25 Jun 2021

How to Study the Bible #5 -- Using Occam’s Razor

Submitted by John T Reagan

Author’s Note:  Sorry I missed last week’s post.  My excuse is a good one, though – Ruth and I were away to the coast celebrating our 40th anniversary.  My wife is the most awesome woman in the world and I am immeasurably blessed to have been joined to her for these last four decades.  These last forty years have been rich and full because she has been a part of me. (I am kind of proud of that number, but I keep running into people who have us beat.  Just the other day I met an elderly couple who had just celebrated their 65th.  Wow!  Awesome people like that keep the rest of us humble.)

Just so you know, we have some other travels planned for the near future, so don’t be surprised if I miss another week or two through the summer.

Using Occam’s Razor

It is an utterly shameful thing.  Look at the Christian church today and all you see is division.  Presbyterians, Methodists, independent churches, charismatics, non-charismatics – denominations of every possible flavor populate the landscape of Christendom.  Each group is at odds with one or more of the other groups in disagreement over either religious practice or the doctrines of the faith.  Certainly, this is not what the Lord envisioned when He commanded the original twelve apostles to wait in Jerusalem until the baptism of the Holy Spirit fell on them.  His desire for us was and is that we should walk with each other in unity. As you progress in studying the Bible, you will eventually want to read the book of 1 Corinthians.  In the very first chapter of that book, the Apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task for allowing divisions to develop.  In my last post we discussed the need for us to rely on the Holy Spirit when interpreting scripture and how His input is readily available to us all the time.  If that is true, if the Holy Spirit’s input is there for us to access at will, why do we have so much disagreement and division in the church?  Doesn’t it make sense that if two men are studying the same piece of scripture they should both come to the same conclusions simply because the Holy Spirit is directing their thoughts and leading each of them into seeing and believing His truth?  Yes, that’s exactly how it should be.  That's just not the way it works.  How sad!

To understand why it comes out that way, we must first gain a deeper understanding of just what happened at that moment when Christ entered into our lives.  Then we need to take a step beyond that into seeing how our salvation is worked out in us as we live in and interact with this fallen world.  Let’s see if I can help with that.

When each of us accepted Jesus into our hearts, we chose to do more than just give mental assent to the truth that He is God, that He died for our sins, and that He rose from the dead.  Each and every true Christian has chosen to let God the person fully enter into his/her being and be remade by Him.  We chose to make Him Lord over our lives.  (That “lord” word is key.  Simply put, it means He has the right to direct us in every area of our lives.)  Yet we are still living in this sinful world and we still inhabit bodies that are part of this unhappy place and that reality creates conflict in our souls.  Not only that, but here on this planet the devil and his minions still have access to us and they are very good at tempting us into doing wrong.  The Apostle Paul recognized this problem and addressed it in his letter to the Christians who lived in the city of Colossae.  (I’m only quoting part of it here.  Go read the whole passage surrounding Colossians 3:9-10.)

“...you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him…”

That vile old man, that nasty, fallen, and sinful nature, is still there, just waiting for an opportunity to raise its ugly head.  And raise its head it does.  Every single one of us born-again Christians can point to our failures, to times when we let that old nature out and stepped into doing something wrong and sinful.  Here is my point – when we accepted Christ as savior we were indeed saved and our relationship with God was restored.  (Having one’s relationship with God restored is what “being saved” is all about.)  The book of Ephesians says we have even been “seated with Him” in the heavens (Eph 2:6).  However, that salvation will not be fully complete until our time on this planet is finished and we stand before Him in heaven.  In the meantime – and here is a principle all Christians need to understand – we are learning to keep that “new man” – the newly-transformed person we have become through Christ – in the forefront.  At the same time, we have to make it our practice to put off that “old man”.  The sinfulness of the person we were before we met the Lord cannot be allowed to direct our thinking or behavior.  To use some preacher-words, we are “sanctified”, but are in the process of “being sanctified”.  We have been “made holy”, but at the same time are in the process of “being made holy”.

