Biblical interpretations

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The Nature of the Bible

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Prayer Power and Proclamation BookTITW BookI haven’t written an article on the nature of the bible for over a decade, although I have included sections on this subject in two of my books (Truth is the Word and Prayer, Power, and Proclamation). This is not because it is not a very important subject, because it is; it is just that I have been preoccupied with the other two of my three doctrinal foundations – the centrality of Jesus, and dependence on the Holy Spirit.

The nature of the bible is an important subject because it is so little understood by many of today’s Christians.

My third doctrinal foundation is the authority of the bible, but its authority can only be properly understood and appreciated if its nature is not misunderstood. So, let me start with what the bible isn’t.

What the Bible is Not

You have probably noticed that when I use the word bible, I do not usually capitalize the ‘B’. This is contradictory to convention, but I currently do this after considerable thought over a long period. To me, capitals signify personal names, places, types or category names, or they are used for special emphasis. There is a quaint English word ‘Capitonym’ which means ‘a word that changes its meaning when it is capitalized’: a lighthearted and contrived  example is, ‘A turkey may march in Turkey in May or March!’  understand the word ‘bible’ as a Capitonym. The word itself simply means ‘book’ from the Greek ‘biblos’, but the Christian sacred scriptures are really a collection of books bound together in one cover. I believe that the scriptures are inspired, authoritative, and trustworthy and so my use of a lower-case b in bible does not indicate that I hold it in anything but the highest esteem. However, the bible is not a person, let alone God. Most of us, myself included, use expressions like ‘the bible says…’ but we know full well that the bible does not speak, hear, or have any degree of ‘self’. What we mean by such expressions is that the Holy Spirit illuminates passages of the bible in a way that communicate with us and often ‘speak’ to our current situations. There are numerous uses of the phrase ‘word of God’ in the bible, but these were penned way before the bible, as we know it, was formed, and so they cannot be referring to ‘The Bible’. Hebrews 4:12 states that ‘the word of God is living and active’, but the context makes it clear that the author is referring to God’s directly spoken word and not a collection of books that would in the distant future be called the bible. The bible is also not the source of truth, Jesus is, and it is not revelation, but the means that God uses to reveal truth and indeed himself to us. These are the reasons that I use a lowercase b for bible.

 

Bearing in mind what I have written above, the bible itself is not, and may not be, treated as an object of veneration. It is not a holy relic to be carried into a church service on a satin cushion, and it is not to be kissed, coddled, or protected from highlight pens and written notes.

The bible is also not inerrant (free of all error), and it does not claim this of itself. However, many Reformed and Evangelical theologians have made inerrancy the litmus test of true faith – this is just wrong! Inerrancy is a word used to describe the concept of the error-free nature of the bible, and if by ‘error’ we mean that God made a mistake in allowing the human authors to present certain things in irregular ways, then clearly, the bible is without error. If it were in error in this sense, then we could hardly regard it as inspired in all its parts. However, if we concede that the bible contains elements that are factually inconsistent, historically disprovable, or scientifically untenable, this does not mean that we hold parts of the bible to be uninspired. It simply means that God purposed, or at least allowed, it to be recorded in this way. We might not fully understand why he did, but the concepts of inaccuracy or inconsistency do not necessarily contradict a belief in divine inspiration. Seen in this light, we could legitimately say that God chose to allow the authors to express their humanity in the scriptural record.

The bible is a record of the perfect Word of God in the imperfect words of human beings.

Moreover, people who lived in a particular age and who thought in terms of prevailing world-views recorded these imperfect words. It should be no surprise then, that the authors used pre-scientific concepts and flawed referencing and reporting methods. Scholars refer to this as cultural conditioning, but it goes beyond that to human frailty and limitation. This would constitute a real problem for those who believe that God dictated the scriptures, or directly impressed the thought on the minds of the scribes. These anomalies and apparent contradictions could, if admitted to, constitute a crisis of faith for those who hold such a narrow view of biblical inerrancy. By ‘narrow’  I mean a definition of inerrancy requiring absolute factual accuracy, numeric or chronological precision, and rigorous theological consistency.

