Hermeneutics: Interpreting and Understanding the Bible – Part 4
You can find parts 1 and 2 and 3 in this series here (part 1) and here (part 2) and here (part 3)
In parts one through three, we introduced this article and examined the need for the new birth and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit as we seek to understand that which God has revealed about himself in the pages of Holy Scripture. We begin this section with a consideration of the Holy Spirit’s purpose in hermeneutic activity.
All of God’s eternal purposes have their focal point and their circumference in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:11). God’s Son is both the subject and the object of all biblical revelation. Jesus himself underscored this when he admonished the “Bible scholars” of his own day, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). How did Jesus instruct his own followers to approach Scripture? He said to them, “… These are the words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). Remember how he dealt with Scripture when he talked with the two despondent disciples along the Emmaus road? “‘… O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken…’ And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
This is the perspective of the one who is both the author and the subject of all Scripture. Jesus also proclaimed that when the Spirit of truth comes, “‘He will testify of Me'” (John 15:26).
Again I would like to insert a word of caution. The Bible is not a compilation of proof texts. It is the unfolding of redemptive history centered in Jesus Christ. (Our lives, too, are an unfolding story of redemption!) Recognition of the literary character of the Bible has important hermeneutical implications. Every part of the story is understood properly only when it is read within its proper context. Each part is set against the background of what has gone before and (though the reader may be unconscious of the fact at first reading) is preparing the way for what comes afterward. It is from the vantage point of the story’s conclusion that the reader can observe the way in which every part has been directed towards and has contributed to this end. It is clear that the Bible tells one main story and the unity of that story is only perceived from the standpoint of the story’s conclusion or goal-Jesus Christ! (John 1:1-5; 14:9; Col. 1:15-20 etc.). Thus all of Scripture finds its focus and true meaning only in the light of Christ (John 1:45; 5:39-40; Luke 24:27, 44; Acts 3:18; 10:43; 2 Cor. 1:20; Heb. 1:1-2). Christ himself is the focus of the Scripture story. This does not mean that every text of Scripture must be made to speak directly of him. Rather, every text is part of the single story which has its focus in him. Thus, we read the Old Testament Scriptures in light of the New Testament and its conclusion in Christ, for he is the fulfillment of it all (Matt. 5:17-18). A veil lies over the eyes if one reads the Old Testament Scriptures apart from Christ (2 Cor. 3:14-18).
The Bible is a message to be proclaimed. It is not an abstract system of doctrine, but a revelation of the redemptive work of God in Christ, in which we are intimately and presently involved. “For of Him, and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen” (Romans 11:36). If we comprehended the truth revealed in the Bible, we could not read it with a yawn, but we would read it with a shout! Chip Brogden writes: “I pray these will not be mere verses of Scripture to us, but will be the very means through which the Father gives us greater illumination and revelation into His Son. We ought to meditate on this daily and ask the Lord to open our eyes to see the height, depth, width, length, and breadth of this JESUS Whom we say we serve. May God deliver us from our own idea, concept, perception, and illusion of a small Christ and give us revelation into the preeminence of His Son.”1 I say, “Amen!”
“Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious” (1 Pet. 2:7a). When Christ is truly beheld in the Scriptures, we begin to grasp something of the preciousness of the Lord. We begin to grasp his infinite worth. Worship is our response to revelation. Ultimately, as his chosen vessels, the Lord himself manifests his glory through us so that we go forth as living epistles (see 2 Cor. 3: 2-3; 4:1-11; Gal. 2:20).
May Christ be the object of our desires. As we open the pages of our Bibles, may we see not merely loaves and fishes and signs, but may we see the one who the signs reveal. May our time in the Word not be time reading a book, but a time of communion with the living Lord who is life. One can ever be learning ‘truths’ without learning the truth (John 14:6). May we not be fooled into thinking that our acquisition of facts is equivalent to knowing God. Let us pray for a “spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of our understanding being enlightened” (Eph. 1:17, 18) knowing that “in [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
D. Further Considerations
Every genuine believer in Christ wants to know this Jesus who has loved him and given himself for him. To this end, the sincere believer will search the Scripture, not caring where he ends up, for he desires to know and live according to the truth.
Since the only infallible source of truth is the Bible, we need to look to Scripture to interpret Scripture (2 Pet. 1:20-21; 1 Cor. 2:13; 14:32). The Bible is an organic whole and its message in one part will not be contradictory to its message in another part. So, to understand the meaning of any verse, we must start by viewing that verse in terms of its immediate context. An examination of context is crucial to the proper interpretation of a particular verse. We must be especially careful when studying by subject or topic that we don’t lift proof texts out of their respective contexts.
