We Must Allow Scripture To Qualify Itself

qualification

The ancients wisely declared, “Scriptura scripturam interpretatur,” or “Scripture interprets Scripture.” If the Bible is God’s word, then it must be consistent with itself. Actually, one divine Author—the Holy Spirit—inspired the entire Bible. Thus, it is not possible it could contradict itself. An essential rule of Bible study (let’s call it the “synthesis principle”) puts scripture together with scripture to arrive at clear, consistent meaning. In 2 Peter 1:19-21, Peter said: “We also have the prophetic word made more sure, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, there’s never any place in Bible study for, “To me, this passage means…” On the contrary, the Bible cannot have one meaning for you and another meaning for me. Whatever Scripture is saying, it is saying the same thing to both of us. Consequently, the best way to interpret Scripture is to let it interpret itself.

Thinking Of The Bible As A Symphony Orchestra

If the Bible is thought of as a symphony orchestra, and the Holy Spirit as its Arturo Toscanini (a great conductor of the past), then just as the orchestra played the notes the great Italian conductor desired, so the Bible, with its great assortment of instruments, produced the message the Holy Spirit wanted—remember, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20).  toscaniniWhen synthesized, or put together, we have the entire symphony or word of God, as the case may be. Just as each instrumentalist’s part becomes fully clear when played in relation to all the other parts, so any one passage of the Bible becomes clear only when compared to all other passages. This means that if we hold an interpretation of one passage that contradicts another passage, at least one of these passages is being interpreted incorrectly. The Holy Spirit does not—indeed, cannot—disagree with Himself. For example, one passage cannot be saying we are saved by faith alone (cf. Romans 3:28) if there is another clear passage that says we are not saved by faith only (cf. James 2:24). Passages where the obvious meanings are clear help us to understand passages that are less clear. The prudent Bible student is careful not to build a doctrine on a single obscure or unclear passage of Scripture. Some otherwise intelligent men have done this to their own detriment.

A Definition

Comparing Scripture with Scripture helps us to understand that one passage can actually amplify, clarify, modify, and qualify another passage. By qualify, I mean one passage can limit or restrict another. In this study, we’ll focus solely on the qualifying principle. Although a qualification may, at first, appear to be a contradiction or denial of a scripture, it really isn’t. A qualification merely sets the particular passage in perspective by applying additional information about the topic under consideration. As we shall see, a qualification may occur in the immediate, general, or remote context.

The Immediate Context

Sometimes a qualification is found in the very passage itself. In Matthew 19:9, the “except for sexual immorality” phrase qualifies “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife…and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” Without this exception clause or qualification, divorcing one’s mate and marrying another would always be wrong.

Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, where Paul writes:

9 I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.”

Verse 10 immediately qualifies what Paul wrote in verse 9.

Yet another example is found in 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, where Paul mentions not doing some things “for conscience’ sake” (verses 25,27,28). It’s not until we get to verse 29 that we hear him say: “‘Conscience,’ I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience?” Without this immediate qualification, we would not know that this passage was actually referring to another man’s conscience rather than our own.

Immediate, clear-cut qualifications of Scripture are very rare. Imagine what the Bible would read like if, after every bit of instruction in the Bible, God would have explained what the passage did not mean. Such a list of seemingly endless qualifications would surely cause us to lose the crucial point under discussion. Nevertheless, the principle of qualification is an extremely important concept to understand when trying to discover the correct meaning of any Bible passage.

Finally, the interpretation of a verse in its immediate context is actually the foundation of Bible interpretation and serves as a precedent for how the process should be employed in the larger context of Scripture. Therefore, understanding how the principle of qualification is to be employed, we are ready to examine some passages that are qualified by their general contexts.

The General Context

An example of a qualification in the general context is Solomon’s frequently misinterpreted statement, “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). He is not denying continuing existence or consciousness after one experiences physical death, as many think, as this would be a contradiction of the necessary inference of Exodus 3:6, where God stated, “I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The necessary inference, according to Jesus (cf. Mark 12:18-27), is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although physically dead, remain in a state of conscious existence. Of course, the Sadducees did not believe that a human being survived physical death (cf. Acts 23:8). Failing to make the necessary conclusion of Exodus 3:6, Jesus said they were “greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:27). One might suspect that the Sadducees may have even cited Ecclesiastes 9:5 as their proof-text. Yet, when we consider the story—notice, I did not say parable—Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, we realize that Solomon’s statement could not be referring to one’s lack of consciousness beyond the grave.

