Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation — Part II: How Can Man Know God?

[Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series on the general subject, “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]

I. The Quest to Know God

From ancient times thinking men have searched for some explanation of the world in which they live and some key to the purpose and meaning of life. The Bible records that God revealed Himself to Adam and to some of his immediate posterity, but as the human race enlarged much of what had been revealed was forgotten. The great mass of mankind became increasingly ignorant of God and His way, though it is possible that much more was known about God in the early history of the race than has been preserved in any written form. The Book of Job, recording the thoughts of Job and his friends living centuries before Scripture was written, shows a remarkable knowledge of God, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

The beginning of modern intellectual development and philosophic thought as recorded in the writings of the early Greeks is theologically far below the level of Job’s time. Even brilliant men among Greek philosophers seem to have little knowledge of God. Their writings, however, testify to the insatiable curiosity of the keenest minds in the ancient world as they searched for some explanation of the origin and nature of their world.

The problems which the Greeks attempted to solve have again occupied the center of the stage in the twentieth century. The modern mind, having discarded Scripture as an authoritative voice and retired to the somewhat agnostic position that the nature of God cannot be known with certainty, has taken a new approach. The events of the twentieth century have demonstrated the mockery of any explanation of life which is not centered in God. The pressures of fear and uncertainty and the obvious shallowness of material prosperity have triggered the desire for an explanation of the enigma of life itself. In a world which has discovered so much scientifically and so little about God there was demand for a renewed study of what man can know about God. Though much of the philosophic world is still agnostic and naturalistic, the theological world at least has come up with a new explanation of how man can know God.

That new answer, in a word, is crisis theology, the idea that man by a supernatural experience or crisis can bridge the gap between his finiteness and the infinite God. By this means man can, in effect, know God. The God thus revealed is an infinite, transcendent God who is sovereign over His creatures. Such a God cannot be known by ordinary scientific investigation. God can only be known as He reveals Himself. The renewed emphasis on the supernatural character of the divine revelation of God, with its admission of human finiteness and depravity, though bypassing the problem of Scriptural authority, has created a new orthodoxy, a neo-orthodoxy. Though only a pseudo theology as compared to the old orthodoxy, it has captured the modern mind more quickly than any previous departure from Biblical Christianity. Its elements are not new, but it is nevertheless different from any of its ancient counterparts such as mysticism, intuitive knowledge, or direct revelation from God. Neo-orthodoxy has raised new questions about the nature of divine revelation as it relates to the Bible, to human experience, and the natural world.

II. Is God Revealed in Nature?

There was a certain legitimacy in man’s ancient attempt to know God on the basis of the created world. After all, that which is created should bear witness to the character of its Creator. Even the psalmist David bore testimony to this when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps 19:1-4). The physical heavens do declare the infinite perfections of God. The magnitude of the mass and distances which characterize the starry world, the millions of light years which separate one portion of the universe from the other, the obvious design and adaptation to purpose, the evident uniformity in many of the physical laws, in a word the astronomical world as well as the microscopic world testifies to the power, wisdom, and personality of God.

It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul, debating the difficult subject of how the heathen world which has never heard the gospel can be justly condemned before God, states that their condemnation is based not on the rejection of what they have never heard but on the revelation of God in nature which they chose to ignore. Paul therefore writes: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness; because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened” (Rom 1:18-21). The heathen are without excuse because God’s everlasting power and deity are clearly revealed in the things that He has made. Though they had knowledge in this way of such a God, they did not worship Him or give thanks to Him.

Great as is revelation in the natural world, it is evident that this in itself has not been sufficient to end man’s quest for God. In fact, the great majority of the world has not sought God, but has fled from Him, and for this reason was blinded in its ordinary capacities to understand the meaning of the physical world. Paul in this way explains why men of ordinary intelligence worship idols patterned after the lowest beasts. The resulting immorality and depravity are seen both in history and in Scripture. It is evident that something more was needed than the revelation found in the handiwork of God. In this conclusion the neo-orthodox and orthodox agree. Natural revelation is not enough. can bear no certain voice and only through spoken or written words could God communicate to man that which was in His heart and mind for those who otherwise would grope without finding God’s perfect plan. The startling contrast between a devout student of the Scripture and his knowledge of God as compared to that of an idol worshipper in the heathen world untouched by the written Word shows at once the tremendous extent of the divine revelation in the written Bible.

