4. Biblical Authority
I. Author’s Presuppositional Definition
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.
II. Need for Verifiable Interpretations
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).
III. Examples of Interpretative Abuse
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)!