Biblical interpretation is a rational and spiritual process that attempts to understand an ancient inspired writer in such a way that the message from God may be understood and applied in our day.
The spiritual process is crucial but difficult to define. It does involve a yieldedness and openness to God. There must be a hunger (1) for Him, (2) to know Him, and (3) to serve Him. This process involves prayer, confession, and the willingness for lifestyle change. The Spirit is crucial in the interpretive process, but why sincere, godly Christians understand the Bible differently is a mystery.
The rational process is easier to describe. We must be consistent and fair to the text and not be influenced by our personal, cultural, or denominational biases. We are all historically conditioned. None of us are objective, neutral interpreters. This commentary offers a careful rational process containing three interpretive principles structured to help us attempt to overcome our biases.
The first principle is to note the historical setting in which a biblical book was written and the particular historical occasion for its authorship (or when it was edited). The original author had a purpose and a message to communicate. The text cannot mean something to us that it never meant to the original, ancient, inspired author. His intent—not our historical, emotional, cultural, personal, or denominational need—is the key. Application is an integral partner to interpretation, but proper interpretation must always precede application. It must be reiterated that every biblical text has one and only one meaning. This meaning is what the original biblical author intended through the Spirit's leadership to communicate to his day. This one meaning may have many possible applications to different cultures and situations. These applications must be linked to the central truth of the original author. For this reason, this study guide commentary is designed to provide a brief introduction to each book of the Bible.
The second principle is to identify the literary units. Every biblical book is a unified document. Interpreters have no right to isolate one aspect of truth by excluding others. Therefore, we must strive to understand the purpose of the whole biblical book before we interpret the individual literary units. The individual parts—chapters, paragraphs, or verses—cannot mean what the whole unit does not mean. Interpretation must move from a deductive approach of the whole to an inductive approach to the parts. Therefore, this study guide commentary is designed to help the student analyze the structure of each literary unit by paragraphs. Paragraph and chapter divisions are not inspired, but they do aid us in identifying thought units.
Interpreting at a paragraph level—not sentence, clause, phrase, or word level—is the key in following the biblical author’s intended meaning. Paragraphs are based on a unified topic, often called the theme or topical sentence. Every word, phrase, clause, and sentence in the paragraph relates somehow to this unified theme. They limit it, expand it, explain it, and/or question it. A real key to proper interpretation is to follow the original author’s thought on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis through the individual literary units that make up the biblical book. This study guide commentary is designed to help the student do that by comparing the paragraphing of modern English translations. These translations have been selected because they employ different translation theories:
1. The New King James Version (NKJV) is a word-for-word literal translation based on the Greek manuscript tradition known as the Textus Receptus. Its paragraph divisions are longer than the other translations. These longer units help the student to see the unified topics.
2. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is a modified word-for-word translation. It forms a midpoint between the following two modern versions. Its paragraph divisions are quite helpful in identifying subjects.
3. The Today’s English Version (TEV) is a dynamic equivalent translation published by the United Bible Society. It attempts to translate the Bible in such a way that a modern English reader or speaker can understand the meaning of the original text.
4. The Jerusalem Bible (JB) is a dynamic equivalent translation based on a French Catholic translation. It is very helpful in comparing the paragraphing from a European perspective.
5. The printed text is the 1995 Updated New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is a word for word translation. The verse by verse comments follow this paragraphing.
The third principle is to read the Bible in different translations in order to grasp the widest possible range of meaning (semantic field) that biblical words or phrases may have. Often a phrase or word can be understood in several ways. These different translations bring out these options and help to identify and explain the manuscript variations. These do not affect doctrine, but they do help us to try to get back to the original text penned by an inspired ancient writer.
The fourth principle is to note the literary genre. Original inspired authors chose to record their messages in different forms (e.g., historical narrative, historical drama, poetry, prophecy, gospel [parable], letter, apocalyptic). These different forms have special keys to interpretation (see Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, D. Brent Sandy and Ronald L. Giese, Jr., Cracking Old Testament Codes, or Robert Stein, Playing by the Rules).
This Textbook offers a quick way for the student to check his interpretations. It is not meant to be definitive, but rather informative and thought-provoking. Often, other possible interpretations help us not be so parochial, dogmatic, and denominational. Interpreters need to have a larger range of interpretive options to recognize how ambiguous the ancient text can be. It is shocking how little agreement there is among Christians who claim the Bible as their source of truth.
These principles have helped me to overcome much of my historical conditioning by forcing me to struggle with the ancient text. My hope is that it will be a blessing to you as well.
East Texas Baptist University
June 27, 1996
AB Anchor Bible Commentaries, ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman
ABD Anchor Bible Dictionary (6 vols.), ed. David Noel Freedman
AKOT Analytical Key to the Old Testament by John Joseph Owens
ANET Ancient Near Eastern Texts, James B. Pritchard
BDB A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by F. Brown, S. R. Driver and
C. A. Briggs
BHS Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, GBS, 1997
IDB The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (4 vols.), ed. George A. Buttrick
ISBE International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (5 vols.), ed. James Orr
JB Jerusalem Bible
JPSOA The Holy Scriptures According to the Masoretic Text: A New Translation (The
Jewish Publication Society of America)
KB The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner
LAM The Holy Bible From Ancient Eastern Manuscripts (the Peshitta) by George M. Lamsa
LXX Septuagint (Greek-English) by Zondervan, 1970
MOF A New Translation of the Bible by James Moffatt
MT Masoretic Hebrew Text
NAB New American Bible Text
NASB New American Standard Bible
NEB New English Bible
NET NET Bible: New English Translation, Second Beta Edition
NRSV New Revised Standard Bible
NIDOTTE New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis (5 vols.), ed. Willem A. VanGemeren
NIV New International Version
NJB New Jerusalem Bible
OTPG Old Testament Parsing Guide by Todd S. Beall, William A. Banks, and Colin Smith
REB Revised English Bible
RSV Revised Standard Version
SEPT The Septuagint (Greek-English) by Zondervan, 1970
TEV Today’s English Version from United Bible Societies
YLT Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible by Robert Young
ZPBE Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia (5 vols), ed. Merrill C. Tenney
I can remember, as a new believer, how excited I was about understanding more about Christ, the Christian life, and the Bible. I was told that it was the joy and job of every believer to study the Bible. I can remember how frustrating it was when I began reading the Bible. What I thought would be an exciting adventure turned into a confusing nightmare.
“The thought of personal Bible study frightens most Christians. It seems to be so difficult without any formal training. Yet Psalm 119 persistently beckons every Christian to feed on the spiritual nourishment of Scripture” (Mayhue 1986, 45).
But there was hope. I was told that religious training would provide the tools and techniques necessary to understand the Bible for myself, but this turned out to be a half truth. It was true that religious training opened the Bible to me in many wonderful ways. However, very quickly it was evident to me that more education and specialization were needed to really understand the Bible. Suddenly I realized that years of linguistic, semantic, exegetical, hermeneutical, and theological expertise were needed to fully understand the Bible. By this time, my level of education was such that I recognized that the specialists who were training me did not interpret the Bible with uniformity either (Silva 1987, 2-3). They each claimed that educational acumen in their particular field was crucial to proper biblical interpretation and yet they continued to disagree on how to interpret certain difficult passages.
These comments are not meant to be strongly critical of Christian education, but a recognition that it could not deliver all it promised. Somehow, somewhere, someway there had to be more than education.
“The Bible is so simple that the least educated can understand its basic message and yet so profound that the best scholar can never exhaust its full meaning” (Schultz and Inch 1976, 9).
Somehow we have turned the interpretation of the Bible into the exclusive domain of the academic specialists. We have taken the Bible, which was written for the common person, and given it to the privileged, highly-trained expert.
Wycliffe wrote: “Christ and His apostles taught the people in the language best known to them. It is certain that the truth of the Christian faith becomes more evident the more faith itself is known. Therefore, the doctrine should not only be in Latin, but in the vulgar tongue and, as the faith of the church is contained in the Scripture, the more these are known in a true sense the better. The laity ought to understand the faith, and as doctrines of our faith are in the Scriptures, believers should have the Scriptures in a language which they fully understand” (Mayhue 1986, 106).
What we have done with the principles of interpretation parallels what (1) the Jews did with their legal experts, the scribes; (2) the Gnostics did with their intellectual emphasis and secret knowledge, which only they dispensed; and (3) the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages did with the clergy vs. laity dichotomy, which continues until today. We have again taken the Bible from the grasp of the common person only to make its truths available to the specialist. We have done to biblical interpretation what medicine has done to physicians: a specialist for every system of the human body, yet these specialists often disagree on diagnosis and treatment. The same tendency has occurred in almost every area of modern life, including the academic disciplines of the Christian college and seminary.
With the glut of information available today, the specialists cannot even keep up in their own fields. So, how can the average Christian be expected to keep up with biblical scholarship when even “the experts” cannot do so? Gordon Fee, in a book entitled Interpreting the Word of God, made this statement:
“The suggestions offered in this paper may seem so staggering to the common man, to whom the Bible was originally addressed, that interpretation becomes an affair only of the expert. Fortunately, the Spirit, as the wind, ‘bloweth where it listeth’ (John 3:8), and in this instance, He has a wonderful way of graciously bypassing the expert and addressing us directly” (Schultz and Inch 1976, 126).
I think we would agree that in this area of hermeneutics (the principles of biblical interpretation) and exegesis (the practice of interpretation) we have inadvertently taken the Bible from the very ones to whom it was given. Daniel Webster commented in this area.
“I believe that the Bible is to be understood and received in the plain, obvious meaning of its passages, since I cannot persuade myself that a book intended for the salvation and conversion of the whole world should cover its meaning in any such mystery and doubt that none but critics and philosophers discover it” (Mayhue 1986, 60).
It seems that the insistence on advanced education as a necessity to interpret the Bible must surely be wrong by the very fact that the vast majority of the world never has had, and never can have, the level of theological training enjoyed by Europe and America since the Enlightenment.
“Most people probably think that reference books, like commentaries and Bible dictionaries, are necessary tools for Bible study. No doubt they are helpful, for they give us the insights of Bible scholars. But many Christians, especially those in poorer circumstances, cannot have these helps. Must they wait to study the Bible until they can get them? If so, many would have to wait forever” (Sterrett 1973, 33).
“One can be confident that the vernacular will convey most of the grammatical factors necessary for understanding Biblical writing. If this were not true, the bulk of Christendom would be unqualified for Bible study, and the Bible would be accessible to only a few privileged few” (Traina 1985, 81).
The church must return to a balanced position between (1) education and (2) supernatural giftedness. There are many factors involved in a proper understanding of the Bible’s message, not the least of which is the spiritual motivation, commitment, and giftedness of the interpreter. Obviously, a trained person will be more adept at some aspects of the task, but not necessarily the crucial ones.
“The presence of the Holy Spirit and the ability of language to communicate truth combine to give all you need to study and interpret the Bible for yourself” (Henricksen 1973, 37).
Could it be that biblical interpretation is a spiritual gift, as well as a learned discipline? This is not to imply that all Christians do not have the right and responsibility to interpret the Scriptures for themselves, but could it be there is that which is beyond education? A good analogy might be the gift of evangelism. In witnessing situations it is obvious when this gift is present. Its effectiveness and fruitfulness is apparent. However, this surely does not remove or lessen the biblical responsibility for witnessing to a select, gifted few. All believers can learn to do a better, more effective job of sharing our faith through training and personal experience. I believe this is true of Bible interpretation also. We must combine our dependence on the Spirit (Silva 1987, 24-25) with the insight from education and the benefit of practical experience.
“It might seem up to this point that I am advocating a non-intellectual approach to Bible interpretation. This is certainly not the case. Spurgeon warns us of this when he says, ‘It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to them should think so little of what He revealed to others’” (Henricksen 1973, 41).
This brings us to the question of how we balance these two obvious truths: God’s ability to communicate through His Word to the uneducated and how education can facilitate the process.
First, I would like to assert that our opportunities for education surely must be taken into consideration. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). Many Christians lack the motivation for improvement, not the opportunities. For not only are we stewards of our opportunities, but of our motivation and attitude as well.
“God is His own interpreter, but the student of Scripture must bring to his task a disciplined mind as well as a warm heart. Faith offers no shortcuts to a responsible reading of the Bible. Nor can we leave the task of biblical interpretation to a few experts. None of us can avoid the task of interpretation. Every time we listen to someone speak, or whenever we read what someone has written, we interpret what is being said. It is no different when we open the Bible. The question is not whether we need to interpret, but how well or how badly we do it” (Jansen 1968, 17).
To the need of a warm heart, I would like to add that though our hearts might be warm they are still sinful (Silva 1987, 23, 118). We need to be careful of linking our understanding of the Bible with God’s understanding. We have all been, and continue to be, affected by sin. In the last analysis neither the best hermeneutical principles or exegetical procedures nor a warm heart can overcome our propensity toward sin. Humility must accompany our interpretations.
“Proper hermeneutics demands a stance of humility. This includes not only the humility of learning from others, but more significantly, the humility of coming under the judgment of the Word one is interpreting. Although the task of the interpreter requires study and judgment, his ultimate task is to let the Word he is studying address him and call him to obedience” (Gordon Fee quoted in Schultz and Inch 1976, 127).
Another possible solution is the concept of varying degrees or levels of interpretation. It seems obvious to me that untrained lay people will not have the depth of insight that a trained interpreter might have. However, this does not imply that incomplete knowledge is faulty knowledge.
“Saying that we understand God’s Word does not mean we can understand everything in it, solve all problems of interpretation and get answers to all our questions. The precise meaning of some things seems to be still secret” (Sterrett 1973, 16).
If so, all human knowledge is in the same category. The Spirit’s task of leading God’s children into truth (John 14:26; 16:13-14; I John 2:20-21) is only expanded by our intellectual skills. The basics of the Christian faith can be known by anyone by means of a simple reading of the Bible in a translation he/she understands. It is in the area of maturity and balance that Christian education becomes an invaluable aid. We can trust the Spirit in the area of interpretation. Surely there will be misinterpretations and theological problems, but are these absent from scholars?
The crucial need for the modern church is that we begin to involve all believers in meaningful, personal, daily Bible study for themselves. This involves the church training them in interpretive techniques which they can comprehend and implement.
“The challenge to the church is to stress individual study of the Bible among those who believe the Bible” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 13).
This is further stressed:
“In-depth Bible study, as we have seen, is meant for every believer, whether a lay student of the Word or a professional Christian worker. We must remember that God does not require us to be brilliant, but He does require us to be faithful. Spending an extensive amount of time in detailed study of Scripture does not take a genius, but it does take a disciplined believer. Faithfulness and discipline are two sides of the same coin” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 82).
The hermeneutical techniques must be reduced to common sense concepts, for really they should involve nothing more than the normal application of human reason and language skills (Fee 1982, 16; Sire 1980, 51). God wants to communicate to us as badly as believers want to understand His message. The techniques need to balance the individual’s own analytical processes while providing good, reliable reference material as quickly as possible to the process. This is particularly true of historical and cultural background material. Gordon Fee offers these helpful suggestions.
“Let the nonexpert not despair; but let him also be prepared to study, not simply to devotionalize. To study he should use these basic tools: (a) More than one good contemporary translation. This should point out at times where some of the problems lie. He should be sure to use translations which recognize the differences between prose and poetry and are aware of paragraphs. (b) At least one good commentary, especially one that takes into account the hermeneutical principles offered in this paper (e.g., C. K. Barrett, on I Cor.; F. F. Bruce, on Hebrews; R. D. Brown on John). Again, consulting several will usually apprise one of various options. (c) His own common sense. Scripture is not filled with hidden meanings to be dug out by miners in dark caves. Try to discover what is plainly intended by the biblical author. This intention usually lies close to the surface and needs only a little insight into grammar or history to become visible. Very often it lies right on the surface and the expert misses it because he is too prone to dig first and look later. At this point the nonexpert has much to teach the expert (Gordon Fee in Interpreting the Word of God,” quoted in Schultz and Inch 1976, 127).
For many laypersons there is a growing apathy and indifference to personal Bible study. Many are willing for someone else to interpret the Bible for them. This flies in the face of the biblical principle of “the priesthood of the believer,” which was so enthusiastically reinforced by the Reformation. We are all responsible to know God through Christ and to understand for ourselves His will for our lives (i.e., soul competency). We dare not delegate this awesome responsibility to another, no matter how much we respect that person. We will all give an account to God for our understanding of the Bible and how we have lived it (cf. II Cor. 5:10).
Why is the prevalence toward pre-digested Bible study (sermons, commentaries) so evident today? First, I think the large number of interpretations so readily available in western culture has caused great confusion. It seems that no one agrees about the Bible. This is certainly not the case. However, one must distinguish between major, historical Christian truths and peripheral issues. The major pillars of the Christian faith are shared by all Christian denominations. By this I mean the doctrines related to the person and work of Christ, God’s desire to save, and the central place of the Bible and other similar truths which are common to all Christians. Laypeople must be trained to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. Just because there are so many interpretations does not relieve us of the responsibility of choosing the ones which are most in line with an inspired biblical author’s intent expressed in a biblical context.
Not only is the variety of interpretations a barrier, but also the interpreter’s denominational traditions. Often, laypeople think they know what the Bible means before they study it or even read it for themselves. Often, we become so comfortable in a theological system that we forget the problems these man-made systems have caused throughout the history of the Church. Also, we forget how many different, often seemingly conflicting, systems there are in the Christian community. We dare not limit ourselves to that with which we are familiar! We must force ourselves to remove the glasses of denominational and cultural tradition and view the Bible in light of its own day. Denominational and cultural traditions can be helpful, but they must always be subject to the Bible, not vice versa. It is painful to reexamine what we have been told, but it is crucial that we do so, individually, apart from parents, pastor, teacher, spouse, or friends.
We must realize that we have all been affected, not only by our parents, our place of birth, our time of birth, but also by our personal experiences and personality type. These all greatly influence how we interpret the Bible. We cannot change or eliminate these factors, but we can recognize their presence, which will help us not to be unduly influenced by them. We are all historically conditioned.
There was a time in America when the laity knew the Bible as well as the preachers, but in our day of specialization and the encroachment of mass media on our time, we have opted for the expert. However, in biblical interpretation we must do it for ourselves. This does not mean that we do not consult the gifted, called, and trained Christian leaders, but we must not allow their interpretation to become ours without prayerful, personal, biblical analysis. We are all affected by sin, even after we are saved. This affects every aspect of our understanding about God and His purposes. We must recognize the major truth that our understanding is never God’s understanding. We must cling to the major pillars of Christianity, but allow maximum expression of interpretation and practice in peripheral or non-essential areas. We must each decide where the boundaries are located and live appropriately, by faith, by love, in the light we have from Scripture.
In summary, it seems to me that the church must devote more energy to communicating the principles for adequately understanding the Bible’s ancient, inspired author’s intent. We as Bible readers must also reduce our experiential, parochial, denominational, tradition-bound presuppositions in order to truly seek the message of the inspired biblical writers, even when these might violate our personal biases or denominational traditions. We must leave our popular “proof texting” techniques for a true contextual interpretation of the original biblical authors. The only inspired person in biblical interpretation is the original author(s).
Believers must reexamine their goals and motives in light of Eph. 4:11-16. May God help us move into the fullness of His Word in thought and deed.
As a pastor for fifteen years, a university professor for sixteen, I have had ample opportunity to observe and discuss hermeneutical issues with Christians from several denominational groups. I have pastored in Southern Baptist churches and taught at three Southern Baptist schools (Wayland Baptist University extension, Lubbock, Texas; The Hispanic School of Theology, Lubbock, Texas; and East Texas Baptist University, Marshall, Texas), and a charismatic junior college level Bible school (Trinity Bible Institute, Lubbock, Texas). Since retirement I have taught courses for several years at the OMS Emmaus Seminary in Cap Haitian, Haiti; the Baptist Armenian Seminary in Yerevan, Armenia, and the interdenominational seminary in Novi Sod, Serbia. Also, I am an associate member of the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church of America. I did my doctoral work at an interdenominational seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area. This has allowed me to minister across denominational lines for several years. One common theme has developed in these discussions and that is the obvious lack of training in hermeneutical concepts and procedures. Most Christians, in interpreting the Bible, rely on
4. denominational indoctrination
5. personal experience
6. cultural conditioning
There is a desperate need for a consistent, verifiable, textually-oriented hermeneutical approach to biblical interpretation. It is crucial that the hermeneutical principles be presented in (1) non-technical language; (2) simply stated principles; and (3) principles that can be demonstrated with several relevant biblical examples.
Laypersons readily respond to a simplified hermeneutical approach which can be demonstrated to provide a more consistent, verifiable procedure for personally interpreting the Scriptures. Most laypersons sense the relativity of much of the Bible study with which they are presented, from local churches, Christian literature and also from broadcast media (radio and television). I have taught hermeneutics in several settings.
1. citywide seminars
2. local church seminars
3. Sunday School classes
4. junior college classrooms
5. university classrooms
In each of these settings I have found laypersons to be open and eager to respond to a consistent, verifiable approach to Bible study. There is a real hunger to understand the Bible and live in light of its teachings. There is also a real frustration because of
1. the multiplicity of interpretations
2. the relativity of interpretations
3. the denominational arrogance connected with certain interpretations
4. the lack of ability to verify what they have been told in God’s name
This Textbook is not designed to be a technical, exhaustive, academic presentation of hermeneutics, but an introduction to the average believer to the Contextual/Textual approach of the textually-oriented school of interpretation (i.e., Antioch of Syria) and the personal application of these principles into daily study and life. The Introduction will focus on five specific areas.
1. the need for hermeneutical training
2. the Contextual/Textual principles of biblical hermeneutics
3. some major pitfalls in contemporary hermeneutics
4. some guiding methodological procedures, and
5. the Bible study resources which are available to the modern English speaking layperson
This Textbook is designed to raise the interest and desire of Christians to interpret the Scriptures for themselves. It is admittedly only a beginning step, but a crucial step nevertheless. The Bibliography provides numerous additional sources for further study in Bible study techniques. The recognition that there is a problem in our current popular methods of biblical interpretation and that there is a more consistent, verifiable approach available to laypersons is the major goal of this Textbook. Because the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, hopefully this Introduction will start laypersons on the right path of the exciting and fulfilling task of lifestyle, daily, personal Bible study.
The question of whether or not there is a God has never really been an issue for me personally. I, following the biblical writers, have assumed the existence of God. I have never felt the need for a philosophical argument to bolster my faith at this point. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for God are helpful to those who seek evidence from rationalism. However, even the philosophical necessity arguments do not really prove the existence of the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. At best they posit a logical necessity, an unmoved mover, or a prime cause.
Also, the question about whether we can know God (Greek philosophy) has never been a major concern for me. I have assumed that God is trying to communicate to us. This is not only true in natural revelation: (1) God’s witness in creation (Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20) and (2) mankind’s inner moral witness (Rom. 2:14-15), but uniquely in God’s written revelation (II Tim. 3:15-17). God has spoken to us through events, laws, and prophets (cf. Matt. 5:17-19). He has spoken supremely in His Son (John 1:1-14; Heb. 1:1-3; Matt. 5:21-48).
The major question for me has revolved around what God is saying. This concern developed very early in my Christian life. Desiring to know the Bible I was appalled at all the different interpretations of Scripture. It seemed that everyone had his own opinion about the Bible, often based on individual personality type, denominational background, personal experience, or parental training. They were all so convinced and convincing. I began to wonder if one could really know, with any degree of certainty, what God was saying.
In seminary I was finally introduced to the concept of “biblical authority.” It became clear to me that the Bible was the only basis for faith and practice. This was not just a cliche to defend one’s traditional methodologies and theologies. It was really a specific answer to the issue of authority.
Even after accepting the authority of the Bible as properly interpreted, there still remains the difficult issue of which hermeneutical system is best. The same bewilderment that I felt in the maze of interpretations I found to be present in the area of hermeneutics. As a matter of fact, the divergence of expressed or unexpressed, conscious or unconscious, principles of hermeneutics may really be the cause for the multiplicity of interpretations. Hermeneutical principles were extremely difficult to analyze because they themselves were not inspired, but were developed within differing theological traditions and through historical crises. There are godly interpreters in all of the different systems. How does one decide which system to use? The basic issue for me came down to “verifiability” and “consistency.” I am sure that this is because I live in a day which is dominated by the scientific method. However, there must be some boundaries placed on interpretation. Ambivalence does exist within hermeneutics because it is both a gift (art) and a set of logical guidelines for understanding human languages (science). Whatever one’s principles of interpretation, they must balance these two perspectives.
