Vol. 11 No. 5 May 2009
There are several contributions to successful biblical interpretation. For successful biblical interpretation, one must examine the biblical context carefully: immediate context, remote context, total biblical context. Biblical context (the immediate passage, the book, the testament and the entire Bible) is crucial to correct biblical interpretation. Kin to the foregoing: “A passage of Scripture is to be understood in the light of all Scripture” (Kelcy 79).
In addition, one must avoid in his biblical interpretation backdating present circumstances to the ancient, biblical past (i.e., we must avoid overlaying the past with the template of the present). An interpreter must realize that “Christianity began and took its initial shape in the context of first century Judaism. The writers of the New Testament lived and thought within the categories of Jewish tradition” (Chouinard 196). That is: “In order to understand what a passage means to men of today, one must first ascertain what it meant to those to whom it was first written” (Kelcy 80). “Only when one understands what a text meant in the First Century will he be able to understand with clarity what are its implications for the present” (Osburn qtd. in Flatt 68).
One cannot overestimate the importance of familiarizing himself with the historical setting of biblical text. “Without a knowledge of Old Testament history, anything like a satisfactory understanding of the New Testament is impossible. The New builds on the Old…” (Le Moine Lewis 246). “It has become clear in the twentieth century that any interpretation of Scripture must be judged by history” (Le Moine Lewis 253).
The interpreter should first view a passage in terms of its historical and cultural setting, the intent of the author for his original audience, and the message they likely would have derived from it. This guards against the interpreter’s reading his own desires and viewpoints into the text, and he may than apply the message to himself and to the people of his day. The interpreter should allow the text to modify and to mold his own preunderstandings, prejudices, and presuppositions. This is difficult but not impossible. (Flatt 70)
Further, one must begin with acknowledgement that the Word of God (Bible) is divinely inspired, and as such, far exceeds all other resources. Confidence in the divine inspiration of the Bible is a necessary precursor to biblical interpretation (2 Timothy 3:16-17). “In examining the text and related resources, one makes certain important presuppositions: The true canon of Scripture has been established. …The text we have is reliable. …The text of the Bible can be adequately translated and understood” (Flatt 65-66). To correctly interpret the Bible, one must acknowledge that “God’s truth (the Bible) is absolute (objective) and attainable (it can be learned) (John 8:32)” (Warren, “When” 33). To arrive at successful biblical interpretation, one must concede that the Bible does not contradict itself.
Hence, the Bible must be viewed as authoritative respecting whatever topic that it addresses. “To be pleasing to God in work and/or worship, one must do only what God (in His word) authorizes man to do. God has never allowed man (with God’s approval to do just as he (man) pleases (Hebrews 5:8-9; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9; 2 John 9-11)” (Warren, “When” 34). In addition, correct biblical interpretation is helped along by acknowledging that God has a right to make demands of mankind, and that He has done that through the Bible. One must have reverence for God and the Word of God to exercise biblical interpretation successfully (Psalm 111:9; Hebrews 12:28). Correct biblical interpretation will be ever elusive, unless one harbors the desire to and is determined to understand the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).
Still further, a person must have a good and honest heart plus an open mind to correctly interpret the Bible, especially since correct biblical interpretation may be inconvenient. One must have a certain amount of education and common sense or reasonableness to understand correctly communication, human or divine. Knowledge of the original biblical languages or the familiarity with the resources to define biblical words, etc. contributes to biblical interpretation. Knowledge of history contemporary with Bible times, places, characters and events contributes to correct biblical interpretation. For instance, “…without the knowledge of history, we will not know whether the writer is speaking of Herod the Great, [Herod] Archelaus, [Herod] Artistobulus, [Herod] Antipas, [Herod] Philip, [Herod] Agrippa I., or [Herod] Agrippa II., and everything will be confused” (Dungan 31).
A student of the Word of God must value it above human philosophies to achieve correct biblical interpretation. One must distinguish between historical inclusion of information versus divine instruction in the Bible to arrive at correct biblical interpretation (e.g., King Solomon’s sins versus divinely inspired instruction). For biblical interpretation to be correct, one must distinguish to whom a biblical covenant was or is applicable (e.g., Noah was instructed to build an ark, but that divine instruction is not a part of the covenant to which we are amenable). One is amenable to biblical instruction in the divine covenant applicable to him, despite some of the divine instructions in the covenant applicable today also appear in previous covenants. Kin to this is that what may be applicable eternally in heaven is immaterial to contemporary conduct per the covenant to which one is amenable.
