D. Theological Method
At the outset of Bible study, three questions need to be asked, and they need to be kept firmly distinguished from each other. Confusing these three questions has resulted in many errors:
1. What does the Bible really say?
First off, we must determine what the text is actually reporting. What, precisely, is written on the page? The second question is related, but it is the second step, and must be kept separate from this first question.
2. What does the Bible mean?
Too often people skip the first question and dive headfirst into the second, not realizing the difference. It's no wonder they get into trouble. Only after we have clearly articulated what the Bible says, can we go on and ask about the meaning - the interpretation - of a given passage.
3. How does the Bible apply to me?
Finally, and only after the first two steps have been taken,
can the final, third step be made to personal application, where
the text takes on relevance to an individual in a particular place
and time. A common fallacy in modern Christianity, and a source
of considerable confusion, derives from the tendency to skip the
first two steps, leap on the third, and then trumpet the application
as the eternal and universal truth, ignoring fully the actual
context and meaning of the text - and sometimes even denying that
Of course, the contrary mistake can be made, of ignoring this third step altogether, resulting in Bible reading that is as dead and useless as perusing the yellow pages for entertainment.
Let's look at how these steps can be put to use with a silly example. We are presented with the following text: "This dog is white." That is all it says, no more, no less. Any step beyond this bare statement, any questions we ask about it, begin the process of interpretation. Does the text mean that all dogs are white? Does the text tell us that this dog is all white, without a spot of other color on him? How white is white? What kind of dog is it? Are there any types of dogs we can exclude because of this statement? Does this statement about a white dog mean the dog is an albino? Where is the dog from? Is it a live dog or a dead dog? Such questions are endless, and at this point, random. To help organize our search for meaning, we may categorize the sorts of questions that must be asked:
1. What is the definition/connotation of the words?
2. Are these words universal or specific in their application?
3. What is the context?
4. The newspaper questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How?
Practically speaking, in thinking about the Bible, we can say
without hesitation that the Bible is the absolute, inerrant word
of God, and that anything it says is absolutely correct. The Bible
describes reality for us: not simply A reality, but the
But, and this is vital: WE MUST BE CAREFUL NOT TO CONFUSE OUR INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE WITH THE ACTUAL STATEMENTS OF THE BIBLE. The distinction must be kept clearly in mind. Our interpretation may accurately reflect the true meaning of the Bible. Our interpretation may indeed be what the Bible "says". But again, our interpretation may not be what the Bible "says."
We must work at knowing what the Bible says. We must explicitly label - at least in our own minds - that which is stated, and that which is left unsaid.
So how does this three step approach work with an actual passage of scripture? Let's look at Genesis 3:21:
Yahweh God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.
What does Genesis 3:21 say? It says that God made clothes for
Adam and Eve. No more and no less is indicated by the words of
But what is the popular interpretation of these words in Genesis? That here is a sacrifice by God for the sin of Adam and Eve. To make skins, an animal had to be killed; therefore its blood was shed, and thereby atonement was made for their sins. This was the example God made, so that Adam and Eve would know how to sacrifice.
Question: is this what the text actually says?
Of course not.
The popular interpretation may be valid; however, there is no textual support for it. No other passage in the Bible refers to this incident or gives it the popular interpretation of "sacrifice". It would be best to take Genesis 3:21 at face value and leave it at that; it is more consistent with the grammatico-historical method of interpretation. The popular interpretation is subjective, and appears to represent a more allegorical approach to biblical interpretation.
Uh-oh, I just slipped a big hyphenated word into the last paragraph: "grammatico-historical" interpretation. What in the world does that mean? Walter E. Kaiser, Jr. wrote:
The grand object of grammatical and historical interpretation is to ascertain...the specific usage of words as employed by an individual writer and/or as prevalent in a particular age. And the most fundamental principle in grammatico-historical exposition is that words and sentences can have only one signification in one and the same connection.
In studying the Bible, the attempt is made to figure out the
explicit meaning of a given text, to understand it fully in its
historical and cultural context, and to fully understand the idiom
of the author. This is sometimes called the "literal"
approach; this does not mean a failure to recognize idioms, though.
For instance, if a given passage says "the king was sitting
on his right hand", unless the text gives us a particular
reason to think so, the clear meaning of the text is that the
king was sitting to the right of the other individual; it is very
unlikely to mean that the king had his butt on the other guy's
palm - or his own palm. That would be an abnormal understanding
of the language. Still, all possibilities, however bizarre, should
be explored as hypotheses in attempting to arrive at the true
meaning of a given passage.
