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The Interpreter

I. Presuppositional Conditioning

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”!

II. Some Examples of Evangelical Conditioning

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.

SPECIAL TOPIC: ALCOHOL (fermentation) AND ALCOHOLISM (addiction)

I. Biblical Terms

  • Old Testament

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).

New Testament

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).

B. Interbiblical

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.

SPECIAL TOPIC: TITHING

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.”

III. What Can Be Done?

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!

IV. The Responsibility of the Interpreter

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!