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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Part 2 – The Sacred Task of Interpretation… is for Everyone

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:14-18, ESV)

A question (or challenge) that often comes up when I raise the issue of proper biblical interpretation is, “What about those who don’t have knowledge about the historical background, knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and knowledge of the genres and idioms present in Scripture?” Such a question usually comes from those who desire to know God’s word, but are worried that somehow they fall short; whereas, the challenge usually comes from those who want to undermine the premise that there is a correct interpretation of the text or that their approach is somehow inadequate.

To the first group I would simply say that God’s word is a powerful tool that even in simply reading it, we experience things He wants us to – it will not return empty. The reality that we should all grow in our faith and understanding in no way undermines where we are at the moment and how God can use us, even in our limitations, to His greater purpose. To the second group I would simply say that, “Yes, the Bible is something all can understand.” But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be using the best means available to us and it also doesn’t mean that everyone understands all of it. Some of Scripture is easy to understand because it is a living word and God is a God of understanding, not confusion. But the gaps in time and experience between our world and theirs do render other parts difficult. Even in their day, some of it involves depth that strained even the trained in understanding. Didn’t Peter himself observe that some of the things Paul wrote were difficult to understand even as he challenged his readers to grow in wisdom and understanding (2 Peter 3:16)?

I stand by my assertion that not all interpretations are equal and those who are able to use such skills, in many cases, have a leg up on those who can’t. But I also do believe the Bible is accessible and capable of being interpreted by anyone who has a solid translation in their language. I believe previous generations, faithful servants all over the globe, and “average” Christians who simply want to study God’s word and glean truth from it can do so, even without the knowledge into historical backgrounds and the ancient languages? But this still comes through proper methodology.  All one need do is look at where the church sometimes went during the Middle Ages and where cults and sects still go today to see that my argument is valid.

I would suggest the following steps belong to every believer as they pursue understanding the Bible better and that all of them can happen, wherever a person is in their knowledge or physical location:

- Dependence on the Holy Spirit – For me, the issue is two-fold. First, bathing any reading in prayer for understanding and clarity and listening to the prodding of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to interpretation. Second, the Spiritual Gifts of knowledge and teaching play a fundamental role in whom we listen to. We do damage to the body of Christ if we fail to take note of the place of such gifts in the well ordered church and in our own learning experience (1 Corinthians 12, esp. 4-10).  I would trust an "untrained" believer who begins with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is necessary for interpretation over any brilliant scholar who didn't!

- Logical consistency – Understanding that the Bible will be consistent in what it communicates about God and our life before Him helps us avoid all sorts of interpretative mistakes. If there is an apparent inconsistency, the problem is in the interpretation of one, or both, of the texts involved. What is more, make this easy on yourself - let clear, repeated truths interpret hard to understand passages. I might not be able to tell you exactly what a particular difficult passage definitely means, but I can often tell you what it cannot mean based upon a multitude of texts elsewhere that say something else.

- Literary Context – Even if you cannot pinpoint all the rules connected to a specific genre, or even identify what genre every passage is connected to, common sense and general reading knowledge helps with conclusions. Proverbs are not the same as narratives, psalms/poems are not the same as letters. The biblical books, more often than not, will communicate what type of literature they are. Use your own general knowledge of that type of writing to help you know what you are looking for. Also, NEVER, EVER pick one verse out and run with it in interpretation without reading what precedes and follows it to understand where the entire argument is going.

- Multiple Translations – For someone who doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew, take the time to read the passage in multiple translations in your native language. If possible, find translations with different philosophies or ways of dealing with the original text. Use a translation that is a formal equivalent (word for word) and one that is a dynamic equivalent (thought for thought) in order to see both the specific words being used and how those words work together. I would strongly recommend not using Greek or Hebrew helps unless you have had training in Greek and Hebrew. More often than not, these helps and the observations they make can lead to faulty conclusions because languages are more nuanced than any help of this nature can provide.

Whatever we do, we need to remember that the text we are dealing with is Sacred. It is God’s revealed word, not a tool to be manipulated (even on a personal level) to our own ends. Take time with it, pray over it, and maintain a teachable spirit. God did not give us all the Spiritual Gift of knowledge and/or teaching, but He has given us all the Spirit that brings knowledge through His word. Submission to the teachings of the word and taking that responsibility seriously is an expectation for every believer – especially if we are sincerely pursuing our role as disciple makers.


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