7
Mar
2017

Interpretive Indecisiveness

Doctrinal indecision is not a virtue. It is often the consequence of our sinful hearts and intellects. However, it may also simply be the inevitable consequence of the intellectual and spiritual progress that believers must make in their Christian lives. For instance, many new believers have not come to a settled position on the interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6–which is completely understandable. There are many fine theological nuances that belong to the Scriptural doctrine of the Trinity, doctrine of Christ, doctrine of man, doctrine of the church, doctrine of worship, doctrine of the sacraments and the doctrine of the last things. It takes time to develop a canonical and biblical theological understanding of the Scriptures in their systematic theological and redemptive historical relations. Acknowledging this is far different from encouraging doctrinal indecisiveness in the name of humility of virtue. It is no virtue to commend doctrinal indecision.

There is yet another dynamic to biblical interpretive indecision that we recognize–namely, how to handle those portions of Scripture that can be taken in a variety of ways that are in keeping with the context and the analogia fidei (i.e. the analogy of faith). I have been a pastor for close to a decade now and still struggle to come to a settled position on a number of passages of Scripture. One example of the sort of passage that I have in mind is that place in the Gospels where Jesus says of John the Baptist, “among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). It is fairly straightforward what Jesus means when He speaks of the greatness of John. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets–the one who pointed to Jesus in the flesh–and was therefore “the greatest of those born among women.” What, however, did Jesus mean when he said, “the one who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he?”

The question is compounded by the fact that there are three possible ways to interpret this passage. Either Jesus is referring to Himself, to all new covenant believers or to all new covenant ministers. If Jesus is referring to Himself it is by virtue of the fact that He, who possessed the glories of heaven and the universe together with His Father, made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant in order to lay down His life for His people (Phil. 2:5-11). If Jesus is referring to new covenant believers then He is suggesting that even the least knowledgeable or gifted of new covenant believers has more light and more knowledge about Christ than John ever had. The third possibility is is that Jesus is referring to new covenant ministers who were called and commissioned to point to Him in their preaching of the Gospel.

What further complicates this is the fact that many of the best theologians in the history of the church have differed on their understanding of this passage. For instance, Augustine took the view that Christ was referring to Himself when He spoke of “the least in the kingdom.” He explained:

“[John] gave a goodly testimony to the Lord, and the Lord to him. Among them that are born of women, says the Lord, there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding, he that is less in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he; less in time, but greater in majesty. This He said, meaning Himself to be understood. Now exceedingly great among men is John the Baptist, than whom among men Christ alone is greater.”

Phil Ryken concludes that Jesus is referring to new covenant believers when he speaks of the “least.” Ryken writes:

“What a remarkable thing to say! Because of his witness to Christ, John the Baptist was the greatest man who ever lived. Yet even the newest, weakest Christian is greater than John. This is because we have experienced the finished work of Jesus Christ, and therefore, by the witness of the Holy Spirit, we know things that John could only dream of knowing. We know the mercy of Jesus in forgiving our sins through the cross. We know the power of Jesus in rising from the dead. We know the love of Jesus in the free gift of eternal life.”1

And, John Calvin took the position that Jesus was speaking of ministers in the new covenant era when he wrote:

The Greek word μικρότερος, which I have rendered least, is in the comparative degree, and signifies less; but the meaning is more clearly brought out, that all the ministers of the Gospel are included. Many of them undoubtedly have received a small portion of faith, and are therefore greatly inferior to John; but this does not prevent their preaching from being superior to his, because it holds out Christ as having rendered complete and eternal satisfaction by his one sacrifice, as the conqueror of death and the Lord of life, and because it withdraws the veil, and elevates believers to the heavenly sanctuary.”2

I certainly believe that the Holy Spirit only intended one meaning when He recorded for us Jesus’ reference to “least in the kingdom;” but, I’m not sure that means that we have to be as absolutely decisive in our own conclusions as we do on a passage like Galatians 2:16. If we opt for any one of the three aforementioned views, we can be content that they are all squarely in keeping with the teaching of the Scripture as a whole.

By way of application, I would not encourage young men preparing for ministry to adopt a “smorgasbord” approach to preaching Luke 7:28. It is unhelpful for a preacher to set out different possible views on a given passage and then leave it up to the hearers to pick one. Rather, I believe that a minister should give what he believes to be the inspired sense of the passage, but to do so with a measure of humility. We can tell our hearers that we are not entirely certain; but, if we have given ourselves to show ourselves approved as workmen rightly dividing the word of truth, we should labor to come to the most contextually and doctrinally satisfying position. And, we must always confess that we may have our minds changed in time as we grow in our knowledge of God and His word.

 

1. Ryken, P. G. (2009). Luke. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (Vol. 1, p. 333). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

2. Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Vol. 2, p. 14). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.