"Unity without verity is no better than conspiracy." - John Trapp

Friday, September 22, 2006

Can We All Agree? (Interpretation Part 2)

An Almost Irrelevant Story

If you ever wade fish in the Flat Rock River, you need to be careful. It is a good place to wade fish. There are areas where the water is about thigh deep, with deeper pockets where, if God blesses, you will be able to hook a big one. However, you need to be careful not to step into these pockets, or you can find yourself in up to your chest trying to hold on to your equipment (don't listen to my brother's stories about me using my nephew to determine if the water got real deep; I intentionally don't remember that).

Even worse, there is one area called the blow-out hole. Many decades ago, an underground gas bubble exploded, and created a very deep hole. If you don't know the river, and walk into this area, you better be able to swim. Don't worry about the fishing equipment, worry about getting back to shallower water where you can stand.


Of course, I tell that story as a reminder about interpreting the Scriptures. There are many places where the Scriptures are shallow enough that a young child can stand in them. We call this the perpescuity of Scripture. On the main matters of who God is, what Christ has done, and how were are saved, the Scripture is clear. Even a child can understand enough of the gospel to be drawn by God through the Spirit's regeneration to saving faith in Christ.

What perpescuity does not mean, though, is that every passage in the Bible is clear and able to be understood without some effort. Parts of the Bible require that we have spent time to become more familiar with Scripture, and how to interpret it. Other passages are so difficult that even men of very similar theological persuasions will interpret the passage differently. If this is true of trained theologians and exegetes, how does the layman have a chance at understanding these passages?

Back to the Central Topic

As I cited in my previous post, Luke insightfully noted that "when it comes down to actually interpreting Scripture, we're going to need the help of some hermeneutic principles." One debatable point is whether or not we can derive those principles from the scriptures themselves. Some, looking at the New Testament authors, tell us to stand back and not attempt this at home; these guys are professionals. Others will argue that observing how the Old Testament is quoted in the New adds significant understanding to how we should interpret Scripture.

When we think about the rules by which we are going to interpret Scripture (hermeneutics), I think it should be obvious to us that if we do not agree on these principles, we are not going to agree on every interpretation. While I don't think this is the biggest reason for differing interpretations, it is a significant issue.

The link above citing A. W. Pink's principle of observing how the Old Testament is used in the New Testament is from his book on interpretation. Pink gives thirty (30!) principles for interpreting Scripture. His approach is not aimed at the lay reader. I want to discuss what I think are three critical principles for interpretation that can be applied by everyone.

First Principle

Recognize that the Bible is the word of God. If this is true, no one understands it better than He does. Therefore we should be dependent upon the Spirit to lead us into truth. This means Bible study should be accompanied with prayer. This is the most common application.

However, this also means that there is no better guide to what a passage means than other Biblical passages. Before we interpret the Bible, we must have some knowledge of the totality of Scripture. It is a poor interpreter who has never read the entire Scriptures. Not every verse deals with every other verse, but every verse is impacted by other verses (if there is an exception to this, which I doubt, then I would not want to establish a major doctrine on that verse). There are tools (verse cross references) that can help the Biblical student. But nothing substitutes for personal knowledge of the Bible.

Do you want to be a good interpreter? Start by saturating yourself with Scripture. This is easier today than ever before. You can read paper. You can read on a computer screen. You can read on a Palm Pilot or equivalent. You can listen via CD or MP3. What a great use of an iPod (and, as an aside, if you are a parent, start reading the Bible to your children when they are young; they not only learn Scripture, they learn that it is important to you).

I would trust the interpretation of simple, Bible saturated Christian over the an educated skeptic. I'd trust the Bible saturated Christian over a well educated Christian who has had a number of hermeneutics classes but doesn't know the Scriptures. One thing that seems clear to me is that Jesus, Paul, and the writers of the New Testament had a significant understanding of the Old Testament.

Second Principle

Context, context, context. Context has three aspects. First is grammatical context. Is this narrative? Is this poetry? Is this didactic? How does this verse or phrase fit in the paragraph? Second is the historical context. Understand what the author meant to his readers. What was he intending to convey? In these two senses of context, we look at the Bible essentially as we would literature. You'll want to put more thought into it than you do the latest John Sandford novel, the newspaper, or the latest must read business book, but the underlying principle is very similar.