The Antiochian (Syrian) school of interpretation offered the best available balance. Its contextual/textual focus allows at least some measure of verifiability. There will never be unanimity, but at least it stressed the importance of interpreting the Scriptures in their obvious, normal sense.
It must be admitted that the approach is basically a historical reaction to the allegorical school of Alexandria (Egypt). This is an oversimplification (Silva 1987, 52-53), but it is still helpful to use it in analyzing the two basic approaches of the church to biblical interpretation. The Antiochian school, with its Aristotelian methodology, did provide an adequate rationale for Reformation/ Renaissance interpretation, which set the stage for our modern scientific orientation. The Contextual/Textual approach to interpretation allows the Bible to speak first to its day (one meaning) and then to our day (many applications). It bridges the gap of time and culture in a methodology acceptable to the intellectual community of our day. They accept it because it is basically the same method that is used to interpret all ancient literature and it fits the thought forms of our modern academic mindset.
As hermeneutics became a major concern of my ministry, I began to analyze preaching, teaching, and religious writing more carefully. It was appalling to see the abuses that were occurring in God’s name. The church seemed to be praising the Bible and then perverting its message. This was not only true of the layperson, but also the church’s leadership. It was not an issue of piety, but true ignorance of the basic principles of interpretation. The joy I found in knowing the Bible by means of the original author’s purpose (intent) was simply a non-entity to many wonderful, committed, loving believers. I decided to develop a Textbook in order to introduce laypersons to the basic principles of the Antiochian, contextual/textually-focused method. At that time (1977) there were not very many books available on hermeneutics. This was especially true for the laity. I tried to develop interest by exposing our faulty interpretations as well as our conscious biases. This was combined with a brief explanation of the contextual/textual method and a list of common theological errors encountered in interpretation. Finally, a procedural order was proposed to help someone walk through the different hermeneutical tasks and the appropriate time to consult research tools.
This problem has been on my heart as a pastor and professor for several years. I have been made painfully aware of the decline in general biblical knowledge among believers in our day. This lack of knowledge has been the root cause of many of the problems in the contemporary church. I know that modern believers love God as much as past generations have loved Him and His Word, so what is the cause of the degeneration in our understanding, not only of the content of Scripture, but what it means and how it is applicable today?
In my opinion a sense of frustration has caused the majority of Christians to become indifferent and apathetic about studying and interpreting the Bible. This apathy is discernible in several areas of modern life. One of the major problems is our cultural attitude of consumerism. We as a people are accustomed to instant gratification of our every need. Our culture has turned the “fast food” industry’s mentality into a cultural norm. We are accustomed to a product being readily available and instantaneously consumed. Christian maturity based on Bible knowledge and daily lifestyle cannot accommodate this cultural expectation. Bible knowledge is only available by paying a personal price of prayer, persistence, training, regular study, and personal application. In reality, most modern believers are on the fast track of twenty-first century, materialistic America and are not willing to pay such a personal price.
Also, the non-biblical dichotomy between clergy and laity has accentuated the problem. It almost seems that our “hired gun” mentality has relieved most lay persons of the sense of need to study and understand the Bible personally. “Let the preacher do it” has become our mind set. The problem with this mentality is, “What if the pastor misinterprets?” or “What if you change pastors?” This apathetic attitude circumvents the biblical truth and the Reformation reemphasis (Luther) of the doctrine of “soul competency” (I Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6). It reinforces our “herd society” tendency. It tends to focus spiritual responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. Church leaders become intermediaries or gurus instead of “player coaches” (Eph. 4:11-12). Not only have we as a culture divided life into the secular and the sacred, but we have delegated the sacred to surrogates.
Another major cause for apathy among the majority of modern believers in the area of Bible study is our growing modern trend toward specialization. Bible study has become the technical domain of trained specialists. The principles and procedures are so complicated and involved that one feels incompetent unless he has several PhD. degrees: linguistics, Greek, Hebrew, hermeneutics, and theology. This introduces the danger of “modern gnosticism,” which is spiritual truth available only from an intellectual elite. Of course, even the elite do not agree. It seems that even technical skills do not bring consensus.
This brings us to the next reason for apathy, which is the multiplicity of interpretations. Not only is one confronted with denominational differences, but even within denominations there is a divergence of opinion. It is no wonder that the majority of believers are confused in the face of such disagreement, which is usually presented in such a forceful, dogmatic fashion.
Is it any wonder that there is confusion and reluctance to become involved in the interpretive process? Besides these previously mentioned external factors, there are several internal ones. If there is an apathy about getting involved in Bible study, it almost seems that once the decision is made to overcome that apathy, immediate polarization and exclusivism results. The level of dogmatism among modern western Bible students is very high.
This seems to involve several factors. The first is often related to the spiritual tradition in which one is raised. Often dogmatism is a learned response from our parents or church teachers. This can be either a complete identification with their views and practices or the complete rejection of their position. This transference, assimilation, or negative reaction is usually unrelated to personal Bible study. Often our biases, presuppositions, and á priories are passed on through families.
If parents do not stamp us with their spiritual views, then most assuredly our denomination will. Much that we believe is not a result of personal Bible study, but of denominational indoctrination. Today very few churches systematically teach what they believe and why. This problem is affected not only by denominationalism, but by the geographical location of the denominational church. As it is obvious that the age (post-modernity) in which we live affects our belief system, so too, does our geographical location. Parochialism is as significant as parental or denominational tradition. For over thirty years I have been involved in Partnership Evangelism and have taken church members and students on mission trips to work with my denomination’s churches in foreign countries. I have been amazed how differently churches from the same denominational tradition practice their faith! This really opened my eyes to the denominational, parochial indoctrination (not Bible reading) that has affected all of us.
The second major cause of dogmatism among believers is related to personal factors. As we are affected by time, place, and parents, so too, are we equally impacted by our own personhood. This concept will be developed in some detail in a later section of this Textbook, but it needs to be mentioned at the beginning how much our personality type, personal experience, and spiritual gift affect our interpretations. Often our dogmatism could be expressed by “if it happened to me it ought to happen to you” and “if it has never happened to me, it should never happen to you either.” Both are false!
At this point I need to be as transparent as possible and try to spell out my own operating assumptions. If we are so affected by non-biblical factors, why is this Textbook not just one more in the series? I am not attempting to get you to agree with me, but to provide a more consistent, verifiable methodology for personal, non-technical Bible study. The methodology is not inspired, but it is a developed ancient Christian model. My basic presuppositions are
A. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is from the one and only Creator, Redeemer God. He gave it to us through human instrumentality so that we might know and understand Him and His will for our lives (cf. II Tim. 3:15-17). It is absolutely authoritative.
B. The Bible, like hermeneutics, is not an end in itself, but a means to a personal encounter with God (Grant and Tracy 1984, 177; Carson 1984, 11; Silva 1987, vi). God has clearly spoken to us in the Bible and even more clearly in His Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-3). Christ is the focus of all Scripture. He is its crowning fulfillment and goal. He is Lord of Scripture. In Him revelation is complete and final (John 1:1-18; I Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:13-20).
C. The Bible is written in normal, non-technical human language. Its focus is the obvious, normal meaning of words, clauses, sentences (Silva 1987, 42). The Holy Spirit gave simple statements of truth. This is not to say that the Bible is unambiguous, that it does not contain cultural idioms, or that it does not contain difficult passages and, at this point in time, scribal errors. However, it does not have hidden or secret meanings. It is not contradictory (analogy of faith) although it does contain paradoxical or dialectical tension between truths.
D. The message of the Bible is primarily redemptive and is meant for all humans (Ezek. 18:23,32; John 4:42; I Tim. 2:4; 4:10; II Pet. 3:9). It is for the world, not exclusively for Israel (Gen. 3:15; 12:3; Exod. 19:5-6). It is for the “lost” (fallen) world, not only for the church. It is for the common, average human being, not only for the spiritually or intellectually gifted.
E. The Holy Spirit is an indispensable guide to proper understanding.
1. There must be a balance between human effort and piety (II Tim. 2:15) and the leading of the Spirit (John 14:26; 16:13-14; I John 2:20-21,27).
2. Biblical interpretation is possibly a spiritual gift (like evangelism, giving, or prayer), yet it is also the task of every believer. Although it is a gift, by analyzing the gifted, all of us can do a better job.
3. There is a spiritual dimension beyond human intellectual reach. The original authors often recorded more than they understood (future events, aspects of progressive revelation, and multiple fulfillment prophecy). The original hearers often did not comprehend the inspired message and its implications. The Spirit illumines us to comprehend the basic message of the biblical writers. We may not understand every detail, but then, who does? The Spirit is the true author of all Scripture.
F. The Bible does not speak directly to every modern question (Spire 1980, 82-82). It is ambiguous in many areas. Some of it is locked into the original historical setting (e.g., I Cor. 15:29) and other parts are hidden behind the “not yet” of history (e.g., Dan. 12:4). It must be remembered that the Bible is analogous truth, not exhaustive truth. It is adequate for faith and life. We cannot know everything, either about God or a specific doctrine of Scripture, but we can know what is essential (Silva 1987, 80).
This Textbook is basically an introduction to the Contextual/Textual or Literal method of interpreting the Bible. This method developed in the third century a.d. in Antioch, Syria, in reaction to the Allegorical method, which had previously developed in Alexandria, Egypt. The historical development and explanation of this ancient methodology will be developed in a later session. In this introductory session let me make some general statements about the Antiochian method.
A. It is the only methodology available which provides controls on interpretation which enables others to verify, from the text, a given interpretation. This provides a measure of consistency and assurance that one has interpreted the passage properly in light of the original inspired author’s intent. As Gordon Fee says, “A Bible that can mean anything, means nothing.”
B. This is not a method for scholars or church leaders only, but a means of getting back to the original hearers. These original hearers would have understood the message in their own existential context and cultural milieu. Because of time, language, and culture the task of understanding the original setting and message becomes increasingly difficult (Virkler 1981, 19-20). That which was readily apparent is often lost in history, culture, or idiom. Therefore, knowledge of history and culture becomes crucial. Knowledge of the original language, its structure, and its idioms becomes very helpful. Because of the cultural and linguistic gap we become researchers, or at least, readers of competent researchers.
C. Our first and final task in interpretation is to understand as clearly as possible what the biblical authors were saying to their day, what the original hearers would have understood, and how these truths are applicable to our culture and our personal lives. Apart from these criteria there is no meaningful interpretation!
At this point let me spell out several context and content questions that one should ask every biblical text.
1. What did the original author say? (textual criticism)
2. What did the original author mean? (exegesis)
3. What did the original author say elsewhere on the same subject? (parallel passages)
4. What did the other biblical authors say on the same subject? (parallel passages)
5. How did the original hearers understand the message and respond to it? (original application)
6. How does the original message apply to my day? (modern application)
7. How does the original message apply to my life? (personal application)
A. Sin affects everyone’s interpretation (even after salvation), education, prayer, and systematization. I know it affects mine, but I do not always understand where and how. Therefore, each of us must filter our study through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Look at my examples, ponder my logic, allow me to stretch your concepts.
B. Please do not judge or react to this Textbook based solely on what you have always heard or believed. Allow me the opportunity to at least challenge your traditional understandings. I often tell my classes, “Just because I say something you have never heard does not automatically mean I am weird!”
C. The examples I use are controversial. They are meant to make you think and reexamine your personal theology and Bible study techniques. Please do not become so involved in the illustrations of these hermeneutical principles or exegetical procedures that you miss the methodology I am trying to present. The examples are meant to
1. show alternate interpretations
2. show inappropriateness of interpretations
3. illustrate hermeneutical principles
4. get and keep your attention
D. Please remember that I am not trying to impart to you my personal theology, but to introduce an ancient Christian hermeneutical methodology and its application. I am not seeking your agreement, but am attempting to challenge you into implementing interpretive procedures which may not always answer all of our questions, but which will help in recognizing when one is trying to say too much or too little about a passage of Scripture.
E. This Textbook is not primarily designed for new Christians. It is for believers who are struggling with maturity and are seeking to express their faith in biblical categories. Maturity is a tension-filled process of self examination and lifestyle faith. It is a pilgrimage that never ceases.
Because this Textbook is basically an introduction to contextual and textual principles for interpreting the Bible, it seems obvious that we need to first look at the Bible itself. For the purpose of this study we are going to assume the Spirit’s guidance in canonization (the greatest presupposition).
A. The Author’s General Presuppositions
1. God exists and He wants us to know Him.
2. He has revealed Himself to us.
a. He acted in history (revelation)
b. He chose certain people to record and explain His acts (inspiration)
c. His Spirit helps the reader (hearer) of this written revelation understand its main truths (illumination)
3. The Bible is the only trustworthy source of truth about God (I know about Jesus’ life and teachings only through the Bible). It is collectively our only source for faith and practice. OT and NT books written to specific occasions and times are now inspired guides for all occasions and ages. However, they do contain some cultural truths that do not transcend their own time and culture (i.e., polygamy, holy war, slavery, celibacy, place of women, wearing veils, holy kiss, etc.).
B. I realize that the canonization process is a historical process with some unfortunate incidents and events, but it is my presupposition that God led its development. The early church accepted the recognized books of the OT that were accepted within Judaism. From historical research it seems that the early churches, not the early councils alone, decided the New Testament canon. Apparently the following criteria were involved, either consciously or subconsciously.
1. The Protestant Canon contains all the inspired books; the canon is closed! (i.e., “the faith,” Acts 6:7; 13:8; 14:22; Gal. 1:23; 6:10; Jude vv. 3,20)
a. accepted OT from Jews
b. twenty-seven books in NT (a progressive historical process)
2. New Testament authors are connected to Jesus or an Apostle (a progressive historical process)
a. James and Jude to Jesus (His half brothers)
b. Mark to Peter (turned his sermons at Rome into a Gospel)
c. Luke to Paul (missionary partner)
d. Hebrews traditionally to Paul
3. Theological unity with Apostolic training (later called “rule of faith”). The Gospels were written after most of the other NT books.
a. because of the rise of heresy (i.e., adoptionism, Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism)
b. because of the delayed Second Coming
c. because of the death of the twelve Apostles
4. The permanently and morally changed lives of hearers where these books were read and accepted
5. The general consensus of the early churches and later church councils can be seen in the early lists of canonical books
a. Origen (a.d. 185-254) asserts that there were four Gospels and the Epistles of the Apostles in circulation among the churches.
b. the Muratorian Fragment dates between a.d. 180-200 from Rome (the only copy available today is a damaged, late Latin text). It lists the same 27 books as the Protestant NT (but adds Apocalypse of Peter and Shepherd of Hermas).
c. Eusebius of Caesarea (a.d. 265-340) introduced a threefold designation (as did Origen) to describe Christian writings: (1) “received” and thereby accepted; (2) “disputed” and thereby meaning some churches, but not all, accepted them; and (3) “spurious” and thereby unaccepted in the vast majority of churches and not to be read. The ones in the disputed category which were finally accepted were: James, Jude, II Peter, and II and III John.
d. the Cheltenham list (in Latin) from North Africa (a.d. 360) has the same 27 books (except for Hebrews, James, and Jude [Hebrews is not specifically mentioned, but may be included in Paul’s letters]), as the Protestant NT, but in an unusual order.
e. Athanasius’ Easter Letter of a.d. 367 is the first to list exactly the same 27 books (no more, no less) as the Protestant NT.
f. The concept and contents of an authoritative list of unique books was a historical and theological development.
6. Suggested reading
a. The Canon of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger, published by Oxford Press
b. Articles on canon in Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 709-745
c. Introduction to the Bible by William E. Nix and Norman Geisler, published by Moody Press, 1968 (esp. the chart on p. 22)
d. Holy Writings – Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity by John Barton, published by Westminster John Knox Press.
7. The Old and New Testaments are the only literary productions of the Ancient Near East that were “canonized” as especially coming from and revealing divine purposes. There are no other religious lists which differentiate between canonical (i.e., authoritative) vs. non-canonical religious writings. How, why, and when did this historical process happen?
a. Was it by the decisions of the church councils of the third and fourth centuries a.d.?
b. Was it by the use of Christian writers of the second century?
c. Was it by the churches of the late first through fourth centuries?
In our day of conflicting claims and statements about the Bible, biblical authority, and interpretation, it becomes extremely important that we focus on what the Bible claims for itself. Theological and philosophical discussions and their claims are interesting, but not inspired. Human categories and formulations have always been guilty of overstatement. It is crucial that we allow the Bible to speak for itself.
Since Jesus is the focus of our faith and doctrine, if we could find Him speaking on this subject it would be very informative. He did this in Matt. 5:17-19 in an opening section of the so-called “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). He spells out clearly His view of the body of sacred literature which we call the Old Testament. Notice His emphasis on its eternality and significance for the life and faith of believers. Also notice His central place in its purpose and fulfillment. This passage not only supports a divinely inspired Old Testament, but a supreme focusing of that revelation in Himself (Christocentric typology). However, it is also readily noticeable that in vv. 21-26, 27-31, 33-37, and 38-40 that He completely reorients the traditional interpretation of the Old Testament among rabbinical Judaism of His day. The Scripture itself is inspired, eternal, and Christocentric, but our human interpretations are not. This is an extremely valuable foundational truth. The Bible, not our understanding of it, is what is eternal and inspired. Jesus intensified the traditional, rule-focused application of the Torah and raised it to the impossible level of attitude, motivation, and intent.
The classical statement of biblical inspiration comes from the Apostle to the Gentiles, Saul of Tarsus. In II Timothy 3:15-16 Paul specifically states the “God-givenness” (literally, God-breathed) of Scripture. At this point it is textually uncertain if he would have included all the New Testament writings that we know in this statement. However, by implication, they are surely included. Also, II Pet. 3:15-16 includes Paul’s writings in the category of “Scripture.”
Another supporting Scripture passage from Paul concerning inspiration is found in
I Thess. 2:13. Here, as before, the focus is on God as the real source of the Apostle’s words. This same truth is echoed by the Apostle Peter in II Pet. 1:20-21.
Not only are the Scriptures presented as divine in origin, but also in purpose. All Scripture is given to believers for their faith and life (Rom. 4:23-24; 15:4; I Cor. 10:6, 11; I Pet. 1:10-12).
Much of our misunderstanding concerning Scripture begins in our mistaken notions concerning its purposes. One way to establish what a thing is is to state what it is not. The fallen human tendency toward legalism, so evident among the Pharisees, is alive and well and lives in your home church. This tendency turns the Bible into an extensive set of rules. Modern believers have almost turned the Scriptures into a legalistic rule book, a kind of “Christian Talmud.” It must be stated forcibly that the Scriptures’ primary focus is redemptive. It is meant to confront, convince, and turn wayward mankind back to God (McQuilkin 183, 49). The primary focus is salvation (II Tim. 3:15), which issues in Christlikeness (II Tim. 3:17). This Christlikeness is also a major goal (Romans 8:28-29; II Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; Eph. 1:4;
I Thess. 3:13; 4:3; I Pet. 1:15), but it is a result of the first goal. At least one possibility for the structure and nature of the Bible is its redemptive purpose and not a systematized rule book or doctrine book (i.e., not a Christian Talmud). The Bible does not address all of our intellectual questions. Many issues are addressed in ambiguous or incomplete ways. The Bible was not designed primarily as a systematic theology book, but as a selective history of God’s dealing with His rebellious creation. Its purpose is not merely rules, but relationship. It leaves areas uncovered so that we are forced to walk in love (I Corinthians 13), not rules (Col. 2:16-23). We must see the priority of people made in His image (cf. Gen. 1:26-27), not rules. It is not a set of rules, but a new character, a new focus, a new life that is presented.
This is not to imply that the Bible does not contain rules, because it does, but they do not cover every area. Often rules become barriers instead of bridges in mankind’s search for God. The Bible provides us with enough information to live a God-pleasing life; it also provides us some guidelines or boundaries. Its primary gift, however, is the “Guide,” not the guidelines. Knowing and following the Guide until you become like Him is the second goal of Scripture.
Another example of modern mankind’s attempt to ask questions of Scripture which it is not designed to answer is in the area of modern scientific inquiry. Many want to force the Scriptures onto the philosophical grid of natural law, particularly in relation to the “scientific method” of inductive reasoning. The Bible is not a divine textbook on natural law. It is not anti-scientific; it is pre-scientific! Its primary purpose is not in this area. Although the Bible is not speaking directly to these questions it does speak about physical reality, however, it does so in the language of description (i.e., phenomenological language), not science. It describes reality in terms of its own day. It presents a “world view” more than a “world picture.” This means that it focuses more on “the who” than on “the how.” Things are described as how they appear (i.e., the five senses) to the common person. Some examples are
1. Do the dead really live in the ground? The Hebrew culture, like our own, buries their dead. Therefore, in the language of description, they were in the earth (Sheol or Hades).
2. Does the land really float on water? This is often connected to the three-storied universe model. The ancients knew that water was present underground (i.e., oasis). Their conclusion was expressed in poetic language.
3. Even we, in our day, speak in these categories.
a. “the sun rises”
b. “dew falls”
Some books which have really helped me in this area are
1) Religion and the Rise of Modern Science by R. Hooykaas
2) The Scientific Enterprise and the Christian Faith by Malcolm A. Jeeves
3) The Christian View of Science and Scripture by Bernard Ramm
4) Science and Hermeneutics by Vern S. Poythress
5) Darwinism on Trial by Phillip Johnson
6) Several good books by Hugh Ross, Pensacola Bible Church, Pensacola, FL
7) Science and Faith: An Evangelical Dialogue by Henry Poe and Jimmy Davis
8) The Battle of Beginnings by Del Ratzsch
9) Coming to Peace with Science by Daniel Falk
10) Mere Christianity: Science and Intelligent Design by William Demoski
Not only is the Bible not a rule book or a science book, but it is not a magic book either. Our love for the Bible has caused us to handle it in some very strange ways. Have you ever sought God’s will by praying and then letting your Bible fall open to a page and then put your finger on a verse? This common practice treats the Bible as if it were a crystal ball or divine “Ouija board.” The Bible is a message, not a modern Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30). Its value is in its message, not in its physical presence. As Christians, we take our Bible into the hospital with us, not so we can read it, because we are too sick. We do so because it represents God’s presence to us. For many modern Christians the Bible has become a physical idol. Its physical presence is not its power, but its message about God in Christ. Placing your Bible on your surgical incision will not help it heal faster. We do not only need the Bible beside our bed; we need its message in our hearts.
I have even heard people get upset if someone drops a Bible or if someone writes in it. The Bible is nothing more than cow skin (if you have an expensive one), tree pulp, and ink. It is only holy in its connection to God. The Bible is useless unless it is read and followed. Our culture is reverent toward the Bible and rebellious toward God. Earlier in our court system one had to swear to tell the truth while holding his hand on the Bible. If one is a believer he would not lie anyway. If one is swearing on an ancient book in which he did not believe and whose content he did not know, what makes us think that he would not lie?
The Bible is not a magical charm. It is not a detailed, complete, unabridged textbook on natural phenomena and it is not “Hoyle’s” rule book on the game of life with detailed instructions in every area. It is a message from the God who acts within human history. It points toward His Son and it points its finger at our rebellion.
Even though the Bible has been abused by mankind’s expectations and usages, it is still our only guide for faith and practice. I would like to state my presuppositions about the Bible.
I believe the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is the only clear self-revelation of God. The New Testament is the perfect fulfillment and interpreter of the Old Testament (we must view the OT through the new revelations of Jesus and the NT, which radically universalize the promises to Israel). I believe the one and only Eternal, Creator, Redeemer God initiated the writing of our canonical Scriptures by inspiring certain chosen persons to record and explain His acts in the lives of individuals and nations. The Bible is our only clear source of information about God and His purposes (I know about Jesus only from the pages of the NT). Natural revelation (cf. Job 38-39; Ps. 19:1-6; Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15) is valid, but not complete. Jesus Christ is the capstone of God’s revelation about Himself (cf. John 1:18; Col. 1:14-16; Heb. 1:2-3). The Bible must be illuminated by the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:23; 16:20-21; I Cor. 2:6-16) in order to be correctly understood (in its spiritual dimension). Its message is authoritative, adequate, eternal, infallible, and trustworthy for all believers. The exact mode of its inspiration has not been revealed to us, but it is obvious to believers that the Bible is a supernatural book, written by natural people under special leadership.
Although the above statement is presuppositional, as is all human knowledge, it does not mean that there is no credible supportive evidence. At this point let us examine some of this evidence.
A. The Bible contains very precise predictions (historical, not typological [Hosea 11:1] or apocalyptic [Zechariah 9]) about future events, not in vague formulations, but in specific and often shocking preciseness. Two good examples follow.
