This past summer before leaving the States for Edinburgh, I shared with my dad that I was a little anxious about leaving my conservative Christian community and engaging in a Divinity School in the UK. I have seen, firsthand, that human beings are not immune to changing their minds about what they believe. Because my dad watched my theology develop over the last ten years, from believing in man’s autonomous free will in salvation to wanting to baptize his future grandkids, he replied, “Just try not to become Catholic. I don’t think we’ll be able to explain that one to our friends!”

Perhaps the biggest human influence toward Reformed theology in my life is now a practicing Roman Catholic, who is working on his own PhD at Notre Dame in systematic theology.

I was blessed to worship and serve with him at church during college. We were the same age, but he was decades ahead of me in spiritual maturity, Scripture knowledge, and theological understanding. (He probably still is…) We all looked up to him, even the older peers. When he left our Calvinistic, Southern Baptist church for a more consistently and more confessionally Reformed congregation, it rocked us all. Having a truly incredible mind, and the personal discipline to match, he also managed to impress his professors at Westminster California. Horton and Godfrey, he called friends.

So you might imagine how shocked I was to hear of his conversion to Roman Catholicism upon his graduating from Westminster California. At the time, I had just completed my first year at Westminster Philadelphia, but I was not ready for this. Instead, I just got rocked all over again.

The obvious question from an evangelical to a former evangelical gone Catholic is, “Why?”

These were his words in a blog post:

“If all men are, as Luther and Calvin interpret Scripture to say, helplessly corrupt and depraved, how can I trust anyone? Why should I trust what Martin Luther says that the Bible teaches, or what John Calvin says the Bible teaches or any of the Reformed confessions, for that matter? Is it not the height of naiveté, even hypocrisy, to believe that everyone is totally depraved and yet continue to trust that any human interpretation of Scripture is somehow guaranteed by the Holy Spirit?”

What could I say to this? To be honest, I had never thought about this issue before. I never thought about “The Problem of Interpretation.” Yes, I believed the Bible was true, authoritative, and infallible, but so did a whole host of other genuine people who still believed many different things about what the Bible taught, my Catholic friend included. Whose interpretation was correct? What did God really say? How could we know?

Protestants believe that Scripture interprets Scripture, and this apparently self-defeating circularity is laughed at by many Catholics. Catholics believe that the Magisterium interprets Scripture, but who is there to authoritatively interpret the Magisterium’s interpretations?

For me, the problem of interpretation became a problem of language. Was language sufficient to communicate definitive truth?

Greek and Hebrew aren’t my first languages. How can I know the true meaning of Scripture if my English translation does not perfectly capture the original languages? Furthermore, I don’t have intimate access to the original human authors of Scripture. How could I understand what they were saying without being able to read their minds to probe their deepest authorial intentions? How could I shed or suspend my cultural biases to purely interpret God’s words?

I had trouble sleeping. My prayer life became fixated on this one dilemma. My whole life was lived through the paradigm of this question:

“Could words even reveal God to us?!”

This inescapable question plagued me day and night until one day while asking this very same question:

Could words even reveal God to us?!”

It came to me: “Well, yes, in fact, the Word has.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1-3, 14)

In fact, the very possibility of questioning the sufficiency of language and whether or not God could use words to reveal himself to me, presupposed the use of language!

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…and he upholds the universe by the word of his power…” (Hebrews 1:1-3)

While I thought my skepticism toward language reflected the reasoning of a careful and objective thinker, such skepticism actually reflected a sinful disposition. The same disposition found in Genesis 3. My question: “Could God really say…?” was really just a grandchild of the the serpent’s question: “Did God really say…?” This word “really” speaks to reality and truth. The serpent called into question the very words of God. He called reality and truth into question and asked humans to judge the validity of their God’s words, as if there was a higher and more definitive standard of reality than God.

To question God’s use of words is to question God’s Word. It’s to question God, himself. Words don’t limit God, they image him. There is no inherent problem with language. Language is rooted in God’s being. Thus language, rather than being an impersonal human construct, is actually vested with the absolute personality of God. Every created human word that we use reflects the Archetypal Word, the Son of God.

So…

“Did God really say…?”

Yes. He has spoken to us in his Son, the Word, who became flesh. Behold his glory and trust what he says.

“Can we really know what he said?”

Yes. He is not limited by human words. He is the sovereign Lord over all created words and he sends his Spirit for our illumination.

“Still, why do so many genuine people disagree on what God says, and who is right about what God says?”

We are all subject to creatureliness and sin, and can never know as God knows.

“Then how can we know the truth?!”

We can know truly and by analogy because it is an sovereign God who has spoken to us that we might know him.

If you still wrestle with this challenging dilemma concerning language and interpretation, perhaps these questions might help:

Will humanity’s sinful reception of God’s words limit God’s sovereign communication to humanity? Have creatureliness and sin ever limited God? Does sin win?

In the death and resurrection of Christ, in his suffering and in his glory, we hear a resounding, “NO!”

“…in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son…”

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

 

Posted by Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese), who married a beautiful third-gen Bay Area ABC. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he is now pursuing a PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He hopes to pursue pastoral ministry as his PhD studies come to a close. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for your post, Andrew. Maybe you can do a follow-up that addresses his question more directly? “Is it not the height of naiveté, even hypocrisy, to believe that everyone is totally depraved and yet continue to trust that any human interpretation of Scripture is somehow guaranteed by the Holy Spirit?”

    I think your thoughts on the clarity of God’s words is on point. However, I feel like your friend would agree, and would just say, “Yeah, His words are clear, but we are ‘totally depraved,’ so how can we understand his clear words? The problem is not his words, but our fallenness.”

    Reply

    1. Thanks, Mark. I had no intention of taking on the Roman Catholics in this post and merely used my story to frame a discussion of God and language. I’m not really up for taking on Rome. I guess in response to that quote from my friend, I’d ask if something being a human interpretation automatically excludes that it is a divine interpretation. Can an interpretation be both human and divine, just like the Word became flesh.

      Id also contend that because of the sovereign purposes of God and His gracious initiative in our salvation, fallen sinners can know this interpretation.

      Reply

  2. […] A God-Centered Approach to Language – Vern Poythress describes the trinitarian basis of language and how to use it in a God-glorfying way. For more on this topic, see Andrew Ong’s post. […]

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