 

The bible is also not a magic book, nor only a record of what God deems to be right and true. To lift verses out of their context and then to claim that “God has said and so the matter is settled” is ignorantly presumptuous. To speak out formula words and then claim these ‘promises’ as though they were magical spells is just nonsense. Equally, to treat, say, King David’s misdeeds as warrants for our misbehaviour, or some of Peter’s actions and words as models, is misguided.

These are some descriptions of what the bible is not, but what then is it?

What the bible is

The books of the bible are a holy collaboration between God and the people he chose to work with.

Just as Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, is both man and God, so the scriptures are both a human and divine production, the written Word of God.

The bible is a compendium of many styles and genres, ranging from stories, through poetry, to teachings. Included in the mix are also histories, prophecies, wise sayings, and apocalyptic visions. Some books, like Job and Song of Songs, defy classification. Some of the biblical characters are wicked, others are simply flawed, while yet others are saints. There are both positive and negative examples of character and behaviour and only sometimes does the author explain which aspects can be taken as models and which are warnings.

 

Measurements, times, periods, and so on are not necessarily accurate. For instance the genealogies do not all contain an exact chronological timeline. Sometimes they are arranged into groups for effect, or leave out generations in order to make some point or other. So, we cannot add back through the genealogies and conclude that Adam was created 6,000 years ago.

Some descriptions in the bible are symbolic and not an accurate presentation of physical reality. For example the devil probably does not look like a huge red dragon confined in the end times for exactly 1,000 years (Revelation 20:2-3). My understanding is that an enormous red dragon is an excellent symbolic depiction of the devil and the 1,000 years represent the entire church age, starting when Jesus restrained Satan at the crucifixion and resurrection.

 

It is obvious from the above that the bible cannot be read and understood primarily as a theological dictionary, chronological story, or collection of promises and magical mantras (Lord preserve us).

 

Instead, the bible, in its totality, is a source of divine revelation concerning Jesus and his way of salvation. It is also the source of spiritual knowledge, advice, admonition, and encouragement. It is the written collection of writings that God uses to help us to come to know Jesus, grow to be like him, and help others to do likewise. It is rich and complex, yet relevant and meaningful to all generations over at least the last 1600 years or so. It is an indispensable part of the Christian Faith and can rightly be called The Written Word of God.

It is equally obvious from what I have written that we can only properly understand this marvellous book if we apply the principles of context, exhaustive reference, and ChristocentricityContext involves the interpretation of a biblical passage with reference to the history, geography, and culture of its original time of writing, and also with reference to its literary style and the logical flow of thought contained in the passages that both precede and follow it. Christocentricity means the interpretation of a passage with reference to what Jesus said, did and revealed of the nature and character of the Godhead.

 

Lastly, let me deal with some practical applications.

Practical Applications

Given the importance of the bible to faith and life, and its nature and purpose, we should, at least, consider the way we handle and use it. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Reflect on how you regard the bible. Do you think of it as the source of truth, or the primary means by which God reveals truth, human nature, and himself?
  2. Ask yourself how you approach it. Is it an article to be hallowed and treated physically as if it is divine? Or on the contrary, do you regard it as less than the Written Word of God and as relatively peripheral to your lived reality?
  3. Do you quote isolated texts as if they were little truth capsules in themselves, or speak out what you perceive as promises that apply to yourself and claim them?
  4. Do you believe that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original manuscript form and properly interpreted, will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences?
  5. Do you truly believe that the bible can only be truly understood when viewed through the lens of what Jesus said, did, and revealed of the character and nature of the Godhead?

There are, of course, other questions we could consider, but these five are a good start. The first question concerns the fundamental nature of the bible. The second concerns biblioidolatory or its opposite of biblioagnosticism. (Long words that simply mean idolising the bible on the one hand or treating it with indifference on the other). The third question probes whether you, deep down, treat the bible as a magical sourcebook, which is something that Word of Faith Christians are apt to do. The fourth has to do with the misguided doctrine of biblical inerrancy (I would need another article to explain this adequately). Finally, the fifth question tests your commitment to Jesus-centred bible interpretation.