1. The area of Jesus’ ministry was predicted to be in Galilee, Isa. 9:1. This was very unexpected by Judean Jewry because Galilee was not considered to be quite Kosher because of its physical distance from the Temple. Yet, the majority of Jesus’ ministry was spent in this geographical area.
2. The place of Jesus’ birth is specifically recorded in Micah 5:2. Bethlehem was a very small village whose only claim to fame was that the family of Jesse lived there. Yet, 750 years before the birth of Jesus the Bible specifically pinpoints this as the birthplace of the Messiah. Even the rabbinical scholars of Herod’s court knew this (Matt. 2:4-6). Some may doubt the 8th century b.c. date for both Isaiah and Micah, however, because of the Septuagint (which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture, which was begun about 250-200 b.c.), even at the very minimum these prophecies were made over 200 years before their fulfillment.
B. Another evidence relates to the modern scientific discipline of archaeology. The last few decades have seen a tremendous amount of archaeological discovery. To my knowledge there have not been any finds that have repudiated the Bible’s historical accuracies (Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert, p. 31, “No archaeological discovery has ever been made that contradicts or controverts historical statements of Scripture”), quite the contrary. Archaeology has facilitated confidence in the historicity of the Bible over and over again.
1. One example is the use of Mesopotamian names in the Nuzi and Mari Tablets of the second millennium b.c., which also occur in Genesis. Now these are not the same people, but the same names. Names are characteristic of a particular time and place. The names “Terah” and “Nahor” are common to the biblical record and in these ancient tablets.
2. The existence of a Hittite civilization in Asia Minor is another example. For many years (19th century) secular history had no references to the stable, highly developed culture known by this name (Archer 1982, 96-98, 210). However, Genesis 10 and the historical books of the Bible mention them many times (II Kings 7:6,7; II Chr. 1:17). Archaeology has since confirmed, not only their existence, but their longevity and power (i.e., 1950 archeologists found royal library of 2,000 cuneiform tablets where the nation was called both Anatolia and Hittite).
3. The existence of Belshazzar, the last Babylonian king (Daniel 5), has often been denied. There are ten lists of Babylonian kings in secular history taken from Babylonian documents, but none contain Belshazzar’s name. With further archaeological finds it became obvious that Belshazzar was co-regent and the official in charge during that period of time. His father, Nabonidus, whose mother was the high priestess of the moon goddess, Zin, had become so involved in the worship of Zin (Nana) that he had moved to Tema (Arabia), her holy city, while on a ten-year military campaign against Egypt. He left his son, Belshazzar, to reign in the city of Babylon in his absence.
C. A further evidence for a supernatural Bible is the consistency of its message. This is not to say that the Bible does not contain some paradoxical material, but it also does not contradict itself. This is amazing when one considers that it was written over a 1600/1400 year period (depending on the date of the Exodus, i.e., 1495, 1290 b.c.) by authors of radically different educational and cultural backgrounds from Mesopotamia to Egypt. It is composed of various literary genres and is written in three separate languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). Yet, even with all of this variety, a unified message (i.e., plot line) is presented.
D. Finally, one of the most marvelous evidences for the Bible’s unique inspiration is the permanently morally changed lives of men and women from different cultures, different educational levels, and different socio-economic levels through history. Wherever the Bible has simply been read, radical, permanent lifestyle changes have occurred. The Bible is its own best apologist.
The above does not mean to imply that it is easy to understand or that there are not some problems connected with the Bible. Because of the nature of human language, hand copied manuscripts combined with the problem of translation, our modern Bibles must be interpreted in an analytical fashion.
The first problem to confront the modern Bible reader is the manuscript variations which exist. This is not only true of the Hebrew Old Testament, but also the Greek New Testament. This subject will be discussed in a more practical manner in a later chapter, but for now let us look at the problem. It is often called Textual Criticism. It basically tries to decide the original wording of the Bible. Some good books concerning this problem are:
A. Biblical Criticism: Historical, Literary and Textual by B. K. Walke, D. Guthrie, Gordon Fee, and R. H. Harrison
B. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration by Bruce M. Metzger
C. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism and Scribes, Scrolls, and Scriptures, by J. H. Greenlee
D. The Books and the Parchments by F. F. Bruce
E. The Early Versions of the New Testament by Bruce Metzger
F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce
G. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism by D. A. Carson
H. Ancient Orient and Old Testament by K. A. Kitchen
I. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture by Bart D. Ehrman
J. Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism edited by David Alan Beach
The modern text of the Old Testament in Hebrew is called the Masoretic Text (the consonantal text set by Rabbi Aquiba in a.d. 100). It was probably the text used by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who were the only religious group that survived the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in a.d. 70. Its name comes from a group of Jewish scholars who put vowel points, punctuation marks, and some textual comments into the ancient, unpointed (no vowels) Hebrew text (finished in the 9th century a.d.). Following is a brief outline of OT and NT sources.
1. Masoretic Text (MT) – The Hebrew consonantal textual form was set by Rabbi Aquiba in a.d. 100. The addition of vowel points, accents, marginal notes, punctuation, and apparatus notes was finished in the 9th century a.d. by Masoretic scholars. This textual form is quoted in the Mishnah, Talmud, Targums (Aramaic translation), Peshitta (Syriac translation), and Vulgate (Latin translation).
2. Septuagint (LXX) – Tradition says it was produced by 70 Jewish scholars in 70 days for the library of Alexandria, Egypt. It was supposedly requested by a Jewish leader of King Ptolemy II living in Alexandria (285-246 b.c.). The Ptolemy rulers of Egypt boasted of the largest library in the world. This tradition comes from “Letter of Aristeas.” The LXX provides a differing Hebrew textual tradition from the text of Rabbi Aquiba (MT). Both traditions are represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The problem comes when these two texts do not agree. And, in books like Jeremiah and Hosea, they are radically different. Since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, it has become obvious that both the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint have ancient manuscript attestation. Usually the Masoretic Text is accepted as the basic text for the Old Testament and the Septuagint is allowed to supplement it in difficult passages or corrupted readings.
a. The LXX has helped in the understanding of the MT (one example):
(1) the LXX of Isa. 52:14, “as many shall be amazed at him”
(2) the MT of Isa. 52:14, “just as many were astonished over you”
b. The DSS have helped in the understanding of the MT (one example):
(1) the DSS (IQ Isaiah) of Isa. 21:8 – “then the seer cried, upon a watchtower I stand…”
(2) the MT of Isa. 21:8 – “and I cried a lion! My Lord, I always stand on the watchtower by day…”
c. Both the LXX and DSS have helped our understanding of Isa. 53:11
(1) LXX and DSS – “after the travail of his soul he will see light, he will be satisfied”
(2) MT – “he shall see of the travail of his soul. He shall be satisfied” (The MT doubled the verb, but left out the first object).
We do not have the autographs or original manuscripts of any of the original biblical authors, only copies of copies of copies.
3. Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) – Written in the Roman b.c. period, close to New Testament times by a sect of Jewish separatists (they left temple worship because the current high priest was not of the line of Aaron), called “Essenes.” The Hebrew manuscripts (MSS) were found in 1947 in several cave sites around the Dead Sea. They contain the Hebrew textual family behind both the MT and the LXX.
Another problem in this area is the discrepancy between the Masoretic Text and the Old Testament quotes in the New Testament. One good example would be a comparison of Num. 25:9 and I Cor. 10:8. The OT reference states that 24,000 died, while Paul states that 23,000 died. Here we are faced with the problem of an ancient text which was copied by hand. This could be a scribal error in transmission or it could be a quotation from memory by Paul or a rabbinical tradition. I know it is painful to us (because of our presuppositions about inspiration) to find discrepancies such as this, but the truth of the matter is that our modern translations of the Bible have some minor problems of this type.
A similar problem is found in Matt. 27:9, where an OT quote is referred to Jeremiah, when it seems to come from Zechariah. To show you how much disagreement this has caused let me give you some of the supposed reasons for this discrepancy.
1. The 5th century Syriac version called the Peshitta simply removes the name “Jeremiah.”
2. Augustine, Luther, and Keil assert an error in Matthew’s text.
3. Origen and Eusebius assert an error by a copyist.
4. Jerome and Ewald assert that it is a quote from an apocryphal work attributed to Jeremiah which was lost and that it was not a quote from Zechariah at all.
5. Mede asserts that Jeremiah wrote Zechariah 9-11.
6. Lightfoot asserts that Jeremiah was listed as the first of the prophets; in this designation all other prophets were implied.
7. Hengstenberg asserts that Zechariah quoted Jeremiah.
8. Calvin asserts that an error has crept into the text in an unknown way.
With so many theories from learned, godly men it is obvious that we simply do not know. To deny the problem (#1) is not an answer either. To hide behind cliches or presuppositions also does not solve the problem. Our modern translations of the Bible have some problems which we must try to sort out. For the layperson this can often be done by comparing modern translations. A simple practical suggestion would be, if in the margin of your modern study Bible it says, “not in the oldest and best Greek manuscripts,” just do not build a doctrine on this text. Find the parallel passages where the doctrine is clearly taught.
Over 5,300 manuscripts (whole or fragmentary) of the Greek New Testament are in existence today. About 85 of these are written on papyri. There are 268 (uncial) manuscripts written in all capital letters. Later, about the ninth century a.d., a running script (minuscule) was developed. The Greek manuscripts written in this form number about 2,700. We also have about 2,100 copies of lists of Scripture texts used in worship that are called lectionaries. The following is a brief outline of NT sources.
1. The Papyri – About 85 Greek manuscripts containing parts of the New Testament are extant, written on papyrus, dating from the second century a.d., but most are from the third and fourth centuries a.d. None of these manuscripts contain the whole New Testament. Some are done by professional scribes, but many of them are hastily copied by less exacting copyists. Just being old does not, in and of itself, make it more accurate.
2. Codex Sinaiticus – is known by the Hebrew “A” (aleph), À, or (01). It was found at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai by Tischendorf. It dates from the fourth century a.d. It contains both the Old and New Testaments. It is of “the Alexandrian Text” type, as is Codex B.
3. Codes Alexandrinus – is known as “A” (alpha) or (02). It is a fifth century a.d. manuscript which was found at Alexandria, Egypt. Only the Gospels are of “the Alexandrian text” type.
4. Codex Vaticanus – is known as “B” or (03), was found in the Vatican’s library in Rome and dates from the middle of the fourth century a.d. It contains both the Old and New Testaments. It is of “The Alexandrian Text” type, as is Codex À. Its roots go back into the second century from P75.
5. Codex Ephraemi – is known as “C” or (04), is a fifth century a.d. manuscript which was partially destroyed. Its roots go back to the third century P45. Codex W, from the fifth century is also of this textual family.
6. Codex Bezae – is known as “D” or (05), is a fifth or sixth century a.d. manuscript. Its roots, according to Eldon Jay Epp, go back into the second century, based on the Old Latin and Old Syriac translations, as well as many papyri fragments. However, Kurt and Barbara Eland do not list any papyri connected to this textual family and they put it to the fourth century and no earlier, but they do list a few precursor papyri (i.e., P38, P48, P69). It is the chief representative of what is called “The Western Text.” It contains many additions and was the main Greek witness behind the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, which was the Greek witness for the King James translation.
The NT manuscripts can be grouped into three, possibly four, families of manuscripts that share certain characteristics.
1. Alexandrian “local” text, which includes
a. P75, P66 (about a.d. 200) the Gospels
b. P46 (about a.d. 225) Paul’s letters
c. P72 (about a.d. 225-250) Peter and Jude
d. Codex B, called Vaticanus (about a.d. 325), which includes the entire OT and NT
e. quoted by Origen
f. other manuscripts which show this text type are À, L, W, 33
2. Western text from North Africa which includes
a. quotes from North Africa: Tertullian, Cyprian, and the Old Latin
b. quotes from Irenaeus
c. quotes from Tatian and Old Syriac
d. Codex D “Bezae”
3. Byzantine text
a. reflected in over 80% of the 5,300 manuscripts (mostly minuscules)
b. quoted by leaders from Antioch of Syria: Cappadoceans, Chrysostom, and Therdoret
c. Codex A in the Gospels only
d. Codex E (eighth century) for the full NT
4. the fourth possible type is “Caesarean”
a. primarily seen in Mark
b. some witnesses to it are P45, W, H
1. How did the variants occur?
a. inadvertent or accidental (vast majority of occurrences)
(1) slip of the eye
(a) in hand copying, which reads the second instance of two similar words and, thereby, omits all of the words in between (homoioteleuton)
(b) in omitting a double letter word or phrase (haplography)
(c) in hand copying, a mental error in repeating a phrase or line of a Greek text (dittography)
(2) slip of the ear in hand copying by oral dictation, where a misspelling occurs (itacism) in similar sounding words. Often the misspelling implies or spells another Greek word
(3) the earliest Greek texts had no chapter or verse divisions, little or no punctuation, and no division between words. It is possible to divide letters into different words
(1) changes were made to improve the grammatical form of the text copied
(2) changes were made to bring the text into conformity with other biblical texts (harmonization of parallels)
(3) changes were made by combining two or more variant readings into one long combined text (conflation)
(4) changes were made to correct a perceived problem in the text (cf. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 146-50, concerning Heb. 2:9)
(5) changes were made to make the text more doctrinally orthodox (cf. I John 5:7-8)
(6) some additional information as to the historical setting or proper interpretation of the text was placed in the margin by one scribe, but placed into the text by a second scribe (cf. John 5:4)
1. the most awkward or grammatically unusual text is probably the original because the scribes tended to make the text smoother
2. the shortest text is probably the original because scribes tended to add additional information or phrases from parallel passages (this has recently been challenged by papyrus comparative studies)
3. the older text is given more weight because of its historical proximity to the original, everything else being equal
4. manuscripts that are geographically diverse usually have the original readings
5. attempts to explain how variants could have occurred. This is considered the most important tenet by most scholars.
6. analysis of a given biblical author’s literary style, vocabulary, and theology is used to decide probable original wording.
7. doctrinally weaker texts, especially those relating to major theological discussions during the period of manuscript changes, like the Trinity in I John 5:7-8, are to be preferred. At this point I would like to quote from J. Harold Greenlee’s book, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism.
“No Christian doctrine hangs upon a debatable text; and the student of the New Testament must beware of wanting his text to be more orthodox or doctrinally stronger than is the inspired original” (p. 68).
8. W. A. Criswell told Greg Garrison of THE BIRMINGHAM NEWS that he (Criswell) doesn’t believer every word in the Bible is inspired, “at least not every word that has been given to the modern public by centuries of translators.” Criswell further said, “I very much am a believer in textual criticism. As such, I think the last half of the 16th chapter of Mark is heresy: it’s not inspired, it’s just concocted…when you compare those manuscripts way back yonder, there was no such thing as that conclusion of the Book of Mark. Somebody added it…”
The patriarch of the SBC inerrantists also claimed that “interpolation” is also evident in John 5:4, the account of Jesus at the pool of Bethesda. And he discusses the two different accounts of the suicide of Judas (cf. Matt. 27 and Acts 1), “It’s just a different view of the suicide,” Criswell said. “If it is in the bible, there is an explanation for it. And the two accounts of the suicide of Judas are in the Bible.” Criswell added, “Textual criticism is a wonderful science in itself. It is not ephemeral, it’s not impertinent. It’s dynamic and central…”
An additional problem with our modern English copies of the Bible is that from the time of the original authors until the invention of the printing press, the Bible was copied by hand. Often these copyists added their own thoughts or “corrected” the manuscript they were copying. This has caused several non-original additions to the New Testament.
1. Mark 16:9ff – In the Greek manuscripts of Mark there are four different endings. The longest ending of twelve verses found in King James is missing in manuscripts À and B. The Greek texts used by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome also lack this long ending. The long ending is present in manuscripts A, C, D, K, U, and Àc. The earliest witness to this long ending in the Fathers is Irenaeus (ministered from a.d. 177-190) and the Diatessaron (a.d. 180). The passage is obviously non-Markan (i.e., uninspired).
These verses contain terms and theology not found elsewhere in Mark. They even contain heresy (i.e., drinking of poison and handling snakes).
2. John 5:4 – This verse is not in P66, P75, nor the uncial manuscripts À, B, C, or D. However, it is found in A. It was obviously added by a scribe to explain the historical setting. This is likey Jewish folklore answering the question why there were so many sick people around this pool. God does not heal by angels stirring water with the first to enter being rewarded with physical healing.
3. John 7:53-8:11 – This passage does not appear in any of the ancient Greek manuscripts or early church Fathers until the sixth century a.d. in manuscript “D” called Bezae. No Greek church Father, until the twelveth century a.d., comments on this passage. The account is found in several other places in the Greek manuscripts of John, after 7:36, after 7:44, and after 21:25. It also appears in Luke’s Gospel after Luke 21:38. It is obviously non-Johannine (i.e., uninspired). It is probably an oral tradition from the life of Jesus. It sounds so much like Him, but it is not from the pen of an inspired Apostle, therefore, I reject it as Scripture.
4. Matthew 6:13 – This verse is not found in manuscripts À, B, or D. It is present in manuscripts K, L, and W, but with variations. It is also absent from the early church Father’s comments on the Lord’s Prayer (i.e., Tertullian [a.d. 150-230], Origen [a.d.182-251], and Cyprian [a.d. ministered 248-258]). It is found in the King James translation because it was included in Erasmus’ third edition Greek text.
5. Luke 22:43-44 – These verses are found in the ancient Greek uncial manuscripts À*, À2, D, K, L, X, and Delta. They are also found in the quotations of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and Jerome. However, they are omitted in MSS P69[probably],75, Àc, A, N, T, and W, as well as the manuscripts used by Clement of Alexandria and Origen. The UBS4 ranks their omission as “certain” (A).
Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 187-194, assumes these verses are an early second century addition to refute docetic (agnostic) Christologists who denied Christ’s humanity and suffering. The church’s conflict with Christological heresies was the source of many of the early manuscript changes.
The NASB and NRSV bracket these verses, while NKJV, TEV, and NIV have a footnote which says, “some ancient manuscripts omit verses 43 and 44.” This information is unique to Luke’s Gospel.
6. I John 5:7-8 – These verses are not found in manuscripts À, A, or B nor any other Greek manuscript except four dating from the twelveth century a.d. This text is not quoted by any of the Greek Fathers, even in their defense of the concept of the deity of Christ or the Trinity. They are absent from all ancient translations including Jerome’s Vulgate. They were apparently added later by well-meaning copyists in order to bolster the doctrine of the Trinity. They are found in the King James translation because of their inclusion in Erasmus’ third edition (and only this edition) of the Greek New Testament.
Our modern translations of the Bible do have some textual problems. However, these do not affect a major doctrine. We can trust these modern translations of the Bible for all that is necessary for faith and practice. One of the translators of the RSV, F. C. Grant, said, “No doctrine of the Christian faith has been affected by the revision, for the simple reason that, out of thousands of variant readings in the manuscripts, none has turned up thus far that requires a revision of Christian doctrine.” “It is noteworthy that for most scholars over 90% of all the variants of the NT text are resolved, because in most instances the variant that best explains the origins of the others is also supported by the earliest and best witnesses” (Gordon Fee, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, p. 430).
I have cited these examples to show you that we must analyze our English translations (Fee and Stuart 1982, 30-34). They do have textual problems. I do not feel comfortable with these textual variants, but they are a reality. It is reassuring to realize that they are rare and do not affect any major Christian doctrine. Also, in comparison to other ancient literature, the Bible has remarkably few variations.
Besides the problem of manuscript variations there is the added problem of translating one language into anther. In reality all translations are concise commentaries. Possibly an understanding of translation theory will (1) encourage us to use more than one translation in our study and (2) help us know which different translations to compare. There are three basic methods available to translators.
1. A literal approach tries to use a word-for-word correspondence.
2. An idiom-for-idiom approach tries to use clauses or phrases, not words, as the basis to communicate the ancient text.
3. A thought-for-thought approach tries to use concepts instead of actual terms and phrases of the originals.
We can see this more clearly on the following graph.
A good discussion of translation theory is found in Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 34-41. Also, tremendous help in this area is found in the United Bible Societies’ publications by Eugene A. Nida on translation theory and practice.
Not only do we face an uncertain text at some places, but also, if we are not fluent in ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek, we face a variety of English translations. Complicating the problem even more is our own human finitude and sinfulness. Human language itself limits and determines the categories and scope of divine revelation. God has spoken to us in analogies. Human language is adequate to speak about God, but it is not exhaustive or ultimate. We can know God, but with some limits. One good example of this limitation is anthropomorphism, that is, speaking about God in human, physical, or psychological terms. We have nothing else to use. We assert that God is a person and all we know about personhood is in human categories. Some examples of this difficulty follow.
1. anthropomorphism (God described in human terms)
a. God with human body
(1) walking - Gen. 3:8; 18:33; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:14
(2) eyes - Gen. 6:8; Exod. 33:17
(3) man on a throne - Isa. 6:1; Dan.7:9
b. God as female
(1) Gen. 1:2 (Spirit as female bird)
(2) Deut. 32:18 (God as mother)
(3) Exod. 19:4 (God as mother eagle)
(4) Isa. 49:14-15; 66:9-13 (God as nursing mother and also possibly Hos. 11:4)
c. God as advocating lying (cf. I Kgs 22:19-23)
d. NT examples of “God’s right hand” (cf. Luke 22:69; Acts 7:55-56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 13:1; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; I Pet. 3:22)
2. Human titles used to describe God
a. Shepherd (cf. Psalm 23)
b. Father (cf. Isaiah 63:16; Psalm 103:13)
c. Go’el – kinsman redeemer (cf. Exod. 6:6)
d. Lover – husband (cf. Hosea 1-3)
e. Parent, father, and mother (cf. Hos. 11:3-4)
3. Physical objects used to describe God
a. Rock (cf. Psalm 18)
b. Fortress and stronghold (cf. Psalm 18)
c. Shield (cf. Gen. 15:1; Psalm 18)
d. Horn of salvation (cf. Psalm 18)
e. Tree (cf. Hos. 14:8)
4. Language is part of the image of God in mankind, but sin has affected all aspects of our existence, including language.
5. God is faithful and communicates to us adequately, if not exhaustively, knowledge about Himself. This is usually in the form of negation, analogy, or metaphor.
The biggest problem we face in interpreting the Bible, along with the others mentioned, is our sinfulness. We twist everything, including the Bible, to fit and meet our wants. We never have an objective, unaffected view of God, our world, or ourselves. Yet, even with all of these handicaps, God is faithful. We can know God and His Word because He wants us to do so (Silva 1987, 118). He has provided all that we need by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (Calvin). Yes, there are problems, but there are also abounding provisions. The problems should limit our dogmatism and increase our thanksgiving through prayerful, diligent Bible study. The road is not easy, but He walks with us. The goal is Christlikeness, not only a correct interpretation. Interpretation is a means to the goal of knowing, serving, and praising Him who called us out of darkness through His Son (Col. 1:13).
Many Christians would agree that the Bible is the only source for faith and practice. If this is so, why are there so many different interpretations? So many are speaking seemingly conflicting interpretations in God’s name. How do we know who is to be believed? These questions reflect the confusion of the modern Christian community and are a critical issue. How can average believers evaluate what they hear or read—all of which claims to be God’s truth? For me, the answer has come in my presuppositional definition of what “biblical authority” involves. I realize that I am reacting to my own existential circumstances, yet I have no other option. It may bother you that I speak of “presuppositions.” Yet, most, if not all, of the significant questions of life are dealt with in this manner because of the very nature of our human situation. Total objectivity is impossible. One hopes we have not uncritically assimilated our cultural “givens.” In an attempt to limit, not only my own “givens,” but also those of others, I have tried to put some boundaries on the interpretation of the Bible. I realize that this may mean that I will not be able to receive some truth, but I feel it will protect me from cultural, denominational, and experiential misinterpretations. In truth, the contextual/textual method will force us to say less about the Bible, but should help us become more committed to the major pillars of the Christian faith.
For me, “biblical authority” is normally defined as the belief in the God-givenness of the Bible, and thereby, its authority. For me it is also understanding what the biblical author was saying to his day and then applying that truth to my day. This means that I must try to put myself into his day, his reasoning, and his purpose(s). I must try to hear as the original hearers heard. I must struggle with the “then” of the biblical author, book, event, parable, etc. I must be able to show others, from the text of the Bible itself, the how, why, and where of my interpretation. I am not free to let it, or make it, say what I want it to say (Liefeld 1984, 6). It must be free to speak; I must be ready to hear and pass this truth on to the people of my day. Only if I have understood the original author and only if I have transferred the eternal truth to my day and to my life have I participated in true “biblical authority.” There will surely be some disagreements on the “then” and the “now” aspects of interpretation, but we must limit our interpretations to the Bible and verify our understanding from its pages.
