Occasionally I like to talk in a very scholarly and advanced way about hermeneutics and biblical interpretation, and though that suits my own personality and education and interests, it may often seem as if such discussions are not relevant to most people in general. Occasionally even someone like myself feels the need to discuss matters such as biblical interpretation in a way that is easily understood by an audience that is not deeply acquainted with the deep matters of scripture. If we are to study the Bible, or any other text, profitably, we need to understand some principles and rules before we become proficient.
Ideally, since a person of Christian faith considers the Bible to be the primary source of authority for their life, regardless of how well or poorly their practice meets up to that standard, it therefore follows that the principles by which we are to study God’s word should be found in God’s word. Certainly they may be phrased in more technical or elevated language, but at the same time they need to be phrased in simple enough language in the Bible itself to be readily understood by those who are not yet biblical scholars but who desire to understand the proper way to live from God’s word. And yesterday, as part of my Doctrines class, I gave some biblical principles on how to read and interpret the Bible. And since these principles come directly from scripture, I thought it worthwhile to share with others, both to show the materials I teach as well as share an approach that is more direct and simple than my usual mode of expression.
Principle #1: All Scripture Is Good For Doctrine
Source: 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for good works.”
The first question we have to answer as Christians in dealing with the Bible is what part of the Bible has authority for Christians today. The biblical answer is very direct: all of it. Let us be honest that it might not always be immediately clear to us exactly how a verse, passage, or even book of the Bible may be immediately relevant to a believer (most Christians don’t seem to share my passion for the books of Philemon or 3rd John, for example, or know what to do with a book like Obadiah). Simply because we cannot see a purpose in a part of scripture does not mean it has no purpose or point for us. It simply means that we are not well-versed in the Bible well enough, or in close enough of a relationship with God to understand that purpose or point yet. The fault is not in the Bible, but the fault is in ourselves.
There are at least three fundamental weaknesses that we tend to have when it comes to scriptural authority. One of these weaknesses is our tendency to think of ourselves as the authority rather than God. All too often people who think themselves particularly wise about the Bible come and lop and crop books of the Bible as unprofitable. Maybe it is because the subjects are too “Jewish,” or because they say things we do not want to accept. But we all, no matter how intelligent or well-educated we are, come to the Bible as students, not as authorities. We come to the Bible seeking wisdom and understanding to apply in our lives. A second and related weakness with the scriptures is that we sometimes want to enshrine other people’s works as authorities on a par with the Bible from favored religious leaders or other people. This is itself rather idolatrous. All of us who study the Bible are learners together in the same educational system. Some of us may be a few grades ahead, but none of us are teachers who have stopped learning ourselves. At best we are student teachers, learning ourselves while we teach others (as is the case for me). A third and related weakness is in viewing scripture as an authority without understanding that this authority can only take place within the body of Christ as a whole, as we are not isolated authorities about what God says in judgement against the body of believers in organized Christianity, but rather we are commanded to be a part of that organized body ourselves, learning about areas where we fall short even as we teach others based on the gift of knowledge that God has given us in other areas. These are all very common errors for believers to fall into, and ones we should work our hardest to avoid.
Principle #2: Twisting Scripture Will Lead To Our Destruction
Source: 2 Peter 3:14-16: “Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation–as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”
This is a very important basic principle of biblical interpretation, and that is that the grace of which Paul speaks does not contradict the rest of the Bible, nor does it negate the need for the people of God to be godly and obedient, trying the patience of God through flagrant and unrepentant sin. All too often, people think they understand Paul when they twist His words to speak against God’s laws, God’s ways, God’s Sabbaths, and God’s commandments in general. This principle reminds us that we do not judge the rest of the Bible by our interpretation of Paul’s letters, but rather that any acceptable interpretation of Paul’s letters will be in harmony with the remainder of scripture.
This rule reminds us that it is an easy thing to corrupt Paul’s epistles and twist them to our destruction by assuming that simply because grace is a gift that there is no longer any standard of behavior for us to live except for love (so often and easily defined by us to mean whatever we want it to mean). Peter is saying that this misunderstanding of Paul is not new at all, but has been the way that Paul has been misunderstood by those who are untaught and unstable from the very beginning. There are neither any new truths nor any new heresies, because Paul’s writings, which are difficult to understand, are used to blaspheme against God’s holiness by many who falsely consider themselves to be Christians. Peter warned us here it would be like that, and so we need to take his warnings seriously and interpret the unclear scriptures (like Paul’s writings) through the clear scriptures written elsewhere, so that we do not lapse into heresy.
Principle #3: We Must Be Doers And Not Only Hearers Of God’s Way.
Source: James 1:21-27: “Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this one’s religious is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
The real core truth we need to understand when it comes to studying the Bible that comes from this passage is that Christianity is not merely an intellectual affair. We are not only supposed to hear godly messages, nor know godly ways in our mind, but we are supposed to live them in our lives. Christianity is a practical way of life, that includes our behavior to those who are unfortunate (whom we are to visit and help in their trouble), as well as on our moral lives (which must include living righteously according to the royal law of liberty–God’s laws). If we do not live the way of God, but merely profess it, our religion is useless. This ought to be something that every Christian thinks about very seriously.
This is not only a problem with Christians, but a general problem with religions in general. Though it is not entirely fair, religions (and groups in general) tend to be judged by their perceived behavior, and not by their professed beliefs. If we claim to be Jesus’ disciples, we will be judged on our love for each other (we usually do not fare very well by this standard), as well as on our obedience to God’s ways (we do not fare very well by this standard as well). If we are unfaithful to our professed beliefs, we will be judged as hypocrites, and our faith will be discredited in the eyes of others. If we desire to advance God’s glory, we need to live both in love and generosity as well as self-discipline and godly obedience with others, so it will be recognized that we are both merciful and forgiving on the one hand and just and obedient on the other.