If you think through this article and the five questions at the end, then you will have an idea of what you need to change in your own life or, if you are an Elder, in the church that you lead. I know that the Holy Spirit will guide you in this process, as he always does for those who ask.

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Jesus and His Bible

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How should we interpret the bible? Should we understand it in its simplest yet sometimes superficial sense or are there ‘deeper’ meanings embedded in its text?

Different denominations, groups, and theologians have different ways of interpreting the bible. Among Pentecostal groups, for instance, Hyper-literal or Allegorical approaches are much in vogue. On the other hand, more traditionally conservative scholars favour a Historical-grammatical Approach.

For those of us who are consistently Jesus-centred, the key to resolving the complexities of correct biblical interpretation lies in answering the question, ‘how did Jesus interpret his bible?’
Jesus’ Bible

Before attempting an answer, I need to comment briefly on what constituted ‘Jesus’ bible’. What we know as the New Testament had not been written when Jesus walked this earth as a man and so the only bible available to him would have been the Old Testament (Law, Prophets, and Writings). More specifically, the most widely used version of these scriptures was a Greek translation produced sometime in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. The Septuagint, what we call that early Greek translation, follows the same order of books as our modern Old Testament.

It is useful to know this because most of Jesus’ Old Testament quotes cited in the Gospels have been transcribed from the Septuagint whereas modern versions of the Old Testament root their translation in early Hebrew documents. As a result, when we compare Gospel quotes to their Old Testament equivalents we sometimes find differences in word choice and order. 

Jesus’ View of Scripture

Jesus’ approach to scripture was consistently one of respect for its inspiration, authority, reliability, and sufficiency.

For instance, in arguing with the Pharisees who accused him of blasphemously equating himself with Jehovah (John 10:35), Jesus reminded them that “the Scripture cannot be broken”. In his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, he stated that “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). In addition to statements like this, he also validated the historical reliability of the Old Testament by referring to Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah’s experience, and so on. Moreover, Jesus invariably grounded his interactions with the religious scholars of his day in an understanding of particular scriptural texts.

Jesus also made his relationship with scripture clear. In Matthew 5:17 he stated, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them”. Then having said that, he repeatedly used phrases like, “you have heard that it was said to the people long ago… but I tell you…” (Matthew 5:33-34). In this, he was indicating that he was the authoritative interpreter of the traditional Hebrew verbal teachings. Here Jesus was referring to the work of the renowned Jewish scholars of the past and not the scriptures themselves. However, he also made it clear that his interpretations of the actual scriptures were authoritative. For instance, in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus gave the true meaning of the 6th and 7th commandments.

Examples of How Jesus Applied the Scriptures
It is very interesting and informative to consider how the Lord Jesus applied the scriptures in challenging the attitudes of religious people, citing and expanding on texts, and correcting wrong understandings.’

Matthew Chapter Nine records the account of what happened as Jesus was having a meal at the home of Matthew the tax collector. The Pharisees’ asked some of the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?” As part of his response, Jesus told them to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”  (Matthew 9:13). The Pharisees question implied that Jesus was revealing himself to be a sinner because he broke bread with sinners – a sinner by association Jesus retorted that a doctor ministered to the sick and not to the healthy, thus letting his critics know why he was with sinners. Then he quoted Hosea 6:6 which was a stern rebuke. The context of the Hosea text was God’s chastisement of the Jews of his day for adhering to the sacrificial ceremonial law while violating the covenant with God and acting without mercy to others.

Jesus often applied scriptures in a way familiar to the scholars of his day but quite strange to those among us who like to take texts simply at their face value without any embellishment or amplification.

For instance, Matthew 13 records Jesus as explaining why he spoke to the people in parables. In verse 13 he says “This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand’.”  This statement is a composite of three separate Old Testament texts – Deuteronomy 29:4, Jeremiah 5:21, and Ezekiel 12:2. He then goes on to quote directly from Isaiah 6:9-10: “In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them’.” (Matthew 13:14-15) The context of the Isaiah passage is God’s call upon the prophet to speak his word to the people even though they would neither understand nor receive it.

