Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
The Interpretation of Scripture
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This series of studies has been about how we can know what God has said. In this lesson we come to the end of that path by which God’s Truth comes to us.
Truth begins in the mind of God. He reveals that Truth to his people by the process of Revelation. He guarded the writing of the Books of the Bible by Divine Inspiration. That collection of inspired books forms a Canon: a standard by which truth is identified. Those Books were preserved for us down through the ages so they could be translated and interpreted to teach and warn his people.
The goal of biblical interpretation is to discover what God intended to communicate to us in his word.
The starting point involves some apologetic questions. In general, the word “apologetic” has a broad set of meanings. We think of apologizing as admitting we are wrong about something and that we feel bad about it. That’s not at all what we mean here. Christian apologetics is not apologizing — it’s almost it’s opposite. The Greek word used in the New Testam ent is “apologia” (ἀπολογία). It means giving a defense of some disputed ideas, or to explain something. That is how the word is used by Paul and Peter in the New Testament. Apologetics deals with what is knowable, and how we can have confidence in the truth of what we know.
We all begin our thinking with some presumptions. There are things we assume before we start reasoning things out. Assumptions are things that can’t be tested. We accept them to be true and beyond question. To test the truth of something, we need a standard to compare it with. That standard needs to be tested too – tested by something we consider more reliable. We are actually “testing the test”. At some point we get to our assumed “presuppositions”. These are things we assume before we start “supposing” things.
We all have these fundamental ideas whether we are aware of them or not. We have a view of ourselves, of what’s around us, and of how we can find out about things.
In our fallen condition we assume we can figure things out with our own senses and use of logic. We gather information, put it together, then draw conclusions. The problem is, we are not neutral about how we see and interpret things. We are fallen creatures. In that state of denial we tend to deny our own bias. The lost often deny they start with any presumptions. They think they begin on neutral ground. They just observe, measure, and use science, math, and logic to come to conclusions.
But how do they know they’re not biased? How do they know they’ve gathered all the information they need? that there’s not more out there they don’t know about which would lead them to different conclusions? They presume they can reason free from assumptions, and they are dogmatic about it. They stand firmly upon the assumption that they have no assumptions, the very point they are denying. They assume they have no assumptions!
Christians have presumptions too. Our awareness of these first principles is the work of the Holy Spirit. He enlivens the soul and enables the redeemed to perceive the realities God has made known. So our confidence rests in the realities we study, rather than in the mind of the person that studies them.
Because of the Spirit’s work in redeemed hearts we “presume” some basic facts.
– There is a God who is self-revealed in the Bible.
– He is the only true God and Creator, all creaton and creatures answer to him in all things.
– Human knowledge is possible since God created us to know him and to promote his glory. God’s use of language validates the Bible as the one objective tool for knowing revealed truth.
We need to be aware of the presumptions and expectations we bring with us before we begin our study. If we presume a basic ability to neutrally understand God’s revelation unaided by anything outside of ourselves, there will be tension with verses about fallen man’s total inability to understand spiritual truth. For example:
Romans 3:11, “no one understands; no one seeks for God.”
1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
If we assume that we are neutral and can know things accurately in our present moral condition, these verses would have to be explained away by some non-scriptural ideas. We give meanings to the text that change what it says on its own.
When we come to problems with pre-determined expectations, it effects our objectivity. We ask questions influenced by the results we expect to find. Our interpretations will be unavoidably colored by what we are looking for.
To fallen man the Bible is just human literature recording personal impressions of God and religious experiences. Therefore some of the information contained in Scripture can’t be accepted objectively. The Bible as literature will have a different meaning than the Bible studied as the inspired word of God.
The science of interpreting the text of Scripture is called Hermeneutics. The Greek word “hermaeneuo” (ἑρμηνεύω) means “to explain, to interpret”.
If the Bible alone is the infallible rule in matters of faith and practice, then we need to derive our rules of interpretation from Scripture alone.
Some presume that since miracles and the supernatural can’t be tested by scientific methods, they must be ignored. Those interpreters eliminate all supernatural elements before they begin interpreting a passage. Therefore they read teachings into the text that have nothing to do with what it’s actually saying.
