Interpreting the Bible

It’s time that we be honest with ourselves. American Christianity, at least much of it, is a mess. It is separated into divisive sects, giving the world the impression that we don’t know what we are doing. Or even more alarming, that the true God is somehow irrelevant and confused. This is not to say that individual American churches are not proclaiming the Gospel in its truth and purity. But some serious introspection is in order.

WARNING! Reading beyond this point may make you uncomfortable. But perhaps we need to feel uncomfortable.

Each sect places itself apart, even above the others, thinking that they uniquely possess biblical truth. But they can’t all be correct as there is too much contradictory opinion. We all seek comfort and constancy in our theology. We’ve got enough uncomfortable situations to deal with in our daily lives. But we make here a serious challenge: We think that Christians are too complacent, and indeed members of every group seem to fear the thought of seriously examining their own doctrine.

Peer pressure too often outweigh good scholarship. But there is a related issue. People tend to seek an identity. We are comfortable with a label. We see ourselves fitting in with a particular group: I am Baptist, or I am Methodist, or I am Lutheran, etc. Each group assumes that their leaders must have theology right, and fail, as Paul instructs us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21, to test everything.

We often simply choose to ignore challenges to our pre-conceived notions about what the Bible actually teaches. We have built doctrine by picking and choosing the passages that fit our ideas and ignored those that challenge us. This has led to a shallow, lazy, distorted, and divisive Christianity. The time has long past for the need to open our minds to reasonable challenges to our thinking. Fortunately, with the internet, the days of Christians being able to duck doctrinal challenges are hopefully coming to an end.

We should not fear challenges, but rather welcome them. Consider this: One can learn more about their own position by studying the challenges to it. For example, in my own studies I have learned more about the Trinity and understand better how to defend the Trinity by studying what Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses think about it. Truth is more important than fear.

Let’s take a look at our own Christian landscape. The cults are continuing to quietly gain ground. Liberal Christians have arbitrarily and continue to throw out anything in Scripture they don’t like. Even conservatives, in spite of giving lip service to inerrancy—that all Scripture is God-breathed—often dismiss many passages that appear too tough to handle.

But that’s just the beginning. We have some who have invented non-biblical doctrines. Then there are the ultra-fundamentalists who think that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally—making a mockery of language itself including the language of Scripture.

We can’t leave out the high profile Pentecostal preachers that are teaching a false gospel of prosperity while giving false hope of healing to the afflicted through the practice of “slaying in the spirit”—which is nothing more than psycho-social manipulation. Let’s not forget the self-proclaimed Prophets that see the end of the world behind every major world event.

Statistics clearly show the majority of church goers and Christians alike are ignorant of basic Christian doctrines and on average live lives that are indistinguishable from others in the culture. There are distinct groups among modern day Christians —each thinking the other group is seriously deceived. This debate—which is largely over the exact nature of man’s free will—has been raging for at least 2000 years and is not likely to be resolved this side of heaven.  In all of these we see shallow, superficial Christianity as a result of a shallow, superficial understanding of the Bible. Cheap grace and easy-believism is rampant throughout the church today.

Adding insult to injury, Non-Christians can see right through our bickering and through the fakers, pseudo-intellectuals, hypocrites, and false prophets. The modern church is often an embarrassment to biblical Christianity; it is many times a stumbling block to those truly seeking God. Chances are by now you may be quietly thinking that all this is true of individuals and other groups out there, but not of you or your group. I submit to you that no one is immune, every person and every group has blind spots. We need to humble ourselves before God and ask God to reveal His truth.

A few Principles of Biblical Interpretation

A.  Prior acceptance of the Bible as the inspired Word of God (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

B.  A predisposition of faith and obedience (John 7:17-18, 8:43)

C.  Seeing the parts in relation to the whole through proper interpretive methods, including these:

Grammatico-Historical Method:  gathering from the Scriptures themselves the precise meaning which the writers intended to convey, taking into account the grammar and culture of their times and their primary audiences. We should remember that the Bible was spoken for us today but not to us. Audience relevance is often key to grasping what the writers intended.  This applies to the sacred writings the same principles, as well as the same grammatical processes and exercises of sense and reason which apply to other books.

Covenant-Historical Method:  paying careful attention to the rise and development of the Kingdom of God in all its aspects through the course of biblical history, which is the central core and directing rudder of world history. Covenant-historical interpretation is the antidote both to the un-biblical legalism that flourishes in American Christianity, and to the prophetic speculation and fantasies that have diverted Christians from real-world concerns and the real hope of the Gospel.

A few guidelines for your consideration for rightly dividing the unified Word of Truth:

Doctrine must be squarely built upon Scripture. Our doctrines must be erected from a proper interpretation of Scripture or a legitimate inference from Scripture, and not from cherished traditions, human creeds or confessions. While there is a place for creeds (and some are clearly more biblically-based than others), the Christian’s conscience is ultimately bound to Scripture alone.

Scripture is Self-interpreting. The “analogy of faith” is a reformed hermeneutical principle which states that, since all scriptures are harmoniously united with no essential contradictions, therefore, every proposed interpretation of any passage must be compared with what the other parts of the Bible teach. In other words, the body of doctrine, which the scriptures as a whole proclaim will not be contradicted in any way by any passage.

Context is Critical.  Every word, clause, sentence, paragraph of Scripture comes to us in contexts – from the immediate passage to the part of a book, to the whole book, to the historical context of the book, the author’s identity, setting and purpose, and ultimately to the entire Bible. Working outwardly to determine context in this manner is a helpful discipline for understanding anything we read or hear in Scripture. Tunnel vision is perilous.

The Clear Must Interpret the Unclear. A related principle that is very helpful in interpreting the Bible, prophecy and apocalyptic literature in particular, is that murky passages can often be clarified by other scriptures which address the particular topic in a more straightforward way. For example, a very specific interpretation of the highly symbolic visions of John’s apocalypse, may never “trump” the clear teachings of Paul’s epistles, which are more didactic and less symbolic, and hence clearer.

Distinguish between what the Bible records and what it commands, commends, or approves. We must recognize the difference between passages which are didactic and those which are reportorial. Emulation is not always synonymous with obedience.

Incidental or rare events within Scripture should not necessarily be taken as normative for Christians today. For example, Acts 1:26 says that the early apostles drew lots in order to find the Lord’s will on who would replace Judas (whether Joseph or Matthias). But it is less than likely that this should be our approach when confronted with important decisions—especially since the drawing of lots occurred at the beginning stage of early church history and was, apparently, discontinued soon after (the New Testament records no other instances of drawing lots).

Recognize Distinctive Apostolic Practices. Distinctive apostolic practices that are rooted in theology, not in the culture of the day, may be taken as normative for the church, unless clearly temporary in nature.

Don’t build a doctrine upon a single verse or an uncertain textual reading. In other words, we should not erect an entire teaching or system of doctrine upon a verse in isolation from its context, or which has dubious textual support. Christian doctrine should be built upon passages which exist in the original manuscripts and can be confirmed through the science of textual criticism.

Be alert to figurative language. The Bible uses multiple literary genres, and is filled with figurative language. This fact should cause the interpreter to take great care in his treatment of the Bible, making certain to not interpret literally that which was intended to be understood metaphorically or figuratively. All Scripture has a literal sense, but that sense is not always expressed in literal terms.

Pray for the Holy Spirit’s Illumination. The Holy Spirit’s work is not only to show what the Bible means, but also to persuade Christians of its truth. Illumination is the Spirit’s work, enabling Christians to discern the meaning of the message and to welcome and receive it as from God.

God’s Peace!

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