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Interpretation

We cannot arrive at a true understanding of God’s Word by detaching texts from their contexts to find personal meaning in them and be feeding them into the world of our private preoccupations and letting that world impose new senses on old phrases.

A theological student whom later I knew as a senior friend had committed himself to starting his ministry in the north of England when he received a very attractive invitation to join a teaching institution in South Wales instead. He did not feel able to withdraw from his commitments, but one day he read in Isaiah 43:6 (Authorized Version), “I will say to the north, Give up”, and concluded that this was God telling him that he would be providentially released from his promise and so set free to accept the second invitation. No such thing happened, however, so he went north after all wondering what had gone wrong. Then he reread Isaiah 43:6 and noticed that it continued, “…and to the south, Do not withhold.” At this point it dawned on him that he had been finding meaning in the text that was never really there. Instead, the concerns which he brought to his reading of the text had governed his interpretation of it.

To impose meaning on the text is not the way to learn God’s Law. Yet we constantly do this (don’t we?), and it is one chronic obstacle to understanding.

Your Father Loves You, by James Packer, (Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986), page for April 27