Sunday, March 01, 2009

How to interpret the Bible

(Jump to Basic truth; General principles of interpretation by Dr. Bernard Ramm; Six questions to ask in interpreting a Bible passage by J.I. Packer; “Big Pictures” in interpreting the Bible by Wayne Grudem; Principles of Biblical Interpretation, L-I-G-H-T-S to the Word of God by Hank Hanegraff; The Interpretive Process from “Basics of Bible Interpretation” by Bob Smith, Peninsula Bible Church, with excellent chapters like “The Greeks Had a Word for It” and “Helpful Hints on Hebrew”; Principle of progressive revelation; How to study the Bible, from “Straight Up” blog by Pastor James Macdonald, Harvest Bible Fellowship; Bible Interpretation from Learn the Bible University; Interpreting The Bible video blog series by Pastor Jeff Kluttz, First Baptist Church, Needville, Texas; “Arcing” method of Biblical interpretation by Daniel Fuller / John Piper; Five rules of Hermeneutics by Tim LaHaye; Ten rules of Hermeneutics by R. C. Sproul)

ChristianPhotos.Net - Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple (Psalm 119:130)

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27)

But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; (Isaiah 28: 13)

And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.

And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.

And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood, which they had made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, and Shema, and Anaiah, and Urijah, and Hilkiah, and Maaseiah, on his right hand; and on his left hand, Pedaiah, and Mishael, and Malchiah, and Hashum, and Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam.

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up:

And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place.

So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (Nehemiah 8:2-8)

Basic truth: The Bible must be interpreted according to its historical, literary and grammatical context.

The Bible must be interpreted by its historical context:

[1] A verse, chapter or entire book of the Bible must be interpreted according to its purpose which may be explicitly stated (1 John 5:13, John 20:31) or implied (Galatians 1:6 3:1 and 6:12.).

[2] The verse, chapter or whole book must be examined and interpreted by its chronology or time context, geography, and culture.

The Bible must be interpreted by its literary context, that is, by its form (poetry, narratives, proverbs, parables, epistles or letters), and the figures of speech used.

The Bible must be interpreted by its grammatical context:

[1] The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in koine Greek. A knowledge of Hebrew and Greek can be an invaluable tool in interpreting the Bible.

[2] Every Biblical text must be interpreted in the context of larger grammatical units (words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books).

[3] Each book of the Bible must be interpreted in view of the Bible’s unity.

General principles of interpretation, by Dr. Bernard Ramm

  1. Since spiritual truth is spiritually discerned, to understand the thoughts of God the interpreter must be “born again” by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:9, 3:4 and John 3:3).
  2. The priority of the original languages.
  3. Scripture interprets Scripture. (1 Corinthians 2:13; Isaiah 28:10, 13).
  4. Clear systematic teaching passages should interpret shorter incidental passages.
  5. God’s truth has been progressively revealed through the ages.
  6. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament for the purpose of doctrine. (Hebrews 1:1-2; John 1:16; 2 Corinthians 3:6-18; Acts 20:27).
  7. Correct interpretations consider the context and this might be the whole book.
  8. If a passage is clearly not literal but figurative, determine what form the passage exhibits and follow special principles of interpretation for each one. Common forms are word figures (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche); thought figures (simile, parable, allegory, personification, interrogation, irony, hyperbole, ellipsis, euphemism); poetry, types, symbols and prophecy.
  9. Clear and extended apostolic teaching passages of Scripture must always interpret figurative passages that are unclear and not vice-versa.
  10. The principle of first mention can be helpful in understanding a prophecy. Note when the term was first used in Holy Scripture and under what circumstances.
Six questions to ask in interpreting a Bible passage (from J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life)

  1. What do these words actually mean?
  2. What light do other Scriptures throw on this text? Where and how does it fit into the total biblical revelation?
  3. What truths does it teach about God, and about man in relation to God?
  4. How are these truths related to the saving work of Christ, and what light does the gospel of Christ throw upon them?
  5. What experiences do these truths delineate, or explain, or seek to create or cure? For what practical purpose do they stand in Scripture?
  6. How do they apply to myself and others in our own actual situation? To what present human condition do they speak, and what are they telling us to believe and do?

