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Dunn on interpretation (Scripture Series)

Previously in this series I looked at the complicated question of how to define inerrancy. It’s all very well to say that the Bible contains no errors, but even Sproul seemed confused about whether that means the Bible is a scientific authority. Furthermore, how we interpret the Bible may have implications for its inerrancy and James Dunn picks up on this in The Living Word.

Any time you make a move from the original language, idioms and thought-forms of a text, you make an interpretative leap. Simply deciding whether Genesis is science or poetry will affect how you interpret the text, and what you consider to be inerrant about it. But we make other interpretative leaps as well. For example, what makes a Christian reading of Scripture a Christian reading is that we read the Old Testament in the light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In a way, we work with a canon within a canon, at times choosing a New Testament implication over a clear Old Testament command (take the Sabbath, for instance). And that’s OK, but Dunn says, if we do that (and we all do) blanket inerrancy becomes nonsensical.

The problem, according to Dunn, is that evangelicals have arrived at this commitment to inerrancy by reason, not biblical exegesis. It’s the classic, “God is true; the Bible is God’s word; therefore the Bible is true; therefore the Bible is inerrant” line of reasoning. Yet, says Dunn, there is nothing, even in the four ‘pillar texts’ of inerrancy (2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:20-21, John 10:35, Matt 5:18) that provides sufficient grounds for that. In fact, he says, to claim that would be 1) legalistic, 2) bibliolatry and 3) pastorally disastrous (p.84-85). The second of these struck me in particular as I’ve been accused of it in the past. Dunn argues that in claiming that the Bible is indefectible, we assign to it the honor due only to the Father, Son and Spirit. He doesn’t like Barth, who argued that being a human document, the Bible must be in error. But he does ask how we expect to see the human factors in the Bible, including the possibility that God, working in human culture, may have chosen not to “preserve the writers of scripture from … scientific and historical inaccuracy” of their time. So it’s OK for the Bible to be limited by history and culture, and we need not be embarrassed by that or try to cover it up with claims to inerrancy, “because the substance of the Bible’s message is clear, if not the ‘technical details'” (p.81). In fact, if we become caught up on the details, we may become Pharisaic in our approach, perhaps even stifling “the life of the Spirit by concentrating on the incidental forms through which he speaks” (p.84; Dunn cites Rom 7:6 and 2 Cor 3:6).

It’s this emphasis on the Spirit that I’ve found particularly interesting. Whereas Sproul and the rest place their emphasis on an objective word of God, Dunn places his on the interpreted word of God, that is, interpreted by the Spirit. Thus, he says, the word of God in the Old Testament meant something different to its original readers, than, say in Jesus’ or the apostles’ time, for they seemed to use some passages in a completely different way from their original meaning (for example, Jesus’ use of Is 61:1 in Luke 4:18f where Jesus neatly omits the judgement bit; or Jesus’ reinterpretation of the whole eye for eye thing in Matt 5:38-39). Now Dunn is clear that we don’t have the same interpretative authority that Jesus or the Bible writers had, but he takes ‘guidelines’ from Jesus’ use of Scripture to say that evangelical hermeneutics must mean both understanding the text in its original context and then working out how it speaks today. He emphasises that these two steps must not be taken in isolation from one another. If you only discover the original intention or meaning of a text, the word of God is relegated to the remote past; on the other hand if you ignore the original intention or message of the text, you run the risk of “uncontrolled prophetism, of abandoning the word of God for the inspiration of the moment” (p.104).

The brief case study mentioned is the experience of C.T. Studd who heard Psalm 2:8 speak directly to him, without any apology for applying a messianic prophecy to himself. Evangelicals love Studd! He was one of the Cambridge Seven! Yet he seems to have completely misunderstood Psalm 2:8. Or did he? Dunn says:

We must recognise that a scripture can function as word of God with a sense or application different from that intended… To recognise this is simply to confess faith in the Spirit as the living power of God still abroad, in the church and in the believer – to confess faith in the interpreter Spirit whose work it is precisely to bring home that scripture as a word of God directly to the soul… There is plenty of precedent for such a hermeneutic in scripture itself.

I think it’s a reasonably compelling argument. And in Studd’s case, his ‘misreading’ led him to become a missionary, so the fruit of his life probably validates his reading as the Spirit’s work. But it also makes me nervous.

Perhaps this is me trying to control a God who doesn’t fit in a box, but there seems to be a messiness here, and one that allows for parts of the Bible to be ripped out of context. On one hand, I have no doubt that the Spirit can work through that (as in the case of Studd, and, I’ll admit, my own experience); on the other, I’ve seen pretty massive damage done by misusing Scripture. Judging by the fruit, one ‘misuse’ is not a misuse, but rather given by the Spirit; and the other is a complete misuse, given by Satan. But you may only be able to tell that some years later. So where does that leave us? I think there are some pretty big implications, first of all for how we discern the word of God, but secondly, for anyone in ministry, it’s personal. I want to be open to the Spirit, but I want to make sure that it’s him I’m following, not my own hobbyhorses. As much as I fear that others may teach God’s people falsely, I’m also aware of my own heart’s capacity for deception.

So help me out here. When it comes to the word of God, do you reckon Dunn’s on the money?