Now, there’s the possibility that Solomon could have been mistaken about what he wrote and the Holy Spirit permitted his misunderstanding to be recorded in Scripture. This happens occasionally in the Scriptures. However, when one considers the surrounding context of Solomon’s statement, this possibility is eliminated. In the general context, Solomon is referring to life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:3,6,9). In fact, much of what Solomon says in this book should be viewed within the “under the sun” context. There are twenty-seven occurrences of this phrase in the book, beginning in Ecclesiastes 1:3 and ending in Ecclesiastes 10:5. Thus, Solomon’s “the dead know nothing” statement is restricted and limited to an ongoing knowledge of the earthly affairs experienced by those who are still physically alive. As such, it does not extend to those who are “alive” in the spirit.

Another example of a general context qualification is found in 1 Corinthians 10:23, where the apostle Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.” Some have taken this passage to mean that those in Christ are no longer subject to law, but this view is clearly wrong. Although it is true that a Christian is not dependent upon a system of perfect law-keeping for justification (thank God!), he is, nevertheless, under law to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). Paul, who is speaking by inspiration, is not saying everything (viz., fornication, adultery, lying, theft, etc., which are clearly condemned in other passages) is lawful, which would make the Scriptures contradictory. Instead, the general context indicates that what he’s saying is that within the category of things that are lawful, there are some things that are not helpful or expedient. The context informs us that whatever the Christian does must glorify God (v. 31) and that even our liberty (viz., the “all things” that “are lawful”) may be limited by another person’s conscience (vv. 27-29). In other words, even when something is lawful for me, I should usually refrain from doing it if it will give “offense either to the Jews or the Greeks or to the church of God” (v. 32). I say “usually,” because even this doctrine is qualified. Paul is not writing in this passage of things that are required. For example, if my devotion to Jesus Christ offends a Jew or Muslim, (e.g., invoking His name in prayer), then so be it—I must “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). On the other hand, I will not offend my Muslim or Jewish dinner guest by serving him pork, which, as a Christian, I am at liberty to eat. And, in the case under consideration in this passage, I need not be overly scrupulous about eating meat, whether selecting it in the marketplace or eating it when it is set before me at an unbeliever’s table. On the other hand, if I am informed that the meat has been sacrificed to an idol, which, in and of itself, does not affect the edibility of the meat, I will, nevertheless, refrain from eating it, not to appease my conscience, but so as not to embolden the conscience of another.

Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, along with 1 Corinthians 8:8-9, effectively qualify the commandment given elsewhere to “abstain from things offered to idols” (Acts 15:29). This last example is an illustration of a qualification that takes place in the remote context. It is to this subject we now turn our attention.

The Remote Context

In Matthew 19:26, Jesus says: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” When we contemplate God’s omnipotence, this is exactly the idea we have in mind. In fact, if one were to ask a class of Christians to define God’s omnipotence, they would probably answer that omnipotence means God can do anything and everything. Even so, this is not what the Scriptures teach!

In Hebrews 6:18, the Bible says “it is impossible for God to lie.” This is not, as some suppose, a denial of the truth taught in Matthew 19:26; instead, it is a qualification. God, who is holy, “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). So, we understand that what Jesus meant in Matthew 19:26 is “with God all things [consistent with His nature-AT] are possible.” So, the phrase “all things” does not always mean all things. The “all things” in one passage may very well be qualified by something said in another passage.

We are now ready to wrestle with Jacob’s statement in Genesis 32:30, which says, “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” If what God told Moses in Exodus 33:20 is true (viz., “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live”), then Jacob’s statement in Genesis 32:30 is certainly problematic. Unfamiliar with the principle of qualification, some view Jacob’s statement as a clear-cut contradiction of Genesis 32:20 and other passages (cf. John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 4:12), which ultimately reflects on the integrity of the entire Bible. But if the Bible is what it claims to be, then it simply cannot be contradicting itself. How, then, can we resolve this apparent dilemma?

First of all, God “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). So we can be sure that Jacob did not see the face of God in the same sense God uses this expression in Exodus 33:20. When one looks at the context of God’s statement to Moses, it seems clear He uses “My face” to mean His pure Spirit essence, “dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). Consequently, Jacob cannot be understood to be saying he saw the pure and glorious Spirit essence of Almighty God. If so, then Jacob was mistaken, and his misperception was recorded here like other false ideas and downright untruths that are cited elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Satan’s original lie is recorded in Genesis 3:4, as are the false theological ideas expressed by Job’s friends).

Second, when we consider what was said about this incident in Hosea 12:4, then it is clear that Jacob wrestled with a not so ordinary angel. In fact, when we examine verses 4 and 5, it appears Jacob wrestled with the Angel of Yahweh (Exodus 3:2; Judges 2:1), who is elsewhere called the Angel of God (Exodus 14:19), or the Angel of His Presence (Isaiah 63:9). Some believe this “angel” to be the pre-incarnate appearances of the Lord Himself. Others who encountered this unique angel had similar reactions as did Jacob  (cf. Judges 6:22 and 13:22). On these occasions, God evidently took upon Himself human form for the express purpose of manifesting Himself to those involved. In theological parlance, these manifestations are called “theophanies,” which mean “appearances of God.” Because those who saw God in these theophanies did not see God in His true Spirit essence, they did not die as they had expected.