“Big Pictures” in interpreting the Bible, by Wayne Grudem

Big Picture 1: The Bible is a historical document. Therefore, always ask, “What did the author want the original readers to understand by this statement?”

Big Picture 2: The original authors wanted the original readers to respond in some ways. Therefore, always ask, “What application did the original author want the readers to make to their lives?”

Big Picture 3: The whole Bible is about God! Therefore, we should always ask, “What does this text tell us about God?”

Big Picture 4: The center of the whole Bible is Jesus Christ. The entire Old Testament leads up to him and points to him, and the entire New Testament flows from him. Therefore, we should always ask, “What does this text tell us about the greatness of Christ?”

Big Picture 5: All history can be divided into several major “ages” or “epochs” in salvation history. Therefore, we should read every passage of the Bible with a salvation history timeline in our minds and constantly remember where every passage fits on the timeline.

Big Picture 6: Themes: Because the Bible is a unity (it has one divine Author though many human authors), there are many themes that develop and grow from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore, for each significant element in any text, it is helpful to ask,

(a) Where did this theme start in the Bible?

(b) How did this theme develop through the Bible?

(c) Where is this theme going to end in the Bible?

Principles of Biblical Interpretation, L-I-G-H-T-S to the Word of God, by Hank Hanegraaff

L (Literal Interpretation)

I (Illumination by the Holy Spirit)

G (Grammatical Principles)

H (Historical Context)

T (Teaching Ministry)

S (Scriptural Harmony)

The Interpretive Process, from Basics of Bible Interpretation by Bob Smith, Peninsula Bible Church (with excellent chapters like “The Greeks Had a Word for It” and “Helpful Hints on Hebrew”)

Then we should change our approach to that of a news reporter, who must constantly ask and answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of his subject.

Who is writing? About whom? And to whom?

About what is he writing? That is, we must try to discover the major subject he seeks to cover. What is the situation of writer and reader? What circumstances surround them? What is their nationality and cultural setting? What is their recent history? What is the exact meaning of the words used?

What literary form has the writer used: poetry, parable, narrative, history, logical argumentative discourse, prophecy?

When is the action taking place, especially in relation to the rest of biblical history?

Where is the action taking place? Where is the writer going with his argument? Where does he expect to carry his hearers?

Why is the book or passage being written? Why does the writer move from one topic to another in his discourse? Why is he angry, or excited, or pleading, or commanding, or exhorting?

How does he proceed to present his subject, through what logical steps or progress of thought? How does he seek to persuade his hearers? How does he relate personally to the message he is declaring? How does he introduce his subject? How does he conclude his communication? How is he motivated to write? How is he related to the ultimate Author of his book? How has he responded to the truth he is declaring? How have the intervening centuries clouded his content through changes in word meanings, cultural differences, and the changed viewpoints of modern man? How has he managed to communicate unchanging truth, in spite of all? How does his writing affect my approach to the facts of life and alter my life style?

The Principle of Progressive Revelation, by Dr. Robert C. Stone, Senior Pastor, Hillcrest Chapel, Bellingham, Virginia (download PDF)
The Bible is progressive revelation. A basic understanding of the Bible is that God chose not to tell us everything He intended, all at once. The revelation became fuller in content and meaning as it progressed. This does not mean the former truths became untruthful, but simply that former truth was made clearer by the addition of more details or information. The most obvious example of this is the progression of revelation from the Old to the New Testament.

Progressive revelation means, then, that each truth was made clearer by the addition of more and more of Gods truth. As time unraveled, the purpose of God became clearer and fuller (e.g., the enlargement of the ideas of ethics, worship and redemption in the Bible).
False understandings of progressive revelation, by Pastor Jeff Kluttz, First Baptist Church Needville, Texas
That revelation continues post-canonization of scripture.

