January 2012

How to interpret the Bible

Despite the eroding influence of some aspects of post-modern thinking, most of you reading this will agree with me when I declare the Bible to be divinely inspired and authoritative. However, we may well differ in how we interpret the inspired written Word of God.
I am currently reading a book entitled ‘Debating Calvinism’. I do not think it is a particularly helpful book but it does highlight the vastly different ways that ostensibly intelligent and genuine Christians can understand the scriptures. Both men featured in ‘Debating Calvinism’ believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. In some instances, both cite the very same texts, yet come to very different conclusions. Of course, it is all Herman’s fault. Herman? Yes, Hermeneutics.
Strictly speaking, hermeneutics is the science and method of interpreting texts. As a ‘science’, it includes a set of generally accepted rules for interpreting scripture. The problem is, hermeneutics is more than a science, it is also an art. It is more than the mechanistic application of a set of rules. Skill is needed, and intuition, and Holy Spirit enlightenment.
Sometimes, but not often, interpretation of a text hangs on the translation of a single word or phrase. The average Christian only has recourse to a few modern translations and perhaps a computerised Bible that includes Strong’s definitions of the underlying Hebrew and Greek words. However, most modern translations of the Bible are excellent and so it is not often that we need to dig into concordances and the like to determine the meaning of a particular word. For most believers, the challenge is not in the translation of the text, but in how to understand it.
Here are three key interpretive principles. For most biblical texts, these are all you need to arrive at a sound interpretation.
1. Context: Most errors of interpretation come from lifting a text out of its context. The original authors of the biblical texts penned their work within a particular historical and cultural context. The question you need to ask is, ‘How would the first readers/listeners have understood this text?’ Ancient Jews would have a different frame of reference to their Greek contemporaries. Their traditions would differ as would their beliefs and mindsets. A gentile author, Luke for instance, would express things differently to, say, Paul the Jew. Similarly, a group of believers who had converted from Judaism would understand a letter written to them, Hebrews for instance, from a specifically Jewish perspective. However, the most important, and immediate, context is not the historical/cultural but the scriptural context. The questions here are, ‘What comes just before and after the text in question? In what larger thought, theme, or sub-theme, is the text imbedded. What is the author’s purpose in writing this particular text?’ Your interpretation of a text should, in almost all cases, be consistent with the meaning of the larger passage containing the text.
2. Exhaustive Reference: Ask the question, ‘What is the consistent and pervasive testimony of the entire Bible regarding the apparent meaning of any particular text?’ If you find that the meaning of a text seems to contradict what the rest of scripture declares, then you are looking at either a faulty interpretation or a genuine antinomy… another weird word. Antinomy means a contradiction resulting from two reasonable statements that contradict one another. The reasonable response, if you believe in the inspiration of scripture, is to accept both interpretations as true. However, if there is clear and substantial textual evidence of one interpretation, and just isolated or ambiguous evidence of the other, then you will be wise to give greater weight to the former. Much of the Calvinist debate I refer to at the start of this article is between the consistent evidence of many scriptures against the evidence of a few, apparently contradictory, references.
3. Christocentricity: Difficult texts are often much easier to understand when we start with the question, ‘What did Jesus say concerning this, or what did He do that sheds light on this?’ Go to the Gospels first to try to answer this question. From there, go to the Old Testament to understand better why Jesus said and did the things He did. Then go to the balance of the New Testament to understand more fully what He said and did and to receive instruction on how to apply His truth. This is what I call Christocentric Hermeneutics.
These then are the three key principles of biblical interpretation that I recommend. Applying these principles will inevitably lead you to the plain or superficial meaning of the text. Sometimes you hear scholars saying that the ‘literal’ interpretation of passage of scripture is the only ‘true’ interpretation. A well-known mantra is ‘to spiritualise is to tell spiritual lies’; Clever, but not always true. Down through the ages great men and women of God have discovered deeper levels of meaning within the sacred text. The standard principles of interpretation will not usually reveal these levels of meaning. We need to make room for ‘mystery’ in our thinking. We also need to make room for prophetic insights and reader-relevant understandings… but more on this in a future article.

What is truth?

“What is truth?” Pilot asked Jesus (John 18:38). Ask a typical evangelical Christian this question and the likely answer will be “The Bible is truth”. What we generally mean when we say this is that we believe that the Bible is the source of truth. 
Consider for a moment, though, how Peter, Paul, or John would have answered that question. In terms of scriptures, all they had was what we call the Old Testament. 
We know how the apostle John would respond to such a question because he wrote ‘For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ (John 1:17-18)

Church leaders only finally recognised the collection of writings of the New Testament as ‘truth’ in the fourth century. In 367 AD bishop Athanasius listed the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament in his Easter letter. Later, the councils of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 fixed the Canon of scripture, for the Western church. So then, what would the early Christians have regarded as their source of truth?

