thing that has happened about the whole matter up to now is that some BRETHREN have held very ugly attitudes toward others, without fathoming the problems in a clear-cut and decisive way themselves". (Page 8 — paragraph 2.)

Now I am sure that Brother Thomas does not plead guilty for himself in this charge of ugly attitudes toward one another or a failure to fathom the problem either. In the first he assumes a very pious brotherly attitude to begin with but actually betrays about as ugly an attitude as we have seen demonstrated before he finishes, as we shall show in a later article, and therein demonstrates his inability again to treat his subject objectively. In the latter there are many evidences that he doubts not his ability to solve the difficulty with reference to these new problems — to his own satisfaction anyway — and that he actually takes credit for evolving a "Standard Diagram of Authority" that will settle all difficulties of "interpretation" for all time to come. We shall give some instances of these evidences later on also.

Remember that in the above statements Brother Thomas points out that the same rules of "interpretation" that have taught that Baptism is for the remission of sins, the scheme of redemption, and the place of the church in God's plan, are not able now to solve the problem of church cooperation and the problem of caring for orphans. We need to keep this admission in mind as we examine other statements from his book — according to Brother Thomas, THE "BROTHERHOOD" NEEDS SOME NEW RULES OF INTERPRETATION TO LEARN HOW CHURCHES ARE TO COOPERATE AND HOW TO CARE FOR ORPHANS.

Where are we to get these new rules of "interpretation"? He does not keep us waiting long:

"We should recognize, then, the necessity of squarely facing up to the need for a more thorough study of interpretation. Let us do it calmly and willingly and unafraid. There has as yet been no book in the field of principles of interpretation written by a denominationalist that even gets close to this problem. The best book in the general area available so far is Dungan's Hermeneutics, but his approach does not treat these particular problems, so he does not really help us. Our only alternative, then, is to probe the problem deeply for ourselves". (Page 9 — paragraph 3.)

From this we learn that no book solving these new problems for us has ever been written until now. Our Brother Thomas is unafraid to "pioneer" just as Alexander Campbell and other Restoration preachers have pioneered before him. He sass so in the same paragraph quoted from above. Mary Baker Eddy gave to her followers a "Key to the Scriptures". What the world did before she unlocked the Bible and told them what it meant, I don't know. But until "We Be Brethren" appeared on the scene, the truth of God's word about church cooperation and how to care for orphans has never been thoroughly explored, discovered, and made plain for all. This is a tragedy. I suppose then that the church has never in any age before known how to care for orphans and how to cooperate with other churches. Could we reach any other conclusion from these statements?

But we note the next step in the development of his "plan of interpretation" in these words:

"The Scientific Method actually includes both induction and deduction. — Simply described, the Scientific Method calls for determination of data by empirical observation (or with our five senses) and then the collection of these data, for consideration in relation to each other. When they are thus considered (by reasoning or rationalism), a hypothesis will likely be formed that can explain their interrelation and suggest the solution of the problem". (Page 14 — paragraphs 1 and 2.)

Most brethren have not formed the right "hypothesis" by using their five senses and rationalizing enough about the will of God, I guess. Either "inductively" or "deductively" this must be done or we are sunk. But listen again:

"The use of the Scientific Method requires that all essential data and concepts be distinguished from the non-essential ones and that any underlying structure or form of the phenomena under consideration be determined'. (Page 14 — Paragraph 3.)

Abraham believed God, that is, he believed what God said when he was promised a son by his wife Sarah. It was against all human reason, experience, learning, and every circumstance for she was past the age of conceiving and bearing a child and had been barren through her life. Abraham considered his own body as good as dead. What sort of "empirical observation," with his five senses, or consideration by "rationalizing" did Abraham use in order to arrive at the conclusion that God meant what he said?? Does a man have to understand this "Scientific Method" Brother Thomas talks about before he can understand God's Word and know God's will? Must we rely upon rationalizing and our five senses in order to believe what God has said? What did Jesus mean when he said, "I thank thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight" (Luke 10:21) ?

But notice who Brother Thomas says are able to form these "hypotheses".

