The principles of Biblical interpretation
St.Jame's Byaburra, situated on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, Australia, is a little church I attended for some ten years. Sadly, it is no more, sacrificed to the belief that revival in Australia is not possible! The services were once a month and we were provided with a variety of preachers with varying degrees of competence. Country churches are a bit like that. The worst example I have ever heard was a preacher whose interpretation of scripture was controlled by numerology, while the best was mind-blowing. He actually signed for his deaf mother while he preached. Knowing the mind of Christ is the preachers' task, but how do we do that?
The Bible is the revealed Word of God, made known to the authors supernaturally, transcribed by them through the guiding hand of God, and preserved by Him through to our present time. It is accepted that the personality, or lack of education etc. of the author, as well as the entrance of some errors in transmission, may have affected the text, but in no way has this affected the truths which God wishes to reveal.
So, the Bible is the Word of God when rightly interpreted. The central task of interpretation is to discover the intention of the text, as constructed by the author. This means that the truths the author conveys in the text are, for the reader, the Word of God.
Of course, we accept that it is not possible to accurately assess the author's unstated intentions. We also accept that the reader's predilection does not overrule the plain meaning of the text, although it will influence the nuance of the truths revealed in the text.
Many a preacher has rested on 2 Timothy 3:16 for Biblical interpretation: "All scripture is profitable for teaching". It is commonly held that all we require is our Bible, prayerfully read, and the truth is ours through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is also commonly held that all parts of the Bible, prayerfully approached, will release a truth for blessing.
A few moments reflection about the character of scripture will reveal the fallacy of these beliefs. The Bible is made up of many different types of literature, each with its own canons of interpretation. Clearly "all scripture is profitable for teaching", but not with the same directness, nor is the teaching gained by the same methods. So, it is quite clear that many parts are not profitable for teaching, or at least not as profitable.
It is for this very reason that the Holy Spirit has empowered "some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God", Eph.4:11-13. This is not to suggest that the Bible is only for expert theologians, but it does mean that a right understanding and application of the scriptures demands competent and gifted ministers of the Word.
The Old Testament is prone to flawed interpretation. There are those who simply set it aside as if it has nothing to say. Yet, the Old Testament is scripture:
•i Jesus used it as the Word of God.
•iJesus said that the whole of the Old Testament points to him, Lk.24:27, 44.
•iPaul saw that it could "instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus", 2Tim.3:15.
•iThe New Testament writers were always quoting it.
At the same time, there are those who treat the Old Testament as scripture, but use it wrongly. If we accept the Old Testament as the Word of God we are faced with the problem of unlocking its relevance for us today. The two most favoured methods are analogy and association:
•iAnalogy. A New Testament truth (or a particular sectarian doctrine) is extended back to the Old Testament situation to unlock its relevance for us today. eg., Rahab was saved by the red cord she hung from her window in the city wall of Jericho. Our red cord is Jesus' blood. We can be saved at the day of Judgement if we cover ourselves with the blood of Jesus. True, but ....
•iAssociation. By means of paralleling the situation of God's children in the past with our own, a set of moral conclusions are arrived at. eg., Moses was a man of faith who struggled against all odds. Let us therefore be men of faith like him (and fail like him?). Moralising is the most popular way of dealing with the stories of the Old Testament.
The above methods require a fertile imagination and little else. There is no control on the conclusions arrived at and therefore everyone ends up arriving at different conclusions.
Accepting the limitations of Biblical interpretation
1. Where the meaning cannot be stated with any certainty we have to be honest enough to simply set it aside and admit we do not know its meaning. To treat a difficult passage fairly, a preacher must admit this limitation, and say so plainly, otherwise they will lead themselves, and others, astray by manufacturing a word from God.
2. With narratives, we have to accept that the report of events in the Bible do not constitute in themselves a promise or command to us - a description is not necessarily a prescription. It's quite true that our God is the God who brings events to pass and clothes history with significance, but that significance would be completely lost without a theological overview, or a word to explain it. In general, common sense usually prevails when we handle narratives.
If we go to see the Prime Minister with a tricky request, we do not usually take a rod that will turn into a snake. Nor do we expect God to always deal with liars as he did with Ananias and Sapphira. An is is not an ought. That something happened does not in itself constitute a promise, or a command for us.
This is not to say that no narrative has any spiritual value in it; far from it. Truth is there, but it has to be unlocked. This is not always simple. The Bible exegete needs to be scrupulously careful if they are to avoid the charge of manufacturing a word of God by being clever.
There are teachers who will use any narrative they please to bind on our conscience what they allege is the Word of God. Thus we are castigated for our weakness, joylessness, lack of enthusiasm etc., We are called to power, joy and zeal, and we are called to preach in the open air, to witness to strangers in chariots, and to sing hymns at midnight, all on the basis of what happened to a Bible saint in the past.
3. With promises and commands made to certain people at certain times, we must avoid the temptation of extending them uncritically beyond their time and situation. The promise or command given to that person/s may reveal how God deals with people in general, but often it does not. Often it simply tells us that God promised something to someone at a certain point of time in history. It may not have any bearing on us at all.