Secondly, the verse must not only be interpreted in terms of its immediate context, but it must also be synthesized with the total teaching of the book in which it appears. Its meaning must be determined in the light of that book’s flow of thought.
Thirdly, the verse must be considered in terms of the message of the Bible as a whole. In fact, I think it is misunderstanding the “whole counsel” of God’s Word that causes texts to be taken out of their redemptive-historical context and leads to so many different denominations and interpretations.
Many times, when you first glance at a verse, it can seem to be saying something that God is not saying at all. It is crucial that we do not lift verses out of their context. The Bible is not written as a collection of verses all just sprinkled together (though Proverbs is somewhat like that-a collection of wisdom). Everything has a context. If you rip a verse from its context, you can make it say anything. In fact, the Bible has been used, down through the ages, by many ‘crazies’ to justify all kinds of things. Even the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are humanly devised additions from about six or seven-hundred years ago or so. The original God-given Scripture did not have such divisions. They are helpful for us to locate texts in the Bible, but they can hinder us by causing us to ‘section up’ our Bibles. The early Christians would study the book of Romans as one whole letter, and they would learn its content in context. Thus they would see the flow of Paul’s argument and teaching and how it all fit together. They did not read it as separate chapters or verses.
You will discover that the more you grasp of the whole counsel of God’s Word, the more clearly you will see how each detail fits into the overall scheme of God’s unfolding plan. You will see things that you never saw before when you go back over passages, read now in the light of more truth. This is the way it always is for us as believers. We continue to learn and grow and reread the Scriptures with more ‘enlightened’ eyes. Thus it carries more meaning for us all the time. Consider the word salvation. Does it not hold much further meaning now than it did when you were first saved?
Though we are saved and our minds have been enlightened, the Scripture concludes that we need to “desire the pure milk of the Word that you may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 2:2).We need to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Our minds need to be “renewed” through the word of truth (Rom. 12:2). It is the word of truth through which we will be sanctified, Jesus said (John 17:17, 19). So the Scripture concludes that though we are regenerated and thus spiritually alive, our thinking, which was conformed to this world, needs to be renewed. It needs to be sanctified by the reality of God and the truth. We grow in this. As our minds and thinking are more and more corrected and instructed through the Word by the Spirit, our thinking and our perspective is changed.
We have not yet attained. We still err in notion, judgment and sentiment. In fact, 1 Corinthians 13:12 tells us “for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
Therefore, when I teach or write, there are most likely errors in what I say. I am not infallible. In fact, when I look back over my early Bible studies, I see many errors and concepts that I no longer believe (things that contradict the clear teaching of God’s Word), because I have now come to a better understanding of God’s Word. I still have a long way to go! We are all a work in progress!
(2) Progressive Revelation
The revelation of the Christ unfolds in the Bible progressively. Therefore we must read earlier sections in light of that which is given later. The interpreter of Scripture needs to be aware of the partial and elementary nature of the Old Testament revelation (Gal. 3-4; Eph. 3:2-11). For example, in Genesis 3:15, we have the first promise of the seed to come. The Scripture then progressively unfolds for us more of the seed to come. In Genesis 22, we learn that the deliverer would be a substitute that would be provided in the mount known as Moriah. As we continue through the Scripture, we are shown the need for a blood sacrifice. By the time we reach Isaiah 53, the description of this deliverer and his atoning sacrifice has become much more explicit.
The saints of all the ages are a people of groaning, looking, and trusting in God-in his promise of a seed. From Adam’s first transgression, the promise of God has been echoing among the saints of the true and living God:
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise [literally “crush”] your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” (Gen. 3:15)
Throughout the Old Testament Scriptures, God continues to open up a view of this seed-this promised deliverer to come. For every wanderer, for every pilgrim, for every perplexed soul, for every grieving sinner, the answer has been the same through the ages-“Look to the promise of Jesus Christ!”
God has one answer for all peoples of all ages-Jesus Christ!
In ages past, God’s answer was-“Wait for the Messiah!”
Now, in our age of fulfillment (Gal. 4:4; 2 Cor. 1:20; Heb. 9:26), his answer is: “Look to Jesus Christ! He is Lord! He has come and is soon returning!” It should be part of our daily experience, as the expectant bride, to be musing and dreaming of our beloved Lord.