Some assume that things said in the Old Testament cannot apply today if it’s not repeated in the New Testament. But they have to be very selective to protect their beliefs, and moral convictions. It would eliminate important parts of God’s moral laws: the structure of marriage and family, and other teachings.
An unsound hermeneutic will produce internal tensions and can’t produce consistent results. Biblically sound principles of hermeneutics yield a consistent system of doctrine. They produce the same results regardless of who does the interpreting. [Westminster Confession 1:6-10]
The first is: Sola Scriptura.
It means, “Scripture alone” (WCF 1:6a,9,10). The inspired Scriptures provide the only infallible information and perfect rules for Bible study.
We should never add new facts to what the Bible says from our own reason, visions, voices, or miraculous signs. No authoritative data comes from the independent testimony of the church, science, archeology, philosophy, mystical experience, or personal anecdotes.
No exra-biblical expectations, presumptions, or facts should color our interpretation of Scripture. Commentaries or dictionaries should never be quoted independently as a source of reliable data. The way a word is actually used in Scripture is the best guide to it’s meaning.
Editors of dictionaries and of lexicons are susceptible to error and prejudice because of their own presumptions. Some have claimed that the Holy Spirit spoke to them or led them to some new understanding. They quote a few proof texts, but usually they don’t consider the context of those verses. Such mystical claims and backward exegesis discard the principle of sola scriptura.
The second Latin Phrase is: Scriptura Scripturae interpres.
It means, “Scripture interprets Scripture”. The best way to understand a passage is to see how the rest of Scripture fits with it and clarifies it.
We need a thorough familiarity with the whole Bible (both testaments). We should use cross-references locate other portions that use the same expressions or cover the same material.
When we study a passage in the Bible we should consider some basic questions:
– Does the text quote or refer to other biblical portions?
– Do the expressions used have meanings established in earlier inspired books?
– Is the text referred to, or explained more, in some later Book of the Bible?
Not all portions of Scripture are equally clear, nor are they all intended for instruction. Passages that directly teach or command are more helpful in learning about God’s will than are passages that simply record historic events. Recorded acts or words of individuals may be either evil or good (WCF 1:7I). Passages that deal directly with an issue should interpret passages which only indirectly or incidentally refer to it.
The third phrase is: Omnis intellectus ac expositio Scripturae sit analogia fidei.
It means, “all understanding and exposition of Scripture is an analogy of faith.”
We have confidence that what the Bible says is analogous to the way God sees things. What is said in the Bible is explained in a finite way so our creaturely minds can understand it, but it still bears a faithful correspondance to what God knows perfectly and infinitely.
Since what we learn in the Bible fits with what God knows, it’s always relible and self-consistent. After all, it represents absolute truth as it is in the mind of God. All that God makes known fits with what He knows perfectly, so there can be no contradictions. Therefore each passage in the Bible can have only one certain and simple sense. The Reliable Bible carries within it all that’s needed for clarity.
Good Biblical Hermeneutics is rightly determining the original intent of each text of Scripture. Paul wrote to Timothy about the importance of careful study. 2 Timothy 2:15 “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
The word translated “rightly dividing” (or “handling accurately” in the NASB) is “orthotomounta” (ὀρθοτομοῦντα). It’s a combination of two Greek terms. “Ortho” means “straight.” It’s the prefix in “orthodontist” who makes teeth straight, or “orthopedist” who makes feet straight. The other part o the word is “to-me-o” which means “to cut” or “to slice.” In Science we us a micro-tome to cut specimen samples into microscopically thin slices. The compound word means “to cut straight”.
When the Scriptures are dissected by careful analysis, when it’s cut in a straight manner, we avoid deriving crooked or perverted meanings. Good study ought to yield the straight truth of the text. Calvin wrote, “the first business of an interpreter is to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”
To accomplish this careful analysis, the faithful Bible student needs to complete three basic tasks: the Grammatical task, the Historical task, and the Theological task.
1. First is the Grammatical Task.
The previous study about the “Translation” of Scripture went over this in detail. This is just a quick review of the Grammatical Task.