The Lord Jesus was quite clear in His idea of truth. He said “I am the way and the truth and the life”. (John 14:6) It is ironical that when Pilate asked his question, the truth was actually staring him in the face!? Jesus often said “I tell you the truth” and His disciples recorded what He uttered. Yet, truth is more than what Jesus taught. You see, Jesus himself is the source of truth.

This is a critical understanding. If we regard the Bible as the source of truth then we will expect to find truth only in the form of propositional statements. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed that the Old Testament scriptures were the source of truth yet Jesus said this to them; “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40) We tend to regard the Pharisees with patronising condescension yet we often make the same fundamental mistake they did. 
I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. I am convinced that it is the God-given documentary record of the truth. I am equally convinced that Jesus, himself is The Truth. Therefore, I come to the Bible not just to interpret its truth but also to find, in and through it, the one who is the truth, Jesus Christ the Lord. There are big differences in these two approaches to the Bible. On the one hand, we view the Bible through Christocentric spectacles. On the other hand, we view Jesus through biblical spectacles. Of course, the two concepts are intertwined. 
It is hard to ‘see’ Jesus without the aid of biblical spectacles. Equally, it is hard to know how to use biblical spectacles unless we focus on Jesus. 
The Bible is the God-given forum for encountering and learning about and from Jesus, and the Lord Jesus is the interpretive key to understanding the Bible.

The great Protestant reformers did the church a great service by rescuing it from corruption, ignorance, and religiosity. In their zeal for truth, they brought the scriptures to the fore and made them accessible to all. However, they shifted the focus from personal truth to propositional truth and from experiential encounter to doctrinal understanding. I am not saying that this was their intention but it certainly seems to be the effect that they produced.

We need to recover the early church’s focus on encountering Jesus whilst holding fast to sound doctrine and practice. Most of us have been trained to think in ‘and/or’ terms. Either ‘this’ is right or ‘that’ is right. What is more, if ‘this’ is right then ‘that’ must be wrong. However, the Bible contains many conceptual contradictions and constantly challenges our commitment to and/or thinking. We need to learn to hold two concepts in dynamic tension. Jesus is truth. The Bible is truth. For me, the challenge is to comprehend the source of truth. 

Jesus is the source and all other forms of truth are therefore derived.
So, Pilot’s question should have been, “who is truth?” The answer is, “Jesus is the truth”. The Bible is the record of the truth, the documentary repository of truth, and the inscripturated Word of God. Jesus, in Himself, is the source of truth, the Word made flesh, the eternal Word of God. If we hold fast to this understanding then we will have little difficulty in interpreting the scriptures. What is more, Bible-study will be more than an academic exercise; it will be an encounter with the living Lord of the scriptures.

A servants ear – comments on the Gethsemane encounter

In the Gethsemane encounter I was particularly struck by Jesus’ healing of the servants ear. Jesus was on a path to knowingly suffer injustice, to be whipped, beaten, tormented and die a horrific death, yet He was concerned how He walked that path and who was affected. To top it all, He was not on a path He would have chosen for himself, but was doing it because it was the will of the Father.

This is in stark contrast to our goal-oriented society where casualties are calculated and accepted as long as the end goal is achieved. I believe Jesus was showing us that how you do something, and the motivation for doing it, are as important, if not more important, than the goal itself.  How you correct someone, and the motivation for the correction, for a Christian is more important than the correction itself. To experience the miraculous, we need to pay attention to our motivation, and how we carry out the work at hand, leaving the results to God, relying on Him alone, never forcing our way.

This has led me to believe that Jesus is more interested in how we react to situations than who was actually right or wrong. So much so that not even an ear of those who would falsely accuse, torment, beat and kill Him would be harmed.

~ Written by Peter Wilmot

Comments on an encounter with Jesus

Note to reader: As you may have noticed, I am publishing posts written by different authors, each responding to the various Jesus encounters I have written recently.  I hope that you will enjoy their varying perspectives and that your knowledge of Jesus will be deepened and enriched!  
In this encounter Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery: “Then neither
do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” For me personally these words spoken by Jesus lie very much at the heart of the Gospel message in two ways:

Firstly, Jesus reveals a God who by nature is full of mercy and compassion. He
does not condemn this woman or the rest of mankind for his rebellion and sin towards Him, but rather graciously extends His hand of mercy to all who would acknowledge that they are guilty of breaking God’s law and stand condemned just as this woman was by breaking the law of Moses.

Secondly, when Jesus tells the woman that she must now go and leave her life of sin, this to me clearly expresses what God requires  from a person in response to His incredible mercy. Jesus commanded this woman and wants all mankind to repent! This means leaving behind a life of sin and following him as Lord of their lives. Although God is infinitely merciful and compassionate towards us He is equally Holy.  God wants me, and others who would call on His name, not to be sinless, but to but to be a people no longer in bondage to sin.  In other words sin must no longer be our Master for we have a new Master: His name is JESUS CHRIST!

~ Written by Jonathan Andrew

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.