In this blog post, I hope to point people to the kind of Bible teacher that is accurate and sound while exposing those who are neither. Furthermore, I hope to shed some light on methods of Bible study, so that one can study the Bible for himself/herself.
The Bible may be taught in a way accurate to itself or in a false fashion. In the latter case, abuse of the audience’s faith is the result… if not also the perpetual blindness of the one teaching. I certainly don’t claim to have all knowledge. I am still learning myself from the Bible and how to honestly and properly interpret it without the distortions of denominational tradition, personal/cultural bias, and theological bent. But, I do look back with personal shame on a time when I made the text fit my homiletical outlines and my theology rather than the opposite. What is worse, in times past, I would choose a topic and then lift verses out of context to prove my points. [One can “proof text” but he must be sure the passage (in context) actually communicates what it seems to be revealing.]
It is easy to lift a verse or two out of their immediate and book and canonical (entire biblical) context, and as a result, entirely misinterpret what it originally meant to the original audience. This also leads to improper application of Bible principle and command and results in yet more abuses. But, perhaps the worst kind of Bible teacher is one who places his own theology into the text and then uses it as a proof for his theology. Not only is this circular method of interpretation unfair to the Bible, it is also unethical and condemnable. Doing so places one’s system and philosophy above the objective contextual data. Systematic study of the Bible by themes and topics is not wrong. In fact, that discipline is extremely helpful. But, only when each passage is taken into account by measure of its own contexts (biblical theology) can one claim to have accurate data for systematic theology. Historical Theology (how Jews / Christians of the past interpreted certain passages in their day) is only relevant when those historical figures themselves employed an accurate biblical theology to arrive at a more nearly unbiased system.
Therefore, context is king! The following contexts must be included in one’s exegesis of the text:
- Historical — Before approaching the interpretation of a book or passage within a book, one must study the historical context. Historical context has to do with answering questions like: who was the human author, where did he live and when, to whom was he writing/ministering and why; what was the situation of that era in both the native civilization and the surrounding nations; what was the consequent worldview of the author and his original audience. When one understands the answers to these sort of questions, only then can he understand why, for instance, Paul would tell the Thessalonians to “respect those that labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you” (1 Thess. 5:12 ESV). Without knowing that this fledgling church had been left without a mature pastor due to Paul’s need for speedy escape from pursecuters, and that the people might doubt the abilities of such novices, the mandate given in the passage might seem like a proof text for a “strict-hierarchy” type of church organization. Knowing the context provided by external witness (Acts) and other accounts, helps the reader take the meaning in its original “color.”
- Biblical Canonical — The most stunning fact about the Bible, besides its revelation of Jesus Christ as its Centerpiece, is that all of the books of the Old Testament and the New Testament present together a progress of revelation. That is, each book of the Bible is integral to the whole Bible as it presents a continuum of overarching narrative and Divine thought and various lesser but essential themes. Not every book was written at once. But, the books which follow after the earlier ones dovetail nicely together with one another, due to God’s orchestrating both the writers of the inspired, sacred texts and using later-coming, inspired writers to organize the before-written material. Because of this phenomenon, if one ignores what place a book holds within the entire body of the biblical canon, then he runs the risk of mis-interpreting from the start.
- Book — Most biblical books are themselves gospels or letters (mainly New Testament) or are collections of Divinely inspired sermons, addresses, songs, prophecies or accounts of law and history (mainly Old Testament). Each book and section of a book should be taken as it presents itself. Just as one would interpret a modern-day poem by its style and elements of composition, so one should interpret an Hebrew poem by the mode of its day. When one takes genre into account, then many mystical allegorical interpretations become uneccessary. What is more, one must trust that a given book presents itself by its own innate contours of literary structure. It is, therefore, the student’s responsibility to discover that innate structure and adhere to it, whether it is theme based, sectioned, or genre specific.
- Immediate — When one does discover a theme, a section, or notices a specific genre, then he is duty-bound to attempt interpretation of that immediate context based upon its surrounding contexts. If it is a Psalm or a proverb, then the surrounding context may be of no import directly. But, if the kind of text at hand is a letter, then the preceding sections are most definitely determinate upon the immediate context. If one overlooks this interconnectedness, then he runs a grave risk of putting into the text what is not originally there, whether it is his honest but misinformed assumption of the meaning or his own theological bent to blame.
- Grammatical / Verbal — Last of all, not first, one must note the specific words and their grammatical interrelation. This process is done lastly, so as not to miss the forest for the trees. It is true that sometimes whole passages or immediate contexts can be decifered only by proper designation of points in grammar. But this case comes few and far between. Most of the time, if one notes the other contexts, then the unclear becomes clear immediately… as if one has read the entire letter or body of text instead of just one section of it. In certain instances, though, a single word can affect the proper meaning. For example, Hebrews 13:17 commands the believer to “obey your leaders and submit to them,” but on further examination, the singular word for obey does not denote one’s taking commands as in a militaristic or parent-child relationship. Rather, one can properly understand it as “to follow as a result of being convinced or persuaded [based on the Word of God].” Without doubt, one can see how such a verse can be misinterpreted and abused.
Other Guiding Principles of Interpretation:
- Clearer passages determine the interpretation of related but less clear passages.
- Be honest about what you don’t know, and so, don’t be dogmatic about what you are ignorant or what is debatable.
Dr. Michael Heiser — The Bible in Context
Covenant Theology is Not Replacement Theology — O, Really? Please see:
- Amillennialism (Replacement Theology) by Berean Internet Ministry
- Covenant Theology – Theopedia
- The Error of Replacement Theology by Clarence H. Wagner, Jr.
- Replacement Theology – Baptist Bulletin
Machetes, “Enough” and a Free Gospel | “Pacifist in the face of religious persecution; Proactive in averting the general suffering of others.”
The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne
The History of Interpretation by F. W. Farrar
Thomas, Robert. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003. (chapters 1-8 and 12)