"Hypotheses are formed by simply "occurring to the mind" during the time that experienced and trained thinkers in the field under consideration are engaged in reflecting on the various data at hand. What we mean by "experienced thinkers" may be illustrated by the fact that an automobile mechanic or a preacher would never conceive an hypothesis of how a surgeon might best perform a certain operation. They could not even reflect very well upon the data that are available in the medical field, since they could not understand or evaluate them. On the other hand each might do correct reasoning and formulate helpful hypotheses within his own field.

"This ability to understand and evaluate facts and data that bear upon a particular problem in a given field and to formulate hypotheses that may issue in a solution of a problem puts one in a position to actually make necessary "leaps of inference" from known things to unknown things and thus to draw down conclusions". (Page 15 — paragraph 2 and 3.)

We learn a little more of what he means by "trained and experienced thinkers" being able to "conceive hypotheses" in their own field by reading another short statement in the same connection:

"Many of the early thinkers in the Restoration, however, were school men and had formal training in logic and they have no doubt had a strong influence upon the rest of us" (Page 17 — paragraph 1.)

We have been fed a strong diet of "institutional logic" from the beginning of these institutional promotions among the brethren with mighty little scripture thrown in and upon the basis of human sophistry rather than a "thus saith The Lord" we have been asked to rest our faith. Brother Thomas is no exception to this in his book. He leaves some very lucid and definite inferences in the statements quoted to this point.

I. — The "Brotherhood" needs some new rules of interpretation to learn how churches are to cooperate and how to care for orphans. The same rules that have enabled us to understand the plan of salvation, the scheme of redemption, and the place of the church in God's plan will not work on these new problems.

II. — We will have to depend upon "trained and experienced thinkers" which means "school men trained in logic" to evolve this system of "interpretation" so that we may be able to understand that the present promotions in the church are right. We cannot come to such knowledge simply by reading and studying the scriptures for ourselves.

III. — Brother Thomas qualifies in this field along with all of the rest of the PH.D. men whom we have in our professionally trained clergy in our generation. Moreover he is willing to be a "pioneer" in the field and point the way.

IV — These educated clergymen — like our brother — feel qualified and that they are in position to actually make necessary "leaps of inference" (emphasis mine) from known things to unknown things and thus to "draw down conclusions" for all of us. The difficulty is that they "leap" over too many plain passages of scripture and too many things that have been made known in the Word of the Lord in order to draw down their conclusions from "inferences" that are not justified.

Now before you feel too deep resentment toward these conclusions, if you are an admirer of our brother, it would be fitting to carefully examine the statements given above and many more of their kind in the book and ask yourself the question, If these points are not the conclusions which his language merits then what does he mean? Let us hear him further on the last point:

"In the following pages, therefore, the attempt is made to point out an easy-to-understand principle that some have overlooked — a way that is really as simple as our ordinary thinking and understandable by anyone — for knowing when and how examples teach us — both when a matter is clearly optional for us; and also when definite, clear, authoritative and binding "patterns" are revealed to us by God's Word. The attempt is then made to apply the principles to the various "problem areas" of tension in the brotherhood in the hope that we can all see God's will clearly and, in view of our desire for unity, that we may then really "BE BRETHREN", in both our attitudes and conduct". (Page 7 — paragraph 3, page 8 — paragraph 1.)

Now we sincerely hope that Brother Thomas will not get his feelings hurt too badly when we tell him that we think his labored effort contributes nothing to a clearer understanding of "God's will" or to a better attitude among brethren. Rather it is our sincere judgment that he has made nothing clear but the fact that he has labored extensively to find some circuitous route of trying to justify what he and others have in their hearts as "idols" instead of making a direct and simple appeal to the word of God. Their extended efforts, all of their attempts at logic, all of their sophistry and all of their cartoons would be entirely unnecessary if they would simply produce some plain testimony from the Word of God that teaches — in any manner — what they are trying to prove is right.

This idea of "interpretation" needs to be looked into just a little. It has not been long since one of "our" preachers in California said, "I believe the Bible is inspired all right, but my 'interpretation' of the Bible is not inspired and therefore I cannot say to any man when he disagrees with what I believe that he is wrong". He was trying to soften down the plan of salvation and the place of the church in God's plan to make himself more tolerant toward those who disagreed with him. The difficulty with such an attitude is that there is no limitation that can justly be placed upon its application. It applies just as well to the miracles of our Lord, His resurrection from the dead, His virgin birth, and his present position at God's right hand as to baptism for remission of sins or anything else.