The existence of the written Word of God would seem at first thought to solve the problem of how man can know God. Two immediate difficulties arose, however. The first is summed up in the word unbelief. From the beginning some have rejected the inspired Word of God and have doubted its accuracy, its authority, and its claim to being the supreme revelation of God. The sneer of Satan in the Garden of Eden concerning the spoken Word of God, “Yea, hath God said…” (Gen 3:1) has found many echoes in human unbelief. Once the false prop of the authority of the Roman Church was removed by the Protestant Reformation, the way was open for criticism to begin its whittling work on the inspiration of Scripture, and by arguments against the authenticity of Scripture to destroy for its adherents any thought of a final Word of God in the Scriptures. Lower criticism, or the study of the text of Scripture, though uncovering many problems, in the last analysis was not too damaging to orthodox Christian theology, as even the worst texts yield essentially the same doctrines as the best. It is taken for granted, however, in modern liberalism that the battle for absolute inspiration of the original Scriptures is lost and the question is no longer subject to debate by true scholars. The fact that some of the most brilliant scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have refuted these attacks upon inspiration is brushed aside without attempting an answer.

Among those still clinging to the inspiration of Scripture, however, another major difficulty has arisen in the field of interpretation. It is sadly true that even those who accept Scriptural authority are by no means agreed as to the content of the revelation of Scripture. Principally by use of the device of denying the literal meaning of Scripture in favor of an allegorical or so-called spiritual interpretation, many of the plain teachings of Scripture are negated. In its worst form this is illustrated in the Alexandrian school of theology in the third century which allegorized all Scripture. The modern tendency is to allegorize only portions which in their literal rendering would yield doctrine unacceptable to the interpreter, as in the case of an amillenarian dealing with prophecies of a future millennial reign of Christ. Though the doctrine of inspiration solves many of the problems, obviously interpretation can make the meaning of Scripture quite different than its actual statement.

Neo-orthodoxy has introduced another element into the picture. Though accepting the most extreme higher critical findings and thereby denying the inspiration of the Bible, neo-orthodoxy has nevertheless restored the Bible to the role of being a principal channel of revelation, i.e., that through which God speaks. The Scripture is not authoritative in itself, but in neo-orthodoxy authority is attributed to the experience of the interpreter, that is, the truth is revealed to the individual through the means of the written Word. While filling to some extent the vacuum created by denial of inspiration, it transfers authority from the Scripture to an experience of revelation which is almost completely subjective, not guided by norms or even qualified by rational examination. The authority of the experience is allowed to rest on its own self-evident character. From the standpoint of orthodoxy, this point of view is little removed from the situation before the Bible itself was written. Neo-orthodoxy is based on a spurious claim to authoritative immediate revelation of God, which actually is a substitute for the written Word.

IV. Barriers to Understanding the Bible

Though the extensive and detailed revelation given in the Scriptures would seem to be a completely adequate answer to man’s quest to know God for those who accept inspiration, it obviously has not brought light to a great majority of the world’s population even though the Bible has been printed and distributed on a scale never achieved by any other literature. Readers of Scripture first of all become aware of the language barrier, the fact that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. The necessity of translation into their given language interposes to some extent the human hand of the translators and gives rise to the question as to whether the precise thought has been reproduced. The background of a given portion of Scripture as provided in the customs of the people and the geography of the land are often quite strange to the reader, and, unless he is instructed by information gained from other sources, the Scripture in itself is not clear.

Often a given Scripture has a historical and Biblical setting which is unknown to the reader, and, until he becomes a thorough student of the entire context, a particular Scripture might communicate little to him by way of knowledge of the true God. Take, for instance, the lot of a novice stumbling through the Book of Ezekiel or trying to read Ecclesiastes or the Song of Solomon. The visions of Zechariah and the revelations given to John on Patmos do not easily engage the modern mind and transmit the intended sense.

These obvious barriers are made insuperable when it is realized that natural man, untouched by the grace of God and without any God-given insight into the meaning of Scripture, is unable to arrive at the true sense even with determined application and research on a high scholarly level. As Paul expressed it succinctly: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged” (1 Cor 2:14). The Scriptures are an unsolvable enigma to the natural man attempting to find the true God. Obviously something more is needed to satisfy the desire of the human heart to know God than either the revelation of God in nature or the written Word of God itself.

