Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (4): The Exegetical Imperative

The special nature of apocalyptic prophecy raises a separate issue. A generally accepted principle of biblical interpretation is that God meets people where they are. In other words, Scripture was given in the time, place, language, and culture of specific human beings. The knowledge, experience, and background of the Biblical writers was respected. Paul, with his “Ph.D.”, expresses God’s revelation to him in a different way than does Peter, the fisherman. John writes in simple, clear, almost childlike Greek. On the other hand, the author of Hebrews has the most complex and literary Greek in all the New Testament with the exception of the first four verses of Luke. In Matthew, you have someone who understands the Jewish mind. Mark, on the other hand, reaches out to the Gentile mind. So the revelations recorded in the Bible were given in a way comprehensible to each audience.

This point was driven home with great power a few decades ago. In the nineteenth century, New Testament Greek was thought to be unique. It was quite different from both the classical Greek of Plato and Aristotle and the Greek spoken today. Some scholars thought that the New Testament had been given in some special kind of Greek, perhaps a “heavenly language.” Then someone stumbled across an ancient garbage dump in Egypt. It was filled with the remnants of love letters, bills, receipts, and other products of everyday life in the first century. To the shock of many, these papyrus fragments were written in the same language and style as the books of the New Testament! The New Testament was not written in a heavenly language, nor in the cultured language of the traditional elite, but in the everyday language of everyday people. God meets people where they are! The Sacred Word was expressed through the cultural frailty of human beings.

This principle is clearly articulated in Selected Messages, Volume 1, 19-22:
“The writers of the Bible had to express their ideas in human language. It was written by human men. These men were inspired of the Holy Spirit. . . .
“The Scriptures were given to men, not in a continuous chain of unbroken utterances, but piece by piece through successive generations, as God in His providence saw a fitting opportunity to impress man at sundry times and divers places. . . .
“The Bible, perfect as it is in its simplicity, does not answer to the great ideas of God; for infinite ideas cannot be perfectly embodied in finite vehicles of thought.”

In affirming this principle we do not fall into the trap of treating the Bible as if it were merely exalted human conceptions of God. The richness of the human elements in the Bible are not a liability, they are part of God’s intentional design for His Word. God has chosen to reveal Himself in this way for our sakes. At some points in the Bible the human elements of expression reflect the personality and style of the human author, seeking to express God’s revelation in the best possible human language. But at many points in the Scriptural narrative, it is God Himself who bends down and takes onto His own lips the limitations of human language and cultural patterns for our sakes. There is, perhaps, no clearer illustration of this than the Ten Commandments, which come directly from the mouth of God (Exod 20:1-19), yet include significant elements of the cultural milieu within which they were received (including slavery, idolatry, and neighbors who possess oxen and donkeys). Clearly this aspect of the nature of God’s revelation has implications for hermeneutics.

4 thoughts on “Interpreting Biblical Apocalyptic (4): The Exegetical Imperative

  1. Greg

    Thank you Dr. Paulien for your dedication in researching the deep truths as I just love your comments and books. God bless you always.

    Reply

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