Insight into Scripture interpretation and the way many use scripture
2001 William R. Cunningham
I would like to discuss a very important topic that pertains to the interpretation of Bible scripture and the perpetuation of what the Bible says and in some cases what it does not say. I would like to "talk" to you about the method of proper interpretation and "use" of the scriptures. I am a vehement proponent of Bible study for all Christians. That is, I believe that every Christian should spend a reasonable amount of time studying the Bible so that they would live a life more consistent with the Kingdom of God. After all, how can you live according to God's Kingdom if you know nothing about it? Therefore, Bible study is a must for all Christians in my opinion.
Unfortunately only a few Christians actually take the time to read and study their Bible for understanding. Many Christians merely accept what they are told by their pastor or other authority figure. Another interesting thing that I have noticed over the years is that many Christians are vehement about their beliefs and they don't realize that their beliefs are not founded on true Christian doctrine. They merely regurgitate what they were told in church or at a Christian convention and they never verify or confirm what they were told by comparing the doctrine they were "sold" with what is really revealed in the Bible. These same people hold on to their perceived truth and will fight anyone that opposes their point of view. They don't realize that they do not know the truth because they never learned the truth. Now it is only normal to fight for what you believe but I think that we should make some effort to ensure as much as possible that what we believe is really true or consistent with the scriptures.
People tend to want the easy road. This is true in all aspects of life. If there is an easy way to do it then why not do it that way. However, such a disposition is not always conducive to truth. Sometimes, and I would dare say most of the time, knowing the truth in God's word requires that we dig into the scriptures, ask questions, talk to people, pray, and research. Sometimes the way to truth is not easy. It is not hard in the sense that it is complex. It is hard or difficult in the sense that the journey to truth requires much effort on our part.
Since people have a natural affinity to the easy way, it seems logical that their Bible study would follow the same philosophy. They take the scriptures and interpret it from an allegorical, symbolic, "out of context", or logical way. These are not sufficient for true Bible study and the acquisition of truth. Proper and accurate understanding of the scriptures requires proper and accurate methods of Bible study. We cannot interpret the scriptures or use the scriptures in any fashion that we see fit. We must interpret the scriptures in such a way that it is consistent with the message that the author of the particular scripture was trying to convey in the first place.
Many people use the techniques of allegory and deduction to interpret the scriptures, which are not appropriate in any Bible study program. Many people attempt to "use" the scriptures for a particular incident and do so out of context. They do this because they do not know the true message of the particular scripture and therefore do not know the truth. People will say that the Bible says this or the Bible says that and indeed they might be rightly quoting a particular scripture. However, just because the words of a particular scripture are accurately regurgitated does not mean that the scripture actually meant what you said. In other words, the message of scripture is more that the quote of the scripture.
We will talk about these and other aspects of Bible study and scripture interpretation in this lesson. This is a very serious issue with me because I know first had how knowing the truth or rather pursuing the truth will lead you in the Way of truth. Knowing the truth will protect you from all of the ministerial quacks in the Christian community. Knowing the truth will protect you from your own distorted philosophy about the Bible message as well. I hope that after you go through this lesson that you will be more aware of the need for proper interpretation of the scriptures and develop a Bible study program that will lead you to that proper interpretation. Only then will you be able to truly live according to the Kingdom of God.
Reason For Proper Interpretation
Let me first state why I believe that proper interpretation of the scriptures is so important. The Kingdom of God is real. Jesus Christ revealed that Kingdom to us through His teachings. We cannot invent the things or operations of the Kingdom of God and we cannot blindly say that this or that is God's Kingdom. God's Kingdom is a fact and therefore we need to know what it is and how it is. We need to know the fact, or what I call the truth. The way we get to this truth about God's Kingdom and therefore how we should live is through the reading and studying of the Bible.
The Bible records the teachings of Jesus Christ, the activities of God, the teachings of God through His prophets, the teachings of the Apostles and more. However, the Bible gives a definite message to humans. We cannot interpret it as we see fit else the Bible's message will be lost at best. We therefore need to know as accurately as possible what the message from God is, i.e., the message from the scriptures. God has revealed himself through Christ and we have a window to Christ via the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures.
