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The Tyranny of Common Sense

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After last night’s speech by Sarah Palin, it will be next to impossible to argue that John McCain does not have heaps of political tact. His choice for a running mate—especially now that we have heard it from her own mouth—draws the well-defined line in the sand that conservatives have been wanting him to draw for months. It was interesting to watch Palin (and the warm-up acts of Romney, Huckabee, and Giuliani) frame the battle for the oval office. It was a reminder, once again, that interpretation is everything.

I have spent the last several weeks slowly getting to the point of application in the ongoing quest for “truth.” Several respondents to my articles have expressed frustration with my lack of providing “answers” to the very questions that I am raising. I feel your pain, really I do. I have been deliberately vague in these articles to make a very important point. While it may be an apocryphal story, I think it serves the point well to bring up Martin Luther’s response when he was criticized for translating the Bible into German. He was told that putting the Words of God into the hands of common people who lacked training and understanding in theological issues would be disastrous. He was warned that interpretations of every sort were sure to result. Luther responded that it was worth the risk. He believed that the Bible was given to all men and that it was far too valuable to be left in the hands of a few “elite” religious types to lord it over everyone else. Although his critics were exactly right—interpretations of every size, shape, and color have resulted—I believe Luther was right and that he would make the same decision today if given the chance. He believed that Truth would ultimately prevail.

The speeches at last night’s convention brought the schism in the Republican Party to the forefront. This presidential race is shaping up to be less about Democrat vs. Republican, than it is about Liberal vs. Conservative. Both sides agree that Washington is “broken.” Both sides want “change.” And both sides think that they are the ones to bring it. Rarely does an agreed upon problem produce a unified answer, and this presidential race is no different. The Obama/Biden team believes that government is the answer while the McCain/Palin team believes that government is the problem. Both sides are absolutely sure that “common sense” is on their side and that the other side is blinded by their own self-righteousness. One comment that I received last week gave this quotation from Thomas Jefferson:

Laws are made for men of ordinary understanding and should, therefore, be construed by the ordinary rules of common sense. Their meaning is not to be sought for in metaphysical subtleties which may make anything mean everything or nothing at pleasure.

This sounds great until we ask the questions which are being begged: What ordinary rules of common sense? Are these “rules” written down somewhere, or are they assumed to be inherent to all men? Does my “common sense” overrule yours if they happen to disagree? And if they do disagree can we really call it “common” sense? A respondent to another article asked a profound question of his own: “Who among us interprets scripture perfectly? If any of us raises his/her hand he/she is obviously self-deluded.” However, later in his response this very same individual makes this statement: “I have yet to read a perfect interpretation of scripture from anyone.” Huh? How would this individual know if he read a perfect interpretation of Scripture? By his own admission we (and presumably he includes himself in this group) are self-deluded if we think we interpret perfectly, yet he apparently has some criteria by which he is able to judge that he has never read a perfect interpretation. Now I know what this person is trying to say (at least I think I do…maybe I’ve misinterpreted him), but it makes the point that each of us is self-referential when it comes to understanding anything. Remember Milton Terry’s point from a few weeks back:

It is an old and oft-repeated hermeneutical principle that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity. It should be observed, however, that this principle, when reduced to practice, becomes simply an appeal to every man’s rational judgment. And what to one seems very absurd and improbable may be to another altogether simple and self-consistent. Some expositors have claimed to see necessity for departing from the literal sense where others saw none, and it seems impossible to establish any fixed rule that will govern in all cases.[1]

When we appeal to “common sense,” whether it is in areas of presidential politics, blogs, or the Bible, what we are really saying is “that which makes sense to me.” Terry despairs in his quotation above of ever finding an objective rule that will apply in all cases to all men, and this is in a textbook that teaches biblical interpretation! But, it is precisely this kind of honesty that will move us closer to a better understanding of what the Bible is actually teaching. We must stick to the Bible, not “common sense,” when we are trying to discern what the Bible itself is saying. Are we willing to put our cherished interpretive presuppositions on the biblical chopping block to see if they withstand scrutiny? More importantly, are we willing to abandon these presuppositions if they are shown to be unbiblical? The Holy Spirit provides the “common sense” that leads to a proper biblical interpretation, but this can only be accomplished by comparing Scripture with Scripture. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). We’ll begin to look into application next week...

Footnote:
[1] Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1999 [1890]), 159.

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