Jesus said this to His disciples, "these things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you", Jn.14:25-26. Quite clearly, Jesus' promise that he will remind the disciples of what he said, is a promise to them only. The scriptures are the result of that promise being fulfilled. There are many other promises and commands that do not go beyond the time they were uttered.
Four steps in Biblical interpretation
The task for the Bible exegete is to lay bare the meaning of a text which the authors have in mind, for God speaks through these words. The methodology for unlocking these truths is not always straightforward; this is why we have theological colleges. The first step provides the ground / basis for discerning God's revealed truths, while the next three aid to sharpen the truths.
•iUnderstand the sense of the passage;
•iSearch for truths which apply to all people at all times;
•iAssess how Biblical theology may impact on the passage;
•iProcess the conclusions in light of God's grace.
1. Gramatico-historical exegesis
Miles Coverdale once suggested the following rules of interpretation. "It shall greatly helpe ye to understand scripture, if thou mark not only what is spoken or wrytten, but of whom, and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth." In simple terms, we must analyse the literature.
The following steps define this process:
•iDetermine the exact text. There may be some difference in original manuscripts which make it difficult to decide on the translation of a certain verse. Variants can be troublesome.
•iDetermine the size of the unit and its place in the book - context.
•iAssess the relevance of the background. ie., historical setting, authorship, authors presuppositions, readers, etc.
•iAssess the idiom of the passage. ie. either prose, saying, song, poetry.
•iDetermine the literary type - form-critical analysis. The following are some examples:
Prose types - speeches, sermons and prayers. Legal records, poetic narratives ( eg. myths, fables, etc.).
Sayings types - legal, cultic, prophetic, proverb, riddle.
Songs and Poem types - funeral dirges, mocking songs, royal and victory songs, cultic songs. Wisdom poems, songs of work, harvest marriage and love etc.
•iAssess the structure of the passage and its possible literary development. Literary Criticism seeks to trace the development of a passage through oral transmission to the final editorial composition. The theory is that most of the Old Testament books are the product of many authors compiled into one unit by editors. The authors themselves used oral and written sources for the production of their work. J,E,P, and D are the four authorship stands to be found in the books up to the Psalms (or so the theory goes!).
•iAssess the theology of the writer. This particularly applies to the authors of the gospels, each of whom had an axe to grind. The point the author is trying to make, is God's word to us. There was a time when theologians attempted to find the original words of Jesus in the gospels. They wanted to claim these words as original / pure revelation. Yet, God's Word to us is what the author is communicating. This particular form of study, when related to the synoptic gospels, seeks to compare author/editor with author/editor. Mark is usually regarded as the primary source. Matthew and Luke are then compared to Mark and the differences between the narrative, saying, parable, etc., are considered and conclusions drawn.
2. Propositional revelation
It helps greatly to identify any propositional statements that may be present in a passage of scripture. Propositional statements are the timeless statements of truth which are directed to all people of all ages in all situations. Consider the following:
The gospels. Jesus made such statements. eg., "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life", John 3:16. The "whoever" makes this a timeless truth.
The epistles are full of propositional statements, although often mixed with a fair bit of local application. For example, in first Corinthians, when Paul deals with eating meat offered to idols, the question of eating or not eating is of little interest to us. The proposition upon which Paul bases his advice is of great interest. Not causing offence to a weaker brother (a pious legalist) and not linking ourselves to the dark arts, are obviously binding on us.
The Old testament prophets make some propositional statements, but their words are more often than not directed to Israel. So for example, a prophetic critique of Israel is more applicable to the church than a secular government.
Special care is required with narratives and specific promises and commands:
•iNarratives. Propositional statements are rarely found in narrative. Narratives tend to illustrate Biblical truths. For example, The story of Ananias and Sopphira illustrates the truth (gained elsewhere from propositional statements) that "God hates liars."
•iSpecific promises and commands. Promises and commands made to specific people are rarely propositional in themselves. They seem like clear propositional statements, but they aren't. It is often possible to discern an underlying propositional truth made clear elsewhere in the scriptures.
3. Biblical theology
Understanding the theological structure of the Bible can be very helpful in determining the mind of Christ. The revealed Word does not hang by itself, but fits within a given structure tied by historical events - God's acts. This theological structure is God's covenant (God's agreement with mankind through Abraham etc.,) and its realisation in the kingdom of God. The Biblical theology of the kingdom of God finds its expression in the unfolding of God's covenant-promises from the creation, Noah, the Exodus through to the kingdom's formation under king David, and its later failure and final judgement through the hands of the Babylonians. This structure frames the words of the prophets, and frames the teachings of Jesus and the apostles as they proclaim the fulfilment of the covenant and the inauguration / realisation of the kingdom of God, both now and in the age to come. God's Word comes within this given structure to give unity and clarity.