This interpretation is compatible with all the accepted rules of Bible interpretation and consistent with the totality of Scripture. As such, it completely harmonizes what would otherwise be contradictory passages.

Jesus’ Unqualified Endorsement Of The Principle

In his temptation of Jesus, Satan “twisted” (2 Peter 3:16) the Scriptures by neglecting the principle of qualification. In Matthew 4:5-7, the Bible says:

Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’”

Satan’s citation of Psalm 91:11-12 was accurate but misapplied in that the providential care promised in this passage did not include the deliberate testing of God’s faithfulness. Jesus makes this clear in His citation of Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, “You shall not tempt the LORD your God.” This means that Jesus gave His unqualified endorsement to the principle of qualification when He made it clear that the protection offered in Psalm 91:11-12 is qualified by the Scriptures’ teaching on man’s obligation not to tempt God. What this means is that being a child of God is not a license to act recklessly. Therefore, if you can’t swim, don’t jump into water over your head to discover if God will save you.

In Conclusion

In their misapplication of Mark 16:18, the religiously deluded snake handlers of Eastern Kentucky neglect, as did Satan, the very important principle of qualification. Although not as radical as the snake handlers, many other religious individuals and groups make the same mistake. As conscientious students of God’s word, let us be careful not to commit the same error. As we have seen, a proper understanding of this most important principle is indispensable to the correct interpretation of Scripture.

The “Singing” And “Making Melody” (Playing) Of Ephesians 5:19

Psallo

This post is in response to the following question, which has been edited for use here:

Hi Allan,

In the spirit of looking at the Greek, I was wondering if I could have your perspective on the following subject: In Ephesians 5:19, the Scriptures say, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” I was told by other Christians at the time [speaking of the time of his conversion] that because of this verse we were only supposed to use our voices to worship God and not use musical instruments in our song worship. Naturally, coming from a different understanding of what is acceptable to God, I looked at the Greek translation of this verse and it was translated from a term that actually referenced a musical instrument, a “lyre” to be exact. I pointed this out to [name removed] at the time and let him borrow my Greek translation dictionary. Fortunately for me, I didn’t let this one translation prevent me from obeying the gospel at the time, but I have always been confused with having that verse be the sole authority in Scripture for why we do not allow musical instruments in our song worship. Would this better be explained under the “authority argument” and not by referencing that verse? What is your understanding on the subject? What insight can you share with me on the subject and how can I better explain this to others that I might be trying to convert from a denominational background? Sorry, I know that is a lot of questions, but I know you [will do your best to give me a biblical answer].

My Reply

Ephesians 5:19 says, “[S]peaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Is this passage teaching us to “sing and play,” as is claimed by those who believe this passage authorizes singing with the accompaniment of a mechanical instrument of music? Yes, singing and playing are exactly what this passage is teaching. However, it does not teach what those mechanical-instruments-of-music folks say it does. The word in the Greek that is translated “making melody” here is psallo and it means, according to Thayer’s New Testament Greek Lexicon,

1) to pluck off, pull out; 2) to cause to vibrate by touching, to twang; 2a) to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings of a musical instrument so that they gently vibrate; 2b) to play on a stringed instrument, to play, the harp, etc.; 2c) to sing to the music of the harp; 2d) in the NT to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song.

Thus, there must be no doubt that this passage commands us to sing and play. But once again, there is nothing in this passage that authorizes the playing of a mechanical instrument of music. Why? Because, the passage tells us exactly what instrument we are to psallo, play, and make melody on, and this is the instrument of our heart. Following the instructions of this passage, we “pluck the strings” (psallo) of our hearts. Thus, by a direct statement (command), we are instructed to sing and make melody in our hearts. We are also told what to sing (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”) as well as to whom and with whom we are to sing them (to one another).

The term “psalms” here more than likely refers to the Old Testament Psalter. “Hymns” refer mainly to New Testament songs of praise to God and to Christ (cf. verse 14). Finally, “spiritual songs” probably refer to sacred songs about things other than direct praise to God or to Christ. The drunkard may mumble, moan, and curse, but the Christian that is filled with the Spirit will want to sing from his heart to the Lord. Since Paul mentions “speaking to yourselves,” he is referring to the occasions when Christians are assembled together and not to an individual singing alone. (Individual singing of psalms is addressed in James 5:13b.) Singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” is one of the ways Christians are to be taught in the assembly. Those who refuse to sing, refuse to teach! The melody is to be made in their hearts—no mechanical instruments are mentioned. They were added centuries later. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament are Christians told to play anything other than the strings of their hearts.

To your “one verse” statement, as long as there is nothing problematic about the passage itself, one verse is all we need to establish a doctrine and Ephesians 5:19 is clear as clear can be. So, what it teaches stands. However, Ephesians 5:19 does not stand alone. It has a parallel passage in Colossians 3:16, which says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” The key idea when comparing Ephesians 5:19 is “singing with grace in your heart.” “Grace” is translated from the Greek word charis which means “joy, pleasure, delight, and sweetness,” according to Thayer’s New Testament Greek Lexicon. It has other meanings, but these correspond best with the “making melody in the heart” of Ephesians 5:19. Both passages make clear the role the heart plays in our worship in song to the Lord. In either of these verses, there is no mention of mechanical instruments of music being used.

So yes, the “authority argument,” as you mentioned, is very much in play here, as always. People frequently say, “Well, it doesn’t say we can’t use mechanical instruments of music in congregational worship, therefore, we are not prohibited from doing so.” This may sound reasonable to some people, but is it true? This, then, is the question that needs a Bible answer. So let’s see if there is one.

What The Bible Does Not Say Is Extremely Important

Even after we get people to understand what the Bible says in a clear command, example, or necessary conclusion, there remain two attitudes about the silence of the Scriptures. The first of these says that when the Bible is silent, then the reader is at liberty to act as he thinks best. Therefore, if the Bible does not expressly prohibit something, then it is permissible. This attitude is reflected in the actions of many. The second attitude says that when the Bible is silent, then the reader is not at liberty to act, but must be silent as well. This, of course, is exactly the attitude taught in the Bible. In 1 Peter 4:11, the Scriptures say, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.” In Romans 10:17, the Scriptures say that faith comes by hearing God’s word. In Romans 14:23, the Bible says that whatever is not of faith is sin. Therefore, the silence of the Scriptures does not give consent, as many think—it actually prohibits! In 1 Corinthians 4:6, the apostle Paul teaches that one is not to think of men “above that which is written.” This means that the word of God—the Bible—is the absolute standard of authority in all things religious. Ultimately, what men say, or do not say, is not important. What is important is what God does or does not say!

Noah As A Positive Example

In Genesis 6:14, God told Noah to construct an ark out of “gopher wood.” In doing so, God did not have to say, “And thou shall not construct it from cypress, ebony, or any other kind of wood.” All He had to do was tell Noah what kind of wood to use. The fact that He specified the type of wood eliminated every other type. In Hebrews 11:7, the Scriptures say: “By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.” Here the Bible tells us that Noah was saved by faith. Of course, Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes by hearing God’s word. Noah, upon hearing God’s word, moved by faith to prepare the ark as God had instructed him. In doing so, he saved himself and his family. Even though God did not specifically say not to, we are convinced that if Noah would have built the ark out of any other kind of wood than gopher, he would not have been saved. What is the point? Simply this: What God does not say is just as important as what He does say!

Nadab And Abihu As Negative Examples

In Leviticus 10:1, 2, the Bible says: “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He commanded them not. And there went out fire from the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.” These men were priests of God and were involved in religious activity, but God was very displeased with their actions. They were clearly involved in unrighteousness in that the “strange fire” they offered had not been commanded by the Lord. In other words, what God has not commanded is just as important as what He has commanded. These two men were destroyed because they thought it was okay for them to go beyond what is written in God’s word. They were dead wrong!

The Priesthood Of Christ As An Example

In Hebrews 7:14, speaking of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the Bible says: “For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.” Under the Old Covenant, Jesus could not be a priest because He did not come from the order of Aaron in the tribe of Levi. In regard to the Levitical priesthood, Moses said nothing about Judah. Consequently, in order for Jesus to be a priest, there would have to be a change of the law. Jesus, then, our current high priest, is the mediator of a “better covenant” (Hebrews 7:22). Again, the word of God impresses us with the fact that what God does not say is just as important as what He does say! With this in mind, where does the New Testament say anything about…

  • Sprinkling for baptism?
  • Burning of incense in New Testament worship?
  • Holy water?
  • Baptizing infants?
  • Elders over two or more churches?
  • Instrumental music being authorized in N.T. worship?
  • Women preachers?
  • The use of the title “Reverend” by men?

Consequently, these things are not from heaven but from men!

Finally, we must keep in mind the difference between a general command (statement) and a specific command (statement). For example, when the Lord instructed His apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…,” He placed no restrictions on the means they would use to “Go.” This is what we call general authority, and it authorizes anything and everything that would aid in one’s going. But when God specifies something, like Gopher wood, for Noah, that eliminated every other kind of wood, did it not? Thus, when the Lord specified the kind of music He wanted (i.e., vocal music), and that He wanted us to psallo the heart, this eliminated every other kind of music and melody making did it not?

