Doctrine or Illustration?
1 Corinthians 3:11 – For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 2:19-20 – You…are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.
Can Christians lose their salvation? Does the Holy Spirit abandon unfaithful believers? Will the Church remain on earth during part of the Tribulation? Can animals go to heaven? There are Christians who answer “Yes” to any one of these questions. How did they arrive at their conclusions?
There are a number of reasons why well-meaning Christians differ in their interpretation of various scriptures. Even when the dangerous practice of eisegesis (reading your own ideas into Scripture) is avoided, spiritual believers can make mistakes when it comes to hermeneutics. Unintended mistakes (and even false doctrine) can develop when believers blur the difference between biblical illustrations and biblical doctrine. Biblical illustrations do exactly what the term implies: they illustrate doctrine–they don’t determine or definedoctrine. We should never construct–or concoct!–a biblical doctrine using only a biblical illustration as our text!
Can Christians Lose Salvation?
The parables of the Lord Jesus are wonderful stories that illustrate biblical doctrine, but as we read the parables we need to remember that we don’t formulate doctrine from the parables. All kinds of unbiblical ideas and unsubstantiated “doctrines” can be constructed from parables if we forget that the parables are only illustrations. For example, the parable of the sower could be made to teach that believers can lose their salvation–after all, the seed in the stony ground and the thorny ground did germinate and come to life before it died out!
But the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer is clearly taught in Scripture. Does that make the parable of the sower a contradiction in the Bible? No! Even though the seed that fell in the rocky and thorny ground germinated and then died off, the parable was not teaching that you can lose your salvation, because the purpose of the parable was to illustrate the different heart responses to the proclamation of the Word of God and the kind of “soil” that produces fruit. As an illustration, it cannot”override” other Scriptures and determine or define doctrine. Only doctrinal points which are clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture should be “seen” in Biblical illustrations.
As another example, consider the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25. Most interpreters agree that the oil represents the Holy Spirit, who is the power behind the light of the believer’s testimony. Now think of all the wrong doctrine about the Holy Spirit that could be formulated on the basis of this parable: the Holy Spirit will depart from unfaithful believers…only special “spirit-filled” believers have “oil” in their flasks…the gift of the Holy Spirit can only be obtained from “oil dealers” (in other words, mediated only through “spirit-filled prophets”)! On and on we could go–where should we draw the line? We should draw the line way back at seeing the difference between illustrations and doctrine! Parables are illustrations, and we should never use illustrations to construct doctrine!
Only doctrinal details that are firmly established elsewhere in Scripture should be “seen” in the parables. Likewise, doctrine that is clearly taught in other Scripture, but is not illustrated or seen in the parables should not be denied by any parable. In the parabolic story of the prodigal son, for example, the fact that the father did not chase after his runaway boy but waited until he “came to his senses” does not deny the biblical doctrine of election. That story is a great illustration of the biblical doctrine of human choice, and is not intended to teach or deny the doctrine of election.
Did Jesus Really Die?
What is true of the parables in the New Testament is also true of the “types” in the Old Testament. Types are Old Testament persons, places, things, events and other items which picture–or illustrate–New Testament truth. We must be careful not to “read too much” into types, and that includes doctrinal details that are not clearly supported by the New Testament. For example, on the basis of what the Lord Jesus said in Matthew 12:40, we know that Jonah is a type of Christ: “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” But Jonah didn’t die! It is clear from Jonah 2 that he was alive throughout his awesome experience in the stomach of the great fish. Concocting the false doctrine that the Lord did not actually die because Jonah did not die would be to completely erase the line between illustration and doctrine! Jonah did not have to die in order to be a type of Christ in death and resurrection–because a type is only an illustration.
Will Animals Go to Heaven?
The ark that saved Noah and his family from the Flood is a beautiful type of Christ as the only way of salvation. As the Flood of God’s judgment on sin came upon the earth in Noah’s day, so the flood of God’s judgment against sin came upon Christ at the cross. As the ark was battered by the awesome storms of the Flood, and then rested on Mount Ararat, so the Lord Jesus bore the terrible penalty for our sins and now rests from His finished work. As Noah and his family believed God and were saved from physical death solely through the ark, so we who trust in Christ are saved from sin’s penalty of spiritual death through Christ alone.
So – as the animals were saved by entering the ark with Noah, so animals can be saved as well as people? Negative! A resounding no! Don’t let the type dictate doctrine! Types are illustrations. Up until the bit about the animals, the interpretation of the type was sound–because the doctrinal details mentioned are supported by the New Testament. We were not letting the illustration determine doctrine. But nowhere in the New Testament is there the slightest hint that our pets–or any animal–can receive eternal life through the work of Christ.
Is Christ’s Return in Genesis 24?
In many ways the life of Isaac is a type of Christ. Isaac, the “only and beloved son” of Abraham willingly went with his father to the place of sacrifice at Mount Moriah (Genesis 22). Isaac was “received back” by Abraham, as a type of Christ in His resurrection (Hebrews 11:19). In Genesis 24, the type continues with Abraham sending his servant to a far country to select a bride for Isaac. Just as Abraham’s unnamed servant shared the good news about his master’s son and heir with Rebekah, so the Holy Spirit is presently sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and calling the Church out of this world as a bride for Christ, the only and beloved Son of God. As Rebekah responded to the witness of the servant and came by faith (Genesis 24:58), sight unseen, to marry Isaac, so the Church responds to the Holy Spirit’s call. In Genesis 24:65, Isaac went out to meet Rebekah and brought her home (v67).
