Author: Ron Graham
Book in Your Hands, Head on Your Shoulders
—Our thoughts and God’s thoughts
A man might point to the Bible he holds in his hands, and say, "This is the word of God, my only authority for religious faith and practice". Then he might point to the head that sits on his shoulders and say, “My own thoughts, reasonings, opinions, and feelings have no such authority.”
The issue here is whether we should allow our own minds to...
- add anything to God’s word,
- take anything from God’s word,
- substitute anything for God’s word, or
- change the meaning of anything in God’s word.
1 Our Thoughts and God’s Thoughts
The man I mentioned, who pointed to the head on his shoulders may so strongly believe the statement he made, that he would be willing to have that very head cut off rather than withdraw his statement.
Indeed he should be so willing, because there are clear and solemn warnings at the beginning, middle, and end of the Bible against adding to the word of God or taking away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2, Proverbs 30:6,4:2, Revelation 22:18-19).
The Bible claims for itself that...
- it is revealing the thoughts of God,
- his thoughts are not our thoughts, and
- his thoughts transcend our thoughts
(Isaiah 55:8-9 1Corinthians 2:1-16).
2 A Simple Example
Here is a simple example. In the Bible, God reveals that he thinks he is the Heavenly Father. But many people think God should be the Earth Mother and they refer to God as "She". Now they should say, "Lord, if you think you are my Heavenly Father, then so will I think". Instead they say, "I think God is my Earth Mother, and I'm not going to change my thoughts on this matter for any patriarchal god, so I'll change the scriptures to accommodate my thoughts."
3 Switch On Your Mind and Tune It To God’s
The statement at the beginning of this lesson raises interesting questions about the function of the human mind with regard to interpreting God’s word.
If we were to switch off our minds and stop thinking, then we would be unable to hear, understand, or respond to the word of God. Whilst the thoughts of God alone are the authority for religious faith and practice, the purpose of God’s word is to reveal his thoughts to our minds. Therefore our thoughts and minds must function when it comes to interpreting God’s word.
God himself says, "Come now and let us reason together" (Isaiah 1:18-20). If we are to reason together with God, surely we must have our minds switched on, and we must be thinking about what God says.
One cannot establish Biblical authority without employing human judgment and forming human opinion. Only when I use the head on my shoulders for reasoning, can I use the Book in my hands for authority.
When God says, "My thoughts are higher than your thoughts" he does not intend us to stop thinking, because he says, "Let us reason together". In fact, this is a simple example of how we apply our minds to God’s word.
As we think about these two statements, we understand, without much difficulty, that we are to let God’s thoughts modify our thoughts, but our thoughts must never meddle with God’s.
The first question concerns the integrity of the words we are reading. This has nothing to do with the integrity of God himself, or of anything he says. Rather, it concerns the document in hand which purports to be what God thinks and says. How do we know it is genuinely the word of God? Is the text uncorrupted and is the translation correct?
We may not always feel able to think this through and research that issue for ourselves, and we may well trust experts and scholars to do so. But somebody has to apply the human mind to this question.
Manuscripts and translations don’t have errors in orange and correct words in purple, do they? So the human intellect must exercise itself to verify the manuscripts of God’s word, and to faithfully translate them into other languages.
An enormous amount of thought has gone into this task — more than ever went in to building the pyramids or sending men to the moon. And the effort continues — one of the great human endeavours and by far the most important because without it we would not have God’s word so as to know God’s thoughts.
The second question concerns the interpretation of the words we are reading. What do they mean? Even if they are correctly translated from genuine manuscripts, the reader still has to think and to reason, in order to understand what the original writer meant.
This one question generates many more questions. For example...
- How is the meaning of the words modified by the historical context and cultural background?
- What are the semantic and grammatical considerations?
- Is there a figurative element?
- If a person’s words appear ambiguous, can we reason out which meaning he or she intended, especially with the help of other parts of the Bible?
Obviously when people disagree about what a passage of scripture teaches, someone is not understanding correctly what the writer of that passage meant. Even when people agree, that still does not prove that the writer of the scripture meant to say what they make him say. A process of reasoning is therefore necessary. The mind of the reader must try to get into the mind of the writer and thus into the mind of God.
The third question concerns the implementation of God’s word. How do these words apply to me? We realise, when we read the Bible, that the messages we are reading were written in times past by various people for various purposes. They were not written directly to us. So we have to determine how we should appropriate to ourselves a message originally addressed to others?
When we read what Moses said when he was addressing the children of Israel in the desert; or Jesus when he spoke on the mountainside to the multitude; or Paul when he wrote to certain congregations while he was imprisoned — do we regard anything they said as a message for us? If we do, then we have used the head on our shoulders as well as the Bible in our hands.
We have thought about what is written, and we have made a personal application to ourselves of a message addressed to others. We have thought about what we should do, on the basis of what God told someone else to do. We have reasoned that God wants us to do it too.
One cannot establish Biblical authority without asking questions like those above. One cannot answer those questions without employing human judgment and forming human opinion. Only when I use the head on my shoulders for reasoning, can I use the Book in my hands for authority.