Interpretation Of Scripture (1)

by Leland M. Haines


We have seen thus far that the answer to the question of religious authority is found in Jesus Christ. He has, through what are now historical events, formed the foundation of religious authority. Paul wrote of this: "According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 3:10, 11). We who bring the gospel to the lost can only plant and water but God alone can give the growth (vs. 5-7). As workmen, we must be careful how we build. Our building can be either with gold, silver, and precious stones or with wood, hay, and stubble. At judgment our work of evangelism and church-building will be tested and judged, and "If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward" (3:12-15 RSV). Therefore, we should be careful how we build. Let us now look at the question of how to build, that is, how to use Scripture.

Qualifications of the Builder

To use Scripture one needs to interpret it. There are several qualifications one must have to be an interpreter. Scriptures are unique writings, unable to be interpreted by natural or unspiritual man (I Cor. 2:14). The interpreter must love truth and have a desire to know truth. The natural man who is biased or prejudiced, and who hesitates to obey the truth, cannot properly understand Scripture. Paul wrote, "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (v. 14), and "the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God: neither indeed can be" (Rom. 8:7).

Unless man frees himself from his prejudices, biases, and pet ideas and becomes as a little child, he cannot understand the gospel. Jesus said, "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3, 4; cf. 11:25-30).

What are the qualities of a child that make him an example? Perhaps the most important is that he does not bring with him a whole array of preconceived ideas and overwhelming confidence in his own understanding. Too often adults possess too much confidence in their own wisdom and philosophy to understand Scripture. In contrast, a child is receptive to others' ideas and is teachable; thus he accepts God's wisdom with simplicity of mind. God's wisdom is infinitely higher than human wisdom. One great lesson man must learn is to humble himself to the point of completely putting away his own ideas and fully subjecting his mind to God's wisdom and doctrine.

The Holy Spirit is the Guide to lead one to accept the truth of God's Word. Paul wrote that Christians "received not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; . . . But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:11-14). The Holy Spirit teaches us, and through study and prayer we may obtain knowledge and wisdom (Eph. 1:17, 18; James 1:5; John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13, 14).

The interpreter must have a sound mind, but this does not mean he must be a college graduate or ranked among the intellectuals of the world. Paul noted that in the Corinthian church there were "not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble . . . called" (I Cor. 1:26). Although we must possess certain basic intellectual qualifications to interpret Scripture, these must never be equated with higher learning and education. The Jews did this and could not imagine where Christ got His knowledge since He had never been enrolled under any great teacher. They could only equate knowledge with higher education, as many do today (see John 7:15). We are admonished to "avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith" (I Tim. 6:20 RSV).

Jesus once thanked God "that thou hast hid these things from the wise, and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes" (Matt. 11:25). Jesus knew that the wisdom of the world was not necessary and could actually hinder the understanding of God's Word. Understanding is revealed to "babes" who come to learn without bringing with them preconceived ideas.

Hermeneutics: Principles of Interpretation

The science of interpretation is called Hermeneutics. The aim of hermeneutics is to enable an interpreter to understand Scripture.

If one follows faulty rules of interpretation, he may not understand God's message and will likely interpret Scripture to fit his own views. Such interpretation is to be avoided. To prevent this from occurring, it is necessary to use sound and well-defined principles of interpretation.

The most important principle to follow to understand biblical passages is to interpret them by the same rules used to interpret other writings. Scripture is not written in some heavenly language, but in ordinary human language as other books. Thus it should be understood by the same common-sense process as other writings.

The interpreter should realize that principles, not fixed rules or formulas, should be followed. These principles should not be thought of as rigid rules that when mechanically applied give correct interpretations. They are principles that are to be used thoughtfully. Several of the principles are listed below:

1.THE GRAMMATICAL-HISTORICAL PRINCIPLE of interpretation requires the interpreter to use the laws of grammar and the facts of history to understand Scripture. The laws of grammar require the literal sense, which means words are to understood in their most direct, simple, and ordinary meaning, unless the context indicates they are used in a figurative sense. To use the facts of history means that the writing be understood in light of the time and circumstances connected with the writing. This grammatical-historical method of interpretation is in simple words the common-sense method readers use to interpret everyday writings.

2. A WRITING HAS BUT ONE MEANING. Writing is used to communicate thoughts, and the writer's goal is to communicate his thoughts in the clearest possible way. This means his writing should never be given several meanings. New Testament writers wrote in this normal manner. They never attempted to hide their meaning; therefore, the meaning which is clearest and most evident is to be understood, and it alone. There is no conceivable reason a writer would try to obscure the ideas he wished to present by giving the words hidden meaning. Sometimes writers use words in other than their literal sense in their communications; they occasionally used figurative language. Interpretation of figurative language will be discussed later.

Scriptures do not contain contradictions. Paul emphasized this truth when he cautioned Timothy to "avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge" (I Tim. 6:20 RSV). Paul knew that only false knowledge contained contradictions.