When Jesus walked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he spoke to them about the Old Testament and "interpreted" to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself, Lk.14:27. Jesus treated the scriptures as a united revelation from God pointing to the coming of the messiah and the establishment of the kingdom. Therefore, once the theological structure of the scriptures is understood, the meaning of the individual events and statements become clear, especially Old Testament narratives.
The exegesis of a passage of scripture can be greatly aided by identifying its place in the theological structure of the kingdom of God. The following diagrams seek to illustrate the application of Biblical theology in the interpretive process:
i] Identify to which mode of the kingdom of God the passage belongs
The story of the Bible is the story of humanity covenanted to God - "I am your God .... you are my people". It is the story of the creation of a kingdom, a community bound in fellowship under the Creator God. Although communities through history realise the kingdom in some form or other, they repeatedly fracture due to sin. Yet, God's covenant with his people cannot fracture. Ultimately, God, in and through the person of Jesus, realises the kingdom in perfection
As can be seen by the following illustrations, the kingdom of God is realised at different stages in Biblical history. The first step is to identify within which mode of the kingdom of God the passage falls. eg., If the passage was the story of David and Goliath, we would place it within the mode of the Historic Kingdom.
ii] Identify the place of the passage in the structure of the kingdom of God
The illustration below shows that there is a repeated cycle of events common to each mode of the kingdom. In the preliminary events there is bondage, release, test and trial, struggle and victory. In the kingdom itself there is blessing, decline, cursing and judgement. It is necessary to place the scripture passage in its correct place within that cycle of events. eg., David and Goliath is a victory story. The enemy is destroyed and the kingdom established in power.
iii] Observe the parallels in the other modes of the Biblical Theology of the kingdom of God
Using the illustration below, note how the story, promise, command, etc., lines up with our position in the Present and Heavenly Kingdoms. Note carefully the overlap that occurs between the Present and Heavenly Kingdom. At this moment in time we are members of the Present Kingdom, awaiting the day of Christ's coming, but in another sense, we are on a journey toward the dawning of the Heavenly Kingdom, ie., the kingdom of God is now / not yet; realised / inaugurated. Use these observations to transfer the Biblical truth to the present. eg. The story of David and Goliath images Jesus' victory over the powers of evil on the cross. This victory has bearing on our life now as members of the Present Kingdom. It also looks forward to the day when Christ will return in the battle of Armageddon and overcome the Anti-Christ. This also relates to our experience as we journey toward the Heavenly Kingdom, struggling with the enemy of darkness. As Christ is victorious, so are we.
So, having applied Miles Coverdale's principles, searched out any propositional truths, and assessed whether Biblical theology has any bearing on the passage, we move to the final step.
4. The test of divine grace
An important principle in the interpretation of scripture is that scripture interprets scripture. A verse which seems to promote a truth which contradicts the overwhelming Biblical evidence to the contrary, cannot be relied upon to develop a new understanding of the mind of Christ - scripture interprets scripture.
Although not always applicable, the interpretation of a passage of scripture can be greatly aided by testing the deduced conclusion with the Pauline proposition that salvation is by grace through faith (faith in the faith/faithfulness of Christ) apart from works of the law. This step involves reading a biblical passage in light of God's unmerited grace toward broken humanity, which grace is realised in Christ Jesus. Reading a passage of scripture, in light of the divine of grace, is applicable to both the Old and New Testament, and particularly the gospels.
Paul, functioning as the exegete of Jesus teachings, reveals the sense of divine grace in his exposition of the doctrine of justification. The substance of this doctrine concerns God's sovereign grace, namely, his unmerited favour toward the sinner expedited in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The doctrine of justification encapsulates the truth that right standing / eternal approval in the sight of God is a gift of God's grace appropriated through the instrument of faith, and is not by works of the Law; "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works (of the Law), so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do", Eph.2:8-10.
So, for Paul, justification is the process by which a person is set-right / approved before God on the basis of Christ's faithfulness appropriated through faith. Paul does not deny the old Adam, and would happily concur with Luther who said "there is no sinless Christian" for "the old Adam retains his power until he is deposited in the grave." Yet, for a believer, righteousness is a present and eternally complete possession, and this apart from law-obedience - "God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus."
It is always dangerous to read into scripture an extraneous truth. Many sects do this and end up undermining a proper understanding of scripture. The process of reading a concept back into scripture which does not seem to be evident in the passage being studies, can only be justified if it is a foundational truth. The truth of God's grace is foundational, and when a passage of scripture is scanned through the lens of grace, it often helps to expose its intended meaning
A good example of this approach is found in Jesus' teachings on the law. Left to themselves, these teachings provide an ethical perfection beyond the ability of any human. Yet, as the apostle Paul would remind us, "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ", Gal.3:24. So, Jesus is not promoting ethical perfection, but the grace of God, and this by exposing the human condition. The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates the point. No one can "go and do likewise" - we can't be good Sams; we are sinners in need of divine grace.
Understanding the mind of Christ is no easy task, but the four steps in Biblical interpretation can aid what is a worthy task.