I don't mean to question the basic Reformed doctrine, that people, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, can understand the plan of salvation from reading the Bible. But applying the Bible to our lives and to contemporary situations is not that simple. And when we act as though it should be simple, we often distort the meaning of Scripture. Not only do I think this is true, but I believe the Bible teaches it. The passage that best illustrates it to me is the account of Jesus' third temptation in the Gospel of Luke.
Satan begins each of his three temptations with the condition, "If you are really the Son of God." Jesus has just had his messianic mission, a mission of glory and of obedient suffering, confirmed to him by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him and a heavenly voice saying, "You are my Son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased." He is a good enough student of Scripture to know that this statement alludes both to prophesies of the Messiah and to passages in Isaiah describing the ministry of the Suffering Servant.
In the first and second temptations, Satan suggests that he avoid the suffering that that ministry entails, first by using his gifts to satisfy his own needs, then by taking a short-cut route to his messianic kingdom. Jesus rejects both of these notions. He will use his power to minister to others and will trust God to supply his physical needs. And he will attain his kingdom only through godly means, even if that entails the cross. In both of these temptations, Jesus seems determined to subject his will to the will of God, to trust God to lead him.
Then comes what Luke lists as the third and ultimate temptation. Matthew lists this temptation as the second and concludes with the temptation to receive the kingdom by worshipping Satan. I believe that Luke lists this last because it is the most subtle of the devil's suggestions, because Satan employs his most insidious weapon here. After Jesus has twice repulsed the tempter by replying "It is written. . .," the devil seems to have learned that he will only succeed with Jesus if he appeals to Jesus' ultimate authority, the word of God. He attempts to convince Jesus that it is God's will that Jesus do what he is suggesting to him by applying a passage from the Psalms to the situation.
The Bible warns us that Satan is deceptive and that he often disguises himself as an angel of light. But this passage illustrates the lengths to which he is sometimes allowed to go in portraying himself that way. In 1692, during the Salem witchcraft trials, the judges believed and accepted testimony about the activities of the "specters" of the accused, their spiritual images, because they refused to believe that God would allow the devil to impersonate the form of a Christian even in the delusions of another believer. They could not conceive of the theological havoc that would ensue if they granted that believers could think they saw other believers appearing to be committing diabolical acts when those being accused were in fact innocent. But quite clearly, in Salem the devil was allowed to deceive believers, to suggest things to their imaginations quite vividly and to do it in the imagined forms of other believers.
This passage indicates that the devil can also quote Scripture, and in the context he seems to be quoting it quite well. The circumstances described in Psalm 91 almost exactly parallel Jesus' as he stands on the pinnacle of the temple looking down. And this is exactly the sort of scriptural promise that seems too good to be true. What a wonderful vindication of the love and protection of God would it be for Jesus to prove that this passage is literally true, that God will protect us in all of our ways (I am aware that Satan does not quote this last phrase, but I don't see much significance in that, since it is "in all your ways," not "in all his [God's] ways," as it is so often interpreted).
The temptation doesn't seem to me to be that Jesus simply engage in the spectacular. Walking on water is no less spectacular that bailing out without a parachute. And if the miracle of walking on water was only performed before the disciples, the same can't be said for raising Lazarus from the dead. The temptation is not that Jesus do something spectacular but that he presume on the protection of God and act in a foolhardy way, that he call God's bluff in a sense and force God to act according to his promise.
Interestingly, many modern day preachers suggest that people engage in exactly this sort of test of faith. They suggest that people send them more money than they can afford or that they throw away their eyeglasses (not while they are driving and listening to the car radio, I would hope!) and claim a healing. And there are no doubt times when God calls us to act in extreme ways, to trust him in extreme circumstances. But the suggestion that Jesus jump is not coming from God; it is coming from Satan and is provoked by his suggestion that Jesus needs to prove his Sonship and that God's faithfulness is somehow in doubt.
Jesus rejects this temptation by quoting another passage of Scripture, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." He is saying that Satan's interpretation is inaccurate because his theology has ignored some of the biblical data.
In the example of Jesus' behavior, I see a challenge for us. If we, too, are to resist the techniques that Satan uses in his attempts to pull us away from doing the will of God in our day, we need to master the Bible. We need to know it well enough to be able to feel the flow of God's revelation and to sense the principles behind passages. We need to know that the literal interpretation is not always the best interpretation, that particular passages need to be interpreted on the basis of general principles, that there is a difference between a poem and a command. We need to pay attention to contexts as well as to texts. Sometimes an interpretation of a Bible passage that seems to present to us "the plain meaning of the text" or to "take the Bible literally" can be a diabolical interpretation.
Cliff Foremanis Professor of English at Covenant Collegein Lookout Mountain, Ga.
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