One of the plagues of the Protestant Reformation is the multiplicity of interpretations (resulting in modern denominationalism), which resulted from its “back to the Bible” movement. I have no real hope of unanimity on this side of heaven, but we must return to the Scriptures, consistently and verifiably interpreted. We all must walk in our own light, but hopefully we will be able to defend our doctrine (faith) and practice (life) from the Scriptures. The Scriptures must be allowed to speak; speak in light of their literary, grammatical, and historical context. We must defend our interpretations in the light of
A. the normal usage of human language
B. the original author’s intent in the passage
C. the balance of all Scripture
The contemporary curse of proof-texting and spiritualizing has devastated the church. The cults have learned our techniques and how to use them with great effectiveness (Sire, 1980, Scripture Twisting; Carson 1984, Exegetical Fallacies; Silva 1983, Biblical Words and Their Meanings). The hope of this Textbook is not only to give a methodology for interpretation, but also to give you the ability to evaluate other interpretations. We must defend our own interpretations and be able to analyze other’s interpretations. Here is how we do this.
A. The writers of Scripture used normal human language and expected to be understood.
B. Modern interpreters seek the original author’s intent by documenting several types of information.
1. historical and cultural setting of their day
2. literary context (whole book, literary unit, paragraph)
3. genre (historical narrative, prophecy, law, poetry, parable, apocalyptic)
4. textual design (e.g., John 3 - Mr. Religious and John 4 - Ms. Irreligious)
5. syntax (grammatical relationships and forms)
6. original word meanings
a. Old Testament
(1) cognate languages (Semitic languages)
(2) Dead Sea Scrolls
(3) Samaritan Pentateuch
(4) rabbinical writings
b. New Testament
(1) the Septuagint (the NT writers were Hebrew thinkers writing in street Greek)
(2) papyri finds from Egypt
(3) Greek literature
C. The balance of all of Scripture (parallel passages) because it has one divine author (the Spirit).
D. Christlikeness (Jesus is the goal and fulfillment of Scripture. He is both the perfect revelation of Deity and the perfect example of true humanity).
It is a basic presupposition that every text has one and only one proper interpretation and that is the original author’s intent. This authorial meaning had an original application. This application (significance) can be multiplied to different situations, but each one must be inseparably linked to the original intent (cf. The Aims of Interpretation by E.D. Hirsch).
To illustrate my point concerning the pervasiveness of improper hermeneutics (even among evangelicals), consider the following selected examples.
A. Deuteronomy 23:18 is used to prove that believers should not “sell” their dogs. Dogs in Deuteronomy are male prostitutes of the Canaanite fertility cult.
B. II Samuel 9 is used as a metaphor of grace covering our sins as Mephibosheth’s crippled feet are allegorized as “our sin” and David’s table is allegorized as God’s grace covering them from sight (ancient people did not sit with their feet under a table).
C. John 11:44 is used to speak of “things that bind” to refer to inappropriate habits, motives, and actions.
D. I Corinthians 13:8 is used to prove that tongues will cease first and of themselves, when in context, anything but love will cease.
E. Colossians 2:21 is used to prove total abstinence, when it is a quote from the false teachers!
F. Revelation 3:20 is used as an evangelistic passage, when it is addressed to one of the seven churches.
The plague of proof-texting and spiritualizing abounds.
A. “The practice of isolating sentences, thoughts, and ideas from their immediate context is nearly always fatal when applied to Paul. ‘Solitary proof-texts,’ says Professor H. A. A. Kennedy, ‘have wrought more havoc in theology than all the heresies,’” A Man in Christ by James Steward, p. 15.
B. “The proof-text method of interpreting Paul’s letters, which views them as direct revelations of the supernatural will of God conveying to men eternal, timeless truths that need only to be systematized to produce a complete theology, obviously ignores the means by which God has been pleased to give to men his Word,” G. E. Ladd, Theology of the NT, p. 379.
So, what can be done? We must all reexamine our working definition of biblical authority. If our interpretation would have surprised the original author or hearers, it probably surprises God. If we speak in His name, we surely should have paid the price of personal confession, prayer, and diligent study. We do not all need to be scholars, but we do need to be serious, regular, capable students of the Bible (i.e., good Bible readers, see Table of Contents, “A Guide to Good Bible Reading”). Humility, teachableness, and a daily walk of faith will protect us from many a pitfall. Remember, every paragraph has one main truth (words have meaning only in sentences; sentences have meaning only in paragraphs; paragraphs must relate to a specific literary unit). Be careful of overconfidence in interpreting the details (the Spirit will help believers find the main truths of paragraphs)!
We are all historically conditioned. Total objectivity is not possible (Carson, Biblical Interpretation and the Church 1984, 12). However, if we can identify our biases, or at least areas in which they may be found, we are better able to control their influence. There is an excellent discussion of our pre-understanding in Duncan Ferguson’s Biblical Hermeneutics, pp. 6-22.
“Because we all have our prejudices and misconceptions it is all too easy to see in Scripture only what we want to see, and to miss the new and edifying revelation of fuller truth which is God’s purpose for us…It is all too easy to read our own ideas into Scripture instead of getting out of the Scripture what it teaches, which might quite possibly overthrow our ideas (Stibbs 1950, 10-11).
There are many areas from which our presuppositions may come.
A. One major factor is our personality type. This causes many confusions and disagreements among believers. We expect everyone to think and analyze as we do. A very valuable book in this area is Why Christians Fight Over the Bible by John Newport and William Cannon. Some believers are very logical and structured in their thought processes, while others are much more emotional and less prone to details and systems. Yet all believers are responsible to interpret the Bible and live in light of its truths.
B. Another factor is our personal perception of our world and our experience of it. Not only do personality factors affect us, but also our maleness and femaleness. We are learning from the study of brain function how differently men and women perceive their worlds. This will affect how we interpret the Bible. Also, our personal experiences, or the experiences of those close to us, can affect our interpretations. If a unique spiritual experience has happened to us, we will surely look for it on the pages of the Bible and in the lives of others.
C. Closely related to personality difference is spiritual giftedness (I Corinthians 12-14; Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:7,11-12). Often our giftedness is directly related to our personality type (Ps. 139:13-16). Giftedness comes at salvation (I Cor. 12:4,7,11), not physical birth. However, they may be related. Spiritual giftedness is meant to be gracious service (I Cor. 12:7) to our fellow believers, but it often turns into conflict (I Cor. 12:12-30), especially in the area of biblical interpretation. Our personality type also affects how we approach the Scriptures. Some approach the Scriptures looking for systematic categories, while others approach it in a more existential, devotional fashion. Our reason for coming to the Bible often affects our understanding. There is a difference between teaching a Sunday School class for five year olds and preparing a lecture series for a university. However, the process of interpretation should be the same.
D. Another significant factor is our place of birth. There are so many cultural and theological differences even within the United States and this is multiplied by other cultures and nationalities. Often we learn strong biases from our culture, not the Bible. Two good contemporary examples of this are American individualism and capitalism.
E. As the place of our birth affects us, so too, the time of our birth. Culture is a fluid factor. Even those from the same culture and geographical area can be affected by “the generation gap.” If one multiplies this generation gap over centuries and cultures back to the Bible days, the potential for error becomes significant. We are affected by the twenty-first century scientific mindset and our societal form and norms. Every age has “flavor” all its own. However, when we come to the Bible, we must understand its cultural setting for the purpose of interpretation.
F. It is not only geography, time, and culture which affect us, but also our parental training. Parents are so influential and sometimes it is in a negative sense. Their biases are often passed on to their children or else the children totally reject the teachings and lifestyle of the parents. When one adds denominational factors to this mixture, it is clear how presuppositional we can become. The sad division of Christendom into splinter groups, each claiming authority and preeminence over all others, has caused great problems in interpreting the Bible. Many know what they believe the Bible says before they ever read or study it personally, because they have been indoctrinated by a particular perspective. Tradition is neither good nor bad. It is neutral and can be very helpful. However, every generation of believers must be allowed to analyze it in light of the Bible; tradition can protect us or bind us (the movie “Fiddler on the Roof”).
G. Every one of us has been, and continues to be, affected by sin and rebellion, both overtly and inadvertently, knowingly and unknowingly. Our interpretations are always impacted by our spiritual maturity or lack thereof. Even the most Christlike believers are affected by sin and the most carnal believers have the light of the indwelling Spirit. All of us, hopefully, are going to continue to grow in our relationship with God through Christ by means of the Spirit. We must walk in the light we have, always being open to more light from the Scriptures by means of the Spirit. Our interpretations will surely change and modify the longer we live, the more contact we have with God’s people and God Himself.
If you have not had a new thought about God in several years, you are “brain dead”!
At this point I would like to give some concrete examples of the relativity that results from the above mentioned factors.
A. Mixed swimming (boys and girls swimming together) is a real issue in some churches, usually those geographically removed from places where swimming can take place easily.
B. Use of tobacco is a real issue in some churches (especially South America), usually in those geographical places where it is not a major cash crop (believers, often physically out of shape themselves, use tobacco as an excuse to accuse others of hurting their bodies).
C. Use of alcohol in America is an important issue in many church groups, while in parts of Europe and South America it is not an issue. America is more affected by the 1920's temperance movement than by the Bible. Jesus surely drank fermented wine. Are you more “spiritual” than Jesus?
The following is a Special Topic taken from Dr. Utley’s commentaries. You can view and download all of them free at www.freebiblecommentary.org and at bible.org.
I. Biblical Terms
1. Yayin - This is the general term for wine (BDB 406), which is used 141 times. The etymology is uncertain because it is not from a Hebrew root. It always means fermented fruit juice, usually grape. Some typical passages are Gen. 9:21; Exod. 29:40; Num. 15:5,10.
2. Tirosh - This is “new wine” (BDB 440). Because of climatic conditions of the Near East, fermentation started as soon as six hours after extracting the juice. This term refers to wine in the process of fermenting. For some typical passages see Deut. 12:17; 18:4; Isa. 62:8-9; Hos. 4:11.
3. Asis - This is obviously alcoholic beverages (“sweet wine” BDB 779, e.g., Joel 1:5; Isa. 49:26).
4. Sekar - This is the term “strong drink” (BDB 1016). The Hebrew root is used in the term “drunk” or “drunkard.” It had something added to it to make it more intoxicating. It is parallel to yayin (cf. Prov. 20:1; 31:6; Isa. 28:7).
1. Oinos - the Greek equivalent of yayin
2. Eos oinos (new wine) - the Greek equivalent of tirosh (cf. Mark 2:22).
3. Gleuchos vinos (sweet wine, asis) - wine in the early stages of fermentation (cf. Acts 2:13).
II. Biblical Usage
A. Old Testament
1. Wine is a gift of God (Gen. 27:28; Ps. 104:14-15; Eccl. 9:7; Hos. 2:8-9; Joel 2:19,24; Amos 9:13; Zech. 10:7).
2. Wine is a part of a sacrificial offering (Exod. 29:40; Lev. 23:13; Num. 15:7,10; 28:14; Deut. 14:26; Judg. 9:13).
3. Wine is used as medicine (II Sam. 16:2; Prov. 31:6-7).
4. Wine can be a real problem (Noah- Gen. 9:21; Lot- Gen. 19:33,35; Samson- Judg. 16:19; Nabal- I Sam. 25:36; Uriah- II Sam. 11:13; Ammon- II Sam. 13:28; Elah- I Kin. 16:9; Benhadad- I Kin. 20:12; Rulers- Amos 6:6; and Ladies- Amos 4).
5. Wine can be abused (Prov. 20:1; 23:29-35; 31:4-5; Isa. 5:11,22; 19:14; 28:7-8; Hosea 4:11).
6. Wine was prohibited to certain groups (Priests on duty, Lev. 10:9; Ezek. 44:21; Nazarites, Num. 6; and Rulers, Prov. 31:4-5; Isa. 56:11-12; Hosea 7:5).
7. Wine is used in an eschatological setting (Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18; Zech. 9:17).
1. Wine in moderation is very helpful (Ecclesiasticus 31:27-30).
2. The rabbis say, “Wine is the greatest of all medicine, where wine is lacking, then drugs are needed.” (BB 58b).
C. New Testament
1. Jesus changed a large quantity of water into wine (John 2:1-11).
2. Jesus drank wine (Matt. 11:18-19; Luke 7:33-34; 22:17ff).
3. Peter accused of drunkenness on “new wine” at Pentecost (Acts 2:13).
4. Wine can be used as medicine (Mark 15:23; Luke 10:34; I Tim. 5:23).
5. Leaders are not to be abusers of alcohol. This does not mean total abstainers (I Tim. 3:3,8; Titus 1:7; 2:3; I Pet. 4:3).
6. Wine used in eschatological settings (Matt. 22:1ff; Rev. 19:9).
7. Drunkenness is deplored (Matt. 24:49; Luke 11:45; 21:34; I Cor. 5:11-13; 6:10; Gal. 5:21; I Pet. 4:3; Rom. 13:13-14).
III. Theological Insight
A. Dialectical tension
1. Wine is the gift of God.
2. Drunkenness is a major problem.
3. Believers in some cultures must limit their freedoms for the sake of the gospel (Matt. 15:1-20; Mark 7:1- 23; I Cor. 8-10; Rom. 14).
B. Tendency to go beyond given bounds
1. God is the source of all good things.
2. Fallen mankind has abused all of God’s gifts by taking them beyond God-given bounds.
C. Abuse is in us, not in things. There is nothing evil in the physical creation (cf. Mark 7:18-23; Rom. 14:14,20; I Cor. 10:25-26; I Tim. 4:4; Titus 1:15).
IV. First Century Jewish Culture and Fermentation
A. Fermentation begins very soon, approximately 6 hours after the grape is crushed.
1. Jewish tradition says that when a slight foam appeared on the surface (sign of fermentation), it is liable to the wine-tithe (Ma aseroth 1:7). It was called “new wine” or “sweet wine.”
2. The primary violent fermentation was complete after one week.
3. The secondary fermentation took about 40 days. At this state it is considered “aged wine” and could be offered on the altar (Edhuyyoth 6:1).
B. Wine that had rested on its lees (old wine) was considered good but had to be strained well before use.
1. Wine was considered to be properly aged usually after one year of fermentation. Three years was the longest period of time that wine could be safely stored. It was called “old wine” and had to be diluted with water.
C. Only in the last 100 years with a sterile environment and chemical additives has fermentation been postponed. The ancient world could not stop the natural process of fermentation.
V. Closing Statements
1. Be sure your experience, theology, and biblical interpretation does not depreciate Jesus and first century Jewish/Christian culture! They were obviously not total-abstainers.
2. I am not advocating the social use of alcohol. However, many have overstated the Bible’s position on this subject and claim superior righteousness based on a cultural/denominational bias.
3. For me, Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10 have provided insight and guidelines based on love and respect for fellow believers and the spread of the gospel in our cultures, not personal freedom or judgmental criticism. If the Bible is the only source for faith and practice, then maybe we must all rethink this issue.
4. If we push total abstinence as God’s will, what do we imply about Jesus, as well as those modern cultures that regularly use wine (e.g., Europe, Israel, Argentina)?
5. Tithing is often proclaimed as (1) a way to personal wealth, but only in cultures where wealth is possible or (2) a way to avoid God’s judgment.
The following is a Special Topic taken from Dr. Utley’s commentaries.
Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42 are the only NT references to tithing. I do not believe the NT teaches tithing because this entire setting is against “nit-picking” Jewish legalism and self-righteousness. I believe the NT guidelines for regular giving (if there are any) are found in II Cor. 8 and 9, which go far beyond tithing! If a Jew with only the information of the OT was commanded to give ten to thirty percent (there are two, possibly three, required tithes in the OT), then Christians should give far beyond and not even take the time to discuss the tithe!
NT believers must be careful of turning Christianity into a legal performance-oriented code (Christian Talmud). Their desire to be pleasing to God causes them to try to find guidelines for every area of life. However, theologically it is dangerous to pull old covenant rules which are not reaffirmed in the NT (cf. Acts 15) and make them dogmatic criteria, especially when they are claimed (by modern preachers) to be causes of calamity or promises of prosperity (cf. Malachi 3).
Here is a good quote from Frank Stagg, New Testament Theology, pp. 292-293:
“The New Testament does not once introduce tithing into the grace of giving. Tithes are mentioned only three times in the New Testament: (1) in censoring the Pharisees for neglect of justice, mercy, and faith while giving meticulous care to the tithing of even garden produce (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42); (2) in the exposure of the proud Pharisee who ‘prayed to himself,’ boasting that he fasted twice each week and tithed all his possessions (Luke 18:12); and (3) in arguing for the superiority of Melchizedek, and hence of Christ, to Levi (Heb. 7:6-9)
It is clear that Jesus approved tithing as a part of the Temple system, just as in principle and practice he supported the general practices of the Temple and the synagogues. But there is no indication that he imposed any part of the Temple cultus on his followers. Tithes were chiefly produce, formerly eaten at the sanctuary by the one tithing and later eaten by the priests. Tithing as set forth in the Old Testament could be carried out only in a religious system built around a system of animal sacrifice.
Many Christians find the tithe to be a fair and workable plan for giving. So long as it is not made to be a coercive or legalistic system, it may prove to be a happy plan. However, one may not validly claim that tithing is taught in the New Testament. It is recognized as proper for Jewish observance (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42), but it is not imposed upon Christians. In fact, it is now impossible for Jews or Christians to tithe in the Old Testament sense. Tithing today only faintly resembles the ancient ritual practice belonging to the sacrificial system of the Jews.
Paul Stagg has summed it up:
“While much may be said for adopting the tithe voluntarily as a standard for one’s giving without rigidly imposing it upon others as a Christian requirement, it is clear in adopting such a practice that one is not carrying on the Old Testament practice. At most one is doing something only remotely analogous to the tithing practice of the Old Testament, which was a tax to support the Temple and the priestly system, a social and religious system which no longer exists. Tithes were obligatory in Judaism as a tax until the destruction of the Temple in a.d. 70, but they are not thus binding upon Christians.
“This is not to discredit tithing, but it is to clarify its relationship to the New Testament. It is to deny that the New Testament supports the coerciveness, legalism, profit motive, and the bargaining which so often characterize the tithing appeals today. As a voluntary system, tithing offers much; but it must be redeemed by grace if it is to be Christian. To plead that ‘it works’ is only to adopt the pragmatic tests of the world. Much ‘works’ that is not Christian. Tithing, if it is to be congenial to New Testament theology, must be rooted in the grace and love of God.”
The above list could go on and on. Obviously, it needs to be stated that these personality factors usually affect only peripheral areas. It is helpful for each of us to analyze what we believe to be the irreducible minimums of the Christian faith. What are the major pillars of the church in every age and any culture? This is not an easy question, but I think it is a necessary one. We must be committed to the essential core of historical Christianity, but discuss in love our cultural and individual differences in areas that are not crucial (cf. Rom. 14:1-15:13; I Corinthians 8-10). The more I understand myself and the Bible, the smaller my irreducible core has become. Primarily, for me, it involves the person and work of the Triune God and how one comes into fellowship with Him. All else becomes less crucial in light of these major issues. Maturity will tend to make us less dogmatic and judgmental!
All of us have presuppositions, but few of us have ever defined, analyzed or categorized them. However, we must recognize their presence. We all wear glasses or filters of one kind or another. The book that has helped me to differentiate between the eternal and cultural aspects recorded in Scripture has been Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart, How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth, especially chapters 4 and 5. The Bible records some things it does not advocate!
In light of the above discussion, what is our responsibility as an interpreter? It involves the following.
1. Christians are personally responsible to interpret the Bible for themselves. This has often been called the priesthood of the believer (soul competency). This phrase never appears in the Bible in the singular, but always plural (cf. Exod. 19:5; I Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 1:6). Interpretation is a community of faith’s task. Be careful of an over emphasis on western individualism. We dare not relegate this responsibility to another person (I Cor. 12:7).
2. The Bible is a book that demands interpretation (i.e., Matt. 5:29-30). It cannot be read as if it were the morning newspaper. Its truth is historically conditioned, just as we are. We must bridge the gap between “the then” and “the now.”
3. Even after we have done the best we can our interpretations will still be fallible to some extent. We must walk in the light we have. We must love and respect other believers who have a different understanding (i.e., Rom. 14:1-15:13; I Corinthians 8-10).
4. “Practice makes perfect.” This is true in the area of interpretation. Prayer and practice will improve ones ability to interpret.
5. Hermeneutics cannot tell one exactly what every text means, but it can show what it cannot mean!
The most consistent use of the method of Bible study known as the Historical-Grammatical-Lexical Method (in this Textbook called the Contextual/Textual method) began in Antioch, Syria, in the third century a.d. in reaction to the Allegorical Method, which had developed several hundred years earlier in Alexandria, Egypt. The Alexandrian Method was an adaptation of the method of Philo, a Jewish interpreter who lived from 20 b.c. to a.d. 55. Philo also lived in Alexandria. He, being a Jew of the Diaspora, was not very influential among the rabbis, but had a great impact among the Hellenistic intellectuals of Alexandria, which was the seat of learning in that day. Philo agreed with the rabbis that the Old Testament was given by God. He believed God uniquely spoke through the Hebrew Scripture and the Greek philosophers, especially Plato. Therefore, every aspect of the text had meaning—every sentence, clause, word, letter, and even the smallest embellishment or idiosyncrasy of the text.
The rabbis’ interpretation is characterized by a focus on “how to,” especially in relation to the Law of Moses. Philo, although using some of the same idiosyncrasies of grammar and spelling, found hidden meanings in the text as it related to Platonism. The rabbis were interested in applying the Mosaic Law to daily life, while Philo wanted to reinterrpet the history of Israel in light of his Platonic world view. To do this he had to totally remove the Old Testament from its historical context.
“In his mind many of the insights of Judaism, properly understood, do not differ from the highest insights of Greek philosophy. God reveals Himself to the chosen people of Israel but He revealed Himself in no radically different way from the way in which He reveals Himself to the Greek” (Grant and Tracy 1984, 53-54).
His basic approach was to allegorize the text if:
1. the text spoke of that which seemed to be unworthy of God (physicalness of God)
2. the text contained any perceived inconsistencies
3. the text contained any perceived historical problems
4. the text could be adapted (allegorized) to his philosophical world view (Grant and Tracy 1984, 53)
The basics of Philo’s approach to interpretation were continued in the Christian School of Interpretation, which developed in this same city. One of its first leaders was Clement of Alexandria (a.d. 150-215). He believed that the Bible contained different levels of meaning in order to make the Scriptures relevant to different kinds of people, cultures, and periods of time. These levels were
1. the historical, literal sense
2. the doctrinal sense
3. the prophetic or typological sense
4. the philosophical sense
5. the mystical or allegorical sense (Grant and Tracy 1984, 55-56)
This basic approach was continued by Origen (a.d. 185-254), who probably was the greatest mind of the ancient church (Silva 1987, 36-37). He was the first textual critic, apologist, commentator, and systematic theologian. A good example of his approach can be found in his interpretation of Pro. 22:20-21. He combines it with I Thess. 5:23. In this way every passage in the Bible has three levels of interpretation.
1. a “bodily” or literal sense
2. a “soulish” or moral sense
3. a “spiritual or allegorical/mystical” sense (Grant and Tracy 1984, 59)
The hermeneutics of Alexandria held sway over most of the Church in the area of interpretation until the time of the Protestant Reformation. It can be characterized in its developed form by Augustine (a.d. 354-430) in his four levels of interpretation.
1. the literal—teaches historical events
2. the allegorical—teaches what you should believe
3. the moral—teaches what you should do
4. the mystical—teaches what you should hope
For the church as a whole, the non-literal (#2,3,4) contained the purist spiritual insight. However, the abuses of the non-historical, non-grammatical method led to the formulation of another school of interpretation. The Historical-Grammatical textual-focused school of Antioch of Syria (third century) accused the allegorist of
1. importing meaning into the text
2. forcing a hidden meaning into every text
3. putting forth fanciful and far-fetched interpretation
4. not allowing words and sentences to bear their obvious, normal meaning (Sire 1980, 107)
5. allowing human subjectivity to dominate the plain message of the original author
Allegory, when done by a well-trained, godly interpreter, can have great value. It is obvious that Jesus (Matt. 13:18-23) and Paul (I Cor. 9:9-10; 10:1-4; Gal. 4:21-31) both set a biblical precedent for this approach. However, when used as a tool to prove one’s pet theological doctrine or to defend one’s inappropriate actions, it becomes a great stumbling block. The major problem is that there is no means to substantiate the meaning from the text itself (Silva 1987, 74). The sinfulness of mankind has turned this method (and all methods to some extent) into a means to prove almost anything and then to call it biblical.
