Bible Top 1000

Interpreting The Bible
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Note: No offense intended from Jerry toward "formal Biblical education". I found "this witness" interesting...and felt it worth sharing to encourage thought and consideration regarding some cautions needed...(?)

Leaving aside the question of the employment of human methods and natural skill in conveying the message, where does the message itself come from? Of course, would-be ministers need to know how to interpret the Bible. Another of my college courses was called "Hermeneutics" and was designed to teach exactly that.

We were taught various rules and principles that were intended to serve as guidelines for interpreting a given passage of scripture. For example, it was considered important to know something about the history and culture surrounding a particular scripture. After all, the scriptures were written in the everyday language of the people who penned them. They therefore were meant to be understood. This principle made a knowledge of the languages involved, Greek, Hebrew, and to a lesser extent, Aramaic, of considerable importance. (To that end I did study Greek for two years.)

Since we were not great scholars in all these ancient languages, we were introduced to reference works of those who were. Therefore, gathering information from books by scholars became a definite part of the process.

Another principle was that scripture verses needed to be considered in their context, that is, in the light of the surrounding verses.

It was recognized that the Bible contained things that were not meant to be taken literally: poetry -- "Let the floods clap their hands ..." (Psa. 98:8); prophetic symbols -- "a beast ... having seven heads and ten horns ..." (Rev. 13:1); parables --

"Behold, a sower went forth to sow ..." (Matt. 13:3); and types and shadows (Heb. 10:1).

However, it was stressed that, apart from such obviously symbolic writings, the Bible was indeed meant to be understood literally. One oft-repeated saying was this: "If the simple sense makes common sense, seek no other sense." That is, we were definitely discouraged from imagining that there were deep, hidden, mystical meanings in simple scriptures.

By this time the reader is probably wondering, "What's wrong with these principles?" Very little---and everything! It's not so much that the principles are entirely wrong in themselves: the problem lies in presenting them as a procedure for understanding the Bible through study. They leave out the most important thing: revelation. If God doesn't reveal His Word to us, we can study it twenty-four hours a day and know nothing!

This was powerfully made real to me through an incident that occurred following a round of golf shortly after my graduation. Two of my playing partners had formerly been my professors, very intelligent and sincere men. The third had once been my Sunday School teacher. Since that time he had ardently pursued a knowledge of the middle eastern languages of biblical times, receiving at least one doctorate and being recognized as an expert in his field.

Following our round of golf we had gone out to get a soft drink and the conversation evolved into a discussion of the fulfillment of God's promises to the Jews! I was amazed to hear this brilliant scholar wonder out loud--- with some sadness---if God had gone back on His Word!

Think about it! This man could read the Old Testament in Hebrew and was an expert in the language, culture and history of the time. He had diligently applied his expertise to the study of the scriptures in an effort to grasp their meaning, yet all his study had left him with more questions than answers, even to the point of questioning God! This was not some liberal theologian looking for reasons to disbelieve the Bible: this was a sincere man trying to understand it intellectually.

Could it just be...that true spiritual knowledge can't be gained through study? Has not God "hid these things from the wise and the prudent, and revealed them unto babes?" Matt. 11:25. Read the first two chapters of First Corinthians. The contrast is repeatedly drawn between man's wisdom and God's. To paraphrase I Cor. 1:21, "God has wisely placed a true knowledge of Himself beyond the reach of the human mind and chosen to save those who believe as a result of preaching, which seems foolish when measured by human wisdom."

No one has had any greater tradition of Bible scholarship than have the Jews. This was true of the Jews of Jesus' day and continues to be so among Orthodox Jews of today. Men who devote their lives to the study of Moses' law are accorded great honor. Why, if they were such diligent students of the Old Testament scriptures, did they not recognize their Messiah? Yet who knew their language, culture and history better than they? Who was more diligent?

Paul had studied as a young man at the feet of Gamaliel, regarded by Jews as one of their greatest teachers ever. It was Paul, with his full inside knowledge of their scholarly tradition, who spoke in II Cor. 3:14-15 of their blindness: "... for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart."

Systematic Theology...

Along with many "tools" and principles for understanding and preaching the Bible, we also studied Systematic Theology. This was designed to acquaint us with all the truths that were considered "orthodox" in an organized fashion, effectively setting boundaries of belief for us. These boundaries represented the accumulated wisdom of influential preachers and scholars who had gone before.

It's common, when students are presented with boundaries, to challenge them and we certainly did. I participated in many a lively debate in classroom and dormitory. In the end, however, the weight of tradition generally prevailed. Who were we as intellectual and spiritual novices to challenge the wisdom of our elders and particularly of scholars who had studied the Bible in the original languages? If we thought we saw something in the Bible that appeared to be outside of the theological boundaries, we were undoubtedly mistaken. After all, how could so many who had gone before be wrong? Very easily, I'm afraid!