Part Eight: Our Interpretive Approach
Our church’s vision is to grow a loving community of Christians with a Biblical worldview. That’s what this current series has been all about – developing a biblical worldview.
But, it’s not quite as simple as simply handing someone a Bible and saying here, read this a time or two and view the world through the lenses of that and you will have a Biblical worldview.
You may have noticed that not every follower of Jesus has the same exact viewpoint on certain issues. I made that clear in the case study we did last week.
Two different Christians who follow the same Jesus and have the same Holy Spirit and read the same Bible will both claim to have a biblical worldview and one will say we need to fund the modern state of Israel with 3 billion dollars per year from our hard-earned tax dollars in their struggle against Palestinians while another will say that the modern state of Israel is irrelevant in redemptive history from a covenantal standpoint because Jewish ancestry cannot be proven by any stretch of the imagination because of the absolute destruction of tribal records in the first century along with the temple that was the literal epicenter of their Jewish economy and covenant practice.
Two different Christians who follow the same Jesus and have the same Holy Spirit and read the same Bible will both claim to have a biblical worldview and one will say that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and another will say, well that’s true…but they need to be baptized also, and yet another will say, plus you have to examine their fruit – if you see sin, then maybe they aren’t truly saved.
Two different Christians who follow the same Jesus and have the same Holy Spirit and read the same Bible will both claim to have a biblical worldview and one will say that God has foreordained all things while another will say that we are free agents.
So why do two different Christians who follow the same Jesus and have the same Holy Spirit and read the same Bible come to different conclusions on so many different matters of faith and doctrine? It comes down to interpretation. We read the same Bible, but have different interpretations of it.
I love the fact that the reformers bucked the system and fought against the tradition of their day, the heavy hand of the Roman Catholic Church and that we now have the freedom to have our own Bibles and we are not limited to the interpretation given to us by the pope that trickles down through the priest, but we have the Scriptures at our fingertips, but with that freedom comes a responsibility to rightly divide the word of truth, which is what I want to discuss this morning.
We have discussed a Biblical worldview for several weeks now, we defined some of the major components of a worldview from a biblical perspective, and we are bringing this series to a close next week, but before we just cut you loose and say, here – go read this thing and fill in the gaps, we want to equip you, the saints with some tools for proper interpretation.
The fancy word for what we are discussing is hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the art and science of interpretation. I want to give you a handful of tools that will help you to in your interpretive approach. For many of you this will be review, but review is important. For some of you, this will seem like I’m stating the obvious and for others of you it will revolutionize the way that you read your Bibles. I fall into that last category, personally, because I was a Christian for 7 years before I learned these principles and as a result I had to do a lot of unlearning what I had learned.
So the first word of advice that I would give students of the Bible is:
BE OBJECTIVE! SET ASIDE PRESUPPOSITIONS. Presuppositions are those things that we suppose beforehand, things we take for granted in advance. We all have them and they are difficult to overcome. Being objective is difficult to do because we are emotionally attached to certain ideas and when an alternative view is presented, we fight hard to hold on to what we have “always been taught” or “always believed.” Sometimes the thing we always believed is right and the alternative should be rejected. But sometimes the alternative is right and as unpleasant as it is, we have to reject something we held dear for years. The key is to do our best to come to the scriptures with an open mind and be objective, use reason, and logic to deduce the truth from the Bible.
For example if I presuppose that all paths lead to the same destination, that all religions are the same, that Allah, Yahweh, Vishnu, Shiva, are all different names for the same god, that the Koran, the Bible, the Vedas are just different books that teach the same thing and all paths lead to God, then I will run into trouble when I encounter Jesus’ words in John 14:6 – I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.
That would be a presupposition that I would need to set aside if I am going to be objective with the text.
CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT! CONTEXT IS KING! Context is the surrounding text. One of the things people love to do is throw around bible verses. We put verses on t-shirts and on coffee mugs and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but without some context, we can come to some seriously wrong conclusions about what the Bible actually teaches.
It is critical in Bible study to consider the context. Without context we can twist the bible say whatever we want it to say.
Ever heard someone say, Money is the root of all evil? Well, the bible says that. But if you go to the passage that says that, 1 Tim 6:10 we see that there is a little something before that which radically alters the message. The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil. That’s a different message than money is inherently evil.
We could even go so far as to say, “There is no god.” The bible says so, right there in Psalm 14:1. But, when you add the context, the surrounding text, you see that there are important words before that. The fool says in his heart there is no god.
Another important rule of interpretation is that we are to INTERPRET SCRIPTURE WITH SCRIPTURE. When we study a particular doctrine, we should find as many passages in the bible that speak on that doctrine and compare them to get the whole picture. For example, if I limit my understanding of eating and drinking to Leviticus 11:4, then I’m going to think that it is against my biblical worldview to eat [animals who] only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof. However, if I compare scripture with scripture, I will see in Mark 7:19 that Jesus declared all foods clean. If I look at every passage regarding dietary regulations, I will come to the conclusion that the dietary restrictions were specific to Old Covenant Israel under the Law of Moses and not applicable to Christians in the New Covenant.
We should interpret the
- Less clear through lens of more clear.
- Apocalyptic through literal didactic.
- Detailed through lens of general.
When studying something like end times or last things, for example, I wouldn’t start with the book of revelation with all of its apocalyptic language and symbols assign meanings to the symbols and then carry that into Jesus and the apostles’ clearer teachings. What if I incorrectly assign meaning to the symbols? No, first, I start with the clearer teachings of Jesus and the apostles and once I have the clearer details established, I will have better grounds upon which to assign the symbols; I will have the edge pieces to the puzzle and I can have a framework into which I can fit the more difficult passages.
