Monday, July 7, 2008

Without Welching

INTERPRETING THE BIBLE

“Any written document must be interpreted if it is to be understood. The United States of America has nine highly skilled individuals whose daily task is to interpret the Constitution. They comprise the Supreme Court of the land. To interpret the Bible is a far more solemn task than to interpret the U.S. Constitution. It requires great care and diligence.

The Bible itself is its own Supreme Court. The chief rule of biblical interpretation is "sacred Scripture is its own interpreter." This principle means that the Bible is to be interpreted by the Bible. What is obscure in one part of Scripture may be made clear in another. To interpret Scripture by Scripture means that we must not set one passage of Scripture against another passage. Each text must be understood not only in light of its immediate context but also in light of the context of the whole of Scripture.

In addition, properly understood, the only legitimate and valid method of interpreting the Bible is the method of literal interpretation. Yet there is much confusion about the idea of literal interpretation. Literal interpretation, strictly speaking, means that we are to interpret the Bible as it is written. A noun is treated as a noun and a verb as a verb. It means that all the forms that are used in the writing of the Bible are to be interpreted according to the normal rules governing those forms. Poetry is to be treated as poetry. Historical accounts are to be treated as history, Parables as parables, hyperbole as hyperbole, and so on.

In this regard, the Bible is to be interpreted according to the rules that govern the interpretation of any book. In some ways the Bible is unlike any other book ever written. However, in terms of its interpretation, it is to be treated as any other book.

The Bible is not to be interpreted according to our own desires and prejudices. We must seek to understand what it actually says and guard against forcing our own views upon it. It is the sport of heretics to seek support from Scripture for false doctrines that have no basis in the text. Satan himself quoted Scripture in an illegitimate way in an effort to seduce Christ to sin (Matthew 4:1-11).

The basic messages of the Bible are simple enough and clear enough for a child to understand. Yet the meat of Scripture requires careful attention and study to understand it properly. Some matters treated by the Bible are so complex and profound that they keep the finest scholars perennially engaged in an effort to sort them out.

There are a few principles of interpretation that are basic for all sound study of the Bible. They include the following:
(1) Narratives should be interpreted in light of "teaching" passages. For example, the story of Abraham offering Isaac on Mount Moriah might suggest that God didn't know that Abraham had true faith. But the didactic portions of Scripture make it clear that God is omniscient.
(2) The implicit must always be interpreted in light of the explicit; never the other way around. That is, if a particular text seems to imply something, we should not accept the implication as correct if it goes against something explicitly stated elsewhere in Scripture.
(3) The laws of logic govern biblical interpretation. If, for example, we know that all cats have tails, we cannot then deduce that some cats do not have tails. If it is true that some cats do not have tails, then it cannot also be true that all cats have tails. This is not a matter merely of technical laws of inference; it is a matter of common sense. Yet the vast majority of erroneous interpretations of the Bible are caused by illegitimate deductions from the Scripture.

1. The Bible is its own interpreter.

2. We must interpret the Bible literally-as it is written.

3. The Bible is to be interpreted like any other book.

4. Obscure parts of the Bible are to be interpreted by the clearer parts.

5. The implicit is to be interpreted in light of the explicit.

6. The rules of logic govern what can reasonably be drawn or deduced from Scripture.”

R.C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith

I found comfort in the truth of this article. The comfort comes at a time when my position on Scripture (stated above) is offensive and now I am a “blasphemer”. My ego does not need the comfort, my friendship does, what has been left. I refused to blink and I refused to pick up the glove.

“We are called upon by the Lord to contend earnestly for the faith (Jude 3). That does not necessarily involve being contentious; but it involves avoiding compromise, standing forth for what we believe, stand­ing forth for the truth of God—without welching at any particular moment.”
Roger Nicole

Let the conversation continue.

6 comments:

dave said...

i don't agree that the Bible is to be interpreted like any other book.

the Bible is its own interpreter and its own dictionary. As such, obscure parts are to be interpreted by the whole Bible...not just the clearer parts.

satan did quote scripture; but he didn't interpret it. that's something that we do to our great dismay.

i think, though, that you're on the right track.

Coffee Snob said...