Latter Rain Movement - Loose affiliation (group) which contends that God is speaking to them, extra-biblically, concerning new truths which were formerly hidden. They use Daniel 12:8-9 as a proof-text for their assertions.

The words “sealed up” were already revealed. Daniel wrote them. The teaching is not that - new words will come at the end – but that these words are sealed until the end. Or, that these things will not be understood until they unfold.

Latter Rain proponents teach that the seal has been broken on revelation. There is no proof as to how exactly they know this. They assert that now - they are learning new things. They do not prove how they are - learning these new things systematically:

It may be visions, dreams, etc. all unconfirmed by Scripture.

The homosexual - religious movement

A great movement is underway in various apostate denominations and extra-biblical pseudo-Christian groups which are purporting that God has revealed via progressive revelation that homosexuality is no longer wrong; or that it was never wrong at all, but mankind - got it wrong in their interpretation.

The UCC (nationally) has used this general claim in their acceptance of homosexuality in the church. Their campaign was entitled ―God is still speaking. Their website claims:
God continues to shed more light and truth in our world. In a similar way, we are not limited by past understandings of scripture, but we seek new insights and help for living the faith today. God is not finished with us yet.
Obviously, the issue with both movements – and others with this skewed and erroneous view of progressive revelation – is that God is still creating doctrinal truths, outside of his Word. Thus, doctrine is not determined by scripture alone (sola scriptura) but by scripture – and dreams – and visions – and other alternative revelations; each unverifiable and un-affirmed by Christ and the apostles.
“Arcing” method of Biblical interpretation by Daniel Fuller / John Piper

Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Scriptural Texts” (PDF, 34 pages, 1.2 MB) by Dr. John T. Piper is a concise explanation of the system of “arcing” developed by Daniel Fuller, Professor-Emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary. As Piper explains, “Arcing is a schematic way of representing the kinds of relationships between all propositions in any coherent writing leading to a simplified summary of the argument which shows the role played by each part in the argument.”

Chapter 6 of “Interpreting the Pauline Epistles” by Tom Schreiner (professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) explains in detail the “arcing” method.

Piper states why he finds arcing very valuable:

“The point of seeing propositions in relationship is not merely to elucidate the meaning of each proposition, but also to help us grasp the flow of an author’s argument. It was a life-changing revelation to me when I discovered that Paul, for example, did not merely make a collection of divine pronouncements, but that he argued. This meant, for me, a whole new approach to Bible reading. No longer did I just read or memorize verses. I sought also to understand and memorize arguments. This involved finding the main point of each literary unit and then seeing how each proposition fit together to unfold and support the main point.”

For example, the diagram at the left illustrates how arcing can be used in finding the meaning of Romans 12:1-2. As Piper explains, “Notice the structure of the final arcing. There is now one arc over the whole, which suggests that we have gotten a glimpse of the main thesis of this unit. Under this one arc are two arcs related as action-purpose. Under the larger of these are another two arcs related as action-purpose. Under the larger of these are two arcs related as negative-positive. In other words, the smallest arcs are gradually grouped together into larger units, that are then related to other units until there is one arc over the whole. We can then see how each of the smaller propositions functions to help communicate one main point. It cannot be determined in advance which units to arc together first. This comes from guided practice.”

