KNOW THE PRINCIPLES OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014
The Bible study leader has a responsibility to be thoroughly acquainted with these principles. The Word of God is precious and powerful because it is God himself revealing himself to us. When we fail to handle it correctly we rob it of its intended power; worse, we step aside from God’s truth and end up teaching heresy, leading ourselves and our study group astray, and dishonouring the very Lord we are trying to honour. It is not without reason that Paul said to Timothy, pastor of a church riddled with heretical ideas:
‘Do your best [= labour, strive, study] to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth’ [2Timothy 2:15].
We must not assume that we can teach anything we want to, or feel like, or believe, from the Bible. Our responsibility is to teach what the Bible actually says and means – not what it means to me; nor is our responsibility to get the group to state what they feel it means, or what it means to them. Such questions are at the bottom line irrelevant. To teach what the Bible actually means requires diligent study and a foundational understanding of the nature and content of the whole Bible. It also requires that we accept and teach the Bible on its own terms – and it is those terms that we are discussing when we talk about the principles of Biblical interpretation. These are principles and boundaries that great Bible scholars have identified from the Bible itself. We do well to respect their wisdom.
Confidence in the Bible as God’s word – its inspiration, authority, infallibility, and finality
We can have absolute confidence in the Bible. It presents itself as:
Inspired by God: the Holy Spirit of God moved the Biblical writers to write what they wrote [2 Peter 1:20,21]. This means that although men physically spoke and wrote the words, the Holy Spirit was the source of those words. The holy Scriptures, Paul states, are ‘God-breathed’ – breathed out by God [2Timothy 3:15,16].
Authoritative: The Bible is not something we can take or leave: it is the authoritative word of God. The most powerful evidence of this is the submission of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, to the written word. Not only did he live his life in obedience to its commands and its principles, he also submitted to the fulfilment of its micro and macro prophecies about himself. He so ordered his life that all that was written about him would be fulfilled [Matthew 5:17-19; Luke 18:31].
Infallible: When applied to the Bible the words ‘infallible’ and ‘infallibility’ refer to the reliability of the original manuscripts. They do not refer to the various human copies and translations of the Bible. They certainly do not refer to human paraphrases of the Bible, such as The Living Bible and The Message. A translation, for example the KJV, NIV, NASV, is usually the work of a team of highly qualified scholars who thoroughly research the most ancient and reliable manuscripts of the Biblical texts, and endeavour to translate those manuscripts into contemporary language. The Bible’s testimony to its own infallibility is associated with its claim to be inspired by God [2Peter 1:12-21].
Final: Because the Bible is God’s Word you cannot add to it or make up more ‘truth’ of your own! Nor can you expect God to reveal new truth to you that is not in his Word. Jesus Christ is God’s final word [Hebrews 1:1.2], the deliberate fulfilment and completion of the Old Testament expectations, recorded by the New Testament writers. In Christ are ‘all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge [Colossians 2:3]; there is no additional revelation.
Respect for the type of literature you are studying
Sound Bible study takes the type of literature into account, and approaches and understands it on its own terms. The types of literature found in the Bible are:
Prophecy [note that ‘prophecy’ refers to the proclamation of God’s word. It can contain, but is not restricted to, predictions concerning the immediate and long term future.]
Wisdom literature – which accurately records various, and not always accurate, human opinions about how God governs the world
Each of these must be approached appropriately according to the type of literature it is. For instance, we should not take a statement from an historical record and use it as a command. We should not take something that Eliphaz said to Job, and say that this is what God says, for God actually said that Eliphaz was wrong. We should not take one line of a Psalm and make it say something different to the next line, because Hebrew poetry was written in parallel thoughts. We should not take one verse from a letter and interpret it in isolation from the meaning of the whole letter.
In preparing and presenting Bible studies, make sure you take the kind of literature into account.
The Christo-centricity of the Bible
The Bible is about Jesus Christ. The Old Testament looks forward to his coming. The New Testament looks back on his coming. As he himself said:
‘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’ … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.’ [John 5:39,20,46]
‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken… This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ [Luke 24:25,44].
Luke further stated that ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets’ Jesus ‘explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.’
Much as it goes against the grain, the Bible is not about us: it is about Jesus Christ. He is its meaning. He is its centre. If we study the Bible with ‘me’ in focus, we will miss its central and most powerful truths. We will miss its primary purpose.
The self-sufficiency of the Bible
The Bible is a complete whole. It explains itself. If there is a verse or passage that is difficult to understand we should allow passages whose meaning is clear to shed light on the difficult passage. Any difficulty or apparent contradiction is not because of a deficiency in the Bible but because of the incompleteness of our understanding.
The unity of the Bible
Because the Bible is the one Word of the one God, and because it is all about Jesus, there is an essential unity in the Bible. Again, when there seems to be a division or disagreement, the fault is due to the incompleteness of our understanding. Because the Bible is a unity, we should never create or teach a division or conflict of truth from the Bible. What we teach from one part should be consistent with the whole.
The anticipation/fulfilment motif
The Old and New Testaments are not in conflict. The difference is not one of antagonism and opposition but of anticipation and fulfilment. In all of its books the Old anticipates the coming of Christ. The history of Israel, the Law, the ritual, individual people, prophetic messages – everything anticipates Jesus Christ and the salvation he would bring. The Old Testament has one over-riding purpose: to proclaim and to prepare for the Christ. It stands on tip-toe, eagerly looking ahead to the coming of Jesus.