I. A Word About the Trend in Biblical Interpretation Toward Specializations in Hermeneutics
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).
A Word to the Laity
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.
II. The Author’s Experiences in Teaching Hermeneutics in Local Churches, Classrooms, and Seminars
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.
III. The Issue of Authority
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.
IV. The Need for Non-technical Hermeneutical Procedures
A. Apathy Among Believers
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.
B. Dogmatism Among Believers
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!
V. Basic Presuppositions About the Bible
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).
VI. General Statements About the Contextual/Textual Method
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)
VII. Some General Comments to the Reader
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.