The diagram to the right shows a longer passage like Luke 12:35-38 looks like when arced. Listed below are highlights of Piper’s summary of the arcing method:
  • A proposition is a simple assertion about something.
  • Whether you are reading the Greek or English New Testament, you must attend to the appropriate rules of grammar if the meaning of an author’s propositions is to be understood.
  • Just as words derive meaning from their use in a proposition, so a proposition receives its precise meaning from its use in relationship to other propositions.
  • The point of seeing propositions in relationship is not merely to elucidate the meaning of each proposition, but also to help us grasp the flow of an author’s argument.
  • The relationships between propositions fall into two major classes: coordinate relationships and subordinate relationships. Two clauses have a coordinate relationship if one does not support the other in some way, but each is independent and makes its own contribution to the whole.
  • Coordinate relationships between propositions (non-supportive) are series, progression and alternative
  • Subordinate relationships between propositions (supportive) are: action-manner; comparison; negative-positive; idea-explanation; question-answer; ground (main clause-causal clause); inference (main clause-inferential clause); action-result (main clause-result clause); action-purpose (main clause-purpose clause); conditional (main clause-conditional clause); locative (main clause-locative clause); bilateral; concessive; and situation-response.
Five rules of Hermeneutics by Tim LaHaye
  1. Take the Bible Literally. Do not spiritualize the Bible.
  2. Keep it in Context. Do not lift a verse out of context to use it as a proof text because text out of context is a pretext.
  3. Watch out for Idioms. Idioms change from generation to generation even in their own language; imagine how they change after 2,000 years from an ancient language from a different hemisphere.
  4. Be Alert to the Figurative use of Language. Authors use figures of speech that can not be taken literally. The context is the key; it will tell you when to take a word literally or to find the figurative meaning.
  5. Treat Parables Differently. An earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Parables have one central truth. Every illustration can be distorted when every detail of a parable is forced to take on an unintended meaning.
Ten rules of Hermeneutics from “Knowing Scripture” by R. C. Sproul
  1. The Bible is to be read like any other book.
  2. The Bible should be read existentially.
  3. Historical narratives are to be interpreted by the didactic.
  4. The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit.
  5. Determine carefully the meaning of words.
  6. Note the presence of parallelisms in the Bible.
  7. Note the difference between Proverbs and Law.
  8. Observe the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law.
  9. Be careful with parables.
  10. Be careful with predictive prophecy.

Further study
(Be like the Bereans! Acts 17:11)

[1] Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, with commentary by Norman L. Geisler (download PDF)
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics was composed at Summit I of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The summit took place in Chicago on October 26–28, 1978 for the purpose of affirming afresh the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, making clear the understanding of it and warning against its denial.

Participants agreed that belief in the inerrancy of Scripture is basic, but valuable only as one’s understanding of the meaning of Scripture. Summit II was held in Chicago on November 10–13, 1982. A consensus statement of approximately one hundred participants and observers was formulated. (From Wikipedia)
[2] Sermons by Dr. Ron Dunn
How to Interpret the Bible for Yourself (1 of 3)
How to Interpret the Bible for Yourself (2 of 3)
How to Read Your Bible (3 of 3)
[3] How to study the Bible, from “Straight Up” blog by Pastor James Macdonald, Harvest Bible Fellowship

Principle 1: Seek to Understand the Authorial Intent

Principle 2: Understand What a Term or Event Meant to the Original Audience

Principle 3: Expect to See Unity Throughout the Scriptures

Principle 4: Use Scripture to Interpret Scripture

Principle 5: Move from the Clear to the Unclear

Principle 6: Attempt to resolve contradictory or difficult statements, but be willing to accept that human limitations may render a solution presently impossible.

How to Study the Bible: Interpretive Principle 7

[4] “Interpreting The Bible“ video blog series by Ptr. Jeff Kluttz, First Baptist Church Needville, Texas (download the PDF course notes)

This series is a class study at First Baptist Church Needville on the topic of Biblical Hermeneutics, or the science of interpreting the scriptures. This course will unfold in three general phases:

The Principles: the truths which must be understood and considered when studying and interpreting scripture (such as historical, contextual, linguistic principles and others)

The Process: a deeper foray into the application of these principles, including study of several interpretive laws (the law of recurrence, the law of double reference, the golden rule of interpretation & others)

Practice: a time of extended application in which we will break apart and study the scriptures together, applying what we have learned. (finding the big idea of a paragraph, applying the principles and laws to ensure that the correct meaning, as understood by the original audience, is acquired)

[5] The Bible: Understanding Its Message, by J. Hampton Keathley, III , Th.M.

[6] Interpretation, Illumination and Application, by Sid Litke, Th.M.

[7] The Bible: God’s Living and Authoritative Word, by Greg Herrick Th.M., Ph.D.