This is a heavy obligation, but if we claim to be followers of Christ, we have to walk as He walked, to live as He lived, to love as He loves. A mere profession of faith is not sufficient, but a living faith where God works righteousness through a willing heart and mind is required. If we desire eternal life, we are going to have to show an example of God’s ways while we live and walk on this earth. Doing so requires that we not merely enjoy good messages, or sing songs about Jesus Christ, or even feel loving and righteous within ourselves, but that we searchingly examine our motives, pray that God uncover and forgive and give us the strength to overcome even our secret sins so that we are able to set the right example of His ways before those who are not likely to give us a fair hearing unless we can demonstrate that we are genuine believers and not hypocrites.
Principle #4: Because The Bible Is Written For Our Sakes, We Have To Examine Ourselves Carefully By The Biblical Standard
Source: 1 Corinthians 10:11-12: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”
It has been a common belief throughout human history that whatever generation presently exists is the last generation that will exist and so they are the most important, the culmination of progress of all the generations that came before it, the pinnacle of greatness. Paul comments that we of the Christian era (nearly 2000 years worth of it so far) are those who have experienced what was promised before to the prophets of old that they only saw from afar. Rather than invoking a sense of privilege though, as is common, Paul points out that this is instead a sober responsibility to handle. Because we are privileged to have access to God’s Holy Spirit as believers, we are also therefore subject to an even higher standard of obedience than that which was not met by the ancient Israelites. We are given greater help and better promises in the “new covenant,” but our task is far more difficult than the ancient Israelites of the “old covenant” as a result.
We are cautioned not to be prideful of our standing with God, in the knowledge that if we rely on our own strength we will fall, because we can only stand in the strength of Jesus Christ within us, for none of us are all that strong on our own. This is a fact we all have to learn in our own ways, as that which we place pride in, whether it is our physical strength or charisma or intellect is shown to be a false idol that leads us astray if we worship the creation instead of the creator. We are usually tempted by our belief in our own special and privileged status to consider the past unimportant, as if it offered no lessons to those of us in more modern times.
Instead, Paul makes the rather daring point that because we have a privileged position compared to the ancient Israelites of old, who were faithless and disobedient, their example needs to be even more etched in our minds, because if God was willing to scatter the bones of a people He had saved from slavery in the wilderness because of their unbelief, what would He be willing to do to those whom He had given His Spirit and who had treated it and Him with contempt and disrespect? There is not a pleasant answer to that question, and Paul is reminding us that with a greater relationship with God comes a higher standard of behavior and a greater need for self-examination to root out, with God’s help, the corruption and evil that lie inside us all.
Principle #5: The Bible Is Hard To Understand In Part Because Its Truths Are Uncovered Little By Little All Over The Place
Source: Isaiah 28:9-10: “Whom will He teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
One of the reasons why God forbids the ordination of novices is that in order to be a teacher of God’s ways, one requires a firm foundation in the doctrines and practices of God. After all, our foundation as believers is the life and preaching of Jesus Christ, and that not only includes the Gospels written about His life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), not only the writings and accounts of early Christians, but also the actions taken by the preincarnate Christ in His dealings with the people of God all the way back to the beginnings of human history. It should be obvious that this is not an easy task. We cannot teach what we do not know, and therefore believers are expected to spend their lives becoming in ever closer approximation to God’s perfect and righteous standard, and increasing the depth of their understanding through Bible study and application.
This is not generally the case with human writings. For example, last year in public speaking, one of the students currently in my doctrine’s class wanted to talk about Thai law against theft, and he looked it up online and found the law in one place, with theft against people, against temples, or against royal property with ever increasing penalties. It was all right there in one place, in one part of the basic Thai law (in fact, I think it was even part of the Thai constitution, at least that is how it was translated into English). Now, whether the laws are enforced or not, most people tend to design their writings so that information can be easily found in one place.
This is not so with the Bible. As I explained to my students yesterday, if you want to know what the Bible says about the tree of life (a fairly minor but interesting matter), you have to look at the early part of Genesis, Psalm 1, and the end of Revelation, at a bare minimum. And most matters of more substantial importance in the Bible would require far more research than that. I gave the students the example of love, and they quickly understood just how complicated it was in the Bible. Because the understanding of all of God’s word requires a knowledge of God’s entire scriptures, and because the same scriptures can speak on multiple levels at once, there is always something more to learn from scripture, and that our understanding of any one particular scripture is bounded by both the close biblical context as well as the whole biblical context. To understand any scripture wholly, we paradoxically need to understand all of scripture wholly. Obviously, this is not a task for novices, and to even approach such knowledge requires lengthy and intense study, as well as deep humility and the willingness to explore plenty of widely ranging passages.
Many more biblical rules of interpretation could be understood and gleaned from the scriptures, but a knowledge of these laws would be sufficient to at least begin to wrestle with the scriptures in an honest and humble manner. One point I sought for my students to understand very clearly is that before the Word of God all of us are students, and none of us are authorities. As we study the word of God, we better understand ourselves, as well as the truths of God in a deeper manner. It is my hope that my own frequent studies may shine some light on neglected or obscure parts of the Bible for other students of God’s word and fellow believers. And likewise, I must freely and openly admit that my own studies have been greatly helped by other believers. None of us grow alone, for if we are connected to the vine of Christ, we will have a good relationship with other branches in the olive tree of God with whom we share the Holy Spirit of God running through us like oil. Therefore, we must all recognize that we are not only students of the Bible and not authorities on it as believers, but that we also are part of a large school that includes believers of all ages and backgrounds and periods of human history. Remembering these things helps us remain humble and teachable, like the little children we all must be if we desire to enter God’s Kingdom.