This incident may be a picture of Christ’s Return for the Church, which precedes the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7-9). Wait a minute! Are we going too far? Are we using an illustration to determine doctrine? No! In this case we’re OK. As long as we can show that the Scriptures teach (aside from illustrations) that the Lord will return for the Church, then we are on safe ground to possibly see His Return included in the great type of Genesis 24. However, even if Christ’s Return was not divinely intended to be a part of this spiritual picture, we have not determined the doctrine of His Return from this type. We have not blurred the distinction between the illustration and the doctrine–we have just seen a little more doctrinal detail in the illustration than God intended.
Righteousness or Faith and Love?
Many other positive and negative examples could be given from the parables of the New Testament and the types of the Old Testament. Types and parables, however, are not the only illustrations in the Bible. The Bible is filled with illustrations which God has included to help us understand doctrine. Sometimes the Bible uses the same object to illustrate slightly different aspects of doctrinal truth. For example, in Ephesians 6:14 and 16 we read that we are to put on the breastplate of righteousness and take up the shield of faith. However, in 1 Thessalonians 5:8 we are told to put on the breastplate of faith and love. The breastplate is used to provide two illustrations for living the Christian life. Each illustration has a slightly different emphasis, and they do not contradict each other! Now this example was easy to follow, but what about the next one?
Foundation or Cornerstone?
In 1 Corinthians 3:11 we read that “no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 2:19-20 speaks of God’s household having been “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” Now that certainly sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? Is the Lord Jesus the foundation, or are the apostles and prophets the foundation, with the Lord being the cornerstone? What’s the answer to this apparent contradiction? The answer is that there is no contradiction whatsoever, because we are dealing with two different biblical illustrations.
In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, the illustration is of the Church as a building with the foundation already laid, and different workmen building the superstructure. Christ is the foundation and believers are the builders. Some believers are wise builders and some believers are foolish builders. The wise workmen build with materials that will endure, but the foolish workmen use materials that are consumed by fire. The fire in the illustration is not Hell, nor some literal kind of fire at the Judgment Seat of Christ. It is just part of the illustration to show that our Christian service in the Church will be evaluated.
In Ephesians 2:19-22, the Church is again illustrated as a building, but here believers are not the builders but parts of the building. The apostles and the New Testament prophets are the early stones, and thus they form the foundation. Those of us who have come to Christ later are “being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” In this illustration the Lord is the cornerstone, “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple to the Lord.” No contradiction in doctrine–just the same object (a foundation) being used again as an illustration of another aspect of the doctrine of the Church.
Suppose, two Sundays in a row, a preacher likens the Christian life to driving a car. In the first sermon he says that we need to put Christ in the driver’s seat in order to avoid an accident. In the second sermon he says that as we drive, we need to let the Lord sit right beside us as our navigator so that we don’t make a wrong turn. Wait a minute! Is the Lord the driver or the navigator? Has the preacher contradicted himself? Of course not–just two illustrations! In the same way, 1 Corinthians 3:11 and Ephesians 2:20 are not contradictions of biblical doctrine–they are only illustrations of biblical doctrine.
When is the “Last Trumpet”?
Unbiblical “doctrine” can be the result if we’re not careful to distinguish between biblical illustrations and biblical doctrine. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:52 teaches that believers will meet the Lord in the air “at the last trumpet.” In Revelation 8-11 we read of seven “Trumpet Judgments” during the Tribulation. The seventh trumpet judgment does not take place until at least the middle of the Tribulation period.
Well, if the seventh and last trumpet judgment takes place during the Tribulation, and the Lord’s Return for the Church occurs at the “last trumpet,” then the Church will go through at least part of the Tribulation. Right? Wrong! Badhermeneutics! Let’s not confuse biblical doctrine and biblical illustration! The last trumpet of 1 Corinthians 15 and the seventh trumpet judgment of Revelation 11 are both symbols or illustrations of two different occasions. In the first century, trumpets were used for military communication. The “last trumpet” was sounded as a final rallying call when the troops were ready to move out. In the same way, the “last trumpet” (and maybe we’ll literally hear a trumpet!) in 1 Corinthians 15 signals our moving out to meet the Lord. This illustration has nothing whatsoever to do with the symbolic trumpets of judgment in the book of Revelation.
Should Christians Vote?
Philippians 3:20 teaches that “our citizenship is in heaven.” In 2 Corinthians 5:20 we learn that we are ambassadors for Christ–as heavenly citizens we are to be good representatives of our King while we are here on earth. We know that ambassadors don’t vote in the foreign country where they are stationed because they’re citizens of another country. They may have opinions on political affairs and who should be in office, but they don’t vote. So, some Christians argue that if we are citizens of heaven and ambassadors for Christ to this earth, then we shouldn’t be involved in the political decisions of the “foreign country” in which we are temporarily “stationed,” and Christians certainly shouldn’t vote!
Good hermeneutics or bad hermeneutics? Bad hermeneutics! Don’t determine doctrine from illustrations! “Citizens of heaven” and “ambassadors for Christ” are illustrations to help us understand our position and our lifestyle as Christians. We should be more interested in representing Christ and His kingdom than in putting down roots and investing in a country that is not our homeland! We should constantly remember that our assignment on this earth is temporary–we should be looking forward to “going Home”!
But an appreciation of these truths does not mean that Christians should refrain from voting in their home countries on earth. The apostle Paul did not pen these passages with the intent to teach that it’s wrong for Christians to vote! In fact, especially in democratic societies, “salt of the earth” Christians may effectively slow down the spread of moral and spiritual corruption by promoting biblical values in government policies. The conclusion that Christians shouldn’t vote because of the illustrations of citizenship and ambassadorship clearly breaks our rule of biblical interpretation: Never construct doctrine from illustrations!