[8] Bible Interpretation by Steve Lewis, High Peaks Bible Fellowship

Introduction to Bible Interpretation
This session discusses the need and the importance of sound principles for Bible interpretation. [10 slides, 51 minutes]

Understanding the Language of the Bible
This section discusses how we can best understand the language of the Bible. It gives an overview of several English versions for Bible study, and describes how we can determine the meanings of biblical words and phrases. [11 slides, 46 minutes]

The Importance of Context in Interpreting the Bible
This section discusses the importance of interpreting a passage of Scripture within its context, because the meaning of the text is almost always determined by what surrounds it. Principles, examples, and resources are included for interpreting in context. [12 slides, 48 minutes]

Understanding the Setting of a Bible Passage
This section discusses the importance of understanding the historical, geographical, and cultural setting of a Bible passage. [18 slides, 72 minutes]

Special Topics in Bible Interpretation
This section discusses special topics in Bible interpretation, including figurative language of several kinds (parables, symbols, types, prophecy). [13 slides, 59 minutes]

Applying the Scriptures to Our Lives Today
This section discusses the issues of alleged contradictions and difficulties in the Bible, the systematic unity of the Scriptures, and the principles for correctly applying the message of the Bible to our lives today. [15 slides, 67 minutes]

[9] Bible Interpretation, by David F. Reagan (from Learn the Bible University, Antioch Baptist Church, Knoxville, Tennessee)
Bible Interpretation I

Lesson 1 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 2 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 3 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 4 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 5 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 6 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)

Bible Interpretation II

Lesson 1 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 2 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 3 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 4 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 5 (listen to part 1 and part 2; download mp3 part 1 and part 2)
Lesson 6 (listen to audio; download mp3)
Sermons on Psalm 119 (Be like the Bereans! Acts 17:11)

[1] Centrality of God's Word, by Thomas C. Black

[2] Psalm 119 - The Grand Canyon of Scripture's Greatness and Sufficiency, by Philip G Layton, Gold Country Baptist Church, California, USA

Notes: (1) This ministry does not necessarily endorse or share all the views and opinions expressed in the materials, resources or links mentioned in these posts. Please always refer to the Articles of Faith and Biblical distinctives of Baptists when you study these materials. (2) This lesson is part of the projected 300 plus lessons. From time to time, the lessons will be updated, revised, combined, formatted, and edited to comply with the VOA Simplified English word list. Later on, these lessons will be categorized, numbered sequentially, and made available as PDF downloads. (3) Photo source: ChristianPhotos.Net - Free High Resolution Photos for Christian Publications

1 comment:

Gary said...

Can you really trust your English Bible to be God's true Word?

Have you ever had an evangelical or Reformed Christian say this to you:

"THAT passage of the Bible, in the original Greek, does NOT mean what the simple, plain reading of the passage seems to say in English."

It happens to me all the time in my conversations with Baptists, evangelicals, and fundamentalists on this blog. They state: "Repent and be baptized...for the forgiveness of sins" was mistranslated. "This is my body...this is my blood" is a metaphorical expression, "Baptism does now save us" is figurative speech for what happens to us spiritually when we ask Christ into our hearts.

What they are basically saying is that unless you speak ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and can't read and really understand the Bible without the help of an educated Churchman!

This morning I came across an excellent article on this subject, written by Jordan Cooper, a Lutheran pastor. I am going to give the link to his article below. I have copied a couple of his statements here:

"So here is a question that we all need to ask ourselves when doing this (refusing to accept the simple, plain, English translation of a passage of Scripture): If a verse seems to disprove your theological beliefs, and you translate it in some way that doesn't fit with any of the dozens of major English translations of the Bible, and that unique translation just happens to fit your own theological biases, could it be that it is in fact you who are in the wrong? Could you be reading your own preconceived theological convictions back into the text?"

" I know it can be frustrating when you are constantly told that Scripture can't be understood unless you learn (an ancient) language or read ancient documents that you don't have either the time or the energy to study. Honestly, if you have a few good English translations at your side, and you take the time to compare them to one another, you have all the tools you need to understand the meaning of the Bible.

Link to Pastor Cooper's original article: