Interpreting the Bible Correctly

Title: Interpreting the Bible Correctly

Text: Deuteronomy 29:29, Matthew 3:5-7, Daniel 9:2

Date: August 15th, 2009

 

I’ve been teaching on the Bible for the last few weeks, covering such topics as why there are no real errors or contradictions in the Bible, only apparent problems. I also taught about how divine inspiration works in connection with the human authors of the biblical books and showed how God assigned each writer a prophetic task to communicate his Word using their own language and styles, while keeping them from any errors of any kind in the process. Today, I’d like to focus in on how to read and interpret the Bible. It does us no good if we totally believe in the divine inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, yet read it sloppily and interpret it incorrectly. It’s critical that we read, interpret and apply the Bible correctly in order to believe and live by its truth in our lives. This is one of the major problems in the Christian church today and in the lives of Christians today – the misinterpretation and misapplication of the Bible. There are countless churches which hold strongly to the doctrine of divine inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, yet err in their interpretation and application of it. There are Christian colleges and seminaries which hold to both inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, training Christians to be influential leaders, yet permit administration and faculty members to operate under false and corrupt interpretations; thus practically nullifying any advantages of holding to an inerrant and infallible Bible. As they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If Christian leaders, churches and Christian institutions hold to biblical inerrancy and infallibility in theory, yet in practice permit wild and irresponsible interpretations of the Bible to spread within their circles of influence the end result is often the same as if no inerrancy or infallibility were held at all to begin with. The end result is the same – false doctrine and improper behavior. So it’s critically important that basic rules of correct biblical interpretation be followed within Christianity. The good news is that the basic rules of interpreting the Bible are not difficult or complex; they are simple, and once learned, can be applied always and everywhere. So today, I’d like to outline just a few basic rules of biblical interpretation that will help Christians read, interpret and apply the truth of the Bible correctly. Not that there will ever be 100% agreement on every interpretation of every biblical passage, but at least the ground rules for interpreting can be agreed upon, which goes a long way in bringing about unity and truth within the Christian church. Today, I’ll only mention three basic rules for interpreting the Bible. First, the plain or common sense rule. Second, the rule of context. And third, the harmony rule. Three simple guidelines for interpreting the Bible that will eliminate most misinterpretations. I’ll mention a few other rules, but cover only these three in any detail.

 

First, there’s the plain or literal sense rule of interpretation. Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of the law.” It is the purpose and intent of God in giving us revelation that it be understood plainly. It does us no good to have revelation from God but not in any form we can understand. So it’s just common sense that if God gives us revelation of himself, his creation, his will, for example, that it be in a form that can be plainly understood by the average person. This makes sense in the context of divine revelation given through the languages and personalities of the inspired prophets. The Bible was not given specifically to philosophers or scholars, although it can and should be studied by the best minds. It was given to regular people to understand God’s will for their lives. So then, if the Bible is given first and foremost for the average or regular person, it makes sense that it should be interpreted in a common sense or literal or straight forward way primarily. But this is just how we go about interpreting almost any kind of document, or at least this is how we should begin to approach the challenge of understanding a written document of any kind. The above passage from the Old Testament given through the writings of Moses, the great leader and prophet, states that hidden or secret or mysterious things of God are beyond our understanding; we have no claim upon these things. But the things that God has revealed to us through divine inspiration and recorded in the sacred writings, these things are ours to read, interpret and apply to our lives for the glory of God. And if God is revealing things to us through divine, prophetic writings, then we can expect them to be in legible and comprehensible form. That’s the basis for the plain or literal or common sense rule of biblical interpretation. John Wesley once said, “In interpreting the Bible, seek no further sense than the plain sense, if the plain sense makes sense.” We shouldn’t suppose we can go to the Bible and, for example, open it up at random, close our eyes, stick our finger in the middle of the page, read the sentence where our finger lands, and expect to get a revelation from God personally for us using this subjective method. That’s not a responsible way to interpret the Bible. The plain sense rule means that we read a passage of the Bible in the sense, as best we can, of the author’s intent in writing it. If a biblical writer is recounting history, then we should read it historically – the plain sense meaning. If the biblical author is teaching, then we should read it as teaching. If the biblical passage is poetic, then it’s only common sense to interpret it in a poetical way, not a literal way. Now most of the Bible is recorded in the literal sense, and so we must interpret most of the Bible in a literal sense. But some passages are clearly non-literal, for example, figures of speech and poetry. In these cases, we must use our own common sense and realize that the author is trying to get us to see things in a different way, so then we interpret the passage in a different way, or in the way the author wants us to read it. Sometimes this is not always crystal clear, but most of the time it is, so we shouldn’t have any problem most of the time. There will be times where honest disagreement will occur between good Christians trying to interpret the same passage in different ways, but these instances aren’t as common as it might seem. The rule is to interpret the Bible in its most plain, common sense way, and then, only if it doesn’t make sense, to seek some other sense.