The two testaments proclaim the same message, only from differing standpoints: the earlier one points forward in anticipation, and the later declares a completion, an accomplishment.
Another problem that we face in correctly interpreting the Word of God is that we all bring presuppositions (ideas and thoughts that we presuppose to be facts or truth and then we interpret all we read in light of this). This is not necessarily bad-it is just a fact. Knowing this, then, it is crucial that we make absolutely sure that any of our presuppositions (which become foundational truths upon which we build new learning) are truly biblical.
John Reisinger, when he was teaching here in Grace Fellowship, told of watching his wife button up her housecoat. The garment had about twenty buttons. He saw that she buttoned the first one in the wrong hole. She then continued the rest of the way up the housecoat. Everything “SEEMED” to fit. However, she had made some mistakes. How many mistakes did she make? She made nineteen mistakes. Despite what it looked like, because her first foundational step was wrong (i.e. similar to what I have called a presupposition), everything that followed was a mistake and had to be undone to be re-buttoned correctly. It appeared to all to be fitting nicely together when compared to the other buttons around it; however, the starting point was wrong. The lesson in this is that we must make sure our foundational beliefs are clearly established on clear biblical teaching-not on ‘maybes’. If we go wrong at the starting point, we could be way off when we get to the top-even though it seems to fit together nicely. There are several different ‘systems’ that people have adopted to understand the Bible. I think we all need to examine our beliefs in light of what is clearly established by God in his Word. God knows what is true. This really tests our hearts to see if, like Nathaniel in John, chapter 1, we really want to know the truth-reality-and bow to it.
We can only be dogmatic on the tenets that are clearly established by God in the Word.
(4) Human Reasoning
We must also be careful to not be dogmatic about anything our reasoning has caused us to conclude. All our conclusions must be those that the Scripture clearly delineates for us, because our reasoning can be faulty. We are still tainted with sin. Our minds have been defiled and corrupted and blinded by sin, and although the Spirit and his Word are renewing us in our thinking, we all know from experience that we still can think incorrectly. The truth that we know for sure is God’s Word and what he has clearly revealed for us there (i.e. read John 17:17-19 [see how those chapter and verse divisions can come in handy to help us find truths-we just have to be careful to not pull them out of their context, and end up using them as proof texts]).
We know that God’s thoughts are higher than ours (Isa. 55:8-9). (And it is a good thing, too! I would never have provided any salvation for a rebel like me-let alone adopt such a one to be my own son and make myself his Abba [the Aramaic word for “Da Da” or “Daddy”]). Because of this, we need to be very careful in using and trusting logic in drawing conclusions from the Scriptures.
I want to demonstrate why it is crucial that we make sure any conclusions we reach are established clearly in the Bible itself, and that we have not started with the Bible, and then, using logic, ‘spring-boarded’ to these conclusions. In fact, we may see no other possible conclusion, but if the Bible does not clearly state it, our logical conclusion could be wrong. Just because we do not see any other possible conclusion, does not mean there is not another possibility. This is where the Jews went wrong in Jesus’ day. They could not logically see how he could be the fulfillment of the promises. They could not see how in his suffering and death on the Cross, he actually gained the victory and brought in his kingdom! That was not the conclusion they had reached when they read the Old Testament Scriptures.
As an illustration of the danger of applying human logic to the Bible, without checking to see if the conclusion is clearly stated in the Scriptures themselves, I want to tell you of a woman who read 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. She had been recently saved, but her husband was still an unbeliever. When she read this passage, she began to wonder about her marriage. She saw that light and darkness (believers and unbelievers) have no communion or fellowship with one another. When she read verse 17, she saw that it said, “Do not touch what is unclean …” She had also read in Isaiah and other places that the unbeliever is “unclean.” She concluded (and notice I said, “she concluded,” and not the Bible!!!) that she shouldn’t touch him. Thus, she cut him off from any contact-sexual and other. She also saw the command in verse 17 to “Come out from among them and be separate…” She concluded that God wanted her to separate and divorce her husband because he was an unclean unbeliever.
At a first read-through, we can see how she could reach this conclusion. Even though each step on the way to her conclusion is based on Scripture (though out of context as we shall see in a moment), her conclusion is not only not clearly stated in the Scripture, it is contradicted in the Bible. In fact, Paul had already written to the Corinthians in his first epistle regarding this issue. Read 1 Corinthians 7:13!!! Not only Paul, but Peter also writes in 1 Peter 3:1-2 to women married to unbelievers to not nag their husbands, but to live out the light of Christ to them and before them, that their life might become an attractive aroma that their husbands cannot deny.
