Everlasting God and Changing Man
Once again, the Bible is under attack from this secular age.
Those who express its message most clearly bear the brunt of it, but at the same time, they are precisely the ones best able to bear the brunt of it, because of their clear understanding of the inherent authority of Holy Scripture, and consequently of the place it has in their daily lives. For them, there can never be any question of retreat, or of backpedaling.
For Christians—committed Christians, that is—accept the authority of Scripture.
What does that mean? Let us unpack the statement a bit. (My apologies for the seemingly elementary stuff that follows, but given the media brouhaha over one man’s understanding of the Bible, it seems best to leave nothing for assumption, or presupposition.)
Why does Holy Scripture have authority for Christians?
Because Christians view Scripture as God’s Word. In short, Scripture has authority because God’s Holy Spirit is behind it.
And just what does that mean—“The Holy Spirit is behind Scripture”—or, as 2 Tim. 3:16 has it, “All Scripture is God-breathed ...”?
It means that, in the words of our Catechism and Ordinal, “Holy Scriptures ... contain all things necessary to salvation”: that God’s Holy Spirit speaks to us through His Holy Scriptures, and that our reception of His Holy Word leads us to right belief in Jesus Christ our savior, which is necessary to our salvation at the end times.
All right—we have established that Holy Scripture derives its authority from the fact that the Holy Spirit (God) is behind it. But who interprets Scripture?
That is on its face a simple, but in reality a deeply complex, question. Let us first examine what “interpret” means in that context, by asking just who is doing the interpreting.
First of all, we may all agree that humans—“Man”, in the Biblical sense—interpret Scripture, because all of God’s other creatures are incapable of doing so. (Which fact points to an inescapable truth about the differences between Man and animals in God’s creation.)
And what is also true about humans (again, as opposed to animals), according to Scripture?
Humans are, according to Scripture and tradition, fallen beings who have been made in God’s image—meaning that they have a God-given capacity to receive and understand His Holy Word, but also that their instincts and desires lead them away from the truths of Scripture.
And that points up a constant danger about humans interpreting Scripture.
To interpret Scripture is, after all, nothing less than to make the Word of God meaningful to one’s fellow humans—to allow them to see it in context, to apply its lessons to their daily lives, and to be able to employ it as a guide to their own faith, and thus to their ultimate salvation.
But if Man is the one interpreting Scripture (and only Man can do so), then Man has to be certain that his interpretation is faithful to God’s purpose in giving us Holy Scripture, and not fashioned to advance one of Man’s special interests or desires that go hand in hand with his being a fallen creature.
How can Man accomplish this difficult and risky task?
First and foremost, by constantly acknowledging and submitting to the triune God’s authority that speaks through Scripture.
This means that Man may never presume, in matters of Scripture, to speak on his own “authority.”
How does Man distinguish God’s authority from his own? The answer is very simple.
Man has to get his ego out of the way in order to allow the Holy Spirit to speak through him. It is all too easy to pretend, like the “Wizard of Oz”, to speak from behind a curtain that hides the fact that it is Man, and not God, who is speaking. Indeed, one aspect of Man’s fallenness is his desire to to be seen by other men as on a par with God (see, e.g., Gen. 3:5, 11:4).
It is also all too easy to put oneself on a par with the Holy Spirit, and to claim that (through oneself) “the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing ...”—with the obligatory reference to John 16:12-13. Again, given that both God and His purpose for Man are unchanging, there can be no “things” that are new (i.e., not previously taught in Scripture), but only a newer and deeper understanding of God’s Word that is inspired through the Holy Spirit.
We said earlier that “Man has to be certain that his interpretation is faithful to God’s purpose in giving us Holy Scripture”—how can fallen Man manage to understand God’s purpose in giving us Holy Scripture?
Again, to ask the question is to answer it: God’s purpose—the only purpose—for His gift of Holy Scripture to Man is so that Man may be saved from Hell through belief in Jesus Christ, by faithful application of His Holy Word. Anything that misleads, or detracts from that purpose, cannot be from God—but is from (the fallen side of) Man.
The next question to ask is this: can God’s purpose for Holy Scripture ever change with time?
Again, the answer is simple—but so easily avoided by Man’s desire to be important in his own right, and not through his bearing God’s image. Since God does not change, but is the essence of all that is permanent and unchanging, then His purpose, both in giving us Holy Scripture and in all other things, cannot change with time.
But Man changes with time, and Man then falls into the trap of thinking that because he changes, so God must change—and so, therefore, must God’s purposes for Man.
It should be obvious by now that such a notion is not of the Holy Spirit, but solely of (fallen) Man. Reject it utterly: God’s purpose for Holy Scripture does not, and cannot, ever change.