The third is the context of Scripture. While we do not want to bring biases to the word, we have use "the analogy of Scripture". The Bible is not just another piece of literature. It is infallible, and therefore does not contradict itself. So if the Bible clearly teaches repeatedly that a true believer never loses his salvation, then you have to interpret passages that seem to indicate that a believer can lose his salvation in light of these other passages. Frequently, as in the case of Hebrews 6:4-8, there will be clues in the other passage that show that there is no contradiction (Hebrews 6:9). But even if not, what is clear, or dominant, in Scripture should be used to interpret what is unclear, or not well supported.

Third Principle

This principle may be disputed in some circles, but I think it is the essential conclusion. We must read Scripture within the community of faith. This is the quote from Michael Horton again:
"The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider 'communion of saints' down through the age."

Justin Taylor also quoted Larry Woiwode:
"There is rugged terrain ahead for those who are constitutionally incapable of referring to the paths marked out by wise and spirit-filled cartographers over the centuries."

What both of these quotes highlight is the need to look to how others have interpreted the passage. For those who are American (definitely) and those who are Western (very likely) we have a blind spot. We have a strong bent toward individualism. But the church is and always has been a community. God did not make us to be islands, we are grapes (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). One significant outcome of the doctrine of the Trinity is that existence is relationship. "It is not good that man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18). We need the input of other believers (Proverbs 11:14) - particularly the Bible saturated kind.

Also, some of you may already be wondering where is the Holy Spirit in interpretation? He's in each of these principles. He inspired the Scripture. He illumines the student as he studies. But He has also provided a history of interpretation for us. If you come up with an interpretation that is novel, ask yourself how likely it is to be correct if no Spirit-filled men over two millennia have come up with that interpretation.

Some will say they don't need anything other than the Bible. Paul says in Galatians that he didn't consult with men and neither do I. Well, Paul was taught directly by Jesus. Despite what some might claim, I don't think that goes on much today. Also, the Bible makes it clear that we are to gather together for the preaching of the word. But that is listening to someone else interpret Scripture. Iron sharpens iron. We need interaction with other believers, including when we are interpreting Scripture.

I am not saying that we bow to a traditional interpretation with no thought. But we have to interact with those who came before us, and those who are with us now. It compensates for biases (cultural and personal) that we inevitably bring to our own interpretation. [Note: Remember above I said differing hermeneutical principles were not the primary cause of different interpretations? Well this is. The fact that we cannot put aside biases when we interpret the Scripture.] The first two principles are necessary, and should have priority in our studies. But this is the corrective. This is the compass that tells us that we've gotten off the true path. This is the Holy Spirit through a cloud of witnesses pointing to the truth.

This is not a majority vote. But if you are standing alone on an interpretation, or your companions are few, you better go back hard to principles 1 and 2 to before you defend that interpretation.


Blogger Luke & Rachael said...

Hi Eddy,

I've been kind of slacking on the blogosphere, but I happened to pop in today and noticed that you had gotten back to the topic of interpretation. It's a thoughtful, interesting, solid post. I esp appreciate your emphasis on reading within the community of saints, past and present; seems to me we just don't hear enough of this in evangelical circles nowadays.

I wouldn't want to outright dispute any of the three principles you mention. But I do have worries, esp with the second.

At times I tend think that, on certain issues, the Bible doesn't speak in a completely unified voice; that when we interpret verses x, y, and z in light of verse q (or something like that) we're actually doing damage to the original intent, and the text itself. Take the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. The big question here is going to be which position is most clearly attested in Scripture. If it's Calvinism, we read all the Arminian- sounding verses in light of the Calvinist-sounding ones; and vice-versa for Arminianism.

But of course this is prescisely the problem (as anyone who's ever engaged in or observed these kinds of debates knows): it's not at all clear whether Scripture more clearly supports one or the other. Calvinsists think it obviously supports their view; Arminians their view. I'm not saying that both Calvinism and Arminianism can be true; insofar as they're contradictory, they can't. I am saying that we might nor have the ability to know which is true on the basis of Scripture alone.

I appreciate your emphasis on context. I take it that reading something in context involves asking what the passage would have sounded like to the listeners at the time it was written. I always wonder whether the NT authors, in their appropriation of OT passages, really employ a hermeneutic like this. My hunch is that Paul's understanding of OT texts and events would bear little to no resemblance to an ancient Israelite's understanding of those same events.

It seems that, for Paul at least, the Spirit principle trumps considerations of context. I guess I wind up wondering, then, whether we can do the same; rely on the Spirit like Paul did to give us a solid grasp of the texts. If so, why so many radically divergent interpretations among people who all claim to have the Spirit? How do we know whose interpretation is really Spirit-filled? Thanks again for the great post. Take care,


7:28 PM EDT  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home