V. The Ministry of the Holy Spirit

Just as God provided the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Savior of men through His work on the cross and thereby made it possible for a righteous and holy God to manifest His love and forgiveness to the sinner, so in the human situation where man could not know God by his best efforts God has provided one to open his eyes and make him understand in the person of the Holy Spirit. This provision of God of course is not an isolated or unrelated aspect of God’s divine purpose, but it is part of the gracious plan of God by which sinners estranged from God and ignorant of His person and works could come to know Him in a wonderful intimacy which anticipates the eternal fellowship of the soul with God. The qualifications for entering into such a relationship are made clear in Scripture. Those who receive the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and recognize Him as their Lord and their God are made new creatures in Christ. They are given eternal life, joined to the large company of those who share eternal life with them, and are given the personal presence of the Holy Spirit of God who makes their bodies His temple and by His presence constitutes the seal of God which assures them eternal redemption. As physical life is necessary for ordinary human consciousness and capacity to see and know, so eternal life opens a new vista, a new capacity to know God and to receive divine revelation. Those who were blind now see. Those who were dead are now alive. Those who considered the gospel foolishness, now find it the power of God.

In a profound passage in 1 Corinthians 2, the Apostle Paul unfolds this tremendous work of God. The truth of God which has been hidden, which was unknown by even the great men of this world who in ignorance crucified the Lord of glory, is now revealed. As Paul states it: “But as it is written, things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, and which entered not into the heart of man, whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:9-10). Here is an epistemology that transcends the human senses. God is known by a process that does not involve the eye or the ear, nor does it originate in the heart, or human consciousness. Here is a frontal denial of empiricism, the idea that all knowledge comes through the senses. Knowledge comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit,of God.

He goes on to explain: “We received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God” (1 Cor 2:12). The new revelation is contained and transmitted “not in words which man’s wisdom teaeheth, but which the Spirit teacheth” (1 Cor 2:13). Though Paul and the apostles undoubtedly experienced direct revelation from God, the norm of experience for the ordinary Christian is given, namely, revelation through the “words” used by the Holy Spirit, i.e., the Scriptures themselves. The Holy Spirit makes known the truth of God to the child of God through the written Word.

The full experience of this, however, according to Paul is dependent upon the believer being “spiritual.” The Corinthian Christians did not qualify and Paul calls them “carnal” (1 Cor 3:1). It is evident then that even the tremendous work of God in salvation and making the individual believer the temple of the Holy Spirit is not in itself enough so that every believer will understand the Word of God.

VI. The Transformed Mind

The classic utterance of Paul in the inspired Epistle to the Romans, chapter 12, verses one and two , answers the question as to the qualifications of an intelligent and Spirit-directed interpreter of Scripture. In this familiar passage Paul beseeches the Christian brethren at Rome: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” It is understood from this utterance that the revelation of God both in nature and in the written Scriptures and the provision of God in the salvation of the individual believer are all to no avail in transmitting to his mind that which God would have him to know about Himself. In order to enter in and comprehend the intimate revelation of the mind and will of God, it is necessary for the believer to present or yield his entire life to the Lord. In this act, on the one hand, he will be delivered from conformity to a wicked and ignorant world. On the other hand, he will be delivered from the depraved mind by being transformed by the power of God and renewed to such an extent that the mind can contemplate and recognize that which is “the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

The answer to the question as to how man can know God is therefore embodied in the Scriptures themselves. Man can know something of God from nature, namely, His power, His wisdom, and His personality. From the written Scriptures those who put their trust in Christ can find in God One who is their Savior, who though He is righteous, sovereign, and almighty can nevertheless manifest His love and grace to those who will accept the person and work of His blessed Son. A deeper understanding, however, of God, His plans and purposes, His revelation of Himself, and His perfect will can only be known through the ultimate step of complete dedication in which the transforming work of grace achieves its goal and brings to the ultimate limits the experience of the knowledge of God such as is within man’s capacity in this present world.

That there is a contemporary revelation of God in human experience, orthodoxy will affirm as well as neo-orthodoxy. The true doctrine, however, is not a divine revelation which is something more than the written Word, but is rather a divine illumination, a divinely given insight into that truth which was in the written Word from the time it was inscribed. The process, although supernatural, is subject to the test of harmony with the entire Bible rightly interpreted. New applications of truth may be given to a particular human problem. God will guide and direct His own in their use of the Scriptures. The truth thus embraced, however, is no greater in its circumference than the truth once for all delivered to the saints in the Holy Scriptures. Man cannot truly know God except as He is revealed in the written Word.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

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