The God-Breathed Word Is Able To Make Us Complete

In 2 Timothy 3:16, 17, the Bible says: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” The words “given by the inspiration of God” is a translation of the Greek word theopneustos, which literally means “God-breathed.” Therefore, Scripture, in order to be Scripture, must be God-breathed, that is, it must come from the very mouth of God. Scripture is authoritative because it comes directly from God. This is borne out by 2 Peter 1:20-21, which says: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” It is further illustrated by 1 Corinthians 2:10-13, which says:

But God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so, the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

In 2 Peter 1:3, the apostle Peter writes: “According as His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue.” The knowledge we have of Jesus Christ through the God-breathed word of God provides us with “all things that pertain unto life and godliness.”

In conclusion, I believe all this to be definitive: Mechanical instruments of music are not authorized in our sacred assemblies—i.e., there is no book, chapter, or verse for such a practice.

THE MODERN CHURCH

Christless Christianity
The Modern Church, with its “Christless Christianity,” is nothing much more than a sanctified country club. Its membership consists of like-minded individuals who want—although they desire to commune with God and be religious—to be free to exercise themselves as the completely autonomous individuals they view themselves to be. Of course, such independence facilitates a multitude of sins which, in turn, answers the question as to why those who make up the Modern Church live and act no differently than the world.

What does the Modern Church member think about the church? Does he think it just some accouterment to validate his individual autonomy and feel good about it? If so, a church made up of like-minded members could not be “of Christ”—“of Belial,” yes (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:15), but certainly not “of Christ”!

On the other hand, genuine New-Testament Christianity can be true to itself only when its adherents are actively engaged in breaking to pieces the world’s idols. This is accomplished by “casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

So, just as it’s clear that one of the functions of Christ’s church in any age is to be iconoclastic (i.e., to unmask the idols and expose them for what they really are, which is nothing more than “sham gods),” it’s just as clear that there’s no other basis for this than the truths taught in God’s word. It was the great apostle Paul who said it was the “House of God, which is the church of the living God,” that serves as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). This means, among other things, that the pathologies that were present in the pre-Christian world, vis-a-vis the economic, social, familial, sexual, and legal aspects of life, are very much alive in our present post-Christian world. (By “post-Christian world.” I mean a culture that has been almost totally secularized, as ours was during the last third of the previous century).

The truths taught in the Bible, particularly those found in the New Testament, are especially meaningful to a post-Christian culture. This is not just because they are God’s truths, but because they are God’s truths written in the midst of a culture much like our own. And although it’s true our present culture is not pagan per se, it is, at best, neo-pagan in its outlook. As such, the invitation addressed to those of the first century to “Be saved from this perverse generation” is still most apropos (cf. Acts 2:40).

The Spacetime Continuum

spacetime

Space, like time, is a product of creation and, thus, all created beings are spatial creatures. This means that both the material and spiritual dimensions are spatial, although not necessarily in the same way. Although spiritual “space” is obviously not like material space, it nevertheless has spatial limitations. Thus, space, of some sort, is characteristic of created beings, whether material or spiritual.

The material universe of which we humans are a part is three-dimensional. Thus, we are limited by the three-dimensional boundaries of the spacetime continuum. Included in these limitations are (a) a material body can exist in only one space at a time, (b) to get from one space to another, a material body must pass through the intervening space, which means that (c) given the limitations of three-dimensional space, it is impossible, when we factor in the fourth dimension of time, for a material body to occupy two different spaces at the same time.

In contrast to this and evidently at the same time, fully spiritual creatures, such as angels and demons, do not normally occupy our space (cf. Jude 6). Consequently, it can be rather safely concluded that these spiritual creatures are not restricted by the limitations of three-dimensional space as we are. But as created beings, they have the limitations of their own spatial dimension. As I don’t occupy that dimension, I can’t tell you what it’s like, but that it exists is evident from Scripture.

Further, the Bible teaches that when pure spiritual creatures interact with material space, they are not totally outside its limits. For example, a spiritual creature, although he can apparently act multi-dimensional, can still only be in one space at a time. This is illustrated by the angelic appearance recorded in Daniel 10. The prophet Daniel had been “mourning” (which clearly included praying) for “three full weeks” (verse 2). When the angel appeared, he said:

Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; and behold, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I had been left alone there with the kings of Persia (Daniel 10:12-13).

He went on to say,

Now I have come to make you understand what will happen to your people in the latter days, for the vision refers to many days yet to come (v. 14).

So, when interacting with our material dimension, this angel could not be in two places at the same time. He had been sent to answer Daniel and make known to him what would happen to his people in the future, but the “prince of Persia” (very likely another spiritual entity) withstood him for “twenty-one days.” The struggle was so intense that Michael (another spiritual creature) had to come and help him. Then, after administering to Daniel, he still needed to return and “fight” with the prince of Persia, knowing that the “prince of Greece” would eventually be involved (v. 20).