I respectfully disagree with Dave when he says "I don't agree that the Bible is to be interpreted like any other book" and that interpreting Scripture is "something that we do to our great dismay" (implying, perhaps, that to do so is sin?)

To the second point first: As Eutychus said at the beginning, "Any written document must be interpreted if it is to be understood."

Many well-meaning and godly believers through the ages have disagreed on the meaning of a passage of Scripture - because they have differing interpretations. For instance, passages that support believers' baptism vs. passages that support paedobaptism. Surely we can't say that both views are exclusively correct. Nor can we say that both are exclusively wrong.

The differnce in these two Scripturally supported views is due to legitimate differences in interpretation. Do I believe that one view is more accurate than the other? Yes. Just as I believe that certain denominations and certain historical confessions interpret Scriptural truth most accurately. Some are WAY off base; others are much more accurate in their interpretation. Because we are sinful humans, no interpretation will be perfect. The key is the phrase MOST ACCURATE.

And to Dave's first point:

What is meant by "the Bible is to be interpreted like any other book"?

"All the forms that are used in the writing of the Bible are to be interpreted according to the normal rules governing those forms. Poetry is to be treated as poetry. Historical accounts are to be treated as history, Parables as parables, hyperbole as hyperbole, and so on."

This is where many (most? all?) errors of interpretation come from - by NOT following this specific guideline. Too many want to read a piece of poetry and treat it like history, or read a parable and treat it like prophesy.

This is what is meant by the phrase "The Bible is to be interpreted like any other book." The rules of interpretation that apply to non-Biblical poetry are the same rules we should use when interpreting Biblical poetry. The rules of interpretation that apply to non-Biblical history are the same rules we should use when interpreting Biblical history.

And lastly:

"Obscure parts of the Bible are to be interpreted by the clearer parts."
This is certainly preferable to interpreting the obscure parts by other obscure parts ;~)

Kyle said...

This can be made even simpler by cutting it down to three rules.

1. Scripture interprets scripture. (all agreed here)

2. New Testament (NT) interprets the Old Testament (OT). (progressive revelation)

I'm amazed that this wasn't even brought up in the discussion thus far. The epistles and Christ's teachings ALL declare that they are divine commentaries on the OT. To interpret the OT "literally," or with only a look to the attitude of the original author is not to read them as God told us to read them.

There are dozens of examples, but take a look at John 5:36-46 - Also, take a look at all the sermons to Jews in of Acts, they are ALL interpretations of the OT (many points of which are not obvious in their original "literal" contexts).

I am convinced that the only christian way to interpret the bible is to understand it in the way the apostles model for us.

And lastly,
3. Clear passages interpret unclear ones. (again, all agreed)

Putting these three rules together, you realize that the heaviest exegetical weight must fall on the epistles, because they are:
1. scripture (that is, scripture deliberately written with the intent of interpreting other scripture)
2. new testament (that is, it is furthest along chronologically in progressive revelation)
and
3. clearest (because they are usually trying to make an explicit doctrinal argument)

Examples abound - what is the purpose of Galatians, Romans and Hebrews, except to give us an interpretation of the OT, which was being disputed by the Church's enemies?

Think about it.

Coffee Snob said...

Kyle:

Many thanks! The 3 points are clear and succinct, easy to remember - and of course, Biblical.

I assume Eutychus' original intent was not to expound in detail on all the options and variations of interpretation - (he left that for us to do in the comments!) - but to address the specific points made in Sproul's book.

But I could be wrong (it's happened once before ;~)

Eutychus said...

Coffee Snob is correct. Sproul's states my position well, I did not need to go further. I was also leaving no room for anyone to misunderstand my Biblical position on the interpretation of God's Word. Indeed, the hermeneutical principles are weighty.
It is interesting that I expected little reply, yet thankfully got a good response.
As I said, I found comfort in the article as I mourn the loss of a friend who does not seem to hold to the principles stated in the article and those in the above comments.
Voca me cum benedictus!

Brian Ring said...

Eutychus,

Great list. I will use it in our bible study.

Kyle,

Your comments were totally off. Just joking... NT interprets the OT is a necessary addition to the list, otherwise, as you said, it's not a "Christian" interpretation.