Notice also the right relation of Jesus Christ to Holy Scripture: after God gave His only Son, that all who believe in him may not perish, but have life everlasting—after that was accomplished, God then saw to it that we would have a complete Holy Scripture—the record of the presaging of His only Son over the centuries, and then of His eventual incarnation and mission upon Earth, in fulfillment of the centuries of presaging—all for Man’s salvation, mediated through the Holy Spirit and God-breathed Scripture.
The formula for salvation can therefore no more change with time than can God Himself.
Now let us apply a particular test to our conclusions thus far, and see how they hold up.
The age-old question of slavery in the Bible is raised again and again today as an example of how Man’s (!) interpretations of Scripture change to suit the times. Supposedly (the argument goes) God’s purpose for Holy Scripture in the time of Jesus and His disciples was, among other things, to support and reinforce the institution of slavery in the Roman Empire, and that we (fallen, but still more enlightened) 21st-century humans have come to see that God’s purpose has changed, so that Holy Scripture no longer supports slavery—or at least, no longer may be interpreted to do so.
Again, though, it is not God (or the Holy Spirit) who has changed since the first century A.D., but Man.
That is, Romans saw nothing particularly wrong with slavery, while we (enlightened) Christians of today see that slavery is demeaning, inhuman, and, well—un-Christian.
But the Bible did not change between Roman times and now—the text of the Bible (as near as we can establish it) has remained the same through the centuries. As has God’s purpose for it.
What has changed is Man’s interpretation of it. Formerly, some Christians in Roman times (as well as Christians even as late as up to the American Civil War) might have read St. Paul to endorse their view of slavery, while now Christians read St. Paul as urging us to transcend slavery, and accept that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus ...” (Gal. 3:28).
That does not mean that first-century Christians’ reading of the words of St. Paul was always in accordance with God’s purpose for His Holy Scriptures—even if we could transport ourselves back in time and witness firsthand how they each interpreted his words. Again: neither Scripture nor God’s purpose for it has changed between St. Paul’s time and today. What has certainly changed is Man’s interpretation and application of Scripture.
Was the Bible “less right” or “less true” in St.Paul’s day than in our own? How could it be, since its words have remained the same? To make such an accusation is to accuse Man, and not the Bible.
The Bible’s message was there all along—and that is why it would have been wrong then, and wrong now, to interpret the words of St. Paul as reflecting God’s favor upon the institution of slavery. (“Wrong” in the sense of “not in accordance with Holy Scripture”.)
The lesson to draw from all this, therefore, is not that Man’s changing interpretation must accordingly be more trustworthy as we approach the present times. As noted at the outset: Man is fallen. That means he alone, and on his own, can never be trustworthy. What is trustworthy, has always been trustworthy, and will forever be trustworthy, is God’s Holy Word.
In sum, the evidence that man’s interpretation of Holy Scripture has changed between the first and the twenty-first centuries attests to nothing other than Man’s changeability over time. And that changeability, it must be stressed, is due to Man’s fallen nature.
One may be thankful for some of the changes in Man’s understandings of Scripture—we no longer feel compelled to burn people at the stake for heresy, to take just one example. But in our cockiness, we imagine that all of our differences from earlier ages has to do with an indefinable notion of “progress”—that in some unmeasurable way, Christians alive today are “better”, “more advanced”, “more enlightened”—you supply your own term—than those of bygone days.
Nothing could be further from the truth, given Man’s changeability over time. There is no Biblical guaranty that Man will become less sinful as time goes on. Each age has to find its own way to the proper reception of God’s Holy Word. All of the present evidence, indeed, is that Man just finds ever newer ways in which to stray from the path God has always intended for him.
Thus whenever you read a sentence like “St. Paul could never have understood the modern-day concept of sexual orientation,” simply ask the basic question: who is asserting that as “truth”? The answer in every case, I guarantee you, will not be a citation to God’s unchanging and Spirit-breathed Word, but instead will trace back to the “authority” of some mortal and fallen Man, who expresses the conceit that he “understands” more than St. Paul ever did—and thereby promptly demonstrates his fallenness.
And why focus the question on St. Paul’s understanding of the issue, anyway? St. Paul, though a saint, was a fallen man, just like all of us. True, he had a personal encounter with the risen Christ—and so in that sense, his words may be taken as “closer to the source” of their derivation.
What St. Paul wrote is Holy Scripture! His words, therefore, need no other authority than that they are, for Christians, God-breathed—that is, the Holy Spirit is behind them. And given that truism, we should be focusing, not so much on what St. Paul “intended” by writing them, as rather on what God purposes for us to receive in reading or hearing them.