It is clear, then, that a spiritual creature cannot occupy more than one space at a time. This means spiritual beings (angels and demons) are not omnipresent. Even Satan himself cannot be everywhere at once and must use other spiritual entities to represent his interests around the world.

What all this means is that created beings, whether they be spiritual or material, are spatial beings. But in complete contrast to His creation, God, the uncreated Creator, is not a spatial being and, thus, unlimited by space (omnipresent). However, God is not so immensely large as to fill all of space, even to infinity. Such thinking would be totally false and is manifested in Pantheism. God is not too large to measure. He is immeasurable because, as a non-spatial being, He is not the kind of Being that can be measured. As such, all the limitations of space—extension, location, and distance—simply do not apply to God.

 

God’s omnipresence does not prevent Him from manifesting Himself in a localized place. In fact, while it is true that His ontological Being is present to all of space equally, He has, at various times and for various reasons, entered space at specific points and become present in it. These “theophanies,” as they are called, most often involved redemption. There was, for instance, the account of God’s presence in the garden of Eden “in the cool of the evening” (Genesis 3:8ff). There was His appearance before the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (cf. Exodus 33:9; 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10ff). Of course, the most dramatic case of God entering time and space was the Incarnation itself (cf. John 1:14; 1 Timothy 3:16.). But, and this point needs to be clearly understood, in entering time and space, God, in His self-existent, eternal and infinite Being, did not cease to be omnipresent. He was, while existing as Jesus of Nazareth, still present to every point of space and was, in fact, holding everything together by the “word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3; see also Colossians 1:17).

With this in mind, it seems evident that the omnipresence of Immanuel or “God with us” is the real subject of John 3:13, which says, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of God who is in heaven.” I’ve heard people say they didn’t know what this passage was saying, but they knew it couldn’t mean what folks like me think it means. This isn’t exactly cogent exegesis if you ask me. Nevertheless, some among us are confident that the ontological presence of the Word, who was Himself God, could not be on earth, in the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and be in heaven at the same time. It could be that this difficult passage is not saying what I think it’s saying, but the teacher of God’s Word who claims that it “can’t be” is clearly not taking into consideration the omnipresence of Jehovah’s ontological Being—a Being not limited by space and time. Yes, I know the concept is mind-boggling, but such is, I believe, characteristic of the magnificent nature of Almighty God. When contemplating the nature of God, it is not detrimental to have our minds boggled a bit.

The Beginning Of Time

On the basis of creation texts such as Genesis 1:1 and Proverbs 8:22-23, it can be argued that time, at least physical time, had a “beginning.” In fact, Genesis 1:1, which is neither a subordinate clause nor a summary title, says,

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

According to James Barr, this was an absolute beginning which, when taken with the expression, “So the evening and the morning were the first day” (verse 5), indicates this was, in fact, the very first day, which may well be intended to teach that “the beginning” was not just the beginning of the physical universe, but the beginning of time itself and that, therefore, God may be thought of as timeless (James Barr, Biblical Words for Time, 1962, pages 145-147). In this statement, Barr seems to reflect what Jude said so succinctly:

To the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, before all time, and now, and for evermore. Amen (Jude, ASV of 1901).

When this is coupled with Proverbs 8:22-23, which clearly looks back to “the beginning,” it can be fairly said that the Old Testament implies that time started at the beginning. Add to this Jude’s statement mentioned above, along with John 1:1-3, which says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made,

and it seems clear that the Bible teaches the beginning of the creation was not just the beginning of space and matter, but the beginning of time as well.

If all this is true, and I think there is much to support it, then the Creator, at least before He created, was neither subject to time (i.e., He was timeless) nor space. In addition, as the immortal, eternal God (cf. Deuteronomy 33:27; Romans 16:26; 1 Timothy 1:17), He did not, indeed He could not, consist of the material nature (matter) of His creation. He was, in fact, totally other (i.e., transcendent). All this stands in stark contrast with creation, which, by virtue of its creation, owes its existence to something outside itself (viz., God). It is in this regard that we are said to live, move and have our being in the Creator (cf. Acts 17:28).

“Big Bang” Cosmology

It is only God, by virtue of who He is, who is free from the constraints of the spacetime continuum, for it is clear that the God who is not so free can never be anything more than a small “g” god. Thus, Christians must not attempt to transfer any of the creaturely limitations to God, for as the Creator, He is simply not subject to them. It is interesting, then, that modern science, which hasn’t been especially friendly to the Creator, has started bowing in His direction. Although I believe “big bang” cosmology to be inconsistent with the Biblical account of creation, and therefore wrong, nevertheless, it is most interesting to hear scientists conclude that time and space came into existence at “the beginning” of the universe. The British physicist, Paul Davies, typifies what I’m talking about:

If we extrapolate this prediction to its extreme, we reach a point when all distances in the universe have shrunk to zero. An initial cosmological singularity therefore forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. We cannot continue physical reasoning or even the concept of spacetime, through such an extremity. For this reason most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe. On this view the big bang represents the creation event, the creation not only of all the matter and energy of the universe, but also of spacetime itself (“Spacetime Singularities in Cosmology and Black Hole Evaporation,” in The Study of Time III, ed. J.T. Fraser, N. Lawrence, and D. Park, 1978, pages 78-79.

