Arguing Semantics: Bruce Ashford Says He’s “Not Good With the Bible.”

“You’re Just Arguing Semantics”

Have you ever been in a discussion, conversation, or debate and have had someone say to you, “you’re just arguing semantics”? I’ve been thinking lately about this phrase. Have you ever stopped to think about what the phrase means? What are semantics? What does it mean to argue semantics?

Here is how the English Oxford Dictionary defines semantics:

  • “The branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. The two main areas are logical semantics, concerned with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication, and lexical semantics, concerned with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them.”
  • “The meaning of a word, phrase, or text.”

When someone tells you that you are “merely arguing semantics”, they’re essentially saying “You’re just arguing about meaning.” or “You’re just arguing about the meaning of words.”.

I think it is important to argue semantics/meanings and that is my aim with this new series of articles. I will be examining and critiquing words, phrases, and statements that I think are not quite accurate or are somewhat confusing. You might say that I am nitpicking but I would say in return that truth is important even in the smaller details. Small errors or slight inaccuracies can often make a big difference. For example, there is a big difference between critiquing something someone says and criticizing what someone says. I will explore this distinction in a future article but I intend to critique rather than to criticize.

“I’m Not Good With the Bible”

Bruce Ashford is a professor of theology and the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In an opinon piece for Fox News (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2018/03/31/chrissy-teigen-says-shes-not-good-with-bible-neither-am.html), he responds to a joke tweet by Chrissy Tiegen (John Legend’s wife) where she used the phrase “I’m not good with the Bible”. I want to respond to some of the statements he made in the article.

“But Chrissy has a point. None of us are actually “good with” the Bible, myself included.”

When someone says “I’m not good with the Bible”, they’re essentially saying “I don’t really know the Bible” or “I don’t know the Bible very well”. Bruce uses a different definition for the phrase “good with” and then reacts to this different meaning. “I’m not good with the Bible” has now been changed to mean “I’m not a master (acquire complete knowledge or skill in (an accomplishment, technique, or art)) of the Bible”or “I don’t know everything there is to know about the Bible”.

I agree that none of us will ever be “masters” of the Bible (using the definition from above) but we should strive to be master (having or showing very great skill or proficiency) Bible students and teachers. See the difference?

I would hope that a professor of theology knows the Bible well.

“The main reason we aren’t good with the Bible is that we have difficulty getting a handle on it. The Bible is a sprawling, sometimes confusing, often unsettling collection of ancient writings, purporting to reveal the nature of God and his dealings with the world.”

I wouldn’t describe the Bible that way. The Bible is a connected book with meta-narratives that run throughout the entire OT and NT. It actually isn’t that difficult to get a handle on the Bible, especially with all of the resources we can access on the internet. All you have to do is watch a few YouTube videos about biblical hermeneutics or biblical theology. Do a web search for any Scripture passage you are having difficulty understanding and you’ll find tons of resources. You really only need to learn the number one Bible interpretation rule: context is king. The reason people are not “good with” (notice that now he is using this phrase to mean “don’t know very well”) the Bible is that many have not been taught basic biblical hermeneutics.

“We can’t master it, tame it, or pigeon-hole it like other books on our shelf.”

We can’t have exhaustive, ultimate, or comprehensive knowledge of the Bible but we can and should skillfully handle it and interpret it. We grow in our understanding and knowledge of it over time. We will not ever fully understand everything there is to know in the Bible. However, there are truths that we can understand for certain. How else can we know the difference between false teaching and sound teaching? Take the trinity. You will not find that word in the Bible. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity is clearly taught throughout Scripture (https://www.monergism.com/topics/trinity).

“But when we approach the Bible in earnest and read it on its own terms, we find that this book – written over the course of many centuries – contains the true story of the whole world.”

Many people read the Bible in earnest and then walk away from it disillusioned or believing error because they don’t know how to read it.

After briefly describing the four “acts” of the story of the Bible (Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration), he says:

“That’s the true story the Bible tells. So, if we learn how to read it, will we suddenly be “good with the Bible”?

I sure hope not.”

Again, we’re not talking about being able to completely master the Bible but simply being able to skillfully understand it. It takes time and hard work to learn how to interpret the Bible so no, we won’t “suddenly be good with the Bible”. We should mature and be able to skillfully understand over time as we study and learn and the Holy Spirit illumines the Scripture to us.

If we learn how to study and interpret Scripture will we be “good with the Bible” over time?

I sure hope so.

“When we read the Bible seriously, we find that the Bible reads us. As we lay bare its pages, it lays bare our hearts, showing our own complicity in the badness of this world. Apart from Jesus, that experience would ruin us. But because of his death and resurrection and his offer of salvation, we are now offered a future in which everything sad will become untrue

And as for that … I’m good with it.”

I know Bruce is not an emergent or Ex-Evangelical, but this statement sounds like it could come from one of those two communities. As I’ve been saying, I believe it is important that we know how to study and interpret the Bible. It’s also not this cold mechanical process that we do at a specific time every day. We read and study the Word and then we apply it to our lives. We know it and then we live it. We understand it and then we obey it.

Conclusion

I believe one of the biggest problems we are facing in the church today is an attack on the inerrancy of Scripture and on our certainty of Scripture. There are many who flat-out deny and reject inerrancy and the inspiration of Scripture. There are also those today who would say they believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, and inspired Word of God but then say we are finite and because we are finite we can’t fully understand the infinite God. Therefore, we can’t really say what we believe is true besides that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.

I get what he was trying to say with his article. I know that many today think Christians are people who always have to be right (probably going to be the next topic in “Arguing Semantics”). Many see Christians that make firm stands on doctrine and on Scripture as close-minded, self-righteous and arrogant. I believe (though I could be wrong) he was speaking to this audience.

I don’t intend to say that Bruce doesn’t know the Bible well. He most likely knows a lot more about it than me as I haven’t been to Bible college or seminary and he is older than I am. I simply think the article would have been better and would have been more helpful if he talked about the importance of biblical hermeneutics. Many people know how to open their Bibles and read the words. Yet how many in our churches know how to open their Bibles, read the words, interpret them, and understand the meaning so that they can then apply it?

Like always,

I say these things in humility and out of love for people.

I hope you will not just believe what I say but will be a berean and compare what I (or anyone else has to) say to what God says in His Word.

Be a critical thinker. Be a berean. Speak truth in love.