That is why there are divisions in the body of Christ.  Those divisions exist because, even though we are all saved, we all still battle with our fallen natures and, far too often, let our old, fallen, innate nature guide both our Bible study and our relations with other Christians.  When it comes to Bible study we all want to protect our pet interpretations or make excuses for the compromises we have made with our prevailing culture.  As a result, it is common for theologians to take what should be rather simple passages and concepts, and instead develop long and convoluted explanations that support their own personal interpretations.  Choose any given denomination and they will have their own special line of reasoning that “proves” that the base doctrines they follow are the truth and everyone else is wrong.

And…that is why our third principle of Bible study goes like this:

Principle of Bible Study #3:  The most straightforward interpretation is usually closer to the truth than a complicated and involved explanation.

Way back in the 14th century an English friar named William of Ockham came up with this (overly simplified) principle:  “The simplest explanation is usually the best one.”  Of course, one can’t apply that in an absolute fashion.  God has given us minds and He expects us to use them, but big, twisted, convoluted explanations generally miss the mark.  Simpler is better whenever possible.  In a future post I’m going to talk about where Biblical commentators, Bible teachers, pastors, and other church leaders fit into your study of the Bible, but in the end, when faced with the simple versus the complicated, whatever the source of the teaching, the simple most likely offers you the better choice.  There’s also this – complicated explanations usually require many unproven assumptions as part of the reasoning track they use to draw a conclusion.  A supposed principle or truth that is based on mere assumptions really has no meaning or application.

I had a reason for choosing the word “straightforward” rather than “literal” when writing down this principle.  Taking every word of the Bible in a literal sense will sometimes keep you from seeing the deeper truth God the Holy Spirit was seeking to communicate to you when He inspired the ancient writers to pen the scriptures.  For instance, vast sections of the Bible are written in poetic form.  They are full of metaphor, simile, allegory, and all kinds of strange imagery.  Many of the writers simply passed on dreams or visions they experienced.  Dreams full of wild, strange, and bizarre pictures.  Take that kind of imagery literally and you will miss the truth the Holy Spirit is wanting you to see. Instead, with passages that are obviously figurative in nature, one must sit back and look at the allusions and allegory of the passage, meditate on it and let the Holy Spirit show you what He wants you to see.  You will find the word of God to be rich and full and as you begin to practice that kind of Bible study.  You will find yourself filled to the brim and overflowing with Him and His joy.  Get this – He will sometimes speak to you directly using the words He spoke to some prophet 3000 years ago!  The word “straightforward” leaves room for that to happen.

Still, if a passage is not obviously figurative in nature, the literal works.  David was a literal, living person who really did miraculously kill an evil giant with a single, small stone.  He really did become king of Israel.  God really did create the universe in six time periods in the exact sequence laid out in Genesis Chapter 1.  Eve really was created from Adam’s rib and Moses really did part the Red Sea. Jesus really did heal anyone who came to Him asking for His help and He really did wipe away our sins.  Adam and his children really did live multiple centuries and Noah and his family really were the only people to survive the great flood.  Those events really did literally happen just as they are presented to us in the Bible.  The science of the Bible is also correct.  Many people today like to claim that the Bible is not scientifically accurate, but it really is.  (I discussed that issue not too long ago in this post.)

So, let me see if I can pull this together.  Remember 2 Peter 1:20-21?

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

If we all listened to the Holy Spirit as we read the Bible, there would be strong agreement between us as to the meaning of the scriptures.  However, since we all have fallen natures and make assumptions based on our cultural norms (which are themselves fallen) we get it wrong far too often.  That leaves us with competing interpretations of the word of God.  One tool that helps us cut through all this confusion is to explore first the simplest, most straightforward point of view, all while listening to the Holy Spirit.  (We must remember to always, when puzzling out the meaning contained in a passage of God’s word, to slip into the Spirit and let Him speak to us.)

***

I received the Lord when I was a six-year-old child and started reading the Bible early in life.  Now, in my mid-sixties, having studied the Bible that whole time, I still find that there are many passages I have difficulty fitting into my puzzle.  Often I have simply said to God, “I really don’t get this, Lord.  Could you reveal it to me?”  He has done that with many of my “mystery verses”, shining His light of revelation on them.  That’s because He is faithful.  Others of those mystery passages I’m still waiting on.  It is really up to Him, you know.  I’m probably not yet ready to see those truths or He has other, more important things He wants me focusing on.  Yet, the time will come when I will see all in clear focus….  That time will come.

***

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.    Philippians 1:6  NLT

 

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