A Method of Biblical InterpretationIntroduction
The aim of this study is to provide a method for the interpretation of the Bible that properly determines God's Word for us.
The assumption behind this study is that the Bible is the revealed Word of God, made known to the writers 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 writer, as well as the entrance of errors over the years of transmission, may have affected the text, but in no way has this affected the truths which God wishes to reveal.
This study also proceeds on the basis that the Bible is the Word of God when rightly interpreted. The central task of interpretation is to discover the intention of the text as dictated by the author. This means that the truths the author conveyed in the text is, for the reader, the Word of God. This paper proceeds on the assumption that it is not possible to accurately assess the writer's unstated intentions and that the reader's predilection should not overule the plain meaning of the text. Of course, that predilection will influence the nuance of the truths revealed in the text.
Many believers rest on 2 Timothy 3:16 as their basis for Biblical interpretation: "All scripture is profitable for teaching". We commonly hold that all we require is our Bible, prayerfully read, and the truth is ours through the power of the Spirit of Christ. It is believed 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 this argument. 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.
For this very reason 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 a competent gifted ministry of the Word.
The Old Testament is the section of scripture most roughly treated. There are those who simply set it aside as if it has nothing to say. Others use it as a mine to promote the most fanciful of theologies.
Clearly we need to treat the Old Testament as scripture:
i] Jesus used it as the Word of God.
ii] Jesus actually said that the whole of the Old Testament points to him, Lk.24:27, 44.
iii] Paul saw that it could "instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus", 2Tim.3:15.
iv] The New Testament writers were always quoting it.
The other misuse of the Old Testament is to use it 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 favored methods, both of which a very dangerous, are as follows:
i] Analogy. 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 ....
ii] Association. By 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?). Moralizing 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
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 believer 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 is 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 you go to see the Prime Minister with a tricky request you do not usually take a rod that will turn into a snake. If you land in jail for preaching you do not expect to be released by an angel. Nor will you 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 student 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. It is an intolerable legalism that needs to be firmly repudiated in the name of Christian freedom.
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 his promise to remind the disciples of what he said, was 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
Bible believing Christians are committed to laying bare the meaning of a text which the authors themselves had in mind, for God speaks through these words. There are four major steps in the process of Biblical interpretation. We must first understand the language of the passage itself. Then we must search for truths which apply to all people at all times. We must then submit the passage and its truths to the Biblical theology of the kingdom of God, and finally we must process those truths in light of God's grace. We will now examine these four steps in detail.
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 analyze the literature.
The following steps define this process:
i] Determine the exact text. There may be some difference in original manuscripts which make it difficult to decide on the translation of a certain verse. This will be shown up by comparing different versions of the Bible. Which translation properly fits the context?
ii] Determine the size of the unit and its place in the book (context). A good commentary will do this, although they sometimes differ in their conclusions.
iii] Assess the relevance of the background. ie. historical setting, authorship, authors presuppositions, readers, etc. The introduction section of a commentary can help with this type of information.
iv] Assess the idiom of the passage. ie. either prose, saying, song, poetry.
v] Determine the literary type. This is known as Form Criticism and is a highly specialized study. A good commentary can help explain the relevance of the type of literature found in the passage for study. The following are some examples:
Prose types - speeches, sermons and prayers. Legal records, poetic narratives ( eg. myths, fables, etc.). Historic narratives.
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.
vi] Assess the structure of the passage and its possible literary development. This form of study is known as Literary Criticism and it 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. A good commentary will point out any useful information concerning the passage being studied.
vii] Assess the theology of the writer. In particular, this applies to the gospel writers, each of whom had an axe to grind. We understand that the point the writer is trying to make is what we must regard as revelation. 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 of the book says to us. 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. Most recent commentaries will note any useful information from this type of study.
2. Propositional revelation
The second step is to note carefully the propositional statements in the passage. Propositional statements are the timeless statements of truth which are directed to all people of all ages in all situations. Consider the following:
i] 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.
ii] 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 our weaker brother (a pious legalist) and not linking ourselves to the dark arts, is clearly binding on us.
iii] The Old testament prophets make some propositional statements, but most times their words are directed to Israel and so we need to get into step 3 before we attempt an application. For example, we can get into no end of trouble if we take what a prophet says to Israel and apply that to a modern Government. Step 3 will show us that a word to Israel is a word to the church, not to a secular government.
