A Sound Principle
Good exegesis will tell us that bad conclusions do not burst forth de novo from bad exegesis. It is valuable, important, even potent for us to have a good grasp of sound hermeneutical principles, to be on our guard against bad hermeneutical principles. We are easily led astray, and sound hermeneutics are like bread crumbs leading us back to the straight and narrow path.
We are, however, reading our Bible with rose-colored glasses if we think that all or even most of our interpretive failures stem from ignorance or misinformation. That is, we are guilty of the modernist conceit when we think that education is always the cure for what ails us. Paul, for instance, in Romans 1 is rather straightforward in highlighting our troubles in our natural state.
It isn’t what we don’t know. It isn’t what we do know that just ain’t so. The problem is what we do know and suppress because of our sin. We know there is a God. We know we fall short. We know we’re in trouble. And we know we don’t like how it feels, knowing we are in trouble. So, we go back to the beginning, and try to unknow that there is a God. The fount of bad theology is our wicked hearts—which is why we had better take our wicked hearts into account when we are about the business of hermeneutics.
Being all too familiar with my own wicked heart, I have over the past decade or so been on a mission. I have traveled the globe as well as the vast expanses of cyberspace spreading the word about what I have carefully named the R.C. Sproul Jr. Principle of Hermeneutics.
I have not only explained the principle, applied the principle, and enjoined the principle, but also, every time I bring it up, I have begged my audience to remember it and to pass it along to their friends. I am sincerely convinced that if we all master this principle, we will be more faithful to the Word, and more faithful to the One the Word calls the Word.
The principle is as simple as its author—whenever you are reading your Bible, and you come across someone doing something really, really stupid, do not say to yourself, “How can they be so stupid?” Instead say to yourself, “How am I stupid just like them?” (Now you know why I named the principle after myself—it’s all about stupid people.) We, like the people in the Bible, are much better at discerning the sins of others than we are at sniffing out our own. Other people’s sins are clear, immediate, obvious to us, while our own are fuzzy, distant, obscure.
When we see the ten spies expressing their fear that they will not be able to take the Promised Land—right after the God of heaven and earth had brought Pharaoh, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, to his knees, and just after this same God had led His people on dry ground across the Red Sea—we think, “I would have been faithful like Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who were ready to move forward.” Chances are, however, that we would have sinned just like the ten, that we would not have had the faith to believe the promises of God.
The reason for that is simple enough—there is nothing new under the sun. Saints and sinners in the Bible are just like saints and sinners in our day, including you and me. Their frailties and follies are our frailties and follies. So when we see them sin, and how they sin, that ought to clue us in to the ways that we are likely to sin.
The Bible describes itself as a mirror. We look at it, but we turn away and forget who and what we are. We are faithless. We are skeptical. We are stubborn. We, like that fool Peter before us, move through our lives time and again speaking that same oxymoronic phrase he spoke at Caesarea Philippi, when he insisted that Jesus must not go to Jerusalem to be handed over to the Gentiles, “No, Lord.” No I understand. Lord I understand. But these two words do not go together.
Do we not, however, speak the same? Our Lord tells us not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. We read these words and bow our heads in prayer. We beseech Jesus as the King of kings, bringing our petitions before Him, acknowledging His lordship, and then pray, “Lord, please help me because I’m afraid about my job, or my bills. I’m worried about what I will eat, and what I will wear.” That is just another “No, Lord.” Our problem isn’t that we aren’t sufficiently educated but that we aren’t sufficiently sanctified.
Which means, in turn, that the solution is to repent and to believe. We must repent of our unbelief, and ask that our Lord would help our unbelief. We must learn the wisdom of the lilies of the field. We must learn to speak our amens to all that our Lord promises. This is the righteousness we are to seek. These ayes are the eyes of the kingdom.