I believe that the Holy Scriptures are paramount to Christian doctrine because they set the standards of the Christian faith, the Kingdom of God, and the Will of God. They also reveal the truth about God and Jesus Christ. Therefore, if we are to know the truth then we are to accurately interpret the scriptures that He has left for us in the Bible.
But you might argue that the Holy Spirit can teach us and indeed you are correct (See 1 John 2:27). However, I can't tell you that the Lord has spoken to me and expect you to do what I say or even believe what I say. How can I confirm that God has really spoken to you? The truth is that I can't. How would I know when God is even speaking to me? That is a personal issue but one thing is for sure. Whatever God says to you will be consistent with His Way, which is revealed in the Bible. So again, we see that the scriptures are very important to Christian doctrine and therefore your life.
How many people are living according to the doctrines of their church or a popular evangelist or minister at the expense of God's Way? Many are from my experiences. It is not so much that they are being told lies because some ministers do tell the truth. We can't assume that all TV evangelists and popular ministers are charlatans. Some are honest God fearing men and women that are serious about spreading God's word. However, regardless of whether what you hear is true or not, it is important that you know that it is true. I could tell you that the sky is red and it might indeed be red (assuming we define the color red the same). However, unless you look outside or get more data to confirm my statement then you really don't know. The only thing you can do is report to someone what I said about the color of the sky. If your life depended on knowing the color of the sky or admitting that you don't, then you would find that my words would be less credible unless you indeed confirmed that the sky is indeed red. In other words, you would want evidence of my statement if your life (using that to make a point) depended on it.
Many Christians operate in that manner. What they know of scripture is based on what they are told. They don't study and they don't develop a Bible study program. Therefore, they interpret scripture using superficial and unreliable methods such as allegory or deduction. So again, we can see that the interpretation of scripture is very important to the Christian. Would you die for what you merely accepted from someone else? Or would you die for what you really know? So scripture interpretation is directly related to knowing the truth of the scriptures and therefore governing your life according to God's Way. Yes, scripture interpretation is very important to the Christian.
The Use of Scripture
I have heard time and time again where people interpret a scripture completely out of context. They quote a particular scripture and then go on to explain something according to their quote. Let me give you some examples of what I mean here. Consider the following scripture.
Luke 6:38 (NKJV) 38Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you."
This scripture is usually "used" to explain how God will give us abundantly when we give money generously to a church. This giving is usually in the form of tithes and offerings. So this scripture is interpreted as a way of being blessed abundantly by God. The way to be blessed abundantly by God is to give to your church and to give generously especially since the following scripture is also usually "used."
2 Corinthians 9:6 (NKJV) But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
"..for God loves a cheerful giver (part of 2 Corinthians 9:7)
So you see that if we were to look only at these scriptures and similar scriptures, then you would be inclined to believe that we should give generously to our church in order to be blessed by God. After all, it's in the Bible. Is it though?
If you don't take the time to at least read the whole context of the above scriptures then you will believe that you are obligated to give generously to your church. However, if you were to simply read the whole context of the above scriptures then you would notice that something else is being conveyed. Also you would find that the scripture in Luke and 2 Corinthians are not related in the way that they are usually presented.
One of the most dangerous things is to take one scripture and develop a doctrine from it. It is very necessary that you read around the scripture. Get the whole story. Learn as much as you can because you weren't present during the time of the writing of the scripture so you won't be able to immediately interpret the scripture in the way that someone during that time would.
Now this lesson isn't really a Bible study on the above scriptures but I think it is expedient that I at least give insight on those scriptures for your reference and to make a point. However, I do encourage you to read and study these scriptures and the surrounding context for yourself.
Luke 6:38 should not be taken out of context with the rest of the chapter. The topic was not giving money for blessing. Jesus was not teaching us how to be blessed by giving. He was actually revealing the Kingdom of God. For example, it isn't enough to love those that love you. We are to love even our enemies (those that persecute us). Jesus also gives us some very practical teaching. He said that we will reap what we sow in the sense of human interaction. People will judge you the way you judge them. People will forgive you more if you are more forgiving. People will give if you give. A stingy person would be hard pressed to effect generosity and a generous person will tend to effect more generosity when in need. Notice that there is nothing that deals directly with giving to a church or "how to be blessed of God." Actually the key to being blessed by God is obedience not giving. Giving is part of reaping and sowing, though God does bless us materially because of our own generosity.
