It is one thing for us to claim that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and quite another to assert that we are interpreting it correctly.
‘Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth’. 2 Timothy 2:15-16 (HCSB)
I have written on this subject before but it is so important that it warrants repeating.
I am currently helping a colleague develop a two-day workshop on Bible interpretation for church leaders who have English as a second or third language. Most of them have a low level of formal education, and a further challenge is that many of them have only been exposed to topical or allegorical preaching.
Those who do not interpret the Bible allegorically, have been taught to take everything at face value and very literally.
Perhaps I should give an example of these two types of ‘interpretation’: The story that Jesus told of the good Samaritan has often been interpreted allegorically. Some teachers have claimed that the two coins given to the innkeeper to provide for the injured man’s board and lodging stand for baptism and holy communion. The idea being that these are the two ordained church provisions for the ‘sinner’. But there is no end to what the two coins could be taken to represent; Old and New Testaments, Apostles and Prophets, and so on. The problem is, of course, that the original context of the passage plays little role in this form of interpretation, and nor does the first intended meaning.
A couple of years ago I came across a rather extreme yet nevertheless real-life example of literalistic interpretation. One of our preaching team members was ministering at a church in a nearby informal settlement. During the service, a young woman started to manifest signs of demonic interference,
so… the church leaders immediately tied her up with ropes! The visiting preacher demanded that they release her and asked why they had tied her up. They answered that the Bible said they should because “Jesus said in Matthew 12:29 that they should ‘bind the strongman’.” Once again, the context and first intended meaning of the scripture in question had been ignored.
So, what are the most fundamental processes for interpreting the Bible? For me, there are just three – Context, Christocentricity, and Exhaustive Reference.
In the majority of cases, the context of a text yields its fundamental meaning, in other words;
- Look at the verse’s position within the larger portion of scripture in which the text is set.
- Observe the literary type or style of the passage. Is it poetic, or prophetic, a parable, or a historical account? For instance, we get into all sorts of trouble when we read the book of Revelation as a chronological history.
note the cultural, geographic, and historic setting.
Determining the context of a passage helps us answer the key question, ‘what is the first intended meaning of this portion of scripture?’ A helpful way of getting to an answer to this question is to consider what the first listeners or readers would have understood as the meaning.
Where the meaning of a passage is still not clear, even when considered within its various contexts, then we need to ask a further question; ‘what light does the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus shed on my understanding of this passage?’ Did Jesus teach this? Did Jesus do what the text appears to teach? Is what Jesus presented as the nature, character, and values of the Triune God consistent with what this text appears to be saying? Jesus Christ is the full manifestation of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9) and we can be sure that His life and teachings constitute the primary key to understanding the Bible. One of the most dramatic examples of the need for this Christocentric principle is the sad story of Ananias and Sapphira who appear to have been struck down by God for not fully disclosing their donation to the church (Acts 5:1-11). The question that must be asked of this difficult passage is, ‘would Jesus have killed two of His disciples for this or any reason?’ The answer is a resounding “No!” There must be another way of understanding this historical account, and if we cannot settle on it then we should simply say “I don’t know what happened here, but I am not convinced that God killed them”.
The first procedure in interpreting a biblical text is to determine its context, the second is to apply the Christocentric Principle, and the third is to see if other parts of the Bible have a bearing on the text in question; I call this Exhaustive Reference.
We are so blessed in our day to have access to fine commentaries, comprehensive concordances, Topical Bibles, Study Bibles, and so on. Many of these resources are available for free on the internet and can be accessed even through a small smartphone.
My recommendation is to stay away from allegorical interpretations… but if you do venture into this tricky area, please always ensure that what you arrive at is consistent with the text’s first intended meaning. In other words, ensure that what you claim the text teaches lines up with what the first readers would have understood the meaning to be.
There are parts of the Bible which are hard to understand, and that is why God has given the church it’s teachers. However, if you follow the three simple processes which I have briefly outlined, then most of the scriptures will be open to you. At very least, you will be able to identify the real problems texts and know to call on an experienced and trained teacher who can help you.