Good Principles of Interpretation
Table of Contents |
Hermeneutics — Overview |
Scripture Accessible to all Believers | The Nature of Communication | False Principles of Interpretation | Good Principles of Interpretation | Scripture Quoted in Scripture | Symbolism
Let's consider the practices we would use if we were going to write a book with the intention of effectively communicating with our readers. What practices would we adopt and what practices would we avoid in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding?
First of all, we would chose words, idioms and figures of speech which would most likely make plain their meaning to the audience of our book. And we would avoid abstract symbols with which the reader is unfamiliar. We would be sensitive to the reader's experience and would take care to explain ideas with which the reader is unfamiliar, but would spend less effort explaining ideas with which the reader is familiar. We would adequately introduce ideas as they are presented for the first time and later would make reference to these ideas without the need for a lot of explanation.
As we study the Bible, our guiding question should be, "What is God trying to communicate with us?" We must assume that he has taken great care to be effective in his communication with us. We will, therefore, examine the principles to be used to interpret scripture in this light.
When we study the Bible in its entirety, both Old and New Testaments, we observe that it speaks of a unified theme. In the Word of God we read first and foremost of the redemptive plan of God. As we seek to interpret scripture we should, therefore, keep this theme in mind.
In the Bible, the Holy Spirit chooses events to speak about based on the theme of the redemption plan of God. For example, in the book of Genesis, the story of Jacob is followed in detail because the Messiah will be a descendent of his. However, Esau, his firstborn brother, is ignored except in his interactions with Jacob and in the events relating to his losing his birthright.
An example of ignoring this large-scale theme of the Bible relates to the following passage:
'I tell you the truth,' Jesus replied, 'no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields — and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.' (Mark 10:29,30)
The "word faith" teachers have built a doctrine called the hundred-fold return and applied it to the obtaining of wealth. According to this doctrine, if we sell a $100,000 home to follow Jesus, then it is guaranteed that God will give us a home worth 100 times as much in this life. But viewed from the perspective of the redemptive plan of God, we must look for a different interpretation because the redemptive plan of God is not intended by God to be a get-rich-quick scheme.
The Old and New Testaments each have their own separate themes. The Old Testament deals with the origin of God's redemptive plan and His first covenant with His chosen people. Our interpretation of passages in the Old Testament must therefore be understood in this context.
To illustrate this theme of the Old Testament let us consider the blessings and curses of the law given to the Israelites in the Old Testament:
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you. (Deuteronomy 28:1,2a)
A few of these blessings are:
The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land," (v. 4a)
The Lord will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you." (v. 7a)
These are truly exciting and wondrous blessings. In a word we would say that the Israelites would be blessed with prosperity as a nation by obeying the Lord. However, an individual within the nation might experience hardship if he disobeyed God's command even though there would be prosperity for the nation as a whole.
But, if the majority of the nation, particularly the leaders, disobeyed the Lord, then the blessings would be taken away and the curses would be applied to the nation of Israel, which is, in fact, what ended up happening as Israel began to worship idols.
A few of the curses listed in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy are:
Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed. The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. (vv. 17,18)
The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought. (v. 22a)
Because of a misapplication by the "word faith" teachers of the purpose and object of faith, we will briefly look at the role that faith played in the application of the blessings and curses of Moses by the Israelites.
God chose to apply either the blessings or curses to the Israelites in response to their obedience or disobedience. In order to receive the blessings from God the Israelites first had to believe that God exists, that he had sovereignty over their lives, and that he would keep His word; then, they had to desire to receive the blessings of God; then, they had to act in faith according to their belief and obey God's commands in order to appropriate the blessings of God. Then, finally, God would send them the blessings of Moses.
But when they no longer acted in faith and began to disobey God's commands, they then received the curses of Moses. As a result, the Israelites again placed their faith in God and His word, resulting in a changed behavior of obedience to God's commands.
But the "word faith"teachers teach that they had to place their faith on the blessings themselves — that in order to receive the blessings the Israelites had to believe that they would receive them and act in faith as if they had already received the blessings. This faith would then cause God to send the blessings.
But this doctrine of the "word faith" teachers concerning the blessings of Moses is clearly contradicted by scripture. God's ultimate purpose for the Israelites was that they would be obedient. The blessings were given to them freely from God's grace. The Israelites demonstrated their faith by being obedient to God's commands. It was this faith which was credited to them as righteousness. (cf. James 2:23)
The "word faith" teachers have, in effect, removed God's purpose, will, and desire from their doctrine of faith and have substituted in its place, man's purpose, will, and desire.
But when we interpret the blessings and curses of the law within the perspective of the first covenant of God with his people, we get a correct view of scripture and the doctrine of faith. The "word faith" teachers would have us believe that today we should use our faith to receive the blessings of Deuteronomy chapter 28, or in other words, that we should view these promises of God as if they were meant for us, 2000 years after Christ.