And not just us today—but Christians in the first, second, third and fourth centuries, and continuing right up until today, and onward until the Second Coming. God’s purpose in giving us access to Paul’s words is eternal and unchanging—we interpret them at our peril if we detract thereby in the slightest from that constant purpose.
And so that must be our litmus test in judging whether a given interpretation of Holy Scripture “comes from the Holy Spirit”, or “comes from Man.” As noted, only Man can interpret Holy Scripture, but in doing so, Man has to get out of the way, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, allow God’s purpose for Man to come through.
It is illogical, therefore, to contend that the Holy Spirit meant (through Paul) the same eternally purposed words to be applicable only to a distinct point in time, namely, the first-century world of temple prostitutes. That would be to say (for Christians) that He meant Paul’s words in a different sense, for a different time. Such differing senses are of Man’s creation, because the Holy Spirit does not change His message with time. If the hearer of the same message reacts differently, then it is the hearer who is responsible for the differences, if the message comes from the same triune God.
This is the great fallacy that underlies all of the present divisions in the Church over “sexuality.”
If man’s sexuality has evolved from the first century—and let us grant, for the sake of argument only, that it may have—then that fact of change is no reason to jettison the concept of “God’s Word”, and to substitute in its place “Man’s current reading of God’s Word.”
If man’s sexuality evolved as supposed, then God must have foreseen and anticipated that evolution—otherwise, God is not God Eternal. And that is the main point: God is the same God—for first-century Roman Christians who had slaves, for Spanish priests of the Inquisition who burned heretics, and for Christians today who urge all kinds of sexual license outside of Christian marriage. God still speaks the same timeless words, and it is futile (and self-contradictory) to suppose that He spoke them less clearly at an earlier time, or with less purpose, than He still speaks them today.*
The present-day revisionist interpretations of Holy Scripture’s passages dealing with sexuality thus fail to pass the test of being consistent with the unfailing, eternal purpose for Christians that must infuse those passages. They are fashioned so as to apply differently to the same words in different times. They diminish the constancy of God’s Word to serve changing Man, and thus attempt to evade Man’s necessary submission to God’s eternal purpose for him.
In sum: the failures of Christians regarding slavery are not the failures of the Bible—they are the failures of Man. Likewise, the failures of Christians regarding sexuality are not the failures (or inadequacies) of the Bible—they are again the failures of fallen Man.
The entire argument for allowing the consecration of persons in a same-sex union as bishops or priests is not based upon the traditional interpretation of Holy Scripture—because that interpretation was based on Scripture itself: a bishop, for example, “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife ...” (1 Tim. 3:2).
The argument instead has to depend upon that interpretation having changed over the centuries—but then the argument depends, as shown above, on Man’s changeability, and not on God’s.
All of the ink being spilled in the secular media about the “outmoded messages” and “current irrelevance” of the Bible is, therefore, nothing new under the sun. In his fallen propensities, Man seems with each generation to have to re-learn, and re-acknowledge (which is the true sense, by the way, of “re-ligio”—“a binding again [to]”) the authority of Holy Scripture.
The bottom line is this: Christian Man, being a fallen creature, often discerns but feebly God’s eternal purpose for him, through his contemporary interpretations of Holy Scripture. All such attempts to discern God’s purpose must proceed from the understanding that Man’s discernment is fallible, and may be in need of (severe) correction at any point in time.
At the same time, however, Christian Man may take comfort that God’s purpose for him is unchanging and eternal. Therefore, if he is not clearly receiving God’s message for him through Holy Scripture just now, he may know that he must keep trying, and keep submitting himself to its authority, in hope for a better and deeper relation to it in the future. Remember: God’s Holy Word does not change —only Man himself does.
Whether or not such later understanding of Holy Scripture is truly “better” may be evaluated by an objective test: does it continue to cohere with God’s eternal purpose for mankind—as reflected through St. Paul and the other New Testament authors, and as reflected through the words and life of God’s only Son?
And by that objective test, any argument for the interpretation of Holy Scripture which depends for its validity on the assumption that the Holy Spirit meant differently in an earlier age than He means today, or that He spoke in days past with a lesser understanding of Man than as Man has evolved to the present time, is per se invalid: it contradicts and demeans—for Man’s sake—God’s unchanging aspect.
*And let us not, please, drag out the old “shellfish” canard in supposed refutation of this point. Once again, God’s words in the Pentateuch remain the same today as they were when first recorded (allowing for human errors of transcription)—and there are still men and women who follow them just as strictly today. Only they do not call themselves Christians, because they do not recognize the New Testament as Holy Scripture. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, and the doctrine of salvation which it gave to the world, established once and for all time a different path for Christians to follow. By the same token, the stakes for Christians have increased: Hell is a greater horror than Sheol.
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