We need to determine all the possible ways a given expression can be understood grammatically. The grammatical task involves three areas of work: lexicography, accidence, and syntax.
Lexicography is the study of the meaning of words. We have to consider all possible meanings of a word, eliminating meanings that are inconsistent with the context. We keep in mind the meanings that best fit with the flow of thought.
Accidence is the study of the grammatical forms of words. Changes in spellings, endings, and prefixes show how words relate with one another in a sentence.
Syntax is the study of the relationships between the words in phrases, sentences and paragraphs. It can be useful to diagram the sentences.
2. The second area of study is the Historical Task.
We need to discover where it fits into the unfolding of God’s plan in history. It helps to know the situation and problems that were important to the writer and those to whom he’s writing. We need to know the customs, issues, events, and expressions that were contemporary when it was written. We need to know what information had already been made known to the recipients of the book.
We also need to identify where the book stands in time with reference the unfolding of the work of redemption.
– Is the passage referring to the time before the Levitical system was revealed to Moses?
– Was it referring to things in the time of the Levitical Priesthood?
– Was it referring to the time after Jesus fulfilled what the Levitical sacrifices foreshadowed?
– Is it limited to the Apostolic Age when the New Testament was still being written?
3. The third area of study is the Theological Task.
God’s word is the unfolding of God’s unchanging truth, therefore we can fit the facts together topically. We can assemble all it says about the Nature of God, His Plan of Redemption, the Condition of Fallen Humanity, the Nature of the Church, and so forth.
To do that the interpreter needs to know the overall biblical context. Context expands outwardly from a text.
– The immediate context is the flow of thought in the sentence and portion of the book we’re studying.
– The book context is the purpose and concern for which the entire book was written. Each passage needs to fit in with the author’s purpose and development of thought.
– The overall context of Scripture reminds us that every revealed truth bears a consistent relationship with every other revealed truth. No contradictions are possible considering the principle of “analogy of faith”. It all has to fit together.
Some usd a simple “proof-text” approach. That violates this principle. That’s when people just look for little phrases or verses that support what they already believe. Instead, our theology should emerge out of the whole context of Scripture.
These three basic tasks of hermeneutics are not exclusive of one another:
– The historical question must be considered theologically. God has not revealed himself all at once. He did not explain the complete work of the Messiah as soon as man first fell into sin. We need to determine how what was said fits with what had been revealed at that time.
– A text studied theologically needs to consider the historical questions. What had God already made known? Have previous portions of Scripture established meanings that are assumed by the author? and How does this text fit into the history of the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.
– The grammatical question must be considered historically. What grammatical forms, idioms, and meanings were current when that book was written?
Each task must be taken up with full consideration of the impact of the other tasks.
We humans are fallen creatures. Even redeemed believers are imperfect in this life. Our moral imperfections can’t help but sometimes color our outlook on a text. The work of the Holy Spirit on the regenerate heart is an essential element in sound hermeneutics. (WCF 1:6b)
Jesus promised that the Spirit would lead his people into truth. John 14:26, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
The Holy Spirit is not a direct source of new information to individuals now that the Bible is complete. The Apostolic foundation has been laid as it tells us in Ephesians 2:20. The Spirit testifies to what God has already spoken. The Spirit’s work for the interpreter today is illumination, not revelation.
There needs to be a union between the work of the Spirit and the study of the revealed word. If we look to the word without the aid of the Spirit we will probably undersand it in a distorted way. If we look to the Spirit without the aid of the word there’s no objective standard to test our interpretation. The Holy Spirit ministers truth to us by means of the revealed word, not independently of it.
lays a foundation for the Bible student.
Each area involves intriguing questions. They challenge us to dig into an ever widening and fascinating study. It continuously moves us closer to an understanding of God’s revealed truth.
These first principles lay the foundation for all further studies of Scripture. To the degree that these first principles are based on what the Creator has made known, our study will approach a sound system that essentially corresponds with absolute truth. This has been the task known historically as Reformed Theology. We re-shape (re-form) our beliefs and practices so they take on the shape (the form) explained in God’s word.
May the Lord bless the work of those in whose heart he’s placed a burning desire to discover, love, and obey the truths God has preserved for us in the Bible.
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)