3. THE PLAN, PURPOSE, AND CONTEXT should be taken into account when interpreting a writing. These are considered in the grammatical-historical principle. A writing should be viewed as a unit to discover its plan or overall structure. This enables one to better understand smaller sections of it. The same can be said about the author's purpose in writing. Often to understand a word or passage one needs to look at the context in which it appears. Normally, authors write in some logical order. They use a continuous, logical flow of thoughts that may carry through an entire book. To disregard this order of context and to interpret a statement by itself may lead to a distorted interpretation or complete misinterpretation of a passage. Therefore, a word or passage must be understood in its context.

4. THE MEANINGS OF WORDS change from time to time, making it necessary to search for the meaning the author intended. Generally, an author uses a word's common meaning, although sometimes a special or peculiar meaning may be given. In such cases the word's meaning may be found in the immediate context or in his other writings, where he might have defined the word. A word may also be understood by studying parallel passages to see how the author used it there. When seeking the meaning, care must be taken that the author's meaning is found and not some later developed meaning.

5. FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE is sometimes used and is not meant to be understood literally. It is not necessary to set up a hard and complex rule to determine when language is figurative. In most cases the literal sense is to be understood unless such an interpretation involves obvious contradictions or absurdities. Generally, interpretation of figurative language is not difficult, and a figurative term or passage can be readily understood when considered in the author's context. But some figurative language associated with prophecies, such as appear in the Book of Revelation, can require great effort and Holy Spirit guidance before being understood. In interpreting such symbolism, the reader should look for a divine interpretation. It may possibly be found in other books. If a divine interpretation is not given, the symbolism may remain an unsolved mystery. In such cases we should simply acknowledge we do not know what it means and avoid guessing at meanings.

The parable was one of Christ's favorite methods of teaching. The parable is a special type of comparison; it places the idea to be communicated alongside another idea that is understood. To understand a parable one must first understand the common idea and then seek the main point or emphasis of comparison. A parable usually contains one main point of comparison and its details generally should not be compared or given special emphasis. Many parable parts are only incidental, and if they are given special meaning, the parable's meaning might be obscured.

An example of a parable and how it is to be interpreted is the "weeds in the fields" found in Matthew 13. Jesus spoke to His disciples and a crowd about how "the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat" (Matthew 13:24-29 RSV). Jesus' disciples did not understand this parable, and after the crowds left they asked Jesus to explain it. He then placed the meaning alongside the familiar term used. "He who sows the good seed is the Son of man; the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels." What is the main point of this parable? Jesus explained, "The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father. He who has ears, let him hear" (Matthew 13:36-42). This parable's familiar picture of sowing and the harvest makes the judgment clearer. An example of how figurative prophetic terms are defined is found in Revelation 1. John writes about lampstands, a son of man, seven stars, etc., in Revelation 1:12-16. In the next paragraph he defines these figurative terms. The one he saw in the preceding paragraph, "a son of man" (v. 15), spoke to John and said, "I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades." This clearly is Jesus Christ. He explained to John that the "seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the lampstands are the seven churches." So all the figurative terms of the preceding paragraph are defined, and when the reader finds these terms later in the book, he will know their meaning.

6. SCRIPTURE MAY HELP TO INTERPRET SCRIPTURE. Since God has given us His word in Scripture, each part must be understood in the light of the whole. Thus, if a passage is hard to understand, it should be compared with other passages on the subject and to the message of the Scripture as a whole. When this is done, the plain passages will help to interpret the difficult ones. The passages should harmonize -- and will -- unless passages are compared that do not address the same subject or unless the Scripture leaves a mystery that will only become clear at a later date.

7. THE TWO MAJOR DIVISIONS of Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, should be observed. Since this is such a major point, it will be discussed in the next section.

Before we go on, let us make a couple other points. The reader should not control interpretation by accepting what he wants to hear and rejecting what he doesn't. If this is done, the reader will not understand the Word, and the Bible will say different things to different people. This interpolation can become even more difficult if the Scriptures are all negative; there is a general reluctance in man to listen to negative expressions. The reader must be careful not to screen these out.

Divisions of the Bible

To properly interpret Scripture one must understand that there are two major divisions of the Bible, and he must understand how they relate to God's plan of redemption. These two divisions are the Old Covenant or Testament, and the New Covenant or Testament. A great deal of confusion and error can be caused when one fails to understand the relation of these two, and that the Old Covenant is no longer binding as a system of religious doctrine and practice but has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ and has been superseded by the New Covenant.

The Old Covenant is the first part of God's progressive revelation of Himself to mankind. It contains many prophecies concerning the Messiah and promises that He would usher in a New Covenant. One of these is,

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the days that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. Jer. 31:31-34.

This prophecy reveals two main characteristics of the New Covenant: (1) it will be a truly new covenant, "not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers," and (2) it will produce a regeneration experience, with the law being in men's hearts. These characteristics separate it from the Old Covenant. The writer of Hebrews used this prophecy to show the difference between the two covenants.

The two covenants are compared in the New Testament in II Corinthians 3. The New Covenant is "not of the letter, but of the spirit" (v. 6) and is not a dispensation of death and condemnation (vs. 7, 9; cf. Rom. 4:15; 5:13, 20; 7:7-20; 1 John 3:4, for the results of the law). The New Covenant "is the ministration [dispensation] of the Spirit . . . and righteousness" (vs. 8, 9). It far exceeds the old in glory and in fact exceeds it so much that "which was made glorious had no glory in this respect by reason of the glory that excelleth" (v. 10). Even though the old killed and condemned men, it was "glorious" (v.7); it was "holy, and just, and good" (7:12). There is no contradiction here because the purpose of the law is to reveal sin, and thus it killed (vs. 9, 10). But the law is now "done away" and the New Covenant "remaineth [is permanent]" (II Cor. 3:11). "Christ is the end of the Law - the limit at which it ceases to be, for the Law leads up to Him Who is the fulfillment of its types, and in Him the purpose which it was designed to accomplish is fulfilled" (Rom. 10:4 Amplified).

Many Scriptures teach that the New Covenant is now binding on man, replacing the Old Covenant. Among these are:

1. "Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. . . . Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster" (Gal. 3:19, 24, 25). The old was given for a limited period to bring us to Christ. Since Christ has come, it has served its fulfilled purpose.

2. "For the law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17 ASV). "Ye are not under the law, but under grace" (Rom. 6:14). We are under grace that came through Jesus and are no longer under the Old Covenant, the Law.

3. "He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day" (John 12:48). "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (14:6). "And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying: All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth." (Matt. 28:18). Jesus is the truth today; all authority rests in Him and no longer in the Old Covenant.

4. "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds" (Heb. 1:1, 2). "A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away" (8:13). "Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (10:9, 10). Christ has established a New Covenant, replacing the old one.

5. "Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (II Cor. 3:6; cf. v. 11). Christ has blotted out "the handwriting of ordinances that was against us . . . and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross" (Col. 2:14). The New Testament is of the Spirit and gives new life, doing away with the letter that couldn't change the heart, thus being against us.

The above Scriptures show that the Old Covenant or Testament has served its purpose and is therefore no longer in force as a system of religious doctrine and practice. This does not mean it has no value for us today. The study of it is essential if one is to understand man's relationship to God under the New Covenant or Testament. For example, the story of creation and man's fall, the story of God's acting in the history of Israel to prepare man for the Messiah, unfulfilled prophecies, etc., "were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope" (Rom. 15:4). Without these the New Testament would not be clear, and we would not understand the person, mission, and redemption that is in Christ.

The Old Testament and New Testament make up one Bible. They form a harmony to reveal God's plan of salvation. Yet each must be understood according to its peculiar character. The Old will be understood as part of a progressive revelation that ended in the New. Thus the New Testament is the final revelation. It is the final authority for doctrine and practice. Therefore the Christian will give his greatest attention to the study of the New Testament.

Use of Scriptures

After coming to the place where we know how to interpret Scripture, we need to consider the question of its use.

The central purpose of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is to point men to Christ and make them His disciples. Christ on the road to Emmaus told the disciples:

O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself . . . [that] all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name. Luke 24:25-27, 44-47

The entire Old Testament centers on Christ. He is the One through whom repentance and remission of sins is now granted.

Repentance involves turning from sin to follow Christ. The follower must know how Christ wishes him to follow. He must be instructed, and when he wanders from the path of righteousness, he must be corrected of his error. The Scripture is used to fulfill these needs. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God," and, because of this, it "is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (II Tim. 3:15, 16). Scripture is to be used as the source of doctrine, discipline, and Christian practice. Since Scripture is used in this manner, our goal must be to find what it teaches. When we understand what it teaches, we must put its teachings into practice.

Many, even some with good intentions, have ignorantly misused Scripture. They have found things there that God never put there and have missed important things that are there. This has led to many doctrinal and practical controversies. The reasons for such misuse are many, but among the more important ones would be man's desire to be "wise above what is written." Man does not like to humble himself and accept the simple teachings found in the Scriptures. He wants to bring his own ideas and concepts into his doctrine and practices. This can be done by rambling through the Scriptures, accepting this and rejecting that according to one's own idea of spiritual matters. This should and must be avoided. Scripture is God's revealed truth. Man should not attempt to nullify it by getting his own ideas and philosophies mixed in with it. Every assertion should be tested to see whether it comes from the Scriptures. Care must be taken that our beliefs originate from Scripture and not from our own reasoning. Our need is to understand God's Word and that alone. He has revealed all that is needed to be understood, and this revealed truth is found only in the Scriptures. Thus Scripture is the final authority in religious matters.

(1) This is Chapter 7 of Authority of Scripture, copyright 2000 by Leland M. Haines.

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