“There is always the danger of eisegesis, reading into the Bible the ideas which we have received from elsewhere and then receiving them each with the authority with which we have come to surround the book” (World Council of Churches Symposium on Biblical Authority for Today, Oxford, 1949).
“Origen, and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outer back of the letter, there lurks deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculation which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred, by the world to solid doctrine…with approbation the licentious system gradually attained such a height, that he who handled Scripture for his own amusement not only was suffered to pass unpunished, but even attained the highest applause. For many centuries no man was considered to be ingenious, who had not the skill and daring necessary for changing into a variety of curious shapes the sacred word of God. This was undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true advantage. God visited this profanation by a just judgment, when he suffered the pure meaning of the Scripture to be buried under false interpretations. Scripture, they say, is fertile, and this produces a variety of meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning” (John Newport dissertation, N.D., 16-17).
It is obvious that the Alexandrian school was justifiably open to the charge that its interpretations relied more on the cleverness of the interpreter than on the intent of the original inspired author. One could, and can, assert any interpretation and “prove” it from the Bible by using this method. The Antiochian method focuses on the plain, obvious meaning of the text of Scripture (Cole 1964, 87). Its basic focus is understanding the message of the original author. This is why it is call the Historical-Grammatical approach of hermeneutics. Antioch insisted on both a historical context and the normal use of human language. It did not eliminate figures of speech, prophecy, or symbols, but forced them to be linked to the purpose, historical setting, and style of the original author, along with the original author’s choice of genre.
“The school of Antioch insisted on the historical reality of the biblical revelation. They were unwilling to lose it in a world of symbols and shadows. They were more Aristotelian than Platonist” (Grant and Tracy 1984, 66).
Some early leaders of this school of interpretation were: Lucian, Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and John Chrysostom. This school became involved in an over-emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. This has been labeled the Nestorian Heresy (Jesus had two natures, one divine and one human)—and it was a heresy (cf. I John 4:1-3). For this reason the school lost its influence and many of its followers. Its headquarters moved from Syria into Persia so as to be beyond the discipline of the Roman Church.
Although the basic tenets of the Antiochian School were continued in isolated places, it burst forth again in full bloom in Martin Luther and John Calvin, as it had been in bud previously in Nicholas of Lyra. It is basically this historically and textually-focused approach to hermeneutics that this Textbook is attempting to introduce. Along with the added emphasis on application, which was one of the strengths of Origen, the Antiochian approach clearly distinguished between exegesis and application (Silva 1987, 101). Because this Textbook is primarily for non-theologically trained believers, the methodology will focus around the text of Scripture in translation rather than the original languages. Study helps will be introduced and recommended, but the obvious meaning of the original author can, in the vast majority of cases, be ascertained without extensive outside help. The work of godly, diligent scholars will help us in areas of background material, difficult passages, and seeing the big picture, but first we must struggle with the plain meaning of the Scriptures ourselves. It is our privilege, our responsibility, and our protection. The Bible, the Spirit, and you are priority! Insight into how to analyze human language on a non-technical level, along with the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, are the twin pillars of this contextual/textual approach. Your ability to be somewhat free to interpret the Bible for yourself is the primary goal of this Textbook. James W. Sire in his book Scripture Twisting makes two good points.
“The illumination comes to the minds of God’s people—not just to the spiritually elite. There is no guru class in biblical Christianity, no illuminati, no people through whom all proper interpretation must come. And, so, while the Holy Spirit gives special gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual discernment, He does not assign these gifted Christians to be the only authoritative interpreters of His Word. It is up to each of His people to learn, to judge and to discern by reference to the Bible which stands as the authority over even those to whom God has given special abilities.”
“To summarize, the assumption I am making throughout the entire book is that the Bible is God’s true revelation to all humanity, that it is our ultimate authority on all matters about which it speaks, that it is not a total mystery but can be adequately understood by ordinary people in every culture” (pp. 17-18).
We dare not naively trust any other person or denomination with the interpretation of Scripture, which affects not only life, but also the life to come. The secondary goal of this Textbook is gaining the ability to analyze the interpretations of others. This Textbook desires to provide the individual believer with a method for personal Bible study and a shield against the interpretation of others. Scholarly helps will be recommended, but must not be accepted without proper analysis and textual documentation.
Our discussion of a historically informed and textually-focused methodology will revolve around seven interpretive questions which one must ask in the study of every Scriptural context.
1. What did the original author say? (textual criticism)
2. What did the original author mean? (exegesis)
3. What did the original author say elsewhere on the same subject? (parallel passages)
4. What do other biblical authors say on the same subject? (parallel passages)
5. How did the original hearers understand the message and respond to it? (historical application)
6. How does this truth apply to my day? (modern application)
7. How does this truth apply to my life? (personal application)
1. The need to read Hebrew and Greek to interpret Scripture.
The initial step is establishing the original text. Here we come face to face with the subject of the original languages of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. Must one know these languages, and all of their textual variants, before one can adequately interpret Scripture? Let me share my presuppositions about the Bible again.
a. God wants mankind to know Him (the very purpose of creation, Gen. 1:26-27).
b. He has provided us with a written record of His nature, purpose, and acts.
c. He has sent us His supreme revelation, His Son, Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament contains His life and teachings as well as their interpretations.
d. God speaks to the common person. He wants all humans to be saved (Ezek. 18:23,32; John 3:16; I Tim. 2:4; II Pet. 3:9).
e. The vast majority of the world will never know God’s revelation except in a translation (Sterrett 1973, 28).
f. We must not see scholars as infallible interpreters. Even scholars must rely on other scholars. Even scholars within the same field do not always agree (Triana 1985, 9).
g. Scholars can help us. Christian scholars are gifts of God given to the church (I Cor. 12:28; Eph 4:11). Yet, even without their help believers can know the plain, simple truth of the Scriptures. They will not have complete or exhaustive knowledge. They will not see the wealth of detail that a biblical scholar might perceive, but believers can know enough for faith and practice.
2. Use of modern translations
Modern translations are a result of scholarly research. They use differing philosophies in translation. Some are very free in translating concepts (paraphrasing) instead of words (word for word) or clauses (dynamic equivalent). Because of this wealth of research and effort, believers, by comparing these translations, have a variety of technical information available to them, even if believers do not understand the technical process or theories behind them. By comparing modern translations they are able to more fully understand the message of the original author. This is not meant to imply that there are not dangers.
“The person who reads the Bible only in English is at the mercy of the translator(s), and translators have often had to make choices as to what in fact the original Hebrew or Greek really intended to say” (Fee and Stuart 1982, 29).
“The Bible student can overcome this handicap (not knowing originals and having to use translations) by an educated use of the better commentaries. Above all, everyone must be aware of the dangers. The student should compare the translations as he studies the passage, and should take none of them for granted” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 53).
I hope you have been encouraged by the above discussion about the adequacy of English translations. I would suggest that for the purposes of Bible study that you use at least two different translations which vary in translation theory. Primarily you will want to use one that is very literal (i.e., word for word) and compare it with an idiomatic translation (dynamic equivalent). By comparing these two types of translations, most of the problems in word meaning, sentence structure, and textual variants become obvious. When major differences occur, refer to technical commentaries and research tools.
3. Hebrew and Greek manuscript variants
Another thorny problem to be dealt with in the area of “what did the original author say?” concerns original manuscripts. We do not have any of the original writings of the biblical authors (autographs). As a matter of fact, we are removed by hundreds of years from those originals (autographs). Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, our oldest Old Testament manuscript was from the ninth century a.d., called the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who placed the vowels (vowel points) into a consonantal, Hebrew text. This project was not completed until the ninth century a.d. The Dead Sea Scrolls allow us to verify this Hebrew text back into the b.c. era. They confirmed the accuracy of our Old Testament based on the MT. This enables scholars to compare Hebrew manuscripts with their Greek translations: the Septuagint, and those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian. The point of all this is that there are many differences among all of these copies.
The New Testament is also involved in the same difficulty. We do not have the writings of the Apostles, as a matter of fact, our copies are several hundred years removed from them. The oldest manuscripts available of the Greek New Testament are fragments of certain books written on papyri. These date from the second and third centuries a.d. and none have the complete New Testament. The next oldest group of Greek manuscripts comes from the fourth through sixth centuries. They are written in all capital letters with no punctuation marks or paragraph divisions. After this comes thousands of manuscripts from later centuries, mostly the 12th - 16th (written in small letters). None of these agree completely. However, it needs to be strongly emphasized that none of the variants affect major Christian doctrines (Bruce 1969, 19-20).
This is where the science of textual criticism comes onto the scene. Scholars in this area have analyzed and classified these different texts into “families,” which are characterized by certain common errors or additions. If you would like more information on this subject read
a. The Books and the Parchments by F. F. Bruce
b. “Texts and Manuscripts of the Old Testament,” Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 683ff
c. “Texts and Manuscripts of the New Testament,” Zondervan’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 697ff
d. Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism by J. H. Greenlee
The problem of textual criticism is not solved, but the work thus far has surely helped to clear up much of the confusion in this area.
“Rarely will one repeat the labors of the textual critics, unless an alternate reading is mentioned as a footnote in the version commonly used” (Liefeld 1984, 41).
I have found that these manuscript problems can be readily found by noticing the marginal notes in our modern English Study Bibles. The Revised Standard Version and The New English Bible provide many interesting alternative translations. All modern translations provide alternate readings to some extent. Another helpful resource at this point is the new Twenty-Six Translations of the Bible edited by Curtis Vaughn, published by AMG Publishers. This three volume set provides the King James Version in bold print and three to five alternate translations from a pool of twenty-six translations. This tool quickly shows the textual variations. These variations may then be adequately explored in commentaries and other research tools.
4. The limits of human language
Still another factor involved in the question, “what did the original author say?” involves the ambiguities of human language. When human language, which is basically a set of analogous relationships between words and concepts, is forced to describe God and spiritual things, major problems arise. Our finitude, our sinfulness, our corporality, and our experience of time (past, present, future) all affect our language as we attempt to describe the supernatural. We are forced to express these concepts in human categories (Ferguson 1937, 100). One type of these metaphorical categories is anthropomorphisms (man-form). These categories were one reason why the rabbis, Philo and Origen (Silva 1987, 61), began to use allegory. In reality, our description and understanding of God and the supernatural is analogous only (i.e., negation, analogy, and metaphor). It can never be complete or exhaustive. It is presuppositional, but by faith Christians believe it is adequate.
This problem of human language is further complicated when put into a written form. So often the inflection of the voice or some bodily gesture helps us understand the subtleties of human communication, but these are not present in a written text. Yet, even with these obvious limits, we are still able, for the most part, to understand each other. Our study of the Bible will be limited by these ambiguities, as well as the additional problem of translating three separate languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek). We will not be able to know for certain the complete meaning of every passage. A good book in this area is God’s Word in Man’s Language by Eugene Nida. With the help of the Holy Spirit we will be able to understand the plain sense of most Scripture. Maybe the ambiguities are there to humble us and cause us to be dependent on God’s mercy.
B. The Second Interpretive Question (for a sheet on exegetical procedures, see pp. 96 and 97)
1. Outline the literary units
One way, possibly the best way, to understand a written document is to identify the author’s purpose and the major divisions (i.e., literary units) in his presentation. We write with a purpose and goal in mind. So too, did the biblical authors. Our ability to identify this overarching purpose and its major divisions will greatly facilitate our understanding of its smaller parts (paragraphs and words). A key to this deductive approach (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 21) is outlining (Tenney 1950, 52). Before one tries to interpret a paragraph within a biblical book, he needs to know the purpose of the literary unit of which it is a part in light of the surrounding passages and the structure of the whole book. I know that this procedure seems overwhelming at first, as far as putting it into practice, but it is crucial as far as interpretation is concerned.
“From the standpoint of the Bible or literature, the simplest error of reading is the failure to consider the immediate context of the verse or passage in question” (Sire 1980, 52).
“The principle of contextual interpretation is, at least in theory, one of the few universally accepted hermeneutical guidelines, even though the consistent application of the principles is a notoriously difficult enterprise” (Silva 1983, 138).
“The context does not merely help us understand meaning—it virtually makes meaning” (Silva 1983, 139).
“How the passage fits within that—what it contributes to the entire flow of that book and what the structure of that book contributes to it—constitutes a paramount interest of the literary context step in exegesis” (Stuart 1980, 54).
This task can be accomplished in a very simple way. One can do several steps of interpretation at one time. It is obvious that if one wants to interpret a passage in light of the original author’s intent, they need to read and become familiar with the author’s whole message (the book). As one reads the biblical book several times in order to gain familiarity with its contents, he should take notes of his observations. On the first reading look for the major purpose of the book and its genre. On the second reading note the large blocks of related material, which we call literary units. An example from the book of Romans reveals major themes.
a. Brief introduction and theme (1:1-17)
b. The lostness of all men (1:18-3:21)
c. Justification is a gift (4:1-5:21)
d. Justification affects our lifestyle (6:1-8:39)
e. The Jews’ relationship to justification (9:1-11:36)
f. Practical section of living out justification on a daily basis (12:1-15:37)
g. Greetings, farewells, and warnings (16:1-27)
“Try to construct an outline that genuinely represents the major units of information. In other words, the outline should be a natural, not artificial, outgrowth of the passage. Note which components are included within each topic (quantitative) and also the intensity or significance of the components (qualitative). Let the passage speak for itself. When you see a new topic, subject, issue, concept, or the like, you should start a new topic for your outline. After outlining the major divisions work on the more minor divisions such as sentences, clauses and phrases. The outline should be as detailed as you can make it without seeming forced or artificial” (Stuart 1980, 32-33).
Outlining to paragraph level (and beyond) is a key in allowing the original author to speak. It will keep us from majoring on minors or going off on tangents. Your finished outline can then be compared with a Study Bible, such as the NIV Study Bible or NASB Study Bible, a Bible encyclopedia, or a commentary, but only after you have read the book several times and developed your own tentative outline.
“This is the crucial task in exegesis, and fortunately it is something one can do well without necessarily having to consult the ‘experts’” (Fee and Stuart 1980, 24).
Once the large literary blocks have been isolated, then the smaller units can be identified and summarized. These smaller units of thought may be several paragraphs or even a chapter or more. In most literary genres the paragraph is a key (Liefeld 1984, 90) to interpretation. One should never attempt to interpret less than a paragraph. As a sentence forms the context for words, paragraphs form the context for sentences. The basic unit of purposeful writing is the paragraph. In high school we were taught how to isolate the topical sentence of a paragraph. This same principle will help us tremendously in biblical interpretation. Every paragraph has one major purpose in the author’s overall presentation of truth. If we can isolate this purpose and summarize its truth in one simple, declarative sentence, we can complete our outline of the author’s structure. If our interpretation is alien to the purpose or thrust of the original author, we are abusing the Bible and have no biblical authority!
“Do not trust the chapter and verse divisions. They are not original and are often completely wrong” (Stuart 1980, 23).
“Decisions about paragraphing are sometimes subjective, and you will find that the various editors’ groupings of contents do not always agree. But if you decide to start your passage where no editor has begun a paragraph or end a paragraph where no editor has ended a paragraph, then it is your responsibility to explain fully for your decision” (Stuart 1980, 45).
2. Note the historical and cultural setting
The previous discussion of literary units is valuable, not only for the first question, “what did the original author say” (textual criticism), but also for the second, “what did the original author mean?” (exegesis). These questions are related, but distinct. The first focuses on the words of the original author (textual criticism). The second focuses on three very significant aspects of interpretation which are related to meaning.
a. the historical background of the author and/or the events of the book
b. the type of literary form (genre) in which the message is given
c. the basic grammatical and linguistic aspects of the text
One of the characteristics of allegory is that it completely separates the interpretation of a text from its historical setting. It is a major tenet of the contextual/textual or Antiochian Method that one establish the historical context. This principle was reemphasized by Martin Luther. This emphasis on background material in interpretation has come to be called, in a broad sense, “higher criticism”; whereas the information about the original text has come to be called “lower criticism.” In higher criticism one tries to ascertain from both internal (the biblical book itself) and external (secular history, archaeology, etc.) the following items.
a. information about the author
b. information about the date of writing
c. information about the recipients of the writing
d. information about the occasion of the writing
e. information about the writing itself
(1) recurrent or unique terms
(2) recurrent or unique concepts
(3) basic flow of the message
(4) the form in which the message appears (genre)
“World view confusion…occurs whenever a reader of Scripture fails to interpret the Bible within the intellectual and cultural framework of the Bible itself, but uses instead a foreign frame of reference. The usual way in which it appears is for scriptural statement, stories, commands or symbols which have a particular meaning or set of related meanings within the biblical frame of reference to be lifted out and placed within another frame of reference. The result is that the original intended meaning is lost or distorted, and a new and quite different meaning is substituted” (Sire 1980, 128).
This type of information is often (but not always) helpful in interpreting the writing. This historical aspect of interpretation, like outlining, can be done to some extent without the help of the “experts.” As you read the biblical book, write down the historical background information from the Bible itself and it will amaze you the amount of information you have gleaned. As a matter of fact, most of this information is available only from the biblical book itself (usually the first few verses). There will often be many theories expressed in the commentaries which are actually presuppositions with little biblical or historical evidence. Once you have gathered all the information that is obvious to you from the biblical book, it is time to expand your insight by using one of the following types of research helps:
a. introductory books usually divided into separate books on the Old and New Testaments
b. articles in Bible encyclopedias, dictionaries, or handbooks, usually under the name of the biblical book
c. the introductions found in commentaries
d. the introductions found in Study Bibles
These types of research tools are meant to give you the historical setting in a brief amount of study time. Most often these materials will be relatively brief because we simply do not have much information about many aspects of ancient history. Also, this type of material will usually be written in non-technical language. Again, as is obvious to you, my basic approach to interpretation is to see the big picture first and then to analyze the parts in detail.
3. The type of literature (genre)
The next area of interpretation related to the meaning of the original author is related to the literary genre. This is a French term which means a specialized category of literature characterized by style, form, or content. This is significant because the style in which one chooses to write affects how we are to understand it. Often ridiculous interpretations of prophecy or poetry have been propounded on what one calls “the literal” method of interpretation. However, the “literal” method from Antioch means that we interpret human language in its normal meaning. If it is apocalyptic literature, it was not meant to be interpreted literally. This is also true of poetry, idioms, and figures of speech.
The basic unit of thought, which in prose is normally the paragraph, is modified by the genre. Some examples of this significant factor in the identification of capsuled units of thought for the purposes of interpretation follow.
a. For poetry the basic unit is the strophe or stanza, which is defined as a series of lines arranged together as a patterned unit (see Appendix Six).
b. For a proverb the basic unit is the central or summary theme of the verse in its relation to the same theme located within the same book, another book by the same author, or other wisdom literature. Here, the thematic subject, more than the isolated proverb, is the key to interpretation. Not only synonymous themes (the same), but also antithetical themes (opposites) or synthetical development (additional information) of the same theme are crucial to a proper interpretation of Hebrew wisdom literature (see Appendix Seven).
c. For prophecy the basic unit must be the entire oracle. This can vary from a paragraph, a chapter, several chapters, to an entire book. Again, the basic theme and style will isolate the prophetic unit (see Appendices Four and Five).
d. For the Gospel parallels the basic unit will relate to the type of literature involved. Usually the unit will relate to one event, one teaching session, one subject, etc. This could involve an event or a series of events, parable or a series of parables, a prophecy or a series of prophecies, but all focusing on one main theme. It is usually better to look at the literary flow of each Gospel instead of going to the parallel passages in other Gospels.
e. For letters and historical narratives the basic unit is usually the paragraph. However, several paragraphs usually form larger literary units. These must be identified and characterized as a whole literary unit before the smaller parts can be properly interpreted. Some examples of these larger literary units follow.
(1) Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
(2) Romans 9-11 (what about unbelieving Israel)
(3) I Corinthians 12-14 (spiritual gifts) [or I Corinthians 11-14 guidelines for public worship]
(4) Revelation 2-3 (letters to churches) or 4-5 (heaven)
Analysis of literary types is crucial to their proper interpretation (Fee and Stuart 1982, 105). As in outlining, and to some extent, the historical background, this can be done by the average reader with the help of a translation which identifies poetry and paragraphs (Fee and Stuart 1982, 24). The reason that classification of literary genre is so important is that besides the general guidelines for interpretation, there are special needs of each literary type. This is only logical. If each type represents a different mode of human communication, then it is obvious that there needs to be special treatment in order to arrive at the author’s intent. It is just as condemning to add to the biblical author’s intent as it is to detract from it.
4. Special interpretive procedures related to genre
Let me summarize some of the specific guidelines involved in these special genres.
(1) Structure is important. Ancient Hebrew developed its poetic structure or pattern around thought (expressed in beats per line), not rhyme.
(a) synonymous (the same thought)
(b) antithetical (an opposite thought)
(c) synthetic (the development of thought)
(2) Poetry is usually figurative, not literal. It attempts to speak to our common human desires and experiences. Try to identify figures of speech (Sterrett 1973, 93-100) and understand their function or purpose.
(3) Try to get an overall impression of the literary unit and do not push the details or figures of speech in doctrinal formulations.
(1) Because they deal with daily life, look for the practical application.
(2) Parallel passages will be much more helpful here than context or historical setting. Try to compile a list of proverbs with the same practical application, as well as other passages which might modify or develop this same, opposite, or developed truth.
(3) Try to isolate the figures of speech and identify their purpose in the proverb.
(4) Be sure that you do not interpret the proverbs in a particularistic manner, but in the sense of a general truth.
(1) This type of genre must first be seen in light of its own historical setting. It is primarily related to its own day and the immediate history of that day. The historical setting is crucial in this genre.
(2) One must look for the central truth. To focus on a few details which might fit our day or the last days and ignore the overall message of the oracle is a common mistake.
(3) Often prophets do speak of future settings, possibly several. Because of the abuse of prophecy I feel it is best to limit the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy to the specific accounts recorded in the New Testament. New Testament prophecy must be interpreted in light of
(a) its OT usage or allusions
(b) the teachings of Jesus
(c) other NT parallel passages
(d) its own contextual setting
(4) Remember that most biblical prophecy, especially Old Testament Messianic prophecy, has two focuses: the Incarnation and the Second Coming (Silva 1987, 104-108).
d. The Four Gospels
(1) Although we have four Gospels and we are able to compare them, this is not always the best method in trying to find the purpose or meaning of one particular Gospel writer. We must look at the way he uses the material, not how other Gospel writers use it or develop it. Comparison will be helpful, but only after you have determined the meaning of a particular writer.
(2) The literary or historical context is crucial in interpreting the Gospels. Try to identify the literary limits of the general subject being discussed and not its isolated parts. Try to see this subject in light of first century Palestinian Judaism.
(3) It is important to remember that the Gospels record the words and acts of Jesus, but it is the Epistles which interpret them into specific church settings. Check the parallels in the Epistles.
(4) Jesus said some ambiguous and difficult things, some of which we may not fully understand until we see Him. He also said much that is plain and obvious—start there. Act on what you do know and often the rest will be made clear to you. If not, the message is possibly not for us, for our day (Dan. 12:4).
(5) In connection with parables
(a) Be certain of the context. Notice (1) who Jesus addressed the parable to; (2) Jesus’ purpose for telling the parable and (3) how many parables are told in a series. Read further to see if He interprets it.
(b) Do not push the details. Major on His major point(s). Usually there is just one central truth per parable or main characters.
(c) Do not build major doctrines on parables. Doctrine should be grounded on extended clear teaching passages.
e. The Letters and Historical Narratives
(1) Compared to the other types of literary genres these are the easiest to interpret.
(2) The contextual setting is the key, both historical and literary.
(3) The literary unit and the paragraph will be the key literary unit.
These special hermeneutics linked to literary types are discussed in detail in the following excellent books.
1. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
2. Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Bernard Ramm
3. Linguistics and Bible Interpretation by Peter Cotterell and Max Turner
4. Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation by Tremper Longman III
5. Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson
6. Plowshares and Pruning Hooks by D. Brent Sandy
7. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert H. Stein
5. Syntax and grammatical features
Another aspect in obtaining the author’s original intent or meaning is called syntax or grammatical structure. This is often difficult because of the idiomatic and structural differences between the biblical languages and our own mother tongue. However, it is a fruitful area in interpretation and needs to be dealt with in some detail. Usually a comparison of modern translations and a basic knowledge of grammar will help tremendously.