Others, addressing this same thing, assert:

At this singularity, space and time came into existence, literally nothing existed before the singularity, so, if the Universe originated as such a singularity, we would truly have a creation ex nihilo (John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, 1986, page 442).

This aspect of current cosmological theory is especially troubling for some scientists, particularly those with atheistic beliefs. For example, the Russian astrophysicist, Andrei Linde, acknowledges, rather candidly, the problem that such a model poses for him:

The most difficult aspect of this problem is not the existence of the singularity itself, but the question of what was before the singularity… This problem lies somewhere at the boundary between physics and metaphysics (“The Inflationary Universe,” Reports on Progress in Physics 47, 1984, page 976).

Sounds to me like Fred Hoyle’s old “steady-state” theory (viz., an eternal universe) with its well-known dictum Exnihilo, nihil fit (“Out of nothing, nothing comes”) has finally bitten the dust. As philosopher William Lane Craig says, “The steady-state model has been abandoned by virtually everyone” (Reasonable Faith, page 103).

So, the theory most scientists subscribe to today is the big-bang model, especially the inflationary version. Again, I am not arguing that this theory is correct. In fact, I totally reject the 15 billion years this theory postulates for the universe. I mention it here only because it argues that the expanding universe necessarily had a beginning and that it did not begin to expand into already existing space, but was, in fact, space itself, with the alleged cosmic expansion creating space as it went along.

Now, if scientists—who are limited, in the things they do, to the material creation—can understand the universe had a beginning, and that such a creation would have to be created ex nihilo or “out of nothing,” then I should think modern-day Christians should not fail to understand the profound implications of such a creation—namely, that the Creator is over and above time, space and all finite reality and can no more be confined to space than He can be measured by time.

In Conclusion

If something exists now, one of three things must be true of it: (a) it is either eternal, (b) it is created by something that is eternal, or (c) it is self-created. The first option is ruled out by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, since an eternal universe would have wound down or dissipated a long time ago. The third clashes not only with the First Law of Thermodynamics, but with logic’s Law of Contradiction, because in order to have created itself, the universe would have had to exist before it existed, an idea that is scientifically and philosophically ridiculous. This leaves only the second option, and the God here extolled satisfies all the necessary criteria of such a Creator. Natural revelation, when properly interpreted, points at a Being whose existence explains why science can explain anything, but why it cannot explain everything. As the famous and erudite Mr. Stephen Hawking said about the big bang theory before he gave up on God, “It would be difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as an act of God who intended to create beings like us” (A Brief History of Time, page 140). Commenting on this, William Lane Craig wrote:

Since everything that began to exist has a cause of its existence, and since the universe began to exist, we conclude, therefore, that the universe has a cause of existence. We ought to ponder long and hard over this truly remarkable conclusion, for it means that transcending the entire universe there exists a cause which brought the universe into being ex nihilo…. This conclusion ought to stagger us, ought to fill us with a sense of awe and wonder at the knowledge that our whole universe was caused to exist by something beyond it and greater than it (The Kalam Cosmological Argument, page 149).

Finally, it was the high-profile astronomer, Robert Jastrow, then Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in an article in the New York Times, asked the question:

Have Astronomers Found God?” His answer was that they had, or had at least come close to doing so. After arguing that the universe had a beginning in time, and after accepting that its creation by an act of God was a reasonable possibility [Jastrow was a professed agnostic], he went on to point out that astronomical evidence points to a theistic view of the world: “The details differ, but the essential elements…are the same; the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy (June 25, 1978).

His final words in this article were most appropriate:

This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians… We scientists did not expect to find evidence for an abrupt beginning because we have had until recently such extraordinary success in tracing the chain of cause and effect backward in time… At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries (Ibid).

Not Of Works, Lest Anyone Should Boast

Not of works

When Paul says, in Ephesians 2:8-9, “not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” and “not of works, lest anyone should boast,” and does so in contrast with salvation “by grace through faith,” he is referring to man’s performance under a system of justification by perfect law-keeping (viz., the deeds, works, or works of law which we, as creatures, have failed to perform perfectly). Having been saved by grace through faith, but not at the point of faith, as many have mistakenly thought, one is able to do, according to Ephesians 2:10, those “good works” which the Father “beforehand” created us in Christ Jesus to do.

These good works are prescribed by the law-code we are obligated to obey “under law to Christ.” These good works are the very same works that James says are done by those who Paul said, and James agrees, are saved by grace through faith. These “good works,” as Paul referred to them, or “works,” as James called them, are not done in order to be saved. Instead, they are works to be done by those who are, and remain, saved.

However, if a Christian refused to do these good works (works he is obligated to do in his Creator-creature relationship), he would no longer be walking in the light and, as such, would no longer have access to God’s grace through the precious blood of Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 1:5-9). At the same time, and some just can’t seem to get their minds wrapped around this point, for the one doing these good works of the law-code (a law-code that can no longer save because all are sinners), there are, and remain, conditions of grace which must be obeyed. Without obedience to these grace conditions, one simply cannot be, nor remain, saved/justified. This means that these grace conditions, contrary to law conditions, are things (or works) we must do in order to access the grace available to us through the Lord’s sacrifice. It is in this way (i.e., by these grace conditions) that we ARE (by believing, repenting, confessing, and being baptized) and REMAIN (by continuing to believe, repent, and confess Jesus as Lord) saved.

Romans 3:28 Vs. James 2:24: Are They Really Contradictory?

Faith and Works

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28).

You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only (Jas. 2:24).

My understanding of these two passages is that when everything is said and done, Paul and James are not talking about two different kinds of works. Instead, they are speaking of “good works” (i.e., acceptable works, which are the same for both, especially considering Paul’s use of “good works” in Ephesians 2:10). So, the question is: What is the explanation for the different ways Paul and James relate faith and works to justification? The best answer, I think, is that faith and works are both related to justification but in different ways. In other words, Paul and James are referring to the SAME FAITH, SAME WORKS, SAME PEOPLE, and SAME JUSTIFICATION and are, thus, in complete agreement on all of these. The difference is in the way they have chosen, by inspiration, to express themselves, and this derives from how the relationship between faith and works is to be understood.

Paul is emphasizing the IMMEDIATE, DIRECT, INHERENT relationship between faith and justification; James, on the other hand, is emphasizing the NECESSARY, BUT INDIRECT, relationship between works and justification. Thus, like James, we can say that justification is by works, but only in a SECONDARY, INDIRECT SENSE, in that works are the natural, necessary expression and evidence of faith. It is important just here to keep in mind that the works (i.e., “good works”) under discussion are the LAW CONDITIONS, and not those works done in connection with CONDITIONS OF GRACE.

Paul’s effort is to deny that justification is equally related to the “law of faith” and the “works of law” (two completely different systems), while James’ effort is to demonstrate that justification is related to the “good works” of the law, but only in that such works are the natural, inevitable expression of genuine saving faith. So, Paul does (in his context) deny a system of justification by faith plus works, and this because “works of law,” (viz., imperfect works done under a system of justification by perfect law-keeping) are permanently prevented (the legal term is “estopped”) from having any salvific/soteriological value, while James, in fact, affirms justification by a faith that works (and once again, these are the “good works” Paul mentioned in Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, we are not just talking semantics here, as some think. Paul denies that one is justified equally by the “law of faith” and “works of law,” while James affirms that one can be justified only by a faith that works-viz., genuine saving faith begets or produces the “obedience of faith.” This “obedience of faith” is not just obedience to the GRACE CONDITIONS, which are works we must do in order to be saved and stay that way, but obedience to those “good works” which we were created in Christ Jesus to do—works “of God” that He determined “beforehand” we would do in connection with His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This interpretation, I believe, passes the scriptural litmus test. If not, I look forward to its refutation.

27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. 29 Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law (Rom 3).

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism Vs. The Cross Of Christ

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

In their 2005 book entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton presented the results of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill research project entitled the “National Study of Youth and Religion.” What they “discovered” about the religious views of many teenagers may be summarized as follows:

  • “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth,”
  • “He wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions,”
  • “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself,”
  • “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem,”
  • “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

Their description for this syndrome was “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Deism because the god of the typical teenager is a far-away, distant and uninvolved god. Therapeutic because this god, although distant, still wants everyone to be happy, and is therefore willing, at times, to get involved when a person is embroiled in an unhappy situation. Moralistic because this far-away god who sometimes gets involved personally wants people to be nice and fair to each other, which teenagers think is the sine qua non of all world religions. In a follow-up article that can be found here, Smith said,

Such a de facto creed is particularly evident among mainline Protestant and Catholic youth but is also more than a little visible among black and conservative Protestants, Jewish teens, other religious types of teenagers, and even many ‘nonreligious’ teenagers in the United States.

This is interesting considering a critique H. Richard Niebuhr made of liberal Protestantism back in 1959, describing its core theology as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193). Thus, the “seeker-friendly” mentality that has now been institutionalized isn’t something new at all. It’s been coursing through the veins of “American Christendom” for some time now, wreaking its havoc on that which rightly calls itself after God—namely, the cross of Christ and everything it represents.