For correct biblical interpretation, it is important to know to whom any portion of Scripture under scrutiny is addressed. Knowing the type of biblical literature (e.g., history, prophecy, prose, literal, figurative) being studied contributes to successful biblical interpretation. Knowing when a portion of Scripture was written can help understand its meaning and application better. “Always interpret according to the known purpose of the author” (Dungan 172). The Bible is its own best commentary; difficult biblical passages can be more easily understood by consulting the Bible in other passages that are more easily understood about the same subject. “Light may be thrown upon a doubtful or difficult passage by comparing it with other statements of the author on the same subject.—In several epistles of Paul, he dwells more or less on the same subject in several of these communications” (Dugan 180-181). “Help may be had in the interpretation of sentences by examining the statements of other writers on the same subject, who are of equal authority” (Dugan 181-182). “All words are to be understood in their literal sense, unless the evident meaning of the context forbids” (Dungan 184).
There are several hindrances to successful biblical interpretation. Desiring to please others or oneself hinders correct biblical interpretation (Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). Reading the Bible without expecting to understand it hinders interpreting the Scriptures successfully.
Without a predetermination to accept God’s Word as authoritative in whatever it specifies will surely lead to a train-wreck exercise of biblical interpretation. “If the Bible does not mean what it says, there is no way by which we can know what it does mean” (Dungan 60). “…the demands have changed, but the absoluteness of obedience remains the same now as then” (Dungan 110). It borders on blasphemy to assert either that God could not communicate His will to mankind in such a way that He could be understood, or that God could not create mankind in such a way that he could understand divine instruction. Worse yet would be to assert that God could communicate successfully with mankind, or could create mankind so he could understand divine instruction—but did neither.
Among the significant hindrances to correct biblical interpretation are false brethren (2 Corinthians 11:26; Galatians 2:4). False teachers and apostate brethren must be noted when they persist in their apostasies (Romans 16:17-18). Brethren need to help each other know the truth more perfectly (Matthew 18:15-17; Acts 18:24-28; 2 Timothy 2:25-26). Faithful Christians must not commune with disorderly Christians (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 3:5; 2 John 9-11; Romans 16:17-18). It is false doctrine, whether by decrying biblically approved examples and biblical implications (and their inferences) or by relegating “the doctrine of Christ” to mere historicity that the following are non-essentials and unrelated to salvation: how we worship, church organization, church autonomy, a cappella music, church name, the age of the earth (suggestive of acceptance of at least theistic evolution), marriage-divorce-and-remarriage, the undenominational nature of the Lord’s church, the role of women, the emphasis on baptism and weekly communion. Relegating these biblical doctrines to a category of nonessential or non-salvation represents a fundamental shift in doctrine that has the affect of changing a congregation from a church of Christ into something completely different. To affirm a so-called church of Christ heritage or assign the beginning of the church of Christ to the time of the American Restoration Movement is an outright, unveiled disavowal of loyalty to the singular church Jesus died to establish, over which He is Head and for which He will return—in other words—apostasy (2 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 3:12; 2 Peter 3:17).
There are important questions to ask for ascertaining the credence one actually gives to the Holy Word of God (biblical authority). Is it a sin to use instrumental music in Christian worship? Yes or no! (See Matthew 26:30; Acts 16:25; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13.) Does a person need to be baptized (immersed) for the remission of sins, and know that he is being baptized for the remission of sins? Yes or no! (See Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38; 10:43; Romans 3:25.) When aware that a couple is living in adultery, is it necessary to teach a prospect to repent of this sin also before being baptized? Yes or no! (See Matthew 19:9; Romans 7:2-3.) Are there faithful Christians in denominations? Yes or no! (See Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 20; Ephesians 2:16; 4:4; Colossians 3:15.) Answering “No” to the first three questions or answering “Yes” to the fourth question clearly demonstrates one’s lack of loyalty to biblical authority and apostasy from primitive Christianity (1 John 4:1).
Faithful Christians, while they should not be unnecessarily brash, need not cower in the least before apostatizing brethren who may attempt to foist on the faithful the responsibility for congregational unrest. This ploy is an old one, tried by King Ahab, but firmly rejected by the prophet Elijah: “And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel? And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim” (1 Kings 18:17-18). Put in a crude form of the modern vernacular, it is not the faithful child of God who politely but firmly resists apostasy that causes a “stink” and unrest among the children of God today, but those who forsake biblical authority are responsible for stinking doctrine and turmoil among Christians in our time. Hate division, but discern and stand for truth firmly and kindly, nevertheless, stand (1 Corinthians 16:13; Philippians 1:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Chouinard, Larry. “The History of New Testament Interpretation.” Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice. F. Furman Kearley and others eds. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Dungan, D.R. Hermeneutics. Delight: Gospel Light, n.d.
Flatt, Bill. “The Function of Presuppositions and Attitudes in Biblical Interpretation.” Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice. F. Furman Kearley and others eds. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Kelcy, Raymond C. “Identifying the Pericope and Its Context.” Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice. F. Furman Kearley and others eds. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Lewis, Le Moine. “Using Historical Background in New Testament Interpretation.” Biblical Interpretation: Principles and Practice. F. Furman Kearley and others eds. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Warren, Thomas B. When Is an “Example” Binding? Jonesboro: National Christian P., 1975.