The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

The Secret Things of God

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Hermeneutics is the technical word for the study of interpretation. We "do" hermeneutics every day in the routine of our lives. Anytime we receive messages from someone else—whether written, verbal, or non-verbal—we must "decode" those messages to arrive at what we believe is what the other person was trying to communicate. Some messages are much clearer than others, i.e. less prone to interpretational difficulty. For example, "Watch Out!," is less likely to be misunderstood than, "that's an interesting painting." Some messages are actually designed, like the one about the painting, to be arbitrary. When my mom doesn't like a particular food, she will call it "different." Technically there is nothing untrue about calling something "different," but the real purpose is to avoid the unpleasant social situation of telling the cook that his food stinks. Since I am aware of this (having made some "different" food of my own), I am a better "interpreter" of what my mom really means, than is someone she has just met. Knowing what the "code" is, my hermeneutical abilities in this one area are better than others due to experience.

Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that "the secret things belong to the Lord." This passage has been used countless times by pastors and teachers to try and wiggle out of interpretive difficulties in the Scriptures. In his second epistle, the apostle Peter admits that some things in Paul's letters are "hard to understand." He further informs his readers that "the ignorant and unstable twist [Paul's words] to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Pet. 3:15-16). In this passage, Peter is warning his readers of the very real danger of improper hermeneutics. He tells them that misinterpreting Scripture can actually lead to destruction. This is why James soberly advises his readers to carefully think about becoming a teacher: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1). If God places such a price on His truth, and knowing that the "secret things" belong to Him, how can we know anything? The rest of Deuteronomy 29:29—the part that most pastors do not quote when they appeal to this verse—gives the answer: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law."

The canon of Scripture—the completed, inspired and infallible word of God—is the Bible. The Bible is God's revelation to His people, His instructions to them. What Deuteronomy 29:29 is actually teaching is that the things which God has NOT revealed—things like how He can be One and Three, or how He can be omnipresent, or why He elected some and not others—are not for us to understand, they are "secret." However, the things that God HAS revealed, which is to say everything in the Bible, are meant to be understood and obeyed. Peter wasn't condemning the false teachers for teaching the Scriptures, he was condemning them for teaching them wrongly. But the question will arise: "How can we know if we are teaching the Bible rightly or wrongly, when even Peter said that some of it was difficult to understand?" The answer is a simple one: "Hermeneutics;" but how, when, and where to apply hermeneutics is a more difficult answer, one that takes years of practice and familiarity with the Bible itself.

Jim Jordan has been studying the Bible his entire life and is a very gifted teacher. Jordan understands the "analogy of faith," a hermeneutical principle that has existed since the days of the early church—often simplified as "Scripture interprets Scripture." The analogy of faith states that the unclear passages of Scripture must be interpreted in light of the clear passages. In other words, the Bible teaches one message, it does not contradict itself. Knowing this, we can safely deduce that one portion of Scripture will not contradict another portion. As faithful interpreters of the Bible, we must allow the Bible to teach us and not allow ourselves to reinterpret the Bible to fit our own preconceived ideas about what it teaches. For example, we know that the Bible teaches that God is absolutely sovereign over everything in His creation, so we must not take control away from Him at any moment, even if we have the noble intention of preserving God's reputation. Christians have a tendency to do this when the topic of sin comes up. But, if God is sovereign over everything, then He is also sovereign over sin, no matter how uncomfortable this may make us. The how of this truth is one of the "secret things," but the fact of it is one of the "revealed things." 

Over the course of six lectures in his audio series, Reading the Bible (AGAIN) for the First Time, Jordan helps his students to begin to "see" with biblical "eyes," by applying the analogy of faith time and again to familiar passages in the book of Genesis. One of the very real problems with biblical hermeneutics is that we tend to overlook important details when we read the Bible. Biblical scholarship over the last two centuries has become overly enamored with a "systematic theology" approach, and less concerned with "biblical theology." Jordan applies a biblical theology to the book of Genesis and brings out many details that have long been ignored. Seemingly mundane things like the rising of the sun, clothing, land and water, washing of hands, and moving from place to place take on a whole new significance when they are understood biblically. The Bible builds upon itself and we should not overlook recurring word pictures. Jordan understands the Bible is a work of literature, written by God Himself, and we must understand it as such. Although the Bible does contain maxims and laws, interpreting it as only a book of maxims and laws (like the Koran) misses the bigger picture of what it is trying to communicate. Jordan helps modern students of the Bible, steeped as they are in the minutiae of systematic theology, to step back and look at the whole picture of the biblical revelation; understanding the Bible as a story of growth and maturity—from childhood to adulthood, from immaturity to wisdom.

I can think of no better series than this one to introduce someone to the topic and practice of hermeneutics. Jordan's teaching is sometimes abstract and brain-challenging, but so is the Bible itself. Jordan helps his students to see that Deuteronomy 29:29 is not some hidden escape clause endorsing hermeneutical laziness, but a call to a deeper and more observant reading (and hearing) of the words of God Himself. God has revealed Himself in His Word and he expects His children to read and understand. The "things revealed" belong to us and our children FOREVER, so we should probably set ourselves to learning them now. God's truth is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and the things revealed will be ours in heaven just as they are on earth. Reading the Bible (AGAIN) for the First Time is a great place to begin to motivate yourself to look deeper and think longer about the profound but simple truths of God's revealed Word.

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