Categories: Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. Hi Tamie,

    Some pretty big issues here!

    Some of what Dunn says I think I agree with. Other things are more difficult.

    I don’t think the Spirit ever gives a sense or application to scripture that contradicts its original intended meaning.

    I do think that there is a limitless range of application that the Spirit makes from that intended meaning though.

    If the Spirit wants to tell me to go to Africa as a missionary, I don’t think he needs to wrest a verse out of context to do it. He can give me a dream, a vision, a prophecy; there are also plenty of scriptures he can apply in a manner consistent with their intended sense that’ll do the job.

    Further, Jesus said of the Spirit that ‘He will not speak on his own’ (Jn. 16:3).

    You mentioned that Dunn used Is. 61:1 and Lk. 4:18 to support his view. I don’t think Jesus’ use of Is. 61:1-2a in Luke is contrary to its original meaning. In fact what he says is entirely in keeping with the thrust of Is. 61. And even if he doesn’t quote the judgement bit, he certainly implies it in the following verses (Lk. 4:23-27), and explicitly teaches it elsewhere in the gospels.

    I also find Dunn’s remarks on inerrancy (as you’ve paraphrased him) a bit misleading. Any view of scripture that is contrary to God’s view leaves us in danger of idolatry. If God allowed the inspired authors to pen errors, and we mistakenly elevate them to inerrancy status, yes we’re in danger of idolatry. But it works the other way around too. If God caused the inspired authors to pen words that were free from error, and we claim that their words do contain errors, we’re equally in danger of idolatry. So I don’t find that argument persuasive for one position or the other.

    The traditional evangelical argument for inerrancy that you’ve summarized from Dunn, I don’t fully recognize. It is fair to say that evangelicals have sometimes tended to argue from inference before all the data has been seen, but the best examples of scholarship on inerrancy are far different. ‘Scripture and Truth’ edited by Don Carson probably remains the most comprehensive modern treatment of the subject.

    Dunn might fairly point out that popular evangelical arguments for inerrancy have a few weak links and sometimes rely on insufficient biblical data. But I think it’s relatively easy to turn the tables on him here. What about his own position, that the bible contains errors? Is he basing that on scripture interpreted in context and a sound biblical theology? If he could even show me one passage in the bible that teaches that scripture contains errors I would be mightily impressed. Seeing as no such passage has ever been found, I think he might be the one who’s making leaps in logic.


  2. Hi Jordan

    If the Spirit wants to tell me to go to Africa as a missionary, I don’t think he needs to wrest a verse out of context to do it. He can give me a dream, a vision, a prophecy; there are also plenty of scriptures he can apply in a manner consistent with their intended sense that’ll do the job.

    Can I ask what you think of CT Studd’s experience then? Or the experiences of (for example) our pentecostal brothers and sisters who feel they experience God’s leading through what we might term poor reading of scripture? I take it that at the very least, this is God graciously working, leading and speaking despite our failings. What do you think?

    Regarding insufficient biblical data, I take it that the question of whether Scripture has ‘errors’ in it is actually something of a sidetrack – hence no passage which goes either way. I’m keen to see Christians state positively what the Bible is ‘useful for’ – and to take it on its own terms – rather than imposing our own questions onto it.

  3. Yes, I don’t think the Spirit is limited by our poor readings of scripture. All things work together for good for those who love God – even deficient handling of the bible.

    Also, sometimes when interpreting scripture we end up arriving at a right conclusion or application from a wrong premise.

    I’m just concerned that leadings of the Spirit (and we all have them) could end up being placed on a higher plane than the intended meaning of scripture. And these leadings won’t be able to be evaluated, because they involve a unique use of scripture that departs from its original intended meaning.

    I’ve actually made mistakes like this myself in the past. I try to be a bit more circumspect about promptings and leadings these days, though I still regard them as a normal and important part of Christian experience.


  4. Hi again,

    Regarding the biblical data for inerrancy, there are several passages teaching that divine revelation is truthful and necessary down to the last word:

    ‘…man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’ (Deut. 8:3)

    ‘Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.’ (Prov. 30:5-6)

    ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.’ (Matt. 5:17-18)

    It doesn’t seem to me that Dunn’s comments are entirely in keeping with this emphasis on ‘every word’. There’s no hint in these passages that God’s central message is without error but the finer details might sometimes be inaccurate. Every word is flawless and intended for our life.

    Note, by ‘accurate’, ‘inerrant’ etc. I do not mean according to an arbitrary modern concept of precision – which is not necessarily God’s standard. But I do mean that every word is truthful according to God’s standard of truth. And God’s standard does not remain inaccessible to us, because he has given his words to us for our benefit.

    I do take your point that the meaning and usefulness of scripture are not issues solved simply by an appeal to inerrancy.


  5. Hi Jordan

    Yeah, I share the concern of elevating ‘leadings of the Spirit’ over Scripture. Such an approach often leads to a separation of word and spirit when the two ought to feed and enliven each other.

    I think the idea of God’s standard of truth is a helpful one. It can be easy to unthinkingly assume that God’s standard of truth = ‘whatever makes sense to me in my culture’. As Arthur said in his post, Bible truth is not wholly separate from Bible reading. Arthur’s been reading Ben Witherington and I think he addresses this whole area.

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