Posted in clarity, humble, perspicuity, scripture, The Hermeneutics of Humility

What good is unknowable truth? Be certain!

By Elizabeth Prata

Some sayings sound legitimate on their surface. They sound pious. They sound biblical. Like this one: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. Only problem is, that one isn’t in the Bible. At all.

Yesterday I wrote about the verse in Colossians 2:18,

Take care that no one keeps defrauding you of your prize by delighting in humility and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind,

I’d noted that the false professors, i.e. false believers were standing on three things that were designed to draw people away from the faith, or at least dilute their effectiveness for a while: delighting in humility, worshiping angels, and visions/experiences.

The humility part sounds good, doesn’t it? But if you really think about the phrasing here, ‘delighting in humility,’ you begin to realize that delighting in your own humility is not humble at all! In fact, that s pride not humility, and we know what God says about the proud. They fall.

Part of humility is claiming to be uncertain. In other words, they said then and are still saying today that if you’re certain about an interpretation, or certain that Jesus is coming back, or certain about anything, you’re not humble. This is called the Hermeneutic of Humility. It was a problem then, as seen in Colossians 2:18, and it’s a problem today. Just think of all the people who say we need to approach the Bible with ‘nuance’ and ‘we can’t be sure’. (“I’m too humble to claim anything for certain!” they claim)

Mike Ratliffe said, “Hermeneutic of Humility” is a way of looking at our faith and interpreting the very Word of God through a filter that sees certainty as a product of pride and uncertainty as a virtue. … These people contend that to be certain divides people while uncertainty creates an environment of unity.

However the mantra that doctrine divides is a misconception. True doctrine does divide, and that is a good thing, because that is what it is supposed to do. But first let’s define hermeneutics.

CARM defines Hermeneutics as “The science of interpretation. Theologically, and biblically, speaking it is the means by which a person examines the Bible to determine what it means.”

The hermeneutics of humility says that anyone saying for sure what the Bible means is being proud and displaying arrogance. Ultimately, it is a subtle denial of the truth.

There’s a new hermeneutics, a new science of interpretation called the Hermeneutics of Humility, and this is serious to the people who espoused this and their Hermeneutics of Humility say, “I’m too humble to think that I could ever know what the Bible really means and so I can only offer my opinion and I certainly can’t say that this is in fact the truth.” (source)

Now, while it is good to be humble (that’s why this saying is a subtle trick), let’s look at the difference between personal humility and interpretive humility. In personal humility, Romans 12:3 says,

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

In other words do not exalt yourself, but think soberly and judge rightly.

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Do we suppose that sober judgment and rightly handling the truth means that we can never know what it means? As Paul would say, “What a ghastly thought!” Denying that the Bible can be clear is denying the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes it clear. (John 14:25-26).

Yet the issue is a delicate one. Professor of religion and philosophy Winfried Corduan said, [link is to a .pdf]

…the Bible is the inspired Word of God. And Jesus has promised the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth (John 14:26; 16:13). The Christian interpreter ought never to proceed without relying in both mind and spirit on God’s gracious gift of illumination. Nonetheless, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer (undeniable though it is) does not provide a short cut through the hermeneutical process. The obvious counter-example to any such presumption is found in the fact that Christians who are equally committed to the discovery of truth disagree with each other. But the Holy Spirit does not teach different truths to such believers. Apparently it is possible to (at least claim to) rely on the Holy Spirit alone and not arrive at truth. Consequently it is best to say something along the line that the Holy Spirit’s work of disclosure is not entirely divorced from the human task of interpretation.”

It is why we strike a balance between personal humility and interpretive humility in the learning process, and boldness and confidence in proclaiming what we have learned.

If you think about it, if you’re too humble to say anything about the Bible’s contents for certain, then, what is there to proclaim? Proclaiming biblical truths would be seen as prideful, so we must remain silent…and therefore never tell anyone the Good News? Would such a conversation go like this: ‘Um, I think I have the answer to the problem you are having, it may be sin, but maybe not, and repenting of sin is the solution, but I can’t say for sure that repentance actually is, it might be a work, which would be bad but it might not be a work, but I can’t say for sure if repentance is required,…” and so on?
The doctrine of the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture (that the central message of the Bible is clear and understandable, and that the Bible itself can be properly interpreted in a normal, literal sense) has been a cornerstone of evangelical belief ever since the Reformation. ~John MacArthur
The reason why these sayings resonate is because they sound almost right. There is a grain of truth to the fact that we need to demonstrate humility when we approach the scriptures. It is an interpretive humility we need to possess. But once we come to a settled conviction, then, we’re sure that we know, because the Spirit will confirm in to our soul and our mind will be transformed. How is the Spirit supposed to transform the mind if the mind never settles on anything for sure.

It sounds exhausting.

In Kevin J. Vanhoozen’s book,”Is there a meaning in this text?” he writes,

God is a speaking God. The Father is the one who, in the words of the creeds, est locutus per prophetas. [spoken through the prophets]. Most of what God does, creating, commanding, warning, communicating, promising, forgiving, informing, comforting, etc., is accomplished by speech acts. Moreover, God’s speech agency is the epitome of clarity and efficacy.”

Pride rears its head in people exhibiting a lack of interpretive humility when we believe we have got the meaning right before we have made the appropriate effort to recover it, as Vanhoozen explains. In other words rightly divide and make a sober judgment and with the aid of the Holy Spirit we will know what God is saying to us as far as our assigned faith will take it. Clearly and definitively. Because what good is unknowable truth?

Ultimately as Vanhoozen says, “Humility must be balanced by conviction. The uncommitted interpretation is not worth hearing.

What a person adhering to a hermeneutic of humility is really saying is that:

–I am too lazy to put in the effort to really understand God’s written word,
–If we can’t know for sure what the Bible means, then I don’t have to follow its commands,
–Look at me, I’m so humble I won’t even try to figure out what God is saying,
–God spoke but not clearly enough to understand it. [He is a God of confusion].

Ask the Spirit to aid you in remaining personally humble, and seek His aid in being interpretively humble. Then, when the Spirit illuminates a truth to you, proclaim it boldly and certainly! The Bible never says that bold faith is arrogance. Peter and Paul were definitely certain of what they taught!

–In whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. (Ephesians 3:12)

–Proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28:31)

Scripture itself at tests its own perspicuity, but not to the point that it can not be misunderstood or is in every point equally simple and clear. The doctrine does not rule out the need for interpretation, explanation, and exposition of the Bible by qualified leaders. The doctrine does mean that Scripture is clear enough for the simplest person, deep enough for highly qualified readers, clear in its essential matters, obscure in some places to people because of their sinfulness, understandable through ordinary means… Professor Larry Pettigrew, The Master’s Seminary

Put on your armor and wield some truth!

Sir Gawaine the Son of Lot, King of Orkney,
by Howard Pyle (1903)


Further reading

Definition: The Clarity of Scripture

Ordinary Essay: The Clarity of Scripture

Seminary level paper: The Perspicuity Of Scripture (.pdf)


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.