“The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17).
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?”” (Gen. 3:1).
These are some of the most famous words of Scripture. They also help us to understand something about God’s self-revelation that we have contained in Scripture; God spoke and did so in order to be understood by man. Thus, He enabled man to understand language. Along with that God taught Adam to speak and entrusted him, at least in part, with the disseminating of the original prohibition against eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to Eve. Based on these truths it is evident that God divinely created language, designed for communication between Himself and man, designed man to be able to utilize that language and did so in a way that was universal. Every person on earth, with the exception of those who are mentally or physically incapable of doing so, is able to communicate using the divinely created vehicle of language. We can even learn languages that are not native to our own. Language, communication, is a gift from God. At least it used to be thought of as such.
The year is 2011 and you and I can no longer communicate. At least that’s what I understand the Postmodern intellects are telling us. Oh, but if we can no longer communicate with the confidence that we will understand each other, then why am I still writing? The same reason they continue to blow their hot air. No one truly believes their fallacious conclusion. The same can be said of those in the Emerging Church arena, like Rob Bell, who believe that we cannot really understand God’s word with certainty. I make this assertion about Bell’s conclusion from reading what he wrote in Velvet Elvis (pp. 53-54). On these pages Bell discusses something that one of his staff members said some time back. She had been attempting to understand a certain passage of Scripture and had consulted several commentators from every side of the issue. In the end she decided “to get back to the Bible and just take it for what it really says” (53). His assessment of her conclusion? In his words, “this view of the Bible is warped and toxic, to say the least” (Ibid).
Those are strong words, and wrong. To be honest he does make the correct point that anyone who attempts to interpret Scripture will bring their own presuppositions (preconceived ideas) to the task. But the trained interpreter (pastors, that means you need to train your people to properly employ Hermeneutic principles) will identify his/her presuppositions and strive to not allow those presuppositions to influence his/her interpretation. On the other hand, Bell abandons the possibility of doing so. Bell says, “But let’s be honest. When you hear people say they are just going to tell you what the Bible means, it is not true. They are telling you what they think it means” (54). Therefore, Bell, if not explicitly at least implicitly, abandons any hope of discovering the objective meaning of Scripture.
So where does that leave us? If we take Bell’s philosophy to its logical conclusion then we must affirm the idea that God’s word cannot be understood objectively, but it is left to each person to state, “this passage means _________ to me.” In this realm we will find that any single passage will have as many interpretations as there are people interpreting it. Thus Scripture comes to mean absolutely nothing. God cannot communicate clearly.
But there is another problem that must be addressed in another realm of Christianity. It occurs among those who would vigorously argue against Bell’s ideas about Scripture. They believe that God spoke and that He did so in a way that man can understand. They also believe that each individual has the capacity to understand the true meaning of God’s word for himself/herself because of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit indwelling them. However, in their interpretive practice they cast a cloud upon the perspicuity (big word for clarity) of Scripture, and in the end CAN lead to the same conclusion to which Bell and others have arrived – Scripture can’t be understood objectively.
Of what am I speaking you may ask. It occurs when those in the Covenant Reformed realm demand that Israel refers to the Church, or, the Church is the new Israel, spiritual Israel, true Israel, etc. Much ink has been spilt and much space on the internet has been occupied in arguing either for or against this interpretation of Scripture. My contention is simply that this is fuel for those who believe that Scripture is not understandable. If words mean anything, then Israel must mean Israel, the nation, the ethnic descendants of Israel (a.k.a. Jacob), or Scripture is truly open to anyone’s personal interpretation.
Here are some facts. Every, yes EVERY usage of the name Israel in the Old Testament refers to the nation, the people, the land, or Jacob. The Old Testament doesn’t speak of the Church as we understand the New Testament Church. You can argue against that all day, but the only way that you can is if you read the New Testament back into the Old and change/alter what the term Israel means. When one comes to the New Testament he will find that the word Israel is used some 74 times and every, yes EVERY time it refers to the land, the people, the nation, Jacob or his descendants. The ONLY way that one can come to the conclusion that it refers to the Church is to change the meaning of Israel, and Scripture does not do that, ever. There is absolutely no context in which Scripture changes the meaning of Israel (or Jew) to reference the Church. The two are separate entities. God is using the Church, the Body of Christ (a term never, yes NEVER used of Israel) to accomplish His purposes now. In due time He will again use Israel to accomplish His plan – to glorify Himself in the whole earth. God clearly identifies this truth in Ezekiel 36:20-36;
“When they came to the nations where they went, they profaned My holy name, because it was said of them, ‘These are the people of the Lord; yet they have come out of His land.’ But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations where they went. Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight. For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God. Moreover, I will save you from all your uncleanness; and I will call for the grain and multiply it, and I will not bring a famine on you. I will multiply the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field, so that you will not receive again the disgrace of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight for your iniquities and your abominations. I am not doing this for your sake,” declares the Lord God, “let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!” Thus says the Lord God, “On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places will be rebuilt. The desolate land will be cultivated instead of being a desolation in the sight of everyone who passes by. They will say, ‘This desolate land has become like the garden of Eden; and the waste, desolate and ruined cities are fortified and inhabited.’ Then the nations that are left round about you will know that I, the Lord, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted that which was desolate; I, the Lord, have spoken and will do it.”
I will illustrate the outcome of changing Israel to mean the Church. If that is a legitimate practice, then let’s look at the preceding passage and make some observations. First of all we need to read Church instead of Israel where applicable. Now, in verse 20 what land is God speaking about? When did the Church, the Universal Church, profane God’s name among the nations (v. 20-22)? (Of course with the way things are going in the Western Church that may not be a stretch to imagine) In verse 24, which of the lands is God going to bring us into? If Israel, then the land of Israel has significance for today, which is denied by many in the Church. If Israel, then when will we go there and how much land do I get? If not Israel, where? Maybe it means heaven? If so, we once again must assert that God is not clear when He speaks. In verse 28 we need to decide what land was given to our forefathers and who are these forefathers of whom He is speaking? If the land is Israel, then when do I get my ticket there? If it is not, guess what, once again you have to change it to mean something that is not in the context, such as heaven, or America. In verse 30 He speaks of multiplying the fruit of the tree, etc. But we here in Western Texas can’t even get rain. We must have done something for which God is bringing punishment. But if that is the case, then what about His promise that we will not experience famine? Well, we’re not experiencing famine, but we are having a severe drought. What wasted cities is He speaking of (v.33), or the desolate land?
Can you see what happens? If the Covenant Reformed brothers change the meaning of Israel to Church then that is not the only thing that has to be changed. Many things must be allegorized, spiritualized, or otherwise changed to mean something other than what is written in order to fit with the Church as Israel scenario. And in doing this we fuel the view that God’s word is not clear, that He cannot be understood with certainty. It is a slippery slope that leads to confusion and, yes, a failure to communicate. Ultimately, it leads to a denigration of the inspiration, authority, and sufficiency of God’s word.
If words mean anything, if God desires that we understand Him and His message to us, Israel must mean Israel and Church must mean something other than.
I pray this helps.