“Grammar may not always show us the actual meaning, but it will show us possible meanings. We cannot accept any meaning that does violence to it. This grammar is important in understanding the Bible. This is not strange. Essentially it means that we understand the Bible according to the normal laws of human language” (Sterrett 1973, 63).
Grammar is something that the common person knows in usage, but not in technical definition. We learn grammar when we learn to speak. Grammar is forming sentences to communicate ideas. We do not need to be experts in grammatical relationships in order to interpret the Bible, however, we do need to try to understand why the original author said it the way he did. Often the structure of a sentence will show us what the author is emphasizing. This can be ascertained in several ways.
a. As you read the passage in several English translations notice the word order. A good example of this is in Heb. 1:1. In the King James Version the subject of the sentence, “God,” appears first, but in the Revised Standard Version the descriptive phrase, “in many and various ways,” appears first. This is significant because it reflects the true intent of the author. Is the major thrust of this text that God has spoken (revelation) or is it how God has spoken (inspiration)? The latter is true because the Revised Standard Version reflects the Koine Greek word order (use an interlinear). Also, a technical commentary will help on these word order and grammatical issues.
b. As you read the passage in several English translations note the translation of the verbs. verbs are very important in interpretation. A good example is I John 3:6,9. When one compares the King James Version with modern translations the difference is obvious. This is a present tense verb. These verses are not teaching “sinlessness,” but “sinning less.” At the conclusion of this Textbook a brief definition of Hebrew and Greek grammatical terms is included (see Table of Contents).
c. As you read the passage in several English translations note the thought connectives. Often these help us know the purpose of a clause or how sentences and contexts are related. Notice the following connectives (Traina 1985, 42-43).
(1) temporal or chronological connectives
(a) after (Rev. 11:11)
(b) as (Acts 16:16)
(c) before (John 8:58)
(d) now (Luke 16:25)
(e) then (I Cor. 15:6)
(f) until (Mark 14:25)
(g) when (John 11:31)
(h) while (Make 14:43)
(2) local or geographical connectives (where, Heb. 6:20)
(3) logical connectives
because (Rom. 1:25)
for (Rom. 1:11)
since (Rom. 1:28)
so (Rom. 9:16)
then (Gal. 2:21)
therefore (I Cor. 10:12)
thus (I Cor. 8:12)
in order that (Rom. 4:16)
so that (Rom. 5:21)
although (Rom. 1:21)
but (Rom. 2:8)
much more (Rom. 5:15)
nevertheless (I Cor. 10:5)
otherwise (I Cor. 14:16)
yet (Rom. 5:14)
also (II Cor. 1:11)
as (Rom. 9:25)
as – so (Rom. 5:18)
just as – so (Rom. 11:30-31)
likewise (Rom. 1:27)
so also (Rom. 4:6)
(f) series of facts
and (Rom. 2:19)
first of all (I Tim. 2:1)
last of all (I Cor. 15:8)
or (II Cor. 6:15)
(g) condition (e.g., “if,” Rom. 2:9)
(4) emphatic connectives
(a) indeed (Rom. 9:25)
(b) only (I Cor. 8:9)
These illustrations of thought connectives were taken from Methodical Bible Study by Robert A. Traina, pp. 42-43. Although his illustrations are mostly from the writings of Paul and predominately from the book of Romans, they do serve as good examples of how we structure our thoughts with these thought connectives. By comparing modern translations of both the Old and New Testaments these implied and expressed relationships become clear. Traina also has an excellent summary about grammatical structure on pp. 63-68. Be a careful Bible reader!
d. As you read the passage in several English translations, notice the repetition of terms and phrases. This is another way to ascertain the original author’s structure for the purpose of communicating his intended meaning. Some examples are:
(1) The repeated phrase in Genesis, “these are the generations of…,” (2:1; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12,19; 36:1,9; 37:2). This phrase shows us how the author himself divided the book.
(2) The repeated use of “rest” in Hebrews 3-4. The term is used with three distinct meanings.
(a) a Sabbath rest as in Genesis 1-2
(b) the promised land of Exodus through Joshua
If one misses this structure then he will probably miss the author’s intent and probably think that all the people who died in the wilderness were spiritually lost.
6. Idioms and word studies
Read the passage in several English translations, particularly a word-for-word one, such as the New American Standard Version, with the dynamic equivalent one, such as the New International Version. In this way one is able to identify idioms. Every language has its own quirks or expressions. For one to interpret an idiom literally would be to totally miss the point. A good example is the Hebrew term “hate.” If we notice its New Testament usage, particularly Rom. 9:13; Luke 14:26; or John 12:25, one sees that this idiom could be misunderstood. However if its Hebrew background and usage in Gen. 29:31,33 or Deut. 21:15 is identified, then it is obvious that it does not mean “hate” in our English sense of the word, but it is an idiom of comparison. Technical commentaries will be of real help in these matters. Two good examples of this type of commentary are (1) The Tyndale Commentary Series and (2) The New International Commentary Series.
The last aspect of this second question, “What did the original author mean?” is word studies. I have chosen to deal with it last because word studies have been so abused! Often etymology has been the only aspect of meaning that one uses to interpret a passage. The writings of James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language; D. A. Carson, Exegetical Falacies; along with Moises Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning, have helped modern interpreters to reevaluate their word study techniques. Bible interpreters as a group have been guilty of numerous linguistic fallacies.
“Perhaps the principal reason why word studies constitute a particularly rich source for exegetical fallacies is that many preachers and Bible teachers know Greek only well enough to use concordances, or perhaps a little more. There is little feel for Greek as a language, and so there is the temptation to display what has been learned in study” (Carson 1984, 66).
It must be stated emphatically that context, not etymology, determines meaning!
“The root fallacy presupposes that every word has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view meaning is determined by etymology” (Carson 1984, 26).
“We must agree the obvious fact that the speakers of a language simply know next to nothing about its development; and this certainly was the case with the writers and immediate readers of Scripture…our real interest is the significance of Greek or Hebrew in the consciousness of the biblical writers; to put it boldly, historical considerations are irrelevant to the investigation of the state of Koine, at the time of Christ” (Silva 1983, 38).
“Since usage is so important, a safe rule for the interpreter is to leave etymology in the hands of the expert and to apply himself diligently to context and usage” (Mickelsen 1963, 121-122).
We must seek out original usage, or to put it another way—the meaning understood and intended by the original author and readily understood by the original hearers. Biblical terms have several different usages (semantical field). D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies, pp. 25-66, is very helpful at this point—painful, but helpful. To illustrate, notice how English meanings change over time.
a. In I Thess. 4:15, the King James Version has “shall not prevent them which are asleep.” In the American Standard Version the term is translated “precede.” Notice how the meaning of “prevent” has changed.
b. In Eph. 4:22 the King James version has “put off concerning the former conversation the old man…” In the American Standard Version the term is translated “manner of life.” Notice how the meaning of “conversation” has changed.
c. In I Cor. 11:29 the King James has “for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself.” In the American Standard version the term “damnation” is translated as “judgment.” Notice has the term has changed.
Most of us are prone to define biblical terms in light of our understanding of that term in our denomination or theological system. The problem with this is twofold.
a. We must be careful that we are using the definition from the original author’s intent and not our demoninational or cultural background.
b. We must be careful not to force a word to mean our technical religious definition in every context where it appears. Often the same author uses the same term in different senses.
c. Some examples of this follow.
(1) John’s use of “world”
(a) physical planet (John 3:16; I John 4:1,14)
(b) human society organized and functioning apart from God (I John 2:15; 3:1; 5:4-5)
(2) Paul’s use of “body”
(a) physical body (Rom. 1:3)
(b) sin nature (Rom. 8:3-4)
(3) Paul’s use of “temple”
(a) the church as a whole (I Cor. 3:16-17)
(b) the individual believer (I Cor. 6:19)
(4) James’ use of the term “save”
(a) spiritual salvation (James 1:21; 2:14)
(b) physical deliverance (James 5:15,20)
The way to proceed in determining the meaning of a word is to check several translations and to note the differences. Look up the term in an exhaustive concordance such as Analytical Concordance to the Bible by Robert Young or The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible by James Strong. Look up all other usages in the same biblical book you are studying; look up all of the uses by the same author. Try to sample the other uses in the same Testament. Walter Henricksen, in A Layman’s Guide to Interpreting the Bible, 1973, pp. 54-56, gives these steps:
a. The term’s use by the writer.
b. The term’s relation to its immediate context.
c. The term’s ancient use at the time of the writing.
d. The term’s root meaning.
Try to verify the basic meaning from the other Testament (remember that the NT writers were Hebrew thinkers writing Koine Greek). Then it is time to go to a theological word book, Bible encyclopedia, dictionary, or commentary in order to check your definition (see list VII on p. 103). I have written a sample academic guide to NT word studies on p. 98 to illustrate how much effort must be used to ascertain a word’s meaning in a specific context.
The next questions which the interpreter tries to answer is “what else did the same author say on the same subject?” It is closely related to the fourth basic question, “what did other inspired authors say on the same subject?” These two questions can be combined by the descriptive concept of concentric circles of parallel passages. Basically we are talking about how the word or theological concept is used elsewhere by an inspired author. This principle of interpretation has been called “the analogy of Scripture.”
“The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it may be reached and known by other places that speak more clearly” (Westminister Confession, chap. 9).
It is based on three suppositions.
If these are true, then the best way to understand a passage is the contextual concentric circles of inspired writings.
1. the same topic or term in the same immediate context (paragraph or literary unit)
2. the same topic or terms in the same biblical book
3. the same topic or terms by the same author
4. the same topic or terms in the same period, genre, or Testament
5. the same topic or terms in the Bible as a whole
The farther we move from the specific passage that we are attempting to interpret, the more general and, to some extent, tentative the effectiveness of the parallel becomes.
“Interpret according to the narrow context before the wider. It is commonly agreed that Scripture should interpret Scripture. However, it needs to be understood that a term or passage must be interpreted first in its immediate context before it is studied in light of its broader application to the Bible as a whole” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 154).
This area of interpretation can be very helpful in seeing how our passage relates to the whole of revelation (McQuilkin 1983, 43; Silva 1987, 83; Sterrett 1973, 86). Basically we are moving from
1. exegesis (number 1 above) to
2. biblical theology (numbers 2, 3, and 4 above) to
3. systematic doctrine (number 5 above)
We are moving from the magnifying glass to the telescope. We must first be relatively sure of the meaning of our focal passage before we move to systematized doctrine. This is one, though not the only, purpose of systematic theology books “see list IX Theologies p. 105). The move is necessary, but dangerous. Our backgrounds, prejudices, and denominational indoctrinations are always ready and able to intrude. If we use parallel passages (and we must) we must be certain that they are true parallels, not just the same term or phrase.
It is often true that parallel passages bring an overall balance to our interpretation. It has been my experience in interpreting that the Bible is often written in paradoxical or dialectical pairs (eastern mindset). One must recognize the biblical tension between subjects without removing it for the purpose of making simplistic statements, attempting to categorize truth, or protecting cherished theological positions. One inspired text cannot be used to negate or depreciate another inspired text! Here are some examples of the tension between biblical truths.
1. predestination versus human free will
2. security of the believer versus the need for perseverance
3. original sin versus volitional sin
4. Jesus as God versus Jesus as man
5. Jesus as equal with the Father versus Jesus as subservient to the Father
6. Bible as God’s Word versus human authorship
7. sinlessness versus sinning less
8. initial instantaneous justification and sanctification versus progressive sanctification
9. justification by faith (Romans 4) versus justification confirmed by works (cf. James 2:14-26)
10. Christian freedom (cf. Rom. 14:1-23; I Cor. 8:1-13; 10:23-33) versus Christian responsibility (cf. Gal. 5:16-21; Eph. 4:1)
11. God’s transcendence versus His immanence
12. God as ultimately unknowable versus knowable in Scripture and Christ
13. Paul’s many metaphors for salvation
14. the kingdom of God as present versus a future consummation
15. repentance as a gift of God versus repentance as a mandated response for salvation
16. the OT is permanent versus the OT has passed away and is null and void (cf. Matt. 3:17-19 vs. 5:21-48; Romans 7 vs. Galatians 3)
17. believers are servants/slaves or children/heirs
Moises Silva has been very helpful in listing the tensions which exist in our understanding Scripture.
1. The Bible is divine, yet it has come to us in human form.
2. The commands of God are absolute, yet the historical context of the writings appears to relativize certain elements.
3. The divine message must be clear, yet many passages seem ambiguous.
4. We are dependent only on the Spirit for instruction, yet scholarship is surely necessary.
5. The Scriptures seem to presuppose a literal and historical reading, yet we are also confronted by the figurative and nonhistorical (e.g., the parables).
6. Proper interpretation requires the interpreter’s personal freedom, yet some degree of external, corporate authority appears imperative.
7. The objectivity of the biblical message is essential, yet our presuppositions seem to inject a degree of subjectivity into the interpretive process (Silva 1987, 36-38).
Which side of these paradoxes are true? To all of these I would answer “yes,” because they are all true. Both sides are biblical. Our task as an interpreter is to see the big picture and integrate all of its parts, not just our favorite, or most familiar, ones. The answers to interpretation problems are not found in removing the tension so as to affirm only one side of the dialectic (Silva 1987, 38). This balance can be obtained from the proper use of a concordance or from systematic theology books. Be careful not to consult only systematic theologies from the denominational perspective from which you come or with which you agree. Let the Bible challenge you, roar at you—not just whimper. It will unsettle your cherished notions.
It is true that the attempt to systematize doctrine, or relate seemingly contradictory biblical material, is presuppositional and usually conforms to a doctrinal position. This should be less true for biblical theology which is primarily descriptive. This method (biblical theology) of study takes a small slice of the biblical material. It limits itself to an author, a period, or a genre. It tries to draw its theological categories only from a restricted biblical frame of reference. Often, in the act of limiting the biblical material, we are forced to take seriously the difficult statements of Scripture without explaining away their meaning by allusion to other verses. It forces us to take seriously what an author said. It is not looking for a balance, but for the vibrant, clear statement of the biblical author. It is a painful struggle to affirm both poles of biblical paradoxes. We consult all three of these concentric circles of parallel passages. One hopes to move through each stage in every context.
1. What did the author say and mean? (exegesis)
2. What did he say elsewhere on the same subject? What did others of the same period say? (biblical theology)
3. What does the Bible as a whole say on this and related subjects? (systematic doctrine)
Another potential problem in the use of parallel passages is called “the fallacy of collapsing contexts.”
“When two or more unrelated texts are treated as if they belonged together, we have the fallacy of collapsing contexts. This reading error can be especially knotty because it is the corruption of a perfectly good principle of reading: to compare Scripture with Scripture. We are responsible as good readers of the Bible to make use of every text bearing on the subject we wish to understand” (Sire 1980, 140).
“What gives interpreters the right to link certain verses together and not others? The point is that all such linking eventually produces a grid that effects the interpretation of the other texts” (Carson 1984, 140).
A good example of this problem has already been alluded to in this Textbook—Origen’s linking of a passage in Proverbs with an unrelated text in the book of I Thessalonians.
This is the fourth interpretative question. It relates to only certain kinds of genres (i.e., historical narratives, Gospels, and the book of Acts). It is very helpful if the information is available because this is our goal as an interpreter, “hear as it was heard.”
Up until this point we have been looking at the interpretative questions which relate to the original author’s intent. Now we must turn to the equally significant focus concerning its meaning to my day and to my life. No interpretation is complete unless this stage is reached and adequately incorporated. The goal of Bible study is not knowledge alone, but daily Christlikeness. The goal of the Bible is a deeper, closer relationship with the Triune God. Theology must be practical.
“According to Kierkegaard the grammatical, lexical, and historical study of the Bible was necessary but preliminary to the true reading of the Bible. ‘To read the Bible as God’s word one must read it with his heart in his mouth, on tip-toe, with eager expectancy, in conversation with God. To read the Bible thoughtlessly or carelessly or academically or professionally is not to read the Bible as God’s Word. As one reads it as a love letter is read, then one reads it as the Word of God’” (from Protestant Biblical Interpretation by Ramm, p. 75).
Application is not an option (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 150). However, application is less structured than interpretation (this is where the creativity and life experiences of the interpreter and proclaimer come into focus). Ideally there is but one original intent in Scripture. This could be expanded to two (multiple prophecy fulfillment or extended parables). Often the original author’s intent was true, but not exhaustive of the Spirit’s intent. Application is often determined by one’s personal
c. level of maturity
d. desire to know and follow God
e. cultural and denominational traditions
f. current historical situation
It is obvious that the leap from the “then” to the “now” is ambiguous. There are many factors which cannot be identified or controlled. One reason for the development of the allegorical method was the desire to apply the Bible to current needs. Some would say that allegory is necessary for application (Silva 1987, 63,65), but I would deny this. The Spirit is our mandatory guide in application as He is in interpretation. Application must be integrally related to the intended meaning of the original inspired author!
2. Some Helpful Guidelines
a. Be sure to apply the major intent of the biblical author, not just minor details of the passage.
b. Do not look for every aspect of our current situation to be addressed in detail. Often biblical “principles” are our only guide. However, our formulation of these are one more level removed from inspiration. Also, their application is often very presuppositional. Some interpreters find biblical principles in every text. It is safer to limit one’s principles to extended teaching passages or else principles can become proof-texts.
c. Not all truth is meant for immediate or personal application. The Bible often records that which it does not advocate. Also, not all biblical truth is applicable to every age, every situation, and every believer.
d. Application should never seem contrary to other clear Bible passages.
e. Application should never seem contrary to Christlike conduct. Extremes in application are as dangerous as they are in interpretation.
f. Some basic application questions to ask of every biblical passage have been suggested by Richard Mayhue in How To Interpret the Bible for Yourself, 1986, p. 64
(1) Are there examples to follow?
(2) Are there commands to obey?
(3) Are there errors to avoid?
(4) Are there sins to forsake?
(5) Are there promises to claim?
(6) Are there new thoughts about God?
(7) Are there principles by which to live?
H. The Interpreter’s Responsibility
At this point it will be helpful to discuss the individual interpreter’s responsibility in relation to appropriate application of the Bible’s eternal, relevant truths. It has already been stated that this procedure is ambiguous and that the Holy Spirit must be our guide. For me a key ingredient to this area is our motive and attitude. We must walk in the light we have. I am not responsible for your walk of faith, nor you for mine. We can share our perspective in love and hopefully from our understanding of specific passages of Scripture. We all must be willing to seek new light from the Scripture, but we are only responsible for what we do understand. If we walk in faith in the light that we have, more light will be given (Rom. 1:17). We must also be aware at this point to remember that our understanding is not always superior to the understanding of others. Romans 14:1-15:13 is so crucial in this area, but I am always surprised that we usually think our group is the stronger brother and everyone who does not agree with us is a member of the weaker group and in need of our help. We all need help. We all have areas of strengths and areas of weakness in our understanding and application of spiritual truth. I have heard it said that the Bible comforts the uncomfortable and discomforts the comfortable. We must walk down the tension-filled road of spiritual growth. We are all affected by sin and we will never arrive at complete maturity this side of heaven. Walk in the light you have—within the light of the Bible. “Walk in the light as He is in the light” (I John 1:7). Keep on walking.
I. Here are some helpful books
1. Applying the Bible by Jack Kuhatschek
2. Understanding and Applying the Bible by J. Robertson McQuilkin
3. Living By the Book by Howard G. Hendricks
4. Why Christians Fight Over the Bible by John Newport
It is obvious that these principles of interpretation can be abused, for hermeneutics is not a pure science. It is crucial that we state some of the obvious pitfalls involved in the inappropriate use or non-use of the contextually/textually-focused principles previously presented in this Textbook. This Contextual/Textual method is somewhat like the scientific method. Its results are meant to be corroborated and repeated by others. There needs to be a clear trail in our procedural method, points of interpretation and logic. These pieces of evidence will come from several contextual and textually-focused areas.
A. The literary context of the passage
1. immediate (paragraph)
2. several related paragraphs
3. larger literary unit (thought block)
4. entire biblical book (purpose of the author)
B. The historical context of the passage
1. background and setting of the author
2. background and setting of the hearer or reader
3. background and setting of their culture
4. background and setting of any problems addressed in the passage
C. The literary genre (type of literature)
D. The grammar/syntax (relationship of the parts of the sentence to each other and surrounding sentences)
E. The original word meanings and connotations (definitions of significant terms)
1. semantic field
2. author’s usage
3. other authors of the same period
4. other biblical authors
F. Appropriate use of parallel passages (concentric circles of significance)
1. same literary unit
2. same book
3. same author
4. same period
5. same Testament
6. the Bible as a whole
One can analyze another’s interpretation based on how they utilize these component parts. There will still be disagreement, but at least it will be from the text itself. We hear and read so many different interpretations of God’s Word that it becomes crucial that we critically evaluate them, based on the possibility of verification and proper procedures, not just whether we personally agree with them.
As in all human language communication (verbal and written), there is the potential for misunderstanding. Because hermeneutics are the principles for interpreting ancient literature, it is obvious that their abuse is also possible. For every basic principle of interpretation there is the possibility of intentional or unintentional abuse. If we could isolate the potential areas of our own presuppositions, it would help us to be aware of them when we come to our personal interpretations.
A. Our presuppositions — often our personality, our experience, our denomination, or our culture causes us to interpret the Bible through glasses or filters. We only allow it to say what we want it to say. This existential bias affects all of us, but if we are aware of it we can compensate for it by attempting to allow the Bible and its day to speak before we attempt to apply the message to ourselves and our culture. Some examples of this pitfall can be seen in
1. William Barclay’s interpretation of Matt. 15:37-39, where the miraculous multiplication of food by Jesus becomes simply the multitude sharing with one another what they brought. Barclay’s philosophical filter of logical positivism radically alters the obvious intent of Matthew. Remember that there were seven baskets full of pieces of bread left over (Matt. 16:37).
2. Accounts of women in ministry can be seen in Exod. 15:20; Jdgs. 4:4ff; II Kgs. 22:14; II Chr. 2:22; Isa. 8:3; Luke 2:36; Acts 21:9; Rom. 16:1; II Cor. 11:5; and I Tim. 3:11. Modern evangelicals who are uneasy about this, either because of preconceived views or the strong statements of I Cor. 14:34 and I Tim. 2:11-15, should not alter the proper and obvious interpretation of these other passages.
Following is a Special Topic from my commentaries on this subject.
I. The Old Testament
Culturally women were considered property
1. included in list of property (Exodus 20:17)
2. treatment of slave women (Exodus 21:7-11)
3. women’s vows annullable by socially responsible male (Numbers 30)
4. women as spoils of war (Deut. 20:10-14; 21:10-14)
B. Practically there was a mutuality
1. male and female made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27)
2. honor father and mother (Exod. 20:12 [Deut. 5:16])
3. reverence mother and father (Lev. 19:3; 20:9)
4. men and women could be Nazarites (Num. 6:1-2)
5. daughters have right of inheritance (Num. 27:1-11)
6. part of covenant people (Deut. 29:10-12)
7. observe teaching of father and mother (Prov. 1:8; 6:20)
8. sons and daughters of Heman (Levite family) led music in Temple (I Chronicles 25:5-6)
9. son and daughter will prophesy in new age (Joel 2:28-29)
C. Women were in leadership roles
1. Moses’ sister, Miriam, called a prophetess (Exod. 15:20-21 also note Micah 6:4)
2. women gifted by God to weave material for the Tabernacle (Exod. 35:25-26)
3. a woman, Deborah, also a prophetess (cf. Jdgs. 4:4), led all the tribes (Jdgs. 4:4-5; 5:7)
4. Huldah was a prophetess whom King Josiah asked to read and interpret the newly-found “Book of the Law” (II Kings 22:14; II Chr. 34:22-27)
5. Queen Esther, a godly woman, saved Jews in Persia
II. The New Testament
A. Culturally women in both Judaism and the Greco-Roman world were second class citizens with few rights or privileges (the exception was Macedonia)
B. Women in leadership roles
1. Elizabeth and Mary, godly women available to God (Luke 1-2)
2. Anna, godly woman serving at the Temple (Luke 2:36)
3. Lydia, believer and leader of a house church (Acts 16:14,40)
4. Philip’s four virgin daughters were prophetesses (Acts 21:8-9)
5. Phoebe, deaconess of church at Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1)
6. Prisca (Priscilla), Paul’s fellow-worker and teacher of Apollos (Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:3)
7. Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis, Julia, Nereus’ sister, several women co-workers of Paul (Rom. 16:6-16)
8. Junia (KJV), possibly a woman apostle (Rom. 16:7)
Euodia and Syntyche, co-workers with Paul (Phil. 4:2-3)
III. How does a modern believer balance the divergent biblical examples?
A. How does one determine historical or cultural truths, which only apply to the original context, from eternal truths valid for all churches, all believers of all ages?
1. We must take the intent of the original inspired author very seriously. The Bible is the Word of God and the only source for faith and practice.
2. We must deal with the obviously historically-conditioned inspired texts.
a. the cultus (i.e., ritual and liturgy) of Israel (cf. Acts 15; Gal. 3)
b. first century Judaism
c. Paul’s obviously historically-conditioned statements in I Corinthians
(1) the legal system of pagan Rome (I Corinthians 6)
(2) remaining a slave (I Cor. 7:20-24)
(3) celibacy (I Cor. 7:1-35)
(4) virgins (I Cor. 7:36-38)
(5) food sacrificed to an idol (I Cor. 8; 10:23-33)
(6) unworthy actions at Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11)
3. God fully and clearly revealed Himself to a particular culture, a particular day. We must take seriously the revelation, but not every aspect of its historical accommodation. The Word of God was written in human words, addressed to a particular culture at a particular time.
B. Biblical interpretation must seek the original author’s intent. What was he saying to his day? This is foundational and crucial for proper interpretation. But then we must apply this to our own day. Now, here is the problem with women in leadership (the real interpretive problem may be defining the term. Were there more ministries than pastors who were seen as leadership? Were deaconesses or prophetesses seen as leaders?) It is quite clear that Paul, in I Cor. 14:34-35 and I Tim. 2:9-15, is asserting that women should not take the lead in public worship! But how do I apply that today? I do not want Paul’s culture or my culture to silence God’s Word and will. Possibly Paul’s day was too limiting, but also my day may be too open. I feel so uncomfortable saying that Paul’s words and teachings are conditional, first century, local situational truths. Who am I that I should let my mind or my culture negate an inspired author?!
However, what do I do when there are biblical examples of women leaders (even in Paul’s writings, cf. Romans 16)? A good example of this is Paul’s discussion of public worship in I Cor. 11-14. In 11:5 he seems to allow women’s preaching and praying in public worship with their heads covered, yet in 14:34-35 he demands they remain silent! There were deaconesses (cf. Rom. 16:1) and prophetesses (cf. Acts 21:9). It is this diversity that allows me freedom to identify Paul’s comments (as relates to restrictions on women) as limited to first century Corinth and Ephesus. In both churches there were problems with women exercising their newly-found freedom (cf. Bruce Winter, Corinth After Paul Left), which could have caused difficulty for the church in reaching their society for Christ. Their freedom had to be limited so that the gospel could be more effective.
My day is just the opposite of Paul’s. In my day the gospel might be limited if articulate, trained women are not allowed to share the gospel, not allowed to lead! What is the ultimate goal of public worship? Is it not evangelism and discipleship? Can God be honored and pleased with women leaders? The Bible as a whole seems to say “yes”!
I want to yield to Paul; my theology is primarily Pauline. I do not want to be overly influenced or manipulated by modern feminism! However, I feel the church has been slow to respond to obvious biblical truths, like the inappropriateness of slavery, racism, bigotry, and sexism. It has also been slow to respond appropriately to the abuse of women in the modern world. God in Christ set free the slave and the woman. I dare not let a culture-bound text reshackle them.
One more point: as an interpreter I know that Corinth was a very disrupted church. The charismatic gifts were prized and flaunted. Women may have been caught up in this. I also believe that Ephesus was being affected by false teachers who were taking advantage of women and using them as surrogate speakers in the house churches of Ephesus.
Suggestions for further reading
3. Roman Catholicism, in the desire to support an episcopal system of polity, uses the text of John 21:15-17. From the text itself it is inappropriate to use the terms “lamb” and “sheep” in relation to bishops and priests and their assigned task of ministry.
B. Our abuse of context — this refers both to the historical context and the literary context of a passage. This may be the most common abuse of Scripture in our day. By removing a passage from the author’s day and the author’s intended purpose, one can make the Bible say anything. If it were not so common and deadly, the examples of this pitfall would be ludicrous.
1. A preacher of days past preached against the selling of dogs based on Deut. 23:18. The historical and literary settings were ignored. The term “dog” was transferred from male, cultic prostitution (Deuteronomy) to an animal (today).
2. When the modern legalist uses Col. 2:21 to outlaw certain activities without even realizing that this verse is Paul’s quote of the false teachers’ message, the problem becomes evident.
3. The modern use by soul winners of Rev. 3:20 as the closing appeal of “the plan of salvation,” not even realizing that it is in the context of Christian churches (Revelation 2-3). This text is not addressing initial salvation, but the recommitment of a church, beginning with the individuals of that congregation.
4. The modern cult of Mormonism quotes I Cor. 15:29 as a proof for “baptism for the dead.” There are no parallel passages for this verse. The immediate context is the validity of the resurrection and this verse is one of several examples used to confirm this truth.
5. C. I. Scofield’s quote of II Tim. 2:15, “rightly dividing the Word of truth,” is used as Scriptural support for dividing the Bible into seven distinct covenants.
6. Use of John 6:52ff by Roman Catholicism to support the doctrine of transubstantiation (that the elements of the Eucharist actually become the body and blood of Christ) is another example of this pitfall. John does not record the Lord’s Supper itself, but only the dialogue of the upper room experience (John 13-17). This passage is in the context of the feeding of the five thousand, not the Eucharist.
7. Preaching on sanctification from Gal. 2:20, not realizing that the focus of the context is on the complete effectiveness of justification.
C. Our abuse of the literary genre — this involves the misunderstanding of the original author’s message because of our failure to identify the literary form in which he spoke. Each literary form has some unique elements of interpretation. Some examples of this abuse follow.
1. Some literalists attempt to turn the poetry of Ps. 114:3-6 into historical narrative—often judging others by their literalistic interpretation.
2. Some try to interpret the apocalyptic sections of Revelation 12 and 13 as literal persons and animals.
3. Some try to describe “hell” from the parable of Luke 16:19-31. This is the fifth in a series of five parables, which are related to one central intent of Jesus in addressing the religious leaders (Pharisees) in Luke 15:1-2. Also, the term used is Hades and not Gehenna.
D. Our abuse of figures of speech or cultural idioms is another pitfall. We all speak in symbolic language. Yet, because those who hear us live in the same culture, they understand our idiomatic phrases. How unusual our idioms and figures of speech must be to those from other cultures. I recall an Indian pastor who told me that he was so sorry that “I was tickled to death.” It is good for us to reflect on our own colorful phrases, such as “that was awfully good”; “I am all ears”; “that just kills me”; or “cross my heart and hope to die.”
1. The Bible has idioms also.
a. The word “hate” in Luke 14:26; John 12:25; Rom. 9:13, and Mal. 1:2-3 is a Hebrew idiom of comparison, as can be seen in Gen. 29:31,33 and Deut. 21:15, but if we do not know this it can cause much misunderstanding.
b. The phrases, “cut off your limbs” and “pluck out your eyes,” in Matt. 5:29-30 are Oriental overstatements, not literal commands.
c. The Holy Spirit is in the form of a dove in Mark 1:10; however, the Scriptures say, “like a dove” or “as a dove,” cf. Luke 3:22.
E. Our abuse by oversimplification. We say that the gospel is simple and by this we mean that it is easy to understand, however, many simple summaries of the gospel are faulty because they are not complete.
1. God is love, but this omits the concept of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18-2:16).
2. We are saved by grace alone, but this omits the concept that individuals must repent and believe (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21).
3. Salvation is free (Eph. 2:8-9), but this completely omits the idea that it demands a lifestyle change (Eph. 2:10).
4. Jesus is God, but this omits the concept that He is truly human (I John 4:2).
F. Our abuse by selectivity — this is similar to over simplification and proof-texting. We often select or combine only those Scriptures which support our theology.
1. An example is seen in John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23, in the phrase “whatever you ask for in prayer, you will receive.” For the proper balance one must assert the other biblical criteria concerning this subject.
(a) “keep on asking, seeking, knocking,” Matt. 7:7-8
(b) “according to God’s will,” I John 5:14-15, which is really what “in Jesus’ name” implies
(c) “without doubt,” James 1:6
(d) “without selfish goals,” James 4:1-3
2. Using the text of I Cor. 11:6 to criticize men who wear long hair without noting Num. 6:5; Lev. 19:27, and the culture of Jesus’ day, is inappropriate.
3. Disallowing women to speak or teach in church based on I Cor. 14:34 without consideration of I Cor. 11:5, which is in the same literary unit, is an overstatement.
4. Disallowing or depreciating tongues, often based on I Cor. 13:8 (I Corinthians 13 asserts that everything but love will pass away), without noting the teaching of I Cor. 14:5,18,39, is inappropriate.
5. Emphasizing the food laws of Leviticus 11 without noting Matt. 15:11 and, in an oblique way, Acts 10:10-16, is inappropriate.
G. Our abuse of majoring on minors — often we miss the original author’s intent because we get involved in an interesting, but not central, issue. This can be seen in the following.
1. Whom did Cain marry? Gen. 4:17
2. Many are concerned about the recipients of Jesus preaching while He was in Hades. I Peter 3:19
3. Another question concerns how God is going to destroy the earth. II Peter 3:10
H. Our abuse of the Bible as history — the Bible often records what it does not advocate (Fee and Stuart 1982, 85). We must focus on clear teaching passages, not just historical accounts, for our theology and ethics.
I. Our abuse of the relationship between the Old and New Testament, Israel and the Church, Law and Grace. Presuppositionally, Christ is Lord of Scripture (Grant and Tracy 1984, 95). All Scripture must ultimately point to Him. He is the fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity (Col. 1:15-23). This means that although the Old Testament must stand on its own feet, it points toward Christ (Sterrett 1973, 157-171). I think we must interpret the OT through the new revelation of the NT. Old Testament emphases have changed and been universalized. The New Covenant has superceded the Mosaic Covenant (cf. the book of Hebrews and Galatians 3)
The examples of each of these pitfalls are legion. However, just because some over-interpret and some under-interpret and some falsely-interpret, does not mean there should be no interpretation. If we stay with the original author’s major intent expressed in a context and if we come to the Bible prayerfully and humbly we can avoid the vast majority of these pitfalls.
“Why is it that people so often find things in the Bible narratives, that are not really there—read into the Bible their own notions rather than read out of the Bible what God wants them to know?
1. they are desperate, desperate for information that will apply to their own situation
2. they are impatient; they want their answers now, from this book, from this chapter
3. they wrongly expect that everything in the Bible applies directly as instruction for their own individual lives” (Fee and Stuart 1980, 84).
Bible study is a combination of dependence on the Holy Spirit and the sharpening of your God-given abilities of reason and analysis. The spiritual aspect of Bible study is difficult to discuss because of the vast array of differing interpretations affirmed by godly, educated, sincere believers. It is a mystery why there is so much disagreement, even hostility, among believers, all trying to understand and affirm Scripture. The Spirit is crucial, but all believers have the Spirit. The following is simply my attempt to address the needed spiritual attitude of every interpreter.
A. Prayer should be “priority one” in interpretation and application. Prayer is not an automatic link to true interpretation, neither in its quality or quantity, but it is the first indispensable step. To go into Bible study without the Spirit is like going swimming without water. Again, this does not mean to imply that prayer is directly related to the quality of our exegesis—that is determined by additional factors. But one thing is for certain—a person unaided by God cannot know spiritual truth (Calvin). Prayer is not overcoming some reluctance on God’s part to open His book to us, but it is a recognition of our dependence on Him. The Spirit was given to help us understand God’s Word (John 14:26; 16:13-14; I Cor. 2:10-16).
B. Personal cleansing is also significant. Known, unconfessed sin blocks our relationship with God. He does not require sinlessness in order to understand the Bible, but the Bible is spiritual truth and sin is a barrier to spiritual things. We need to confess known sin (I John 1:9). We need to open ourselves to the Lord for inspection (Ps. 139:1,23-24). Many of His promises are conditional on our faith response, so too, our ability to understand the Bible.
C. We need to develop a desire to know God and His Word (Ps. 9:7-14; 42:1ff; 119:1ff). When we become serious with God, He is able to draw near to us and open His will for our lives (Zech. 1:3-4; James 4:8).
D. We need to immediately apply the truth gleaned from our Bible study (put into practice what we believe to be true) into our lives. Many of us already know much more biblical truth than we are living (I John 1:7). The criteria for more truth is that we walk in the truth we already have. Application is not optional, but it is daily. Walk in the light you have and more light will be given (Rom. 1:17).
“It perceives that no merely intellectual understanding of the Bible, however complete, can possess all its treasures. It does not despise such understanding, for it is essential to a complete understanding. But it must lead to a spiritual understanding of the spiritual treasures of this book if it is to be complete. And for that spiritual understanding something more than intellectual alertness is necessary. Spiritual things are spiritually discerned, and the Bible student needs an attitude of spiritual receptivity, an eagerness to find God that he may yield himself to Him, if he is to pass beyond his scientific study into the richer inheritance of this greatest of all books” The Relevance of the Bible, H. H. Rowley (p. 19).
Read the Bible! One cannot know what it means if he does not know what it says. Analytical reading and outlining are the keys to understanding. In this step several cycles (four) of reading the entire biblical book in one setting are involved.
A. Read in several translations. It is hoped that you will read translations that utilize different theories of translation.
1. formal correspondence (word-for-word) such as
a. the King James Version
b. the American Standard Version
c. the New American Standard Bible
d. the Revised Standard Version
2. dynamic equivalence translations such as
a. the New International Version
b. the New American Bible
c. Good News for Modern Man (Today’s English Version)
d. the Jerusalem Bible
e. the New English Bible
f. Williams translation
3. concept for concept translations such as
a. the Amplified Bible
b. Phillips translation
c. the Living Bible
Your personal study Bible should be from category (1) or (2). Also, a parallel Bible which utilizes several translations on the same page is very helpful.
B. Read the entire book or literary unit in one sitting
1. When you read, allow yourself a prolonged period of study time, a scheduled or regular time and find a quiet place. Reading is an attempt to understand another person’s thoughts. You would not think of reading a personal letter in sections. Try to read complete books of the Bible in one sitting.
2. One key to this non-technical, textually-focused methodology is reading and re-reading. It will amaze you how understanding is related to familiarity. This Textbook’s practical method is focused around these procedures.
a. seven interpretive questions
b. four stages of reading with assignments
c. use of research tools at appropriate places
C. Write down your textual observations (i.e., good note taking)
Take notes of what you read. There are several steps in this section. They are not meant to be burdensome, but we must control our desire for instant Bible knowledge by depending too heavily on the interpretations of others. Personal Bible study takes prayer, time, training, and persistence.
It is not an easy road, but the benefits are outstanding.
1. Read the book that you want to study one time through. I recommend that you choose a shorter New Testament book first. The study of an entire book is best. It is better stewardship of your time and it is easier to retain background information and context between study times. Book studies, over a period of time, will give you a biblical balance. It will force you to deal with difficult, unfamiliar, and paradoxical truths.
Try to put into your own words, in one concise, precise sentence, what the author’s overarching purpose was for writing the book. Also, try to isolate this central theme in a key verse, paragraph, or chapter. Remember that the purpose is often expressed by the type of literary genre that is used. If books are made up of other genres than historical narrative, consult the special hermeneutical procedural section concerning literary genre (See How to Read The Bible For All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart).
2. Read it again in the same translation. This time notice the major divisions (literary units) of the author’s thoughts. These are identified by changes in subject, time, topic, tone, place, style, etc. At this point do not try to outline the structure of the book, only its obvious subject changes. Do not base your divisions on the chapter and verse of your English Bible. These are not original and are often misleading and incorrect. Summarize each of your divisions by using short, descriptive sentences which characterize the subject or topic of the section. Once you have isolated sections, see if you can link them together into related topics, contrasts, comparisons, persons, events, etc. This step is an attempt to isolate and relate the large blocks of seemingly unrelated material, which in reality, are the literary units of the author’s overarching structure. These literary units show us the flow of the thoughts of the original author and point us toward his original intent.
D. At this point it is helpful to check your outline and overarching purpose with other believers.
“When your private interpretation leads you to a conclusion different from the historical meaning men of God have given to the passage, an amber light of caution should flash in your mind” (Henricksen 1973, 38).
“In order for the exegesis to be your work and not merely a mechanical compendium of other’s views, it is wise to do your own thinking and to arrive at your own conclusions as much as possible prior to this step” (Stuart 1980, 39).
“Constantly cross checking our grasp of Scripture with:
1. our pastor
2. our fellow Christians
3. the historic understanding of Scripture by orthodox Christians” (Sire 1980, 15)
Often your Study Bible will have an outline at the beginning of each book. If not, most have the subject of each chapter at the top of the page or somehow positioned in the text. Never look at theirs until you have written your own. You may have to modify yours, but shortcuts at this step will cripple your ability to analyze the literary units for yourself.
Not only do Study Bibles contain outlines of biblical books, but also
2. books of introduction to the Old or New Testament
3. Bible encyclopedias or dictionaries under the name of the biblical book
E. Re-read the entire biblical book and
1. on a separate sheet of paper, write down the paragraph divisions of your Bible under the literary units (different topics) that you have isolated and outlined. An outline is nothing more than recognizing the original author’s thoughts and their relationship to each other. Paragraphs will form the next logical division under literary units. As you identify the paragraph under each literary unit, characterize the context in one sentence as you did earlier to the larger division of the book. This simple outlining procedure will help keep you from majoring on minors.
Up until this point you have worked from only one translation. Now, compare your divisions with other translations.
a. the larger units
b. the paragraph divisions
Make a notation at the places of divergence.
a. subject divisions
b. paragraph divisions
c. word choice
d. sentence structure
e. marginal notes (This usually involves manuscript variations. For this technical information consult commentaries)
2. At this point look for verses in the biblical text to answer these questions (the historical setting).
a. who wrote the passage
b. to whom was the passage addressed
c. why was the passage written to them
d. when was the passage written
e. what historical circumstances were involved
This type of material can be gleaned from the book itself. Often all we know about the historical setting of biblical books is found within the book itself (internal evidence) or within parallel biblical passages. Certainly it is quicker to consult a “professional” commentator at this point, but resist doing it. You can do this for yourself. It will give you joy, increase your confidence, and help you remain independent of the “experts” (Osborne and Woodward 1979, 139; Jensen 1963, 20). Write down the questions you think might be helpful such as: Are there repeated words or phrases? Is there a noticeable structure? Is there a series of parallel passages from one other specific biblical book? With your questions before you, re-read the entire book. When you find an item in the text that relates to any of these questions, write it down under that section. With practice and careful reading it will amaze you how much you can learn from the text itself.
F. Check your observations
Now it is time to check your observations of the biblical book with those of God’s gifted men and women of the past and present.
“Interpretation is a social process. The best results can be achieved only by the cooperation of many minds. The results of scholars in one age are the natural and rightful heritage of those who labor in the same field in succeeding ages, and should be used by them. No interpreter of the New Testament can wisely ignore the results wrought by past generations and strike out for totally independent and original conclusions on all points. He should become familiar as far as possible with what has previously been accomplished…The commentaries which have been produced by the scholarship of the past form a very essential part of the materials for interpretation” (Dana 1946, 237).
“Charles H. Spurgeon…‘It seems odd that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to them should think so little of what He revealed to others’” (Henricksen 1973, 41).
“This stress on the primacy of firsthand study does not imply that an examination of commentaries is not recommended. On the contrary, when done in the proper place, it is recognized as an indispensable step in a methodical approach. Spurgeon rightly indicates that ‘two opposite errors beset the student of the Scripture: the tendency to take everything second hand from others, and the refusal to take anything from others’” (Traina 1985, 9).
For those who do not have commentaries or research tools available in their language, it is possible to fulfill this step by studying the same biblical book with other mature Christians in your area and comparing notes. Be sure to study with people from different perspectives.
Be careful to notice the commentator’s theories about historical setting versus their documentation of historical circumstances, either from the Bible itself or historical sources. If one is not careful one’s presuppositions about the author’s purpose and setting can affect his/her interpretation. A good example of this would be the supposed background of the book of Hebrews. Chapters six and ten are very difficult. Often, an interpretation is proposed based solely on supposed historical circumstances or denominational traditions.
G. Check the Significant Parallel Passages
Notice the concentric circles (parallel passages) of interpretive significance. One of the great dangers in interpretation is allowing other parts of the Bible to determine what a particular text means, but also, at the same time, it is one of our greatest helps. It is a matter of timing. At what point do you look to the wider scope of biblical truth? There is disagreement at this point (Ferguson 1937, 101), but for me the point of focus must first be the original author and the contextual book you are studying. God inspired the biblical authors to say something to their day. We must first understand this message fully before we relate it to other Bible passages we know. If not, we begin reading our favorite, familiar and denominational views into every passage. We allow our personal systematic theology or denomination biases to crush and replace inspired texts! Texts have priority! These concentric circles, as I call them, move from a specific passage to the entire Bible, but only in graded, marked steps.
1. Carefully observe the logical and literary position of your passage within the biblical book. Studying an entire biblical book is crucial. We must see the whole before the significance of the parts is obvious. We must let the author speak in his setting and for his purpose. Never go beyond the particular passage and its immediate context until you have allowed it to speak with its own force. So often we want to solve all of the problems before we take seriously what is being said by a particular inspired biblical author. We often try to protect our theological bias!
2. Once we feel that we have wrestled with the text sufficiently enough to understand the basic message, then we move to the next logical step, which is the same author in his other writings. This is very helpful in twin writings, such as Ezra and Nehemiah; Mark and I and II Peter; Luke and Acts; John and I John; Colossians and Ephesians; Galatians and Romans.
3. The next concentric circle concerns different writers, but those who wrote in the same historical setting, such as Amos and Hosea or Isaiah and Micah, or Haggai and Zechariah. This concentric circle could also relate to the same type of literary genre on the same subject. An example is linking Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 with Daniel, Zechariah, and the book of Revelation. All of these, though written by different authors, relate to the end-time and are written in an apocalyptic genre. This circle is often identified as “biblical theology.” It is an attempt to allow specific sections of Scripture to relate to one another on a controlled basis. If exegesis is a bite of the pie, biblical theology is a slice. If exegesis is a solo, then biblical theology is an ensemble. We are looking for trends, themes, motifs, characteristic words, phrases, or structures of a given period, literary genre, subject, or author.
4. Since all of the Bible is inspired (II Tim. 3:16) and since our basic presupposition is that it does not contradict itself (analogy of Scripture), then we must allow the Bible to fully explain itself on a given subject. If exegesis is a bite and biblical theology is a slice, then systematic doctrine is the whole pie. If exegesis is a solo and biblical theology is an ensemble, then systematic doctrine is the full choir. Be careful, try never to say, “the Bible says…” until you have carefully advanced through each concentric circle of interpretation.
H. Eastern people present truth in tension-filled pairs
The Bible often presents truth in dialectical pairs. If we miss the balancing truth (paradox) we have perverted the overarching biblical message. Unbalanced presentation of truth is what characterizes modern denominations. We must allow the biblical authors to speak, but also the Bible as a whole (other inspired authors). At this stage of interpretation a relevant parallel passage, either confirming, modifying, or seemingly contradicting, is extremely helpful. It must be emphatically stated that it is as damaging to add to the Bible’s message as it is to take away from it. Bible truth is presented in clear, simple statements, but the relationship between these clear statements is often quite involved. The crowning glory of interpretation is the big picture, the balanced truth.
I. Systematic Theology
How does one present a doctrine systematically? It is similar to biblical theology in that we allow concepts, themes, and words to guide us to
1. other related passages (pro and con)
2. the definitive teaching passage on that subject
3. other elements of the same truth
4. the interchange of the two Testaments
The Bible speaks truly, but not always fully in a given context on a given subject. We must find the clearest biblical presentation of a given truth. This is done by using certain research tools. Again, you should try to work with the least interpretive helps first. An exhaustive concordance of the Bible can be very helpful. It will help you to find word parallels. Often this is all we need to discover the thought or concept parallels. The concordance will show us the different biblical terms which are translated into English. Concordances are now available for the King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version. We need to be sure that we are not confusing English words with Hebrew or Greek synonyms. A good concordance will list the different original words and the places of their occurrence. The concentric circles (parallel passages) come into relevance again here. The order of priority will be
1. the immediate context of the literary unit
2. the larger context of the whole book
3. the same author
4. the same period, literary genre, or Testament
5. the entire Bible
Systematic theology books attempt to divide Christian truth into categories and then find all the references on that subject. Often they link these together in very denominational ways. Systematic theologies are the most biased of all reference books. Never consult just one. Always use those from other theological perspectives to force yourself to rethink what you believe, why you believe it, and where you can substantiate it from Scripture.