Please don't misunderstand me here. I am not saying that we shouldn't give to a church. Your church needs your financial support as well as service. Though these shouldn't be the driving forces in your life or your relationship with God, they are important nonetheless. Give to your church because you want to not because you have to. This is the area that Paul was referring to in 2 Corinthians 9. Don't give out of obligation but give from your heart whatever it is you give. Do not be compelled to give a certain amount or provide a certain service. Do what you can, even though you might sacrifice for your church at times (as you would do anything else).
The above is only one example of the improper interpretation and use of scripture. If you don't study the Bible for yourself then you wouldn't know that you weren't told the truth and you would in fact believe a lie.
So what's my point? Learn to interpret scripture accurately. Know the context of the scripture. You cannot determine the topic of a conversation merely by hearing one sentence by one of the participants. Then why would you think that you could interpret a message from God merely by reading one verse of scripture? Consider the following statement of Jesus Christ.
Matthew 13:10 through Matthew 13:11 (NKJV) 10And the disciples came and said to Him, "Why do You speak to them in parables?" 11He answered and said to them, "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
Jesus used common scenes that the people could relate to in order to reveal the Kingdom of heaven, i.e., parables. However, you had to consider what Jesus said in his parable in order to "see" the message or teaching that he was presenting. Otherwise, you would take his parable literally and miss the point (as the religious leaders frequently did) or you would only see the nice story and miss the point altogether.
So we must understand what the scripture says in order to know the truth. This means that we must know the context of the scriptures else we will "use" the scripture incorrectly (if there is such a thing as using a scripture). What scriptures are you using or have used incorrectly. Are you confessing a scripture in order to get what you want from God? Are you confessing or using a scripture in order to obtain a blessing. Well then you are wasting your time. Know the scriptures and live them. Practice what God teaches you from the Holy Scriptures instead of using them like some type of tool that you can pull out of your bag whenever you need something.
So how can we get to proper interpretation of scripture? How can I increase my chances of interpreting a scripture message in the way that it should be interpreted? The answer to these is to know the context. This means that you must study the scriptures and allow the Holy Spirit to teach you. There are at least four methods that are used in Bible study, which are listed below.
Let's go over these methods now.
Pick and Put
This is not really a method of Bible study. It is actually a method of using or applying the written words of the scripture. Let me give an example. Someone is in a serious car accident and is seriously injured. Word gets around that this person wasn't a tither. It is therefore concluded that the accident was a result of the curse for those that do not tithe according to Malachi 3:8-10. People then say, "will a man rob God.." This is so unfortunate. They pick a scripture and put it in a situation without either understanding the scripture itself or understanding the situation.
This method of interpretation or use of scripture is prevalent in the religious community where people really don't know what the Bible says. They are able to quote scriptures at the drop of a dime but they really don't know the message or the Word of God. They only know the written word. They therefore have a scriptural quote for just about every situation. The best thing that you can do is to ignore these people, otherwise you might become affected by their words and catapult yourself into a world of depression or guilt. Stay as close to God in any situation and just rely on God's love to keep you and deliver you. Know the Word of God beforehand and you will have more confidence during the hard times and the good times.
Allegory is a method of interpreting scripture by the belief that the scriptures have secret messages. Therefore, the scriptures require decoding. It is a very symbolic method of scripture interpretation. It focuses on the symbolic meanings of scripture instead of the literal or actual meaning of scripture.
Allegory arose from the Cynic and Stoic philosophies of the 3rd period (fourth to second centuries B.C.). As a general phenomenon, allegorical interpretation is adopted when advances in knowledge and thought challenge sacred traditions. When no longer able to interpret the traditions historically, and being unwilling to discard the traditions themselves, followers of the traditions probe for deeper, symbolic meanings.
Allegorical interpretation of scripture exists in many forms and many levels. For example, consider the following scripture.
Song of Songs 2:1 (NKJV) I am the rose of Sharon, And the lily of the valleys.
This scripture is allegorically interpreted as Jesus Christ being the rose of Sharon. However, a cursory look at the context of the scripture will show otherwise. Solomon is talking about his love. He compares her, as a rose of Sharon to thorns. He is actually saying how beautiful she is among the other women. It's like saying that your love is one in a million.
Allegorical interpretation would take stories in the Bible for example, and extract the hidden meaning from those stories to develop a particular doctrine or even theology. The problem here is that each interpreter will have a different decoding key and therefore the same scripture will have multiple meanings. It is very unlikely that the author of a particular scripture intended multiple interpretations.
Allegorical interpretation in any form is not acceptable for proper scripture interpretation. It has no place in Bible study, not even in the study of the parables of Jesus Christ. His parables were not allegory in any sense. There were no hidden meanings or secret truths. As a matter of fact, as we said earlier, Jesus' parables were designed to reveal the truth not hide it.
Deductive interpretation of scripture is used to support a particular belief or understanding. In other words, you don't look at the scripture to determine what it teaches you. Instead, you look for scriptures that say what you need in order to support a particular belief. This is one area where scripture is grossly taken out of context. Deductive interpretation is not used to understand the scriptures or even learn from them. It is used to gather the scriptures that say what is needed to support your point of view, belief, doctrine, or theology.
Let me give an example. Suppose you believe that you can merely confess something and it will happen. You might have received this teaching from church, group Bible study, or your favorite evangelist. In any case, you have accepted that belief as truth and now embark on a journey to support that belief with scripture. You might find such scriptures as the following.
Mark 11:23 (NKJV) For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.
Matthew 17:20 (NKJV) So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.
Luke 17:6 (NKJV) So the Lord said, "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.
You don't care about the context of these scriptures or what they actually refer to. The only thing that you are interested in is the wording. The words of the scripture support your belief so you believe that scripture therefore supports your belief.
This actually is a very common mode of Bible interpretation unfortunately. Never interpret a scripture on the bases of already knowing what it says or rather thinking that you do. Always interpret a scripture from the context of the scripture. This might prove to support your conclusions or it might show that you err and therefore provide the opportunity for correction.
Induction is the preferred method of scripture interpretation. I will describe induction with the following list.
This is actually a simplified outline of a methodical Bible study. In any case, inductive interpretation is where you seek the scriptures for what the scriptures actually say. Your efforts are spent on trying to determine what the scriptures say about a particular topic and therefore teach you. You are concerned about the message of the scriptures and not merely the written words.
This method of interpretation, which is the only acceptable method in my opinion, leads to more knowledge of God's Kingdom and it definitely leads to truth. You are much more inclined to extract the true message of the scriptures by using an inductive Bible study method.
For example, you might want to know what the Bible actually teaches about faith. Using an inductive approach, you would probably search your concordance for the word faith and read all scriptures pertaining to faith to help you get an overall picture of the Bible's representation and presentation of faith. You might also get the definition of faith from a biblical perspective from a Bible dictionary. You might also read other books about the topic. However, from the perspective of biblical theology (where the scripture is the final authority) you would rely heavily on your understanding of the actual scriptures, the raw data.
From here you would analyze the information that you have obtained and make a conclusion about faith based on what you learned from the scriptures. This is inductive interpretation of scripture and more conducive to the acquisition of truth. I recommend an inductive approach to scripture interpretation because the method leads more to truth in context and not truth per application as many practice.
OK, what have I said in this lesson? Basically know the truth and acquire that truth from the source, the Holy Scriptures. In addition to that, interpret the scriptures in an appropriate fashion. Avoid interpreting the scriptures from allegorical or deductive methods. Learn to seek what the scriptures actually reveal instead of applying your own understanding or presuppositions to them. Only then will you be able to draw nearer to the truth.
Don't go around using scriptures in an attempt to apply a scripture to every situation that you see. Instead, learn from the Bible and live what you learn. You can only know the truth if you seek the truth. You can only know the scripture if you spend time studying the scripture.
Most of all, do not rely on the teachings of any person as the sole source of biblical information. Learn to spend time in the scripture yourself. Read your Bible and study your Bible. I don't mean that you have to be a Bible scholar. I only mean that you should spend time seeking the truth in the scriptures. Only then will you know the truth.
Interpret the Bible accurately. Avoid scriptural interpretation methods such as allegorical, deductive and "Pick and put." Learn the truth and live it. Eat, drink, and digest the Word of God. Know God for yourself and not through anyone's own understanding or interpretation. Be able to say, "I know God." Do you know the truth or just what you were told? Know the truth and be free. Amen.
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