In reality the problem of "interpretation" is simply the problem of understanding what God has said. There is no difficulty in determining what God meant, for he means what he says. One of the major differences between scholarly men of ages past is in the fact that some of them have tried to determine just what God has said while so many others have been concerned with what God meant by what he said. Judges sometimes in deciding a case and writing an opinion will spend more time talking about what the law should be and in stating their dictum than they do in announcing the law. Brother Thomas' book deals very largely in dictum and very little in pointing out to his readers just what God has said about the problems at hand. He refers to a good many passages of scripture first and last but to very few that have any direct bearing on the problems which he seeks to solve for us all. He relies much more on what the Bible has not said or what it has said about something else than he does upon what it says in plain language about the matter of church cooperation or congregational benevolence. If you think that isn't true, then read the book and number the passages that really have any bearing on these problems. When you have finished, ask yourself the question, "what passage has he offered in which he finds authority, generic or specific, by commandment or express precept, approved apostolic example, or by necessary inference, for the churches building human organizations to furnish a home for the destitute or for such combining of the funds of many churches in one congregation, and the centralizing of the control over those funds in one eldership as is practiced in the Herald of Truth? Or, put it another way, "What passage has he produced that teaches in any manner that such practices are in harmony with the will of God?" This is what we need and not so much evasion, and "ring around the rosey" palaver.

Webster's New Unabridged Twentieth Century Dictionary gives us the following on the meaning of "interpret":

1. To explain the meaning of; to expound; to translate, as from an unknown or foreign language into one known; to explain or unfold the intent, meaning, or reasons of; to make clear; to free from obscurity or mystery; to make intelligible; to decipher; as to interpret the French language to an American; to interpret a dream; to interpret a passage of scripture.

2. To represent artistically; to portray or make clear by representation; as, an actor interprets a character in a drama; a musician interprets a piece of music.

3. To assume the meaning of; to explain to oneself; to construe; as his statement was not correctly interpreted.

It would be interesting to see just which one of these meanings Brother Thomas attaches to the word "interpret" as he uses that word in his book. Has he assumed the role of explaining what God has said — unfolding its intent — making it intelligible? If so, God must have failed and it sounds a little like Brother Thomas thinks God did fail to make himself clear on some matters except to "trained and experienced thinkers" or "school men trained in logic".

When interpretation means anything but simply understanding it cannot apply to the Bible. The Bible does not need a special set of rules to be interpreted. It is to be understood just like other books. There is no difference in understanding what the Bible says on baptism for remission of sins and caring for orphans and we categorically deny that the word of God is any harder to understand on the matter of which organization is to do the benevolent work of the church, or over which congregation's resources an eldership shall have control, than it is about the plan of salvation. When we treat what the Bible says on the subject of the benevolent work of the church and congregational cooperation just like the denominational world treats what the Bible says about baptism, it is for the same reason, viz., we do not have the proper attitude toward the word of God. It is a matter of attitude and not "interpretation."

"If God has spoken to man at all, he must have spoken for the purpose and with the design of being understood. The contradictory of this proposition is a moral absurdity. But if God spoke to man with the design of being understood, he must, of course, have generally used words in their ordinary sense, or according to the usus loquendi of the person addressed. For in no other way short of a miracle could he have conveyed to them his meaning" — (Milligan's Scheme of Redemption.)

God gave us his word with the purpose that we should understand it. That is the reason for divine revelation. That revelation is in the book and not in man today. If God intended that His word should be understood then he must have used words in their general meaning or ordinary sense. Otherwise it would have been a direct work of divine grace for man to understand the will of God. It is true that words have a special sense attached to them sometimes in the Bible but that sense never is out of harmony with the fundamental meaning of the term and the special meaning is determinable from the use of the term in its connection. The same rules of interpretation of language in general that make us able to understand what we read in other books will enable us to know what God means by what he says. The Bible is its own "interpreter" and it doesn't take an M. A. in church history from SMU or a PH.D. in New Testament and Early Christian Literature from the Humanities Division of the University of Chicago to make known its meaning or to understand it in the first place We do not object to education but in the study of the Bible and in teaching the truth we do object to these "trained and experienced thinkers" trying to attach some meaning to what God has said that is not apparent in God's word. Jesus said, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled." He didn't mean "PHunnelleD" either.

(To be continued)