The parallel account of this quote in Mark 4:11-12 implies that Jesus was once again the voice of God speaking to the people of Israel and that they too would not understand or receive. So, the idea was that to speak in parables served to veil the truth from those who were not seeking truth and might well be antagonistic to the revealed words of God. However, in the context of Matthew 13, a better understanding of why Jesus spoke in parables is that this form of speech would at least allow the superficial to hear some life lessons whilst hopefully encouraging genuine seekers to probe the deeper meaning behind the simple stories.

A Pause for Reflection

I want to expound upon a passage in Matthew 22  that gives some wonderful insights into Jesus’ method of biblical interpretation, but first, we need to pause and reflect a little on the examples I have already cited.

If we have no knowledge of Hosea 6 and its context then how will we understand the answer Jesus gave to the accusation that he was a sinner eating with other sinners? If we fail to research the full origins of Matthew 13:13 then we might wrongly conclude that Jesus was quoting something that is not in the Old Testament. If we do not appreciate the Old Testament background to why Jesus spoke in parables we might erroneously conclude that his primary purpose was to obscure the truth rather than reveal it.

Matthew 22: 23-33

Here is the example I want to expound on a little. The Sadducees, who did not believe in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead, were trying to trap Jesus. The nature of the trap was that

  1. if Jesus was not able to answer their question then they would have made their point and Jesus would have offended the Pharisees, who did believe in the resurrection of the dead; and
  2. any answer that Jesus was likely to give would no doubt violate one or other of the scriptures regarding marriage.

To set this trap the Sadducees concocted a complex hypothetical based on the Deuteronomy 25:5-6 injunction which says that in the event of a man dying without a male heir then an available relative was to preserve his family line by marrying the widow.

Jesus’ rebuttal of the first ‘piece of cheese’ in the trap was that the Sadducees did not understand the meaning and application of the scripture they were referencing. There was nothing in the Deuteronomy 25:5-6 text that had any bearing on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead or any afterlife.  This alone was a stinging rebuke because it pointed out that they did not understand the specific scripture and had failed to take into account the texts such as Psalm 16:9-11 and Daniel 12:2 that did teach a resurrection of the dead. He then quoted Exodus 3:6 and explained that the present tense used there indicates that the patriarchs are still alive in the presence of God. He countered the second part of their trap by simply stating that they had no concept of what God was capable of doing and of how he had arranged things in the life hereafter. He told them that angels do not marry and that in the afterlife there is no need for the ordinance of marriage or the act of reproduction.

Exegetical  Principles
Three major exegetical principles of sound biblical interpretation emerge from this passage – Exhaustive Reference, Context, and Christocentricity.

Jesus pointed out that to understand one part of scripture we need to know all of scripture – the Exhaustive Reference principle. He demonstrated the Context principle by correctly identifying the context of Deuteronomy 25:5-6 as applying to an earthly succession of lineage and not the life hereafter. The Christocentric principle is obvious in that the understanding of the issue is squarely based on Jesus’ interpretation and revelation.

Summary

By way of summary and conclusion, here is the Matthew 22 passage written in the first person taken from the book ‘Jesus, In His Own Words’ by R.H.Mounce

That same day some Sadducees (who contend there is no resurrection) came to me with a question. “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote that if a married man dies, leaving no children, his brother is to marry the widow to provide him with descendants. Now there was a family with seven sons. The oldest son married a woman but died without children, so the second son married the widow, but he too died childless. Then the third son married her, and so on through all seven sons. They all died without children. Finally, the woman herself died. Now here is the question: Whose wife will she be in the resurrection when all seven sons are raised? After all, each one had been her husband.” I replied, “Your question reveals that you don’t understand the Scriptures or the power of God. In this age men and women marry, but in the age to come, following the resurrection, people will not marry. They will be like the angels in heaven and can never die. They are children of God, children of the resurrection. “And in the passage about the burning bush, Moses implied that the dead do rise. He refers to the Lord as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’—patriarchs who had died long before. God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for he has taken the righteous ‘dead’ into his realm of life.”

Jesus is the Final Word

So, instead of committing to any purely man-made system of biblical interpretation, I recommend that we draw our hermeneutical principles and methods directly from the Master, the Lord Jesus Christ: In him is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3).

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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.