This shows the importance of the whole counsel of the Word of God. We must always take into account the context of the entire Bible and that particular verse’s place in it.
In my particular example above, the woman ended up leaving and divorcing her husband. I believe she was wrong to do so. She really seemed to believe that she was doing God’s will-based on her logical conclusions after reading 2 Corinthians 6:14-18. That is why we must be so careful to make sure any conclusions we reach about any doctrine (teaching) is clearly a conclusion stated by God himself in his revelation to us.
If the woman had carefully checked the context of 2 Corinthians 6, she would have seen that Paul was not talking about marriage in these verses. (That was the presupposition that she brought with her as she read these verses, and it tainted and colored the way she read and interpreted them). In fact, carefully look in 2 Corinthians 6 and skim the context prior to and after these verses, and see if Paul wrote anything about marriage or husbands and wives, etc. (1 Corinthians 7:39 does tell a believer to only marry “in the Lord” i.e. another believer, but 2 Corinthians 6 is not talking about marriage.) The context of 2 Corinthians 6 refers to those who preach a false gospel (i.e. adding works to salvation). We have no part with them. How then can we join with them or stay together with them-when they are in opposition to Christ who alone has reconciled us to God?
We must read the Bible in light of the immediate context, and in light of the context of the whole book or letter, and in light of the context of the whole Scripture.
We must make sure that any conclusions we reach are in themselves clearly biblical and avoid reaching conclusions based on our human reasoning (which can be faulty), no matter how logical it seems. Sometimes we can reach seemingly airtight conclusions (at least as far as we see), based on solid scriptural statements, but that does not mean they are true. There may be other possibilities that have never even entered our minds. We can only be dogmatic where the Scripture is dogmatic. Some things we just leave in the hands of our all-wise God as indeed he has commanded us to do in Deuteronomy 29:29!
I have tried to establish the importance of clear teaching from the Scripture, which alone is the source of truth. Once we get outside the clear teaching of Scripture, we are no longer on absolute dogmatic ground. We want any conclusions we reach to be able to be established clearly in God’s own Word, so that we might correctly grasp what God intended for us to know.
1. We do not want to accept any interpretation that rests on mere probability. We want to accept only that which is supported by direct proof from Scripture. It is far better to have no explanation at all for a difficult passage than to accept one that may turn out to be wrong. It is not easy to give up an idea once we have committed ourselves to it.
2. Any ‘proof’ used to support any interpretation should come from the Scripture itself. Any information essential for the interpretation of every passage of Scripture is to be found somewhere in the Bible itself. We cannot take other historical writings or documents from outside of the Bible and use them as the foundation upon which we set the Bible in order to interpret it. We are not to ‘fit’ the Bible to outside sources. Rather, all other sources must be looked at and judged by the Scriptures, which is the only reliable source of truth. Jesus said in his prayer to the Father, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth” (John 17:17).
Therefore, we are not going to try to ‘fit’ any passage into history, and then look into the history books and say, “How are we going to read this in light of the record of history given to us by men?” What would that be doing? That would be making the historical writings of men the grid of truth through which we are to interpret the Bible. I believe it is the other way around. The Scripture is the bedrock truth. It will give us what we need to know. It will explain that which is absolutely true. All that we need to interpret that passage then, for those enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is that which is found within the pages of Scripture itself.
For example, let’s say that an archeologist dug up a document with information on a particular king, whom the Scriptures say ruled as sole ruler for sixteen years. Based on the archeological evidence, that king was on the throne as sole ruler for forty years. How long did that king rule? Would you say sixteen years, despite what was discovered by the archeologist? Your answer reveals your ultimate authority. How reliable is any document found in an archeological dig, as far as absolute truth? Is the document genuine? Who is its author? Perhaps it was historical fiction and since the author didn’t have all the information, he supplied forty years out of his own imagination-filling in the unknown details as writers sometimes do. Perhaps it was written many years after the fact and the details were inaccurate. Is it possible that even if the document is accurate, it can be misinterpreted? For example, could there be two different kings with the same name?
The one thing that we know for sure is that the Scripture is the God-breathed Word of God and it gives us the truth. Anything else is a ‘maybe’. The Word of God must be our foundation in any study.
1. Chip Brogden, “All Things in Christ” an article from website www.watchman.net.
This concludes Part four of our series. Our next part will continue to point out further areas that influence us as we study Scripture, and will remind us again that as we read and study, our thoughts and hearts are to be fixed on the Lord Jesus Christ.