Special care is required with narratives and specific promises and commands.
i] Narratives. We will find it is very difficult to discover any propositional statement in a narrative. Most often a narrative only illustrates a Biblical truth. For example, The story of Ananias and Sopphira illustrates the truth (gained elsewhere from propositional statements) that "God hates liars." To take the narrative any further it is necessary to move to Step 3 and see if a theological analysis can further expose a word from the Lord.
ii] Specific promises and commands. With the promises and commands made to specific people, we need to be very careful indeed. They seem like clear propositional statements, but they aren't. We may though be able to observe an underlying propositional truth made clear elsewhere in the scriptures and then apply that truth to ourselves. So again, specific promises and commands in themselves only illustrate a Biblical truth. Other than that, we must rely on step 3 to expose further truth from the promise or command. Consider the two following examples:
a) A promise that illustrates a propositional promise. "Put your trust is the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household", Eph.16:31. When the Philippian jailor was promised that if he believed on Jesus he would be saved with his whole household, we can be sure it was true for him. Yet, what about us? From other propositional truths we know that God saves those who believe on his Son, and that God blesses the household of a believer. There is no promise that God intends to save households on the basis of the faith of a father. He blesses, certainly, but that's all. So, we must conclude that what was true for the Philippian jailor is not necessarily true for us. The incident only illustrates the truth that God blesses the family of those who believe.
b) A command which requires step 3 to be of any relevance to us. "I have laid the land open before you; go in and occupy it, the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to their descendants after them", Deut.1:8. Only through step 3 are we able to draw out a propositional statement, namely, a command that we battle against evil to bring in the kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel in both word and sign.
3. Biblical theological analysis
The final step in Biblical interpretation is to understand the passage within the theological structure of the Bible. 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 the kingdom of God. The Biblical theology of the kingdom of God finds its expression in the unfolding historical events from the Exodus to the kingdom's formation under king David, and its later failure and final judgement through the hands of the Babylonians. This structure is used by the prophets to express their message, and is also used by Jesus and the apostles as they proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. It is also repeated in the life of Jesus and his church. Revelation comes within this given structure to give it 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 knew well that the scriptures are 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.
So, in this third step toward interpreting a passage, we take the truths uncovered in step 2, and by means of Biblical Theology, move them from their original setting to the life experience of present day Christians. The move is controlled by identifying the place those revealed truths have in the theology of the kingdom of God, and paralleling them with our own place within the kingdom of God scheme. This is not necessarily an easy task.
The following steps outline how we use the Biblical theology of the kingdom of God to break open the truths of a passage of scripture and apply them to ourselves.
i] Identify which mode of the kingdom of God the passage belongs
As can be seen by the following illustrations, the kingdom of God is realized 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 passage studied 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] Study the parallels in the other modes of the Biblical Theology of the kingdom of God
In particular, 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. 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.
iv] Identify our place in the kingdom of God structure.
Establish the relationship between the passage and our Christian experience in either or both the Present Kingdom or/and the Heavenly Kingdom.
The story of David and Goliath serves well to illustrate the process of Biblical interpretation we have just examined. Most times we get this story instinctively right. None-the-less, it's nice to have some basis for our presuppositions. Having done a "Miles Coverdale" job, noted also that there are no propositional truths to be found in the story, we then get into step 3 and line up the modes of the kingdom. We note that David fights Goliath and is victorious in the Historic Kingdom; that Jesus fights Satan and is victorious in the Present Kingdom; and that we fight Satan and are/ will be victorious in the Heavenly Kingdom when Christ returns in that final day. The application of the story clearly concerns our struggle against the powers of darkness in the knowledge that we will overcome them.
As an exercise we might like to try and interpret the following Old Testament stories. The important part of this task is the application. What does the story say to me today?
i] Cain and Able.
ii] The Ark in the Flood.
iii] Moses crossing the Red Sea.
iv] Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
v] The Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians.
vi] Hosea and the adultery (idolatry) of Israel.
For a more detailed study see The Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God.
4. The divine bias of grace
This step involves reading a biblical passage in light of God's unmerited grace toward broken humanity, which grace is realized in Christ Jesus. Reading a passage of scripture in light of the bias of grace is applicable to both the Old and New Testament, and particularly the gospels.
Our understanding of the bias of grace is drawn from the doctrine of justification expounded by the apostle Paul, the exegete of Jesus, ie., Paul's task in life was to expound Jesus' theology. The substance of this theology 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 once 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 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 complete possession, for "God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus." This truth, and this truth alone, is the key to a proper understanding of the scriptures.
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. So, this step in Biblical interpretation proceeds on the basis that Jesus reveals this foundational truth and that the apostle Paul exegetes it for the proper understanding of revelation. The foundational truth then is that God is a merciful God who, as a gift of his gracious kindness, sets a sinner right before him on the basis of Christ's faithfulness appropriated through the instrument of faith. This truth, the doctrine of justification, is the foundational truth of scripture and shapes its right understanding.
For a more detailed study see The Bias of Grace and also Three Examples of the Bias of Grace.
The above four steps of Biblical interpretation may seem complex, but are not that difficult to apply. The process ends up with four simple questions:
What is the text actually saying?
Are there any timeless truths in it?
How does it fit in the Biblical theology of the kingdom of God?
How does the doctrine of justification influence the text?
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