One other thing should be noted: what we derive from the text of scripture alone may not be enough to properly understand what is going on. In the Baptist Bulletin, the official organ of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, an article was published in April 1986, in which Gerardus D. Bouw argued that Copernicus was wrong. Instead, Bouw insisted that the sun, and everything else, goes around the Earth, which is stationary at the center of the universe. He bases his contention on such statements as Joshua 10:12-14 which states:
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
Bouw argues that there are hundreds - even thousands - of verses
which support his contention that the sun goes around the Earth
and not the other way around. We have all been hoodwinked. The
Bible speaks about the "sun setting" and the "sun
rising", and he insists that such statements must be accepted
literally. To speak of phenomenological language is to miss the
point, he argues.
From a strictly literal perspective, Bouw is right about what the Bible states. But what does the Bible mean?
This author has forgotten that there are two revelations from God: the special revelation we call the Bible, and the general revelation of the universe around us. The Bible is absolutely correct in everything it states, but the problem remains that we don't always correctly understand it. Until the time of Copernicus, many people had misinterpreted both the words of the Bible, and the phenomena of nature. Recognizing that the sun is indeed the center of the solar system does not mean that we are forcing the Bible to say something it doesn't; it simply means that we gain the proper understanding of what it intended. To say that the sun goes around the Earth is as silly as insisting that two and two are five. It is not a matter open to question. There are no doubts at all about a heliocentric system. It is not a theory or a hypothesis. It is reality.
E. What Are Some Standards for Responsible Interpretation?
1. The meaning of a biblical statement is going to be the ordinary, normal meaning of the words: a meaning in keeping with the context, idiom, and purpose of the given author. Therefore, it is important for us to remember that listing a reference "does not necessarily mean that one's interpretation of it is faithful to the biblical meaning." Cults are commonly guilty of messing up at this point. Let's be careful not to be like them.
2. The meaning of the biblical statements should fit the historical and cultural setting of the writer and readers. That's why archaeology and the study of history are valuable. The frame of reference can't be ignored. We must be very careful not to interpret the Bible through our own culture.
3. The meaning of a sentence is the one that best fits the writer's context. The usage an author makes of a word is what is important. The definition of a word is contextually determined. The etymology is of hardly any importance in truly gaining an understanding of a word. The sentence is the basic unit of a writer's thought. "Then the sentence should be understood in relation to the other books in its Testament. And the two Testaments need to be related to each other."
4. The Bible doesn't contradict itself.
5. The intended meaning of the text is going to be the literal historical-grammatical one. There is not a "deeper" or "secret" meaning. Avoid allegorization and spiritualization of the Bible. Such techniques come from the Middle Ages, and are the province of such modern groups as Theosophy, Christian Science, and the New Age Movement. There is no place for such things in a truly rational approach to Scripture.
6. Scriptural passages are comprehensible as they are related to, and informed by others. For instance in 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul writes:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
A passage like this informs our understanding of passages that refer to the "works" that Christians do. Rather than imagining that "works" passages contradict the gospel, a passage like this clarifies the intent. Salvation by grace has inevitable outward manifestations. Any work we do, the effort we make, is actually God working through us. God does the work, not us.
Thus, Paul's intention in Ephesians 5:1-15 is clear:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live alife of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or course joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person - such a man is an idolater - has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:"Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you."
Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise.
It is impossible for a person to take a passage like Ephesians 5:1-15 and try to make that inform our understanding or comprehension of Ephesians 2:8-10, because to do so creates a contradiction. Likewise, our understanding of the book of James is informed by our comprehension of Ephesians 2:8-10, Galatians 3:1-6, and the rest. Ephesians and Galatians inform our understanding of Peter's comment on Lot in 2 Peter 2:7-8, or how Jephthah as described in Judges 11:24-40, who sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, can still wind up listed with David and Samuel in Hebrews 11:32.
Which of a given possible interpretations is correct can be demonstrated by determining which passages inform other passages. How? Through recognizing the proper cause and effect. For instance, wringing a nose produces blood (Proverbs 30:33). However, blood does not produce the wringing of a nose.
Thus, grace produces good works, but good works do not produce grace. Besides the logical problem of imagining otherwise, Paul is explicit:
And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (Romans 11:6)
I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:21)
You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:4)
Certainly there are occasions when informing will work both ways; however, in the case of grace versus works, the concept expressed by "salvation by grace through faith" informs the concept "good works;" the reverse, in this case, simply is not possible, both by logic and by the text of Scripture.
Therefore, questions such as "is baptism necessary" are like the question Paul dealt with in his letter to the Galatians: "is cirumcision necessary?" Since salvation is not a matter of outward action, the answer must be no. Outward action is a consequence of grace.
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