 

Second, there’s the rule of context in interpreting the Bible. Matthew 3:5-7, “Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written, “he will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’  Jesus answered him, ‘It is also written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’” Here is an example of the devil ripping a biblical passage from its context and trying to misapply it. We see Jesus immediately correct this misinterpretation from a passage in context. But the dangers of interpreting the Bible out of context are still alive today. In fact, probably most misinterpretations of the Bible occur from someone interpreting it out of context. And it’s easy to do because the Bible is a big book with many different contexts. It’s easy to pull a passage out of its original context and apply it to something completely different. But that’s where errors and confusion come from because once a biblical truth is removed from its original context almost anything can happen – and it’s usually bad! In tempting Jesus, the devil tried to use the Bible to support his will, but he was misusing the Bible instead. But it’s a common misuse of the Bible because people don’t usually take the time and have the patience to make sure they are interpreting the Bible within its proper context. A good example is the classic difficulty between the teachings of the Apostle Paul and James in the New Testament. Both are teaching about faith, but without a close evaluation of the context of their teachings it appears that they contradict each other.  But this contradiction is only apparent because upon a closer examination of the biblical context in which each was writing, it becomes clear that the Apostle Paul is talking about faith before God while James is talking about faith before other people. For James, “faith without works is dead,” to which Paul would agree, although writing within a different context, Paul would not state it this way. In the context of Paul’s teachings, we are saved “by faith alone,” that is, before the eyes of God, our faith is counted as righteousness. But in the context of James’ teaching, that context being before the eyes of men in respect to the evidences or expressions of genuine internal faith, “faith without works is dead.” It’s all about context. And this is just one example of how important and sometimes how tricky determining the context can be. In difficult passages it’s hard to determine the exact context, but we must make every effort we can to determine the correct context for every passage we are trying to interpret. What is the historical context? What is the topical context? What is the general context? What is the specific context? We need to keep asking contextual questions so that we understand the setting for the passage we are trying to understanding. Now the good part is that there are many good Bible helps, books, commentaries and encyclopedias, for example, which can help us understand the context of a biblical passage. Once we have an idea what the context is, we can then make an intelligent interpretation and application of the truth.

 

Third, there’s the rule of scripture interpreting scripture. Daniel 9:2, “I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.” Here we see one biblical prophet, Daniel, reading another biblical prophet, Jeremiah. So in reading this passage we are using one prophetic book of the Bible to understand another prophetic book of the Bible. And that’s exactly what this third rule of biblical interpret is – scripture interpreting scripture. The assumption is that the Bible as a whole is in complete harmony with itself from beginning to end. The Jews always used scripture to interpret scripture because they, like the early Christian believers, saw the Bible as a harmonious whole, not a fragmented division. Modern skeptical scholars seek to divide the Bible, even attempting to divide individual books of the Bible, inserting anonymous authors here and there, tracing invisible sources, and generally seeing the Bible as the mere product of human cutting and pasting. Operating within this skeptical framework it’s no wonder that they are eager to seek out alleged errors and contradictions. But in order to properly interpret the Bible we must approach it as it presents itself – as a unified whole. That means we let scripture interpret scripture. We seek to harmonize the parts with the whole – and the whole with the parts. For example, in interpreting the Old Testament, we look to see how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. We look to see how Jesus, the apostles and their associates interpreted the Old Testament, with the general understanding that because of Jesus’ claim to be Lord and God he above all persons would know proper biblical interpretation, and that he would pass down truth to his apostles in the process as recorded in the New Testament. Thus, another rule of interpretation would be — always interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, never the reverse. But even within the New Testament we should let scripture interpret scripture. For example, if a biblical author is explaining a specific truth in detail, for example, saving faith, we should let what is most clear explain what is least clear. In this respect, we find the Apostle Paul explaining saving faith most clearly, so we let him explain and define faith and interpret the rest of the New Testament in light of his explanation. We don’t go to less clear passages about faith, for example, The Book of James, and explain Paul in light of James. We let the brightest lights in scripture shine on the lesser lights and bring visibility that way. We also try to understand everything in the Bible in light of everything else in the Bible. This is sometimes called systematic theology. Since “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,” the assumption is that it’s there for a purpose and it all contributes to clarify for us the will of God.

 

There are other rules of biblical interpretation that I don’t have time to go into today, but maybe in another teaching coming up. For example, there is the principle of precedent, or as they call in the legal field “stare decisis” – a Latin phrase meaning, as it stands, which simply means, if Christians everywhere, at all times, by everyone, have interpreted a passage in a certain way that’s pretty strong weight that it should be interpreted that way. Now this is not an infallible rule, because it’s possible that all Christians everywhere at all times could be wrong, but that’s highly unlikely. I don’t believe Christians today think enough in terms of historical Christian precedent when interpreting the Bible. If the Bible teaches something and early Christians interpret the Bible to mean what it seems to teach and nearly all Christians down through 2000 years of church history have interpreted the Bible in the same way, it’s really hard to imagine how modern Christian could come along and say, “Hey, we have a new interpretation and everybody else has been wrong for 2000 years and even the plain sense meaning of scripture is wrong.” That to me is too far fetched to believe. Yet today, that’s exactly what many modern Christians are doing, for example, on passages that teach the man is the head of the home and wives are to submit to their husband as leader in the marriage. Many contemporary churches are now teaching that these passages don’t teach that the man is the head of the house or nor that wives need to submit to their husband. “New” interpretations are given to passages in order to avoid classic and historical interpretations of these same passages. But what is gained by multiplying interpretations except confusion? There is no need to depart from the classical, historic Christian interpretation of a passage unless there is overwhelming and undeniable evidence that everyone, everywhere, at all times, got it all wrong from the beginning. Yes, that is a logical possibility but unless it can be demonstrated conclusively that this is the case, why spin off multiple interpretations to confuse people. If Christians would simply follow the simple, general rule of precedent in interpreting the Bible much confusion could be avoided. That doesn’t mean that the historic and classical interpretation could never be over-ruled; it just means it shouldn’t be unless some new understanding is clearly and obviously superior based on some new discovery or insight. There are other interpretive rules I could mention also, but we’ll have to leave them for another lesson. The point is, if we simply apply these three very simple rules of biblical interpretation we could come to a greater understanding of the Bible and avoid the most common errors and misunderstandings. Let’s pray we are able, by the grace of God, to understand, believe and live God’s Word – and never fall into error due to wrong interpretation of the Bible.

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