The text has relevance to its original audience. The Bible was written FOR us, but it wasn’t written TO us. When I first became a believer I was told by more than one person that the Bible was God’s love letter to me. So I read the Bible through that lens. In case you didn’t know, that approach becomes a little problematic. The bible is not God’s love letter to me. It’s a collection of 66 books comprised of historical accounts, laws for Israel, poems and hymns to and about God, prophetic warnings to certain groups, letters to churches and individuals.
In fact, one letter in the bible was written to an individual named Titus. And in that letter, chapter 3 verse 12. This is our official verse for NCF. So if you’re newer here, this is a verse that we turn to for hope and encouragement.
Anyone know what Titus 3:12 says? Any of my original NCFers know?
As soon as I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to winter there.
The letter was written TO Titus, not to me. The letter has relevance to Titus. He could actually meet Paul in Nicopolis. I can’t. While there are numerous things in that letter that could in some sense apply to us, we can’t start with us, we must start with Titus.
PAY ATTENTION TO PRONOUNS; rightly assign them. Pronouns are those “I” and “we” and “you” words that take the place of actual names. The Biblical authors used them frequently and the translators didn’t spare them.
The first reason this is important goes back to audience relevance; first, it’s easy to start reading the “yous” in a text and think that it’s talking to me. If look at a verse like Jeremiah 29:11, we can use multiple tools here. Jer 29:11 is one of those verses that we like on t-shirts. But if we bring in some context, apply audience relevance and rightly assign the pronouns we see what the text is really saying. Jer 29:11 I know the plans I have for you declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a hope and a future.
First, the context, if we start in verse 1, we see This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
So the YOU is not me, but the exiles in Babylon back in the 6th century BC. And if we read beyond verse 11, we see that the hope and future and prosperity has everything to do with their return to the land after their 70 years in captivity. Rightly assigning the pronouns. In Jer 29:11, the “you” is not you, it’s not me, it’s the exiles that were in Babylon 26 centuries ago.
The second reason paying attention to pronouns is important is because sometimes there are several different possible antecedents to which they could apply.
HISTORICAL-CULTURAL ANALYSIS means we get into the world of the original recipients. This goes hand in hand with audience relevance. The original audience had certain political, social, and cultural conditions that were worlds apart from ours today. Those things have to be considered as we read. For example, if we disregard this altogether, we will be pressed to greet one another with a holy kiss, because, after all, that’s what it says in Rom 16:16.
Along these lines, one thing to remember is that cultures have idioms. So investigate idioms!. Just as we have our own idioms like it’s raining cats and dogs, this cost an arm and a leg, who let the cat out of the bag, so did the ancient culture and depending on your translation an ancient idiom may remain in the text, which needs investigation, such as in the more literal translations, like YLT and NASB. On the other hand, the translators may have taken the liberty to translate the idiom into something more along the lines of what it would have meant, such as in the NLT or the Message. Either way, it is certainly something that bears consideration.
COVENANTAL CONTEXT. In addition to cultural, social, political, and historical contexts, there are also covenantal contexts. God deals with his people in terms of covenant, so it’s important to keep in mind. What we see unfolding beyond Gen 12 should be understood as fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. What we see in the Law of Moses should be understood as regulations for Israel under the Mosaic Covenant. What we see in the Prophets needs to be understood in terms of God calling Israel to return to the Law or bear the consequences delineated in Deut 28 (curses).
One thing that a lot of people overlook is the fact that there is a 40-year overlap of the ages.
Around AD 30, the NC age had been inaugurated, but not fully consummated. Between the time of Jesus on the earth and the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in AD 70, the OC was still in effect alongside the NC. That really helps with interpreting the passages that seem to indicate that the Law is still in effect. Because when those letters were written, it was. But it hasn’t been since the destruction of the Mosaic economy by Rome in the first century.
The bible is like a library with different types of literature. Some of it is historical. Some is law. Some is poetry. Some is apocalyptic. Some are letters. We don’t read each of those types of literature in the same way. We need to be sure to read the text according to the type of literature.
Earlier, when I mentioned audience relevance, some of you freaked out a little on the inside, thinking, wait, so the bible doesn’t apply to me since it wasn’t written to me? Not the case, but we can’t make direct application. We apply the bible by way of precept.
First, we discover the meaning of the text. We don’t control the meaning of the text. The author does. So we need to use all of the other principles to attempt to arrive at the author’s meaning. Now the text can never mean what it never meant. Or put another way, it will always mean what it always meant.
Once we know the meaning, we need to develop a precept that we can apply to our lives today.
The precept must meet certain criteria. It must be:
Based on the author’s intended meaning (not based on what I want the text to say)
Timeless truth (not bound by time – as true for them then as it is for me today)
Cross-cultural (not bound by culture – as true for them there as it is for me here)
Consistent with the rest of Scripture (cannot contradict the teachings elsewhere in Scripture.)
In order to make right application, our situation needs to resemble the Biblical situation.
Now, this morning only scratched the surface. If you want to go deeper with this, I expound on these principles and more in a series we did in early 2012 entitled “rightly dividing the word of truth” and you can grab an .mp3 disc of that 10-part series from our welcome table in the back.
Come next week and join us as we tie it all together and put a touch of practical application on this thing as we point out that what we believe has an effect on how we behave.