However, there are scriptures in the New Testament that we must consider as we seek to answer this question. Since the blessings and curses of the law of Moses were specifically given under the first covenant and we today are no longer bound by this covenant, we must be careful not to apply too much of the law to ourselves. For as Paul said:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight be observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:19,20)
Paul makes a distinction between the promise of the law of Moses and the promise given to Abraham. The "word faith" teachers have confused the two and applied the promise of the law to themselves, when it is the promise to Abraham which correctly applies to the body of Christ:
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say 'and to seeds,' meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16)
Even Paul, himself, in the New Testament does not seek the blessings of the law of Moses:
But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:8)
And Jesus speaks against the idea that we should apply our faith to receive the promise of the blessings of the law of Moses:
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. (Luke 12:33a)
Finally, Paul makes it clear that we are no longer bound by the law:
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (Galatians 3:23-25)
The New Testament deals with an expansion of the theme of the Old Testament by the new covenant of salvation by faith in Christ. Jesus, Himself, teaches that the New Testament does not contradict the Old Testament and, in fact, is a continuation of it:
Do not think that I [Jesus] have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17)
In the first covenant the Israelites were to receive redemption by putting their faith in God's plan of redemption by obeying God's word in the Law and Prophets. In a like manner, in the new covenant we are to receive redemption by putting our faith in God's plan of redemption by obeying God's word. We are to be obedient to Jesus, and to receive salvation through faith in His sacrifice on the cross for the atonement of our sins.
But the "word faith" teachers teach a doctrine concerning faith which ignores the theme of the New Testament — that of the redemption of man through faith in Christ. They have taught that we can apply our faith to promises in the Old Testament and that God will count it as righteousness. An example of a passage in the New Testament which they use to support this idea:
The righteous [just] will live by faith. (Galatians 3:11)
But notice that Paul is quoting this verse from the book of Habakkuk in the Old Testament so we must be careful to consider the context in Habakkuk when we interpret the verse from Galatians. The entire passage in Habakkuk reads:
See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright — but the righteous will live by his faith — indeed, wine betrays him; he is arrogant and never at rest. Because he is as greedy as the grave [Sheol] and like death is never satisfied, he gathers to himself all the nations and takes captive all the peoples. (Habakkuk 2:4,5)
This context makes it clear that the intent of the phrase "the righteous will live by faith" concerns our works of righteousness, not our acquisition of material wealth.
As partakers of redemption through the blood of Christ, we are no longer required to follow the law in order to be righteous in God's eyes, for
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.' He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:13,14)
This passage is an expansion of the blessings of Abraham. Whereas before, only the Israelites had access to God's plan of redemption, now it is available to the Gentiles also. Jesus has provided a method whereby we may be saved by faith in Him, for God does not wish to curse us, but would rather redeem us.
When we are redeemed, God will bless us according to the desires of His will. We can refuse to accept His blessings or we can receive them in faith, the choice is ours. Yet God will allow trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword (Romans 8:35) in our lives according to His purpose.
As it is written: 'For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered'. (Romans 8:36)
When we receive the blessings of God through faith, we have no further need to exercise our faith in order to coerce God into giving us more than he has already determined to give us. By properly understanding the theme of the New Testament as we study scripture, we will keep a proper perspective and avoid doctrinal error.
Each book of the Bible has its own focus and theme. As we study each book we must first seek to understand the book as a whole and then to interpret particular passages within that framework. Any interpretations which contradict the theme of the book as a whole should be seriously questioned.
Let us take the book of 1 Corinthians as an example. This book is actually a letter written by Paul to the Corinthian church to correct problems in the church at that time and to answer questions they had. Some of the problems Paul was addressing are:
Some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you; (1 Corinthians 1:11b)
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you; (1 Corinthians 5:1a)
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already; (1 Corinthians 6:7a)
When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat; (1 Corinthians 11:20)
Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:12)
Speaking on this last point, Paul does not wish to put a damper on their religious zeal but, nevertheless, he does expect some drastic changes in their public worship. One of his instructions for them concerns the speaking in tonguesduring public worship meetings:
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you!' (1 Corinthians 14:22-25)
Notice that Paul instructs them that they must consider what unbelievers will think as they conduct their public worship, and the way in which he presents it indicates that, in his mind, it is not a request but a command. He is telling the congregation and the leaders in the Corinthian church that they must abstain from public worship in tongues in which the whole congregation speaks in tongues at once because it will affect any unbelievers who may be present. This practice will not draw them toward Christ but will drive them away.
Since the theme of this letter is Paul's correction of problems in the Corinthian church, we must apply his warnings and commands to similar situations today unless we can demonstrate that they simply do not apply to the situation today. Many charismatic and "word faith" churches today simply ignore Paul's warnings or attempt to explain them away as if they do not apply to them, by practicing in their public worship exactly what Paul commands us not to practice.
The pastors and teachers of these churches should take heed of Paul's admonishment:
If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. (1 Corinthians 14:37,38)
By understanding the theme of the book of 1 Corinthians, we are in a position to properly understand Paul's purpose in discussing this matter in his letter.