Interpreting the Bible: Basic Hermeneutics (2)
We have spent some time investigating the means by which we may better understand the Bible. We recognize how important it is for us to read the Bible and to diligently study it (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15, 2 Peter 3:18), and we have begun to explore the guidelines by which we may interpret God’s Word in a profitable and consistent manner. Previously we established that the first such guideline of hermeneutics (another term for the interpretation process) is to interpret the text literally unless there is a compelling reason otherwise. We also explored how the Bible uses figurative language and how important it is for us to identify figurative language and to interpret it properly. Let us now continue exploring basic guidelines for interpreting God’s Word.
2. The sum of God’s Word is truth. As the Psalmist says in Psalm 119:160:
The sum of thy word is truth; And every one of thy righteous ordinances endureth for ever.
While it is good for us to investigate God’s Word in depth and analyze passages in great detail, we must never interpret any passage so as to create contradiction within God’s Word. God’s Word represents one harmonious whole consisting of many individual parts. Sadly, too many “miss the forest because of the trees” when interpreting the Scriptures.
A good example of this tendency may be found with the concept of predestination. There have been many who have come upon passages like Ephesians 1:1-13 and come away with the impression that God has pre-determined precisely whom He would save (and, by necessity, precisely whom He would condemn). Nevertheless, in Romans 2:11 we see that there is no partiality with God, and the Scriptures attest in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not desire anyone to perish but that all would come to repentance. Since the sum of God’s Word is truth, we recognize how predestination in Ephesians 1:1-13 does not preclude God from desiring all men to be saved in 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9; God does not pre-determine who is saved or condemned. There is no contradiction here!
We also see this in many discussions regarding baptism. Many people will focus on passages like John 3:16 or Romans 10:9-10 and assert that these passages present the “only” things necessary for salvation. Nevertheless, the Scriptures attest in Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, and 1 Peter 3:21, among other places, that baptism is also necessary for salvation. Again, the sum of God’s Word is truth: belief and confession per John 3:16 and Romans 10:9-10 are necessary for salvation, but baptism is also necessary for salvation, based on Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38, and 1 Peter 3:21!
It is clear, then, that God does not desire for us to read His Word with “tunnel vision”: we must always keep the whole of His Word in mind when reading the Scriptures.
3. Let the Bible interpret the Bible. Another principle of interpretation that we ought to consider is to allow the Bible to interpret the Bible whenever necessary. Interpretation is all too often a human endeavor, fraught with human error and fallibility. It is all but certain that each and every one of us has made mistakes in interpretation in the past, present, and future. It is always best, therefore, to allow God to interpret His own Word whenever He does so!
Jesus’ parable of the sower, found in Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23, Mark 4:3-9, 13-20, and Luke 8:4-8, 11-15, is a good example of this. Jesus presents the parable in all three accounts, and later on His disciples ask Him to explain it to them, which He does. Since Jesus Himself explains the parable to us, we have no need to wonder what He means! This way there is much less room for error!
4. Consider the Context. It is very difficult to understand what a text means without understanding the context in which the text is written. As it is often said, “a text without a context is a pretext”! Many times statements are ripped out of their context and abused in interpretation to attempt to prove an idea or practice that never entered into the mind of the writer or into the mind of God!
A clear and obvious example of this would be the statement, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”, found in Acts 19:28. If the statement somehow stood alone it would give us reason to pause and to ask whether Artemis of the Ephesians were really great or not. In context, however, the statement’s purpose is clear: it is the rallying cry of the Ephesians, challenging Paul and the message of the Gospel which he promoted in Ephesus. Since it is said by the enemies of Paul, and therefore the enemies of the Gospel, we recognize that Luke is recording a historical event without giving approval to the statement. Artemis of the Ephesians, in truth, is not “great”.
We can take this same principle and apply it to the promises made by Jesus regarding the gift of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16-18, John 15:26, and John 16:7-11. These passages are often cited attempting to demonstrate that all believers will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in this measure. Nevertheless, in context, we see that Jesus is speaking to His twelve disciples and provides this special promise to them that is specifically fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 1:4-5, Acts 2:1-12). Context will guide us to proper understanding and interpretation.
We have seen, then, some of the basic guidelines of hermeneutics, or the interpretation process, by which we may properly discern God’s purpose for our lives in His Word, the Scriptures. Let us give consideration to these guidelines and always remember that not a few have gone terribly astray from the Lord’s paths not because of God’s Word itself but how they have decided to interpret what God has said. Let us labor to be approved workmen, without need to be ashamed (2 Timothy 2:15)!
Ethan R. Longhenry