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BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: Algebra or Geometry


I recently read the following, written by Rick Presley as a comment in Edward Fudge’s GracEmail letters. The comment was about a GracEmail discussing the parable of the Good Samaritan. I believe it well sums up two different approaches to Scripture. Each of these has value, depending on the circumstances and the questions we are asking of Scripture.

I have always said that the parable of the Good Samaritan is about people who are so busy doing God’s Word that they have no time to follow God’s Will. I was reflecting last week on the kinds of people I had in class when I was a science teacher. For ease of reference I refer to them as Algebra People and Geometry People. I found that generally those who were good at algebra hated geometry and those who liked geometry often did less well at algebra. This is because the two systems approach problems in completely different ways.

In algebra one has a single correct answer to find and by rigorous deduction, one can find it. In geometry, one has any number of ways that one can solve a geometric proof. Some answers are more elegant than others. Those who are predisposed to accept that the world is composed of situations with One Right Answer like algebra and generally hate geometry. Those who believe the world is filled with principles and one can arrange them in a variety of ways generally like geometry and hate algebra. Some understanding the value of both can live in both worlds, hopping from one stance to the other with great facility.

In teaching both science in school and theology in Sunday school, I see the same people. There are those who feel the Bible contains One Right Answer to every question. There are others who believe the Bible is full of principles and one should work to discover which principles apply best in which situations. In teaching science, those who loved algebra hated true science  – the work of forming a hypothesis, testing it, and either affirming or disproving it before moving on to the next hypothesis – because they hated the notion of accepting things tentatively and not having a clearly defined path marked out for them to follow to solve the problem. The things they liked were the facts of science that were either true or not true. They were good at identifying trees based on the leaves or memorizing the phases of mitosis, but were never good at arriving at experimental knowledge.

We see many in our churches – and I think evangelicalism attracts a high proportion of these folks – who are Algebra People. They are in search of the One Right Answer. They have accumulated facts, which they know for certain. They love absolutes and cut & dried arguments. Less commonly do we see Geometry People who hold to answers tentatively, who are comfortable with imperfect knowledge, who enjoy arguments that end with “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that” because it relates to skilled application of principles rather than right adherence to facts.

I believe that what Rick called “Algebra People” tend to use proof texts. If two of them discuss something, one will tend to use one set of proof texts while the other may use a different set of proof texts. They seldom come to agreement, because each is focusing a different part (or parts) of the Scripture. What he calls “Geometry People” sometimes fail to see the absolutes that God reveals in Scripture.

When “Algebra People” discuss things with “Geometry People,” they often never connect with each other in meaningful ways. The “Algebra People” tend to believe that the “Geometry People” don’t really believe the Bible, that they are subjective, and so tentative they are “wishy-washy.” “Geometry People” tend to look at “Algebra People” as legalistic and traditionalist.

When I was learning to be a computer programmer, back in the “stone age” of computers (our computers would fill a room and actually had vacuum tubes), my instructor used to tell us, “There are more ways to kill a cat than to choke it to death on butter-milk!” By this, he meant that there are many ways to solve a problem, some more elegant than others, but still workable. However, every problem had to use the same “machine instructions” to accomplish the task. Programming required precision in using these. Without the necessary precision, the program would crash. Even when you used the “machine instructions” with precision, your program could still give unintended results – if your program had faulty logic.

I believe the same principles apply in studying the Scripture. We need to approach each text in the way God intendeds it. What is disconcerting to some is that the same text often contains many different principles that have many different applications.

Sometimes it is difficult to see which principles apply in a given situation.

How do we handle that? If we are “Algebra People” we are likely to seize on one principle and make it universal. Then we force it to fit every situation. If we are “Geometry People” we are likely to conclude that no principle has universal application, so we develop “situation ethics.”

Is there no happy medium between these? In mathematics, computer programming, and in most of life there is.

Why not in theology as well?

BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (9): The Pattern


What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. – 2 Timothy 1:13-14

What did Paul mean when he wrote to Timothy about “the pattern of sound teaching” or “the form of sound words” (KJV)?

The answer to this question is important, for he continues a few verses later: Continue reading

BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (8): Context! Context! Context!


When investing in real estate, the keys are location, location, location.

The three laws of education are repetition, repetition, and repetition.

In interpreting the Bible, the first three rules are context, context, and you guessed the third one!

Why Is Context So Important?

The late Johnny Ramsey, one of my teachers at the Sunset School of Preaching as it was then known, used to say:

A text out of context is a pretext.

I think he was right. It is by ignoring the context that people really do make the Bible mean anything they want it to mean. Continue reading

BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (7): Silence of the Scriptures


For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests. – Hebrews 7:14

Does the silence of the Scripture about a thing mean that thing is prohibited by God? Many believe it does, and point to this passage in Hebrews to support the idea. After all, the writer had just said: Continue reading

BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: (3): Contrary to the Teaching


I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. – Romans 16:17 [NIV]

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. – Romans 16:17 [KJV]

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. – Romans 1:17 [ESV] Continue reading

BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (2): The Doctrine of Christ


One passage cited by some as “proof” that we must have specific “authority” for everything we do in the service of Christ is 2 John 7. The pertinent passage has a variant reading in the Greek texts. As follows:

Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. [NIV]

Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. [KJV] Continue reading

BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (1) Beyond What Is Written


How can the average Joe pick up a Bible, read it, and understand it? I ask this question in view of the many books that have been written about how to interpret the Bible. Many times, it appears to me, that men devise “rules of interpretation” to support conclusions they have already reached.

So we have principles such as “Command, Example, and Necessary Inference” (or CENI). To these we add the Law of Silence, the Law of Expediency, plus Generic and Specific Commands. Each of these principles and laws have exceptions and few (if any) apply them consistently.

In this post, I would like to examine one verse, which many use to provide Biblical support for what we call “The Law of Silence.” Continue reading

QUESTION: Do Faith, Hope & Love Represent Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and God?


The following question came to me via our congregation’s website’s QUESTION BOX where I answer questions, and have for almost four years now.

First Corinthians 13:13 speaks of FAITH, HOPE, and LOVE. Can you tell me if faith represents JESUS; hope, the HOLY SPIRIT; and love, GOD?

I do not see anything in the text or its context to suggest that Faith, Hope, and Love represent anything other than Faith, Hope, and Love.

I am glad you asked this question, however, because it gives me an incentive to Continue reading

12 Days of Christmas (1): Two Kinds of Christmas


I grew up in a Christian home where we celebrated Christmas as a family holiday, but we would not celebrate it as Jesus’ birthday. After all, the Bible (1) does not command us to remember His birth nor (2) does it tell us when He was born. Hence, we did not send greeting cards with manger scenes or angels. We would have fit in very well with the PC (Politically Correct) mindset of today.

My family was not alone in feeling that way; the spiritual community of believers that surrounded me believed the same.

  • When I was attending a Christian college, a group of students went “caroling” before going home for the holiday. As we approached the home of one of our professors, someone cautioned us, “Don’t sing any songs about Jesus’ birth – just songs about sleigh bells and Santa Claus.
  • When I was in New Zealand Continue reading

ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP (12) – Regulations for Worship


 

High Priest In the Sanctuary

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place…. Hebrews 9:1-3

worshipA time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. John 4:24

 

There is a marked contrast between worship in the first covenant and worship in the time that has now come. Worship has always shown reverence and honor to God alone. It always will. Yet, the way in which worship displays that reverence and honor for God is greatly different.

Even a cursory examination of the Old Testament shows that the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary

The Pentateuch has minute details regarding the regulations for worship Continue reading

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