J. Use of Parallel Passages
If there are only a few references for the word you are studying, read all of them and also the entire paragraph in which they occur. If there are too many references, refer to the concentric circles again by reading the references that occur in the immediate context of the literary unit and the larger context of the entire book and select several to read in the other biblical books by the same author, or the same period, literary genre, Testament, or the entire Bible. Be careful because often the same word is used in a different senses in different contexts. Be sure to keep the biblical texts separate. Never allow a mixture of texts from all genres in the Bible without carefully checking the context of each one! Rather try to find parallel truths (pro and con). Some examples of this follow.
1. The use of the term “heavenlies” within the book of Ephesians. At first it seems to mean “heaven when we die,” but when all five uses are compared, it means “the spiritual realm coexisting with us now” (Eph. 1:3,20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12).
2. The phrase “filling with the Spirit” is used in Eph. 5:18. This has been the focus of great controversy. The book of Colossians helps us with an exact parallel. The Colossian parallel has “let the mind of Christ richly dwell in you” (Col. 3:16).
The next source of help on locating these types of meaningful parallels is a good reference Study Bible. Like all good things, practice makes perfect. As you practice these procedures they will become easier. This is also true of research tools.
At this stage I would like to share with you a practical way to use a type of research tool that most believers do not ever use—systematic theology books. These books are usually extensively indexed by both text and topic. Check the index for your text. Write down the page numbers. Notice what “theological category” they are in. Look at the page and find your text. Read the paragraph; if it is helpful and thought provoking read the page (the whole section).
Check the index for your text. Write down the page numbers. Notice what “theological category” they are in. Look at the page and find your text. Read the paragraph if it is helpful and thought-provoking, read the page (the whole section). Find out how your context fits into the whole of Christian theology. It may be the only text on this topic or one of several. It may be the dialectical paradox to another doctrine. These books can be a great help in seeing the big picture if they are used critically and in concert with several authors, denominations, systematic theologies! A complete listing of the better ones is found at the conclusion of this Textbook (IX p. 105). These books are not for light, devotional reading, but they are so helpful in checking your formulation of the big picture. A note of caution should be given here. These books are very interpretive. Whenever we put our theology into a structure it becomes biased and presuppositional. This is unavoidable. Therefore, do not consult only one author, but several (this is also true of commentaries). Read systematic theologies from authors with whom you disagree or who are from other denominational backgrounds. Look at their evidence and ponder their logic. Growth comes with struggle. Force them to show you from the Bible what they are saying:
1. context (immediate and larger)
2. syntax (grammatical structure)
3. etymology and current usage (word study)
4. parallel passages (concentric circles)
5. history and culture of the original setting
God has spoken through Israel, Jesus, and the Apostles, and in a lesser way, He continues to illumine the church to understand the Scriptures (Silva 1987, 21). The believing community is a guard against wild, radical interpretations. Read the gifted men and women of the past and present. Do not believe all they write, but listen to them through your own Spirit-led filter. We are all historically conditioned.
Throughout this Textbook you have been encouraged to do your own analysis, but there comes a point beyond which none of us can go personally. We cannot be scholarly specialists in all areas. We must find capable, godly, gifted researchers to help us. This does not mean to imply that we do not critique them and their findings. There are so many research tools available today in the English language that the wealth of these tools can be overwhelming. Here is a proposed order. After you have done all of the preliminary observations of the passage yourself then supplement your information with the following (use different colored ink for your notes and for those from the helps in each area).
A. Start with the historical background
1. Bible introductions
2. articles in Bible encyclopedias, handbooks, or dictionaries
3. opening chapters of commentaries
B. Use several types of commentaries
1. short commentaries
2. technical commentaries
3. devotional commentaries
C. Use supplementary specialized reference materials
1. word study books
2. cultural background books
3. geographically oriented books
4. archaeology books
5. apologetic books
D. Finally, try to get the big picture
Remember that we receive truth in increments; do not take shortcuts in your study—do not expect instantaneous results—stay with the program. Expect tension and disagreement in interpretation. Remember that interpretation is a Spirit-led task as well as a logical process.
Read the Bible analytically and research tools critically. Practice makes perfect. Start now. Make a commitment of at least thirty minutes a day, find a quiet place and set aside a time, choose a small New Testament book first, assemble several Bible translations and Study Bibles, get paper and pencil, pray, start.
The first suggestion is the use of a written work sheet or form. This will help you to record certain types of information as you read through the biblical book. If you take your personal observation notes in one color of ink, then use other colors for insight from different research tools. The following worksheet is tentative, but it is one which is helpful to me. You may want to develop your own order and headings. The following worksheet is merely a listing of categories of information which may be helpful in interpretation. You will need to leave more space between items on your worksheet. The enclosed sample form is primarily for topics and their relation to the four cycles of readings. Included at the end of this Textbook is a sample of the book of Romans., chapters 1-3 (literary unit) and the book of Titus (book summary).
A. First reading
1. The overarching theme or purpose of the whole book is: (brief description)
2. This theme is exemplified in (choose one)
3. The type of literary genre is
B. Second reading
1. The major literary units or content divisions are
2. Summarize the subject (in a declarative sentence) of each major division and note their relationship to each other (chronological, logical, theological, etc.)
3. List the places you checked your outline
C. Third reading
1. Internal information concerning the historical setting (give chapter and verse)
a. Author of the book
b. Date of its writing or date of event
c. Recipients of the book
d. Occasion of the writing
2. Fill in your working content outline by adding the paragraph divisions. Compare translations from the different translation theory groups, especially from the literal and idiomatic (dynamic equivalent). Then write out your own outline.
3. Summarize each paragraph in a declarative sentence.
4. List possible application points with each major division and/or paragraphs.
D. Fourth reading
1. Make note of significant parallel passages (both positive and negative). Observe these concentric circles of significance.
a. Same book or literary units
b. Same author
c. Same period, subject or literary genre
d. Same Testament
e. Entire Bible
2. Check systematic theology books.
3. Develop specialized lists in order to discern structure.
a. List the major and minor characters.
b. List key terms (theological, recurrent or unusual terms).
c. List the major events.
d. List the geographical movements.
4. Make note of difficult passages.
a. Textual problems
(1) from margin of your English Bible
(2) from comparing English translations
b. Historical problems and uniqueness
c. Theological problems of uniqueness
d. Those verses that cause you confusion
E. Application truths
1. Write your detailed outline on the left side of a sheet.
2. On the right side write down (in pencil) possible application truths for the major literary units and/or the paragraphs.
F. Use of Research Tools
1. Read research tools in appropriate order. Take notes on a “work sheet.” Look for
a. points of agreement
b. points of disagreement
c. new thoughts or applications
d. record possible interpretations on difficult passages
2. Analyze insights from research tools and develop a final detailed outline with application points. This master outline should help you to discern the original author’s structure and purpose.
a. Do not major on minors.
b. Do not forget the context.
c. Do not read into the text more than, or less than, the original author intended.
d. Application points should be done on three levels:
(1) theme of the whole book—first reading
(2) major literary units—second reading
(3) paragraphs—third reading
e. Allow parallel passages to confirm and clarify your interpretation as the final step. This allows the Bible to interpret itself. However, doing it last safeguards us from allowing our overall systematic theological understanding of the Bible from silencing, ignoring, or skewing difficult passages.
G. Theological Insight
1. Use systematic theology books to find how your text relates to the major truths of the Bible.
2. Describe in your own words the major truth(s) of your passage. Your sermon or teaching lesson should reflect this truth!
A. The Text (minimum one paragraph in English)
1. Establish the original text (note any manuscript variants)
2. Translation options
a. Word for word (KJV, ASV, NASB, RSV, NRSV)
b. Dynamic equivalent (NIV, NEB, Jerusalem Bible, Williams, TEV)
c. Other ancient translations (LXX, Vulgate, Peshitta, etc.)
d. No paraphrase translations (i.e., commentaries) at this stage
3. Check any significant variables in the translations and why
a. Greek manuscript problem(s)
b. Difficult word(s)
c. Unique construction(s)
d. Theological truth(s)
B. Exegetical items to be checked
1. Note immediate contextual unit (how is your paragraph related to the literary unit and how is it related to the surrounding paragraphs)
2. Note possible structural elements
a. Parallel structures
c. Figures of speech
3. Note grammatical elements (syntax)
a. Verbs or verbals (tense, voice, mood, number, gender)
b. Special construction (conditional sentences, prohibitions, etc.)
c. Word or clause order
4. Note key words
a. Give full semantical field
b. Which meaning(s) fit the context best
c. Be careful of set theological definitions
5. Note significant biblical parallels of words, topics or quotes
a. Same context
b. Same book
c. Same author
d. Same genre
e. Same period
f. Entire Bible
C. Historical Summary
1. How the specific occasion of the writing effects the truth statements.
2. How the cultural milieu effects the truth statements.
3. How recipients effect the truth statements.
D. Theological Summary
1. Theological truths
a. State clearly the author’s theological assertion:
(1) Special terminology
(2) Significant clause or phrase
(3) Central truth of sentence(s) or paragraph(s)
b. How does this relate to the subject or truth of the literary unit?
c. How does this relate to the subject or truth of the entire book?
d. How does this relate to the subject or truth as revealed in Scripture?
2. Special points of interest
3. Personal insights
4. Insights from commentaries
E. Application Truths
1. Application truth of literary unit
2. Application truth(s) of paragraph(s) level
3. Application truth of theological elements within the text
III. Basic Procedures for an Academic NT Word Study
A. Establish the basic meaning and semantic field
Use A Greek-English Lexicon by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker
B. Establish the contemporary usage (Koine Greek)
1. Use The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament by Moulton, Milligan for Egyptian papyri
2. Use the Septuagint and Redpath’s Concordance of the LXX for Palestinian Judaism
C. Establish the semantic domain
Use Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament by Louw, Nida or Expoistory Dictionary of New Testament Words by Vine
D. Establish the Hebrew background
Use Strong’s Concordance with its numbers linked to the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Brown, Driver, Briggs; New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, edited by Van Gemneren (5 vols.) or Synonyms of the Old Testament by Girdlestone
E. Establish the grammatical form of the word in context
Use an interlinear Greek-English New Testament and an analytical lexicon or Analytical Greek New Testament by Timothy and Barbara Friberg
F. Check the frequency of usage by genre, authors, subject, etc.
Use a concordance
G. Check your study with
– a Bible encyclopedia – use Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia (5 vols) or The International Bible Encyclopedia (5 vols)
– a Bible Dictionary – use Anchor Bible Dictionary or Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary
– a theological word book – use The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (3 vols) edited by Colin Brown,
or Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (abridged) by Bromiley
– a systematic theological book – use Systematic Theology by Berkhof; A Theology of the New Testament by Ladd; New Testament Theology by Stagg; or a number of others
H. Write out summary of significant interpretive findings
IV. A Brief Summary of Hermeneutical Principles
A. Always pray first. The Spirit is essential. God wants you to understand.
B. Establish the Original Text
1. Check the notes in the margin of your Study Bible for Greek manuscript variants.
2. Do not build a doctrine on a disputed text, look for a clear parallel passage.
C. Understanding the Text
1. Read the entire context (literary context is crucial). Check the outline in a Study Bible or commentary to determine the literary unit.
2. Never try to interpret less than a paragraph. Try to outline the main truths of the paragraphs in the literary unit. This way we can follow the original author’s thoughts and their development.
3. Red the paragraph in several translations which use different translation theories.
4. Consult good commentaries and other Bible study aids only after you have studied the text first (remember the Bible, the Spirit, and you are priority in biblical interpretation).
D. Understanding the Words
1. The NT writers were Hebrew thinkers, writing in Koine (street) Greek.
2. We must find the contemporary meaning and connotations, not modern English definitions (see the Septuagint and Egyptian papyri).
3. Words have meaning only in sentences. Sentences have meaning only in paragraphs. Paragraphs have meaning only in literary units. Check the semantic field (i.e., various meanings of words).
E. Use Parallel Passages
1. The Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. It has only one author, the Holy Spirit.
2. Look for the clearest teaching text on the truth of your paragraph (reference Bible or concordance).
3. Look for the paradoxical truths (tension-filled pairs of eastern literature).
1. You cannot apply the Bible to your day until you understand what the inspired author was saying to his/her day (historical context is crucial).
2. Be careful of personal biases, theological systems, or agendas. Let the Bible speak for itself!
3. Be careful of principlizing every verse. Not all texts have universal relevance. Not all texts apply to modern individuals.
4. Respond immediately to new truth or insight. Bible knowledge is meant to produce daily Christlikeness and kingdom service.
A SELECTED LIST OF
RECOMMENDED RESEARCH TOOLS BY CATEGORY
I. The Bible
A. Understanding the process of translating.
1. J. Beekman and J. Callow, Translating the Word of God
2. Eugene Nida, God’s Word in Man’s Language (William Carey, N.D.)
3. Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht, So Many Versions (Zondervan, 1983)
4. F. F. Bruce, The Book and the Parchments (Revell, 1963)
B. History of the English Bible
1. F. F. Bruce The English Bible: A History of Translations From the Earliest Versions to the New English Bible (Oxford, 1970)
2. Ira Maurice Price, The Ancestry of Our English Bible (Harper, 1956)
II. How to do Research
A. Walter J. Clark, How To Use New Testament Greek Study Aids (Loizeaux Brothers, 1983)
B. F.W. Danker, Multipurpose Tools for Bible Study (Concordia, 1970)
C. R.T. France, A Bibliographic Guide to New Testament Research (JSOT Press, 1979)
D. D. W. Scholer, A Basic Bibliographic Guide for New Testament Exegesis (Eerdmans, 1973)
A. James Braga, How to Study the Bible (Multnomah, 1982)
B. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 1982)
C. Richard Mayhue, How to Interpret the Bible for Yourself (Moody, 1986)
D. J. Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible (Moody, 1983)
E. A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Eerdmans, 1963)
1. John MacArthur, Jr., Rediscovering Expository Preaching (Word, 1992)
G. Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy, Biblical Hermeneutics (Broadman & Holman, 1996)
2. Robert Stein, A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible
IV. Basic Introductions to Biblical Books
A. Old Testament
1. R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1969)
2. William Sanford LaSor, David Allen Hubbard and Frederic Wm. Bush, Old Testament Survey (Eerdmans, 1982)
3. Edward J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1949)
4. T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Baker, 1998)
5. Peter C. Craigie, The Old Testament: Its Background, Growth and Context (Abingdon, 1990)
B. New Testament
1. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (IVP, 1970)
2. Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content (Abingdon, 1965)
3. D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Zondervan 1992)
4. Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament (Baker 1998)
5. Robert H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1994)
V. Bible Encyclopedias and Dictionaries (multi-volume)
A. M. Tenney, ed., The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Encyclopedia, 5 vols. (Zondervan, 1976)
B. G. A. Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible and Supplement, 5 vols. (Abingdon, 1962-1977)
C. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 5 vols., rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 1979-1987)
1. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and J. Howard Marshall editors, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP, 1992)
2. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid editors, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (IVP, 1993)
3. David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols. (Doubleday, 1992)
VI. Commentary Sets
A. Old Testament
1. D. J. Wiseman, ed., The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (InterVarsity, 1970)
2. A Study Guide Commentary Series (Zondervan, 1977)
3. R. K. Harrison, ed., The New International Commentary (Eerdmans, 1976)
4. Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1958)
5. Bob Utley, www.freebiblecommentary.org
B. New Testament
1. R. V. G. Tasker, ed., The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Eerdmans, 1959)
2. A Study Guide Commentary Series (Zondervan, 1977)
3. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1958)
4. The New International Commentary (Eerdmans, 1976)
5. Bob Utley, www.freebiblecommentary.org
VII. Word Studies
A. Old Testament
1. Robert B. Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1897)
2. Aaron Pick, Dictionary of Old Testament Words (Kregel, 1977)
3. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody, 1980)
4. William A. Van Gemeren, editor, Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 5 vols. (Zondervan, 1997)
B. New Testament
1. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Broadman, 1930)
2. M. R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (MacDonald, 1888)
3. W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Revell, 1968)
4. William Barclay, A New Testament Wordbook, (SCM, 1955)
5. , More New Testament Words (Harper, 1958)
6. C. Brown, et. al., The New Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 5 vols. (Zondervan, 1975-1979)
1. Alan Richardson, ed., A Theological Word Book of the Bible (MacMillan, 1950)
2. Everett F. Harrison, ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Baker, 1975)
VIII. Cultural setting
1. Adolf Deissman, Light From the Ancient East (Baker, 1978)
2. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 2 vols. (McGraw-Hill, 1961)
3. James M. Freeman, Manners and Customs of the Bible (Logos, 1972)
4. Fred H. Wright, Manners and Customs of Bible Lands (Moody, 1953)
5. Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past, 2 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1974)
6. Victor H. Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible (Hendrickson, 1988)
1. John Bright, A History of Israel (Westminster, 1981)
2. D. J. Wiseman, ed., Peoples of Old Testament Times (Oxford, 1973)
3. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1970)
C. New Testament
1. Adolf Deissmann, Light From the Ancient East (Baker, 1978)
2. F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (Doubleday, 1969)
3. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Harper’s World of the New Testament (Harper and Row, 1981)
4. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Eerdmans, 1971)
5. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, 1963)
6. J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 1939)
1. Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past, 2 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1946)
2. H. T. Vos, Archaeology of Bible Lands (Moody, 1977)
3. Edwin M. Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (Holman, 1972)
4. K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1966)
5. John H. Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context (Zondervan, 1989)
1. C. F. Pfeiffer and H. F. Vos, The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands (Moody, 1967)
2. Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (Moody, 1985)
3. Thomas V. Brisco ed., Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman and Holman, 1998)
A. Old Testament
1. A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament (Clark, 1904)
2. Edmond Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (Harper & Row, 1958)
3. Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1978)
4. Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (IVP, 1998)
B. New Testament
1. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (InterVarsity, 1981)
2. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1974)
3. Frank Stagg, New Testament Theology (Broadman, 1962)
4. Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, vol. 2 (Harper & Row, 1978)
C. Entire Bible
1. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1948)
2. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1939)
3. H. Orton Wiley, Christian Theology (Beacon Hill Press, 1940)
4. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Baker, 1998)
D. Doctrine—historically developed
1. L. Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Baker, 1975)
2. Justo L. Gonzales, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1 (Abingdon, 1970)
A. Norman Geisler, Christian Apologetics (Baker, 1976)
B. Bernard Ramm, Varieties of Christian Apologetics (Baker, 1962)
C. J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (MacMillan, 1953)
D. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (MacMillan, 1978)
E. Colin Brown, ed., History, Criticism and Faith (InterVarsity, 1976)
F. F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions (Zondervan, 1972)
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (IVP, 1996)
XI. Bible Difficulties
1. F. F. Bruce, Questions and Answers
2. Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 1982)
3. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask (Victor, 1992)
4. Walter C., Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce and Manfred F. Baruch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (IVP, 1996) and More Hard Sayings of the Bible
XII. Textual Criticism
A. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration (Oxford, 1964)
B. J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Eerdmans, 1964)
C. Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, (United Bible Societies.)
1. Old Testament (Hebrew)
i. Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, (Clarendon Press, 1951)
ii. Bruce Einspahr, Index to Brown, Driver and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon
iii. Benjamin Davidson, Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (MacDonald)
iv. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 2 vols.
2. New Testament (Greek)
i. Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon (University of Chicago Press, 1979)
ii. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon, 2 vols. (United Bible Societies, 1989)
iii. James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Eerdmans, 1974)
iv. William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Zondervan, 1993)
XIV. Available web sites to buy out of print, used, and discounted books
Can we know truth? Where is it found? Can we logically verify it? Is there an ultimate authority? Are there absolutes which can guide our lives, our world? Is there meaning to life? Why are we here? Where are we going? These questions—questions that all rational people contemplate—have haunted the human intellect since the beginning of time (Eccl. 1:13-18; 3:9-11). I can remember my personal search for an integrating center for my life. I became a believer in Christ at a young age, based primarily on the witness of significant others in my family. As I grew to adulthood, questions about myself and my world also grew. Simple cultural and religious clichés did not bring meaning to the experiences I read about or encountered. It was a time of confusion, searching, longing, and often a feeling of hopelessness in the face of the insensitive, hard world in which I lived.
Many claimed to have answers to these ultimate questions, but after research and reflection I found that their answers were based upon (1) personal philosophies, (2) ancient myths, (3) personal experiences, or (4) psychological projections. I needed some degree of verification, some evidence, some rationality on which to base my world-view, my integrating center, my reason to live.
I found these in my study of the Bible. I began to search for evidence of its trustworthiness, which I found in (1) the historical reliability of the Bible as confirmed by archaeology, (2) the accuracy of the prophecies of the Old Testament, (3) the unity of the Bible message over the sixteen hundred years of its production, and (4) the personal testimonies of people whose lives had been permanently changed by contact with the Bible. Christianity, as a unified system of faith and belief, has the ability to deal with complex questions of human life. Not only did this provide a rational framework, but the experiential aspect of biblical faith brought me emotional joy and stability.
I thought that I had found the integrating center for my life—Christ, as understood through the Scriptures. It was a heady experience, an emotional release. However, I can still remember the shock and pain when it began to dawn on me how many different interpretations of this book were advocated, sometimes even within the same churches and schools of thought. Affirming the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible was not the end, but only the beginning. How do I verify or reject the varied and conflicting interpretations of the many difficult passages in Scripture by those who were claiming its authority and trustworthiness?
This task became my life’s goal and pilgrimage of faith. I knew that my faith in Christ had (1) brought me great peace and joy. My mind longed for some absolutes in the midst of the relativity of my culture (post-modernity); (2) the dogmatism of conflicting religious systems (world religions); and (3) denominational arrogance. In my search for valid approaches to the interpretation of ancient literature, I was surprised to discover my own historical, cultural, denominational and experiential biases. I had often read the Bible simply to reinforce my own views. I used it as a source of dogma to attack others while reaffirming my own insecurities and inadequacies. How painful this realization was to me!
Although I can never be totally objective, I can become a better reader of the Bible. I can limit my biases by identifying them and acknowledging their presence. I am not yet free of them, but I have confronted my own weaknesses. The interpreter is often the worst enemy of good Bible reading!
Let me list some of the presuppositions I bring to my study of the Bible so that you, the reader, may examine them along with me:
A. I believe the Bible is the sole inspired self-revelation of the one true God. Therefore, it must be interpreted in light of the intent of the original divine author (the Spirit) through a human writer in a specific historical setting.
B. I believe the Bible was written for the common person—for all people! God accommodated Himself to speak to us clearly within a historical and cultural context. God does not hide truth—He wants us to understand! Therefore, it must be interpreted in light of its day, not ours. The Bible should not mean to us what it never meant to those who first read or heard it. It is understandable by the average human mind and uses normal human communication forms and techniques.
C. I believe the Bible has a unified message and purpose. It does not contradict itself, though it does contain difficult and paradoxical passages. Thus, the best interpreter of the Bible is the Bible itself.
D. I believe that every passage (excluding prophesies) has one and only one meaning based on the intent of the original, inspired author. Although we can never be absolutely certain we know the original author’s intent, many indicators point in its direction:
1. the genre (literary type) chosen to express the message
2. the historical setting and/or specific occasion that elicited the writing
3. the literary context of the entire book as well as each literary unit
4. the textual design (outline) of the literary units as they relate to the whole message
5. the specific grammatical features employed to communicate the message
6. the words chosen to present the message
7. parallel passages
The study of each of these areas becomes the object of our study of a passage. Before I explain my methodology for good Bible reading, let me delineate some of the inappropriate methods being used today that have caused so much diversity of interpretation, and that consequently should be avoided:
A. Ignoring the literary context of the books of the Bible and using every sentence, clause, or even individual words as statements of truth unrelated to the author’s intent or the larger context. This is often called “proof-texting.”
B. Ignoring the historical setting of the books by substituting a supposed historical setting that has little or no support from the text itself.
C. Ignoring the historical setting of the books and reading it as the morning hometown newspaper written primarily to modern individual Christians.
D. Ignoring the historical setting of the books by allegorizing the text into a philosophical/theological message totally unrelated to the first hearers and the original author’s intent.
E. Ignoring the original message by substituting one’s own system of theology, pet doctrine, or contemporary issue unrelated to the original author’s purpose and stated message. This phenomenon often follows the initial reading of the Bible as a means of establishing a speaker’s authority. This is often referred to as “reader response” (“what-the-text-means-to-me” interpretation).
At least three related components may be found in all written human communication: