Focus on Jesus Series
Obstacles to Good Interpretation
by Ed Vasicek
There are positives and negatives in the science of interpretation—that which hinders and that which leads us the right way. First, let's look at the negatives, what I call the obstacles.
1. Arrogance. This is by far the biggest obstacle. Thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of people think they have a special corner on God, that God reveals to them what He does not reveal to others, that they have obtained a level of spirituality, intelligence, or giftedness rarely given to others. Spurgeon said this, "If it is true, it's not new. If it's new, it's not true." Although it is likely that difficult passages, etc., could open up through new insights or discoveries, beware of your heart, which, the Bible says, is "…deceitful and desperately wicked." Although the Holy Spirit can teach us, He does so in accord with the Body of Christ and with accountability to that Body (the prophets are subject to the prophets).
Unfortunately, when arrogance takes over (and this is the powerful sin of Isaiah 14, the one that turned Lucifer into Satan), the elders of a church are considered spiritually immature and inferior. This is how cults and heresies are started. Check arrogance. Practice accountability and teachability.
2. Paradigm blindness. Because we assume so much, and are usually unaware of our assumptions, we can become blind to what is. Hearing we do not hear. We have a certain pattern in our mind, and we reject that which does not neatly fit into our pattern. Many Christians have rejected the concept that God would restore the nation of Israel in the end times because they viewed Jews as Christ killers and were anti-semitic.
3. Ignorance. It is not bad to be ignorant if you KNOW you are ignorant and are addressing that ignorance. For example, many Christians were against heart transplants in the late 60's/early 70's because Jesus might be in your heart and then He is taken out during a transplant. I'm not kidding—it was a major issue in its day.
4. Lack of challenge. In order to test an interpretation, it is crucial to associate with people who can and will challenge your interpretation. It might be flawed in a way you never thought of.
5. Lack of theological framework. We must develop our theological framework from clear Scripture so that we do not get off on tangents. Or, to put this simply, there are certain truths so clear that we must camp on them. We can then interpret obscure verses in light of them. Otherwise our theology will become schizophrenic (e.g., one day believing we can lose our salvation, another not; one day believing in salvation by grace through faith, another day through works, etc.).General Rules for Interpreting the Scriptures
Purposes: (1) to be objective and logical so that we conform to the Scriptures rather than conforming the Scriptures to what we want them to say; (2) to avoid error and find the paths of truth and righteousness (right belief), and (3) to find direction and guidance for living the Christian life. Language is not like mathematics but is much more fluid. Since the Bible is BOTH the Word of God and the word of man (God used humans in the process of giving His Word), and since we think in terms of words and language, we must try to enter into the original intent of the human author while respecting Scripture as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Here are some rules to guide us in that direction:
1. Follow customary usage of language. Interpret the Bible normally with a flexible literalness, allowing for figures of speech, etc. Interpret poetry as poetry, instruction as instruction, history as history. "If the plain sense makes sense, look for no other sense." What is often portrayed as "spiritual" is nothing more than imaginative or beautiful or emotionally moving—but is it accurate? Don't be afraid to pour cold water on mystical interpretations. Pay attention to the author's word choice and grammar.
2. Ask the right questions (THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT):
(1) What was the original intent of the human author? How would he have understood what he wrote? What did he have in mind? In certain instances of prophecy, he may not have understood the meaning of what he was writing (e.g., Revelation). But assume that the author did understand what he was writing in non-prophetic portions (e.g., Paul understood what he meant in Romans, etc.).
(2) How would the original audience have understood a text or a teaching? Try to enter into the culture and mindset of the original recipients. How would they have understood what was taught? Do not write off a teaching/command as "cultural" unless it is based on culture. If its basis is theological or historical, it very likely still stands. (e.g., Baptism has roots in the Jewish culture, but was commanded for non-Jews as well; it is therefore still applicable.)
3. Interpret in light of the context, including verses nearby, the chapter, and the book. In one text, "all" may mean "all the people in the world of all time," in another, "all in a group."
4. Interpret Scripture by Scripture. Although there is much diversity in Scripture, it is a unity, inspired by God. Seeming contradictions are just that, seeming. Often verses in one place build upon verses from another text. For example, the New Testament builds upon the foundation of the Old Testament and assumes the reader is familiar with it. Generally speaking, it is most objective to interpret Scripture through the lens of PREVIOUSLY written Scripture. This is called the principle of Progressive Revelation. Since Moses would not have had the Acts of the Apostles, it is better to interpret Acts in light of Genesis rather than the other way around.
5. Do the "Deductive Check." If you come to a conclusion through Bible study, double check it like you would a math problem. For example, suppose you came to conclude that those who minister should not take support from anyone but work full time. You then look at the life of godly examples and see what they did. Did Paul or Jesus, for example, take financial support? You come across Luke 8:1-3 and find out that Christ did indeed receive financial support. Your conclusion is therefore wrong. Incidentally, this is a good reason why you need to be constantly in the Scripture and why you should not form conclusions too quickly, but give them time to be tested.
6. Keep in mind the distinction between God's plan for the nation of Israel, His plan for the Church, and His plan for the establishment of the Kingdom on Earth (the Millennium). Although we can profit from studying all Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17), all Scripture is not directed at us. In the Old Testament, for example, we look for principles. Yet we are not required to eat kosher, join the nation of Israel, nor can we claim the curses and blessings of Israel for our nation. 2 Chronocles. 7:14 has a wonderful principle attached to it, but it is not a promise made to the U.S.A.
7. Allow for Progressive Revelation (mentioned above). Besides interpreting the Bible progressively, we must not hold Bible characters responsible for knowing later revelation, nor to be bound by it. For example, Abraham was married to his half-sister, Sarah. Since no law from God had been given against this, this was not a wrong union THEN. After the time of Moses, it would have been.
8. Go into Bible study carefully, prayerfully, and with a desire to cultivate the Spirit's work in your life. Since the Spirit of God inspired Scripture, His help in unlocking its meaning is a must. He is the Spirit of Truth.
9. Do not go into the Bible with a pre-existing agenda or you will find what you are looking for. This is why unstable people or people bent on being extreme find plenty of ammunition in Scripture. Sad to say, but for some the Bible can be a dangerous book because it lends "authority" to their obsession. We are to enter Bible study with a teachable, submissive spirit.
10. Discuss your understanding of Scripture with others who are knowledgeable of the Word. Let them challenge some of your conclusions and see if they hold water.
11. Interpret the unclear in light of the clear. And remember, you can leave unclear passages sit. Perhaps they will become clear in time, but if not, you need not embrace a particular interpretation that is unsatisfying or strained. Just be content to leave some verses alone.
12. Ask how strained an interpretation is. There are often several possible meanings to a verse, but some may seem like quite a stretch. No matter how careful we are, we will need to occasionally do some straining.
13. Remember that the Scripture is not the whole of what the original readers had. In 1 Corinthians, for example, Paul is answering questions that the Corinthians sent him. We do not know for sure what the questions were; we can only try to reconstruct them. Yet there are many related issues that are not discussed because Paul had taught them well about those issues when he was with them. So we must remember that what we have are a collection of partial teachings and need to be careful about recognizing the difference between truth and whole truth.
14. Avoid "camping out" on unclear verses. Generally speaking, stand firm where the Scriptures are clear, allow freedom where the Scriptures are unclear. Do not see interpretations as always black and white but allow for shades of gray. For example, I am about 65% sure of a Pretribulation Rapture but 100% sure of the deity of Christ.
15. Use reliable reference material produced by Bible-believing (conservative), solidly-based scholars (Ryrie, Feinberg, Sproule, F.F. Bruce, Walvoord, Pentecost, etc.) or Bible teachers (Wiersbe, MacArthur, Swindoll).Special Interpretive Rules for the Gospels
1. Do not view parables as allegories unless Christ does; otherwise, look for the main lesson only.
2. Much of Christ's ministry was restricted to the Jews and relates to the Law. Remember that Jesus taught as a Jewish Rabbi to Jews, and so if you are to understand the import of His teaching, it is helpful to enter into the Jewish culture of the first century. Much like applying the Old Testament, we must sometimes look for principles (e.g., leaving one's gifts on the altar and being reconciled—we do not have an altar nor do we have sacrifices). Other times, Jesus was teaching the church, which was yet future according to Matthew 16:18.
3. Like modern preachers/teachers, Jesus taught the same material to different groups of people at different times with variations. Do not assume similar events are the same events (e.g., Christ fed two separate multitudes).
4. The Gospels select materials around their themes. Three of them have an awful lot of overlap: Matthew, Mark, and Luke (they are called the synoptic, "with one eye" Gospels). Almost everything in Mark can be found in Matthew or Luke, whereas about 50% of Luke is unique. John's Gospel is overwhelming unique, perhaps 90% so. Putting the Gospels together provides us with a harmony, which is what I will be working from.
5. Jesus sometimes used the “hot and cold” method of teaching, an established Rabbinic method which takes things to the extreme. It is my belief that a good portion of the Sermon on the Mount is best understood in this manner.
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