The Nemesis of Normativity
There is a hermeneutical plague sweeping across the Evangelical world today. Although all Bible teachers are admonished in Scripture to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) and we are warned that not many should be teachers because the accountability is high (James 3:1), the responsibility to be faithful to the true meaning of Scripture does not seem to be held in high regard today. There are a number of hermeneutical blunders that have become very common in our day and time, and perhaps none as misleading as the “nemesis of normativity.”
How many times have you heard unique, one time experiences described in Scripture as if they should be taken as something normative for all Christians of all times? Bruce Waltke hits the nail on the head when he writes, “Any time you take the Bible out of context you destroy the intent of God’s Word. That’s why you cannot take instances of special revelation and make them normative for the Christian experience. Paul saw a great light, fell to the ground, and was blinded when he met Jesus Christ. It was an amazing encounter, but if we try to make this experience the norm for all new Christian experience, we leave most believers out of the kingdom of God.”
One should not expect to see a burning bush today (as Moses did) or to hear a donkey talk to them. These were special circumstances God used in the lives of unique individuals, and they are not being repeated today. And yet, how many times do we hear Bible teachers imply that these should be normative experiences for all believers? One well-known author wrote recently that “…the biblical accounts should be regarded as normative” and “we must be open to the possibility of God’s addressing us in whatever way he chooses, or else we may walk right past a burning bush…”
But not everything in Scripture should be understood as normative for Christians today. As Gary Meadors explains, “We need to come to grips with when the Bible is telling us what to do and when it is merely telling a story about what someone else did. Discerning when and how the Bible applies to us it to determine its ‘normative’ nature. That is, the Bible both prescribes and describes, and you must decide which it is doing in any given situation.”
In other words, we need to ask ourselves the question: Is every example in the Bible for me? Is it something I should try to emulate or is it something that was a unique, one-time event in the life of a choice servant of God? We always have to determine the context in which the event took place and determine whether it is something that should be universally applied. In fact, this is one of the most important responsibilities of the biblical interpreter.
There is great danger in failing to understand this responsibility. Author James Petty writes, “To be sure, Scripture describes many occasions when God spoke and led in all kinds of different ways. He spoke in visions, burning bushes, pillars of fire, donkey’s mouths, and still small voices, as well as through the Urim and Thummim, angels, and foreign conquerors…but we can’t assume that they are a pattern for us unless Scripture holds them out to us as such. Paul, for instance, struck the false prophet Bar-Jesus blind when he resisted Paul’s preaching (Acts 13:9-10), but that is not a mandate for us to seek to blind those opposing the gospel.”
Gil Rugh adds, “The apostles raised people from the dead, but few would argue that this practice should be normative for all Christians.” He says, “Paul had a vision of Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:2-4), but nowhere are we told that his experience should be true for all Christians.” Just because there are numerous examples in Scripture of the ways God used in the past to guide His people, does not mean that He will continue to use the same methods today.
One cannot take something that happened to a unique agent of God in the Old Testament (or even in the Gospels or the book of Acts) and assume that this should be normative for all Christians. It was not even normative for most of the people of that day. Out of more than a million in Israel, it was only Moses that God spoke to face to face (Exodus 33:11; Deut. 34:10).
Gil Rugh expands on this by saying, “God…did not speak to the other people of Israel in the way He spoke to Moses. When God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai He did not say, ‘Send up the other two million Israelites one by one so I can speak to them like I spoke with you.’ …Moses’ experiences with God were very unique. They were not even normative for those living in the time of Moses. It is not correct to use Abraham and Moses as examples of how God speaks to His people. The fact that God spoke to the kings, prophets, and judges of Israel as well cannot be used as evidence that believers can expect this kind of revelation. God simply did not speak to most Israelites in Old Testament times in that way. In fact, the percentage of people God spoke directly to in Bible times would be so small that it would barely be a fraction above zero.”
And it must be understood that when God spoke in the Old Testament, or even in the transitional period of the Gospels and Acts, He was clearly giving special revelation before the completion of the full canon of Scripture. Garry Friesen observes that “historical examples, such as Paul’s ‘Macedonian Call’ and Peter’s vision of the ‘unclean’ animals, cite instances of supernatural revelation. Direct guidance was provided, but the means always entailed divine intervention (revelatory vision, angelic messenger, physical miracle, audible voice, or prophetic declaration)…” The fact that these were unique experiences in which God was giving direct revelation demonstrate the reality that they are not intended to be applied in a universal way. And after the canon of Scripture was complete, this kind of special revelation ceased.
So the next times someone suggests that we should be giant slayers because David was, or that we should expect to hear donkeys speak to us, or that if someone calls you a “bald head” you should expect to see a bear come out of the forest and devour them, beware that this is a bad approach to the Scripture, and one we should avoid at all cost.