But there is also the context surrounding the words or expressions: when it is said, and what has gone on before, and what has just been said or not said, and the tone of voice, and the facial expressions and gestures that may or may not accompany the saying, and so on. We do not speak in a vacuum: if we did, we wouldn’t mean anything. Even when a person talks to himself, he can make sense only in a context. Think of Hamlet’s great soliloquy, “To be or not to be. . .” -or any of David’s psalms, spoken or written in private: they each have their context. Hamlet is near despair because of the murder of his father, the King, by his uncle; because of his mother’s credulity and the horror of her recent marriage to this murderer; because he understands the practical and moral impossibility of exposing the truth; and because of the terrible burden of having to act like a king without yet being one. We understand what he means, and what he is doing in speaking aloud to no-one. Do I dare say that the meaning of what he says can be understood even better if you think of him as speaking to God? Yes, I dare. And this is clearly helpful in understanding David’s psalms. There is a context for each of them, too. David was afraid, running for his life, when he wrote psalms 54, 57, 59, and 63. He was ashamed, humbled, and horrified by his own sins of adultery and murder when he wrote psalm 51. Could we possibly know the depth of meaning of Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” without knowing that he says this from the Cross upon which he was dying?
And here it strikes me that these are all the ways that Scripture becomes meaningful to us, too. We do not and cannot know its meaning unless we realize that through the Scriptures it is God who is speaking, and it is to me (or you) that he is speaking, and-if that is not amazing enough-he speaks to each of us within the context of our own lives and circumstances. That is, the meaning of what God says in any given portion of Scripture is understood best when I find myself to be in just the same kind of circumstance, or the same frame of mind or body, or with the same spirit, as those people of God to whom God’s messengers were originally writing. This is why certain portions of Scripture, even portions we may have long been familiar with or read many times, suddenly become more meaningful to us. This is what it means to say that the Word is “Living”: it is never out of date. Isn’t that amazing! Not many authors (or speakers) can write (or speak) in such a way, both universally and individually, and across the ages. Plato, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, perhaps Wittgenstein, Lewis, Chesterton, or Solzhenitsyn. But Scripture stands far above them. Its author is still living.
So, now, here is where I hope this talk will be of some help, both to you and to me: A right understanding of Scripture, a correct reading of it, would take into account not just (nor even primarily) the facts contained in it, but also the meaning of it. This would also, I think, be the right approach to establishing doctrine. For example, the doctrine of Creation. What does God mean when he tells us, through Moses, that in six days He created the heavens and the earth? Do we really know all the “facts” here? And if God meant only to give us the facts, why wouldn’t he give us all of them? Genesis does not give us a cause and effect explanation of how the universe came to be as it is; it tells us a Who, not a how: “And God said, ‘Let there be firmament’; and there was firmament.” This does not give us a clue as to how firmament was created, but it does tell us who created it-that is, it tells us its value. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” gives us the value of the heavens and the earth in that, being created by God, they are divine. It points to how we are to care for our earthly home and all of its contents.
Or take the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. What is the meaning of this doctrine? Is it intended primarily to tell us that the stories, histories, natural processes and psychologies described in the Bible are factually true? Again, do not get me wrong: I would be perfectly willing and happy to admit this. But this is not the full meaning of the doctrine. Here is how O.K. Bouwsma put it:
The doctrine of Scriptural infallibility is obviously not “scientific” in any sense, nor is it the result of any sort of investigation, nor subject to any sort of proof. Its function is not to establish the truth of anything. It is easy to see how the doctrine works. It cultivates an attitude towards the Scriptures, the Sacred Word. It is very much like the attitude towards many other sacred objects. Certain sacred objects are not to be touched (the Ark), and certain others are not to be seen. They are to be approached in a reverential attitude. With respect to the Scriptures this means not that they are not to be read, but rather that they are not to be read in a critical spirit, in a disputatious frame of mind. One is not to ask, for instance, “Is this really true?” Even where one has difficulties one asks only, “What does this mean?” And when there are seeming contradictions or dark passages one can only say that one does not understand. In this way clearly the Scriptures are hedged by a doctrine which, so long as the doctrine is taught, secures them like a fortress, like a refuge. In this way too the Scriptures are retained like a well, ever-flowing; like a tree, ever-bearing; like a treasure, ever